Oraib Toukan
Counting Memories
Ica Wahbeh - The Jordan Times Weekender
May 31, 2007

Oraib Toukan
Trying to count memories without laughter’s disruption, 2007
Two-channel Video 9’45’’

Staccato shots punctuate the flowing writing. Reversing a vacuuming process, blue beads are shot out, tracing letters. It appears as if sand were blown off a surface to uncover the writing or an ink jet were shown working in slow motion, moves fascinating in themselves. As the letters are shaped in beautiful calligraphy, interest picks up, as does the tempo and the sound of shooting – or of heavy rain dropping on metal (the corrugated iron roofs of houses in refugee camps?). 

The rhythm then slows down, the sound is muted to a vague wind/wave in the background, and the details of bead writing (ink splashing) becomes overpowering, drawing attention to it only, forcing the mind to read. 

“Please stop me from laughing; I cannot hold my memories any longer

Just finish making my history for I am dying of laughter even as you are trying to kill me with it

Just finish forging my past
I will stop laughing
I will learn to forget that I can remember
I swear I learnt to forget that I can remember” 

Such reads the text of Oraib Toukan’s “Trying to count memories without laughter’s disruption” (2007), a “two-channel video” now on display in Darat Al Funun’s Main building, part of her overall photographic, installation and video works, “Counting memories”, which deal with collective and personal memory, the act of remembering and forgetting, and the role of the visual in stimulating, preserving and propagating recollection. 

The young artist says the video “is a raw exploration of the self within the creation and propagation of a history built on the concept of déjà vu. A paradoxical narrative that speaks of the past, present and future is written in blue beads. The sound resulting from moving beads is systematically synthesized to create a mood of open battle or hypnotizing seas. Together these sounds thrust the viewer from one state of flux to another…. It presents a narrative on the sensations induced by the over-consumption of a history that has been written by all but one’s self. A history of one’s own destiny witnessed, sensationalized and felt only from behind TV satellite stations”. 

“Remind me to remember to forget” (2006), a single-channel video “is a short ironic narrative on language and meaning”. 

The split screen presents two synchronized performances. In one, the phrase that gave the name to the video is frenetically written in gold glitter and then immediately inhaled through a nozzle, in the other, the sound of breathing comes from a neck, close shot, inhaling and exhaling loudly. 

The video was produced during the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon when, “entranced by absurd US media coverage of the war, I obsessively wrote and rewrote the phrase ‘remind me to remember to forget’ until I metamorphosed it into a video”. 

“In making references to drug use, and rhythmically set to the sound of stifled breathing, the video questions an innate regional memory ‘made to forget’. A memory somehow created to be raped, disposed of and eradicated right before its transitions from present to past.” 

Subtle and not so subtle political symbolism permeates the artist’s work. It is discreet yet powerful, indicative of a bright, inquisitive mind that refuses to be shaped by anyone else’s perceptions and projections. And not deprived of ironic wit, as clearly shown in the interactive installation “The New Middle East” (2007). 

Magnetic foam cutouts of fragments of the region’s countries can be “innovatively” used by viewers to reassemble a territorial map of the Middle East. 

“The work is a play on the so-called ‘New Middle East Map’, a plan that has been frantically distributed in various conspiracy theory circles and in some mainstream media since its inception in June 2006. The map was originally suggested by retired United States Army Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters, as his ‘proposition’ of ‘how a better Middle East would look’. The puzzle was cut by overlapping his proposed map of the Middle East with the current, post-World War II map of the area.” 

“One donkey and three phrases” (2007) is a three-channel video installation “of a donkey I worked with to write the phrases ‘I perceived a past’, ‘I remembered a present’ and ‘I witnessed a future’.” 

Choosing the donkey for its “particularly strong visual memory” and the animal’s “experience of mass exodus in the Middle East”, the artist ingeniously places each of the three phrases in a mirrored box “that requires the audience to peak inside to view the footage”, the writing (with carrots) being gradually “erased” by the eating donkey. Again narratives and meanings constructed and deconstructed, memories present or obliterated, outside forces controlling events. Toukan interrogates these different “tenses” of memory, exploring its relationship to time. 

In “Man with a tattoo” (2007), a symbolic photographic series of the tattoo of Palestine on a man’s back, the map/dagger/eagle tattoo is prominent and clearly displayed, gradually fading in the last photograph, becoming a small dot, a flicker of memory, diminished perhaps in time yet still alive. 

“The series is a simultaneous depiction of the pride and shame associated with patriotism and a fading memory.” 

The “Icon series” (2006-2007) took the artist two years to look for iconography in public spaces, to see “what governs the collective perception and collective identity”. In cafés, bakeries, laundry or TV repair shops, Toukan consistently found that “Jerusalem is an important and ubiquitous centerpiece. God, the nation and the King also reign supreme along with green paradises, peacocks and horses. The end result is pictorial vocabulary that is unmistakably ordinary, telling of the power of the normal and the mundane in seemingly shaping explosively silent consciousness in Jordan”. 

Going deeper than the obvious, doing a psycho-analysis of sorts, the artist believes that the photos “unearth a vocabulary that relates seemingly unrelated elements and anecdotes into one single narrative. The works are inspired by the intricate layers of visual code that are unconsciously collected in one blink of the eye. Much of this code remains tucked away in our memory, stored as unprocessed data, and as such is often taken for granted. In this series, I look to bring out this ephemeral and local visual language…. I enjoy being part of the narrative myself by attaining at least one gaze, be it from a person or an icon, as if taking it to make a memorial of some kind of present and not past. Ultimately, each frame becomes a period piece perhaps mocking its time”. 

One last installation, equally original and with powerful impact, is “Good morning Beirut” (2006), first installed in New York during the Israeli war on Lebanon. 

A huge roll of paper has “all the emails I received during the first few weeks of the war” acetone transferred on it. Naji Al Ali’s cartoon “Good morning Beirut” forms a point of departure for the work. “The cartoon was originally printed in Al Safeer newspaper in 1982 and was redistributed by email at the onset of the war, intact and with fatal relevance.”

Paper drawn from the roll crosses the room, is folded up the opposite wall, allowing the viewer to read text both in English and in Arabic.  

“In reinstalling the piece nine months later, I grossly exaggerated the size of the paper roll, making it almost impossible for anyone to retrieve more information. The work therefore becomes an isolated, static and classically monumental piece.” 

For powerful intellectual stimulation, viewers can see Toukan’s works on display until July 19.


See also:

> Counting Memories, by Oraib Toukan
Remind me to remember to forget - video
The New Middle East - interactive installation
One donkey and three phrases - video installation
Man with a tattoo - photography
Icon Series - photography
Trying to count memories without laughter’s disruption - video
Good Morning Beirut - installation

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