It is difficult not to be suspicious of exhibitions initiated or organized by corporations. After all, such shows serve to enhance the reputation of the funder in the eyes of the public. Therefore it was with some ambivalence that I approached Yto Barrada’s “Riffs,” Deutsche Bank’s Artist of the Year exhibition for 2011. (It debuted at the Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, and has been touring through Europe and the U.S. since.) Fortunately, Barrada’s exhibition did not make grandiose political statements about the evils of globalization or modernity, which would have seemed disingenuous. Instead the three 16mm films and 50-some photographs, made between 1999 and 2011, were thoughtful considerations of a place in transition and the passage of time.
“Riffs” focused on Tangier, Morocco, a cosmopolitan city at the core of many Westerners’ fantasies of freedom and escape, where the Parisian-born artist was raised. In addition to its musical associations, the title alludes to Morocco’s Rif mountain region (a nexus of resistance to colonial rule), as well as to Cinema Rif, the movie theater in Tangier where Barrada cofounded and directs a film program; selections were shown in a screening room at the exhibition. This combination of meanings set the tone for the show.
Most of the photographs are medium-size and the colors are generally muted. While the press materials indicate that they document the current realities of Tangier, what makes the images striking is their evocation of things once there but now unseen. Two of the most impressive photographs dealing with history, memory and absence are Family Tree (2005) and Marks Left by a Football—Tangier (2002). In Family Tree, the minimalist composition features a light pink background with oval and rectangular spots of darker pink irregularly distributed over its surface. On closer inspection, we see that the pink background is faded wallpaper, and the dark spots are areas once covered by picture frames. It is an image of missing pictures whose existence is nonetheless recorded. Similarly, Marks Left by a Football preserves the memory of people practicing soccer on a scuffed wall.
In the 8-minute 16mm film Beau Geste (2009), a group of workers organized by Barrada builds a cement support for a huge lone palm tree in a vacant lot. From the artist’s voiceover, we learn that the tree had been attacked by the landowner, who was attempting to circumvent a law which prohibits the sale of land where trees grow. The poetic action of the guerrilla gardeners is indeed just as the title announces—a nice gesture devoid of real impact. It will not prevent the owner from trying again or lead to any systemic change. The empty lot, surrounded by multistory buildings, hints at what once occupied the space, and the tree remains the only visible mark of its history.
Like most of the work in the show, the film is imbued with nostalgia for Tangier’s past—a past that is not visible but whose absence is felt in the present.
Photo: Yto Barrada: Bricks, 2003/2011, C-print, 59 inches square; at Fotomuseum Winterthur.