Saturday, January 23, 2016

"Letters for Juliet" in There's Room at Gallery 101

I was invited by the curator Petra Halkes to participate in the group exhibition There's Room at Gallery 101 in Ottawa, from 23 January to 27 February 2016. Prompted by the Syrian refugee crisis, the exhibition provides a place where people are invited to empathize, listen and talk to artists and viewers with vastly different life stories that are nonetheless connected by a memory of displacement and resettlement. The other artists in the exhibition include Asal El-Rayes, Zainab Hussain, Maria Gomez, Rachel Kalpana James, Farouk Kaspaules, Jaime Koebel, Zivana Kostic, Stephanie Marton, Jessie Raymond, Laura Taler, Mohamad Thiam, and Tavi Weisz.

Letters for Juliet (detail), Installation view, Gallery 101, 2016. Photo: Jennifer Covert

The work that I contributed to the exhibition, Letters for Juliet, is a text-based installation that quotes Elvis Costello’s song “Who Do You Think You Are?” from his 1993 album The Juliet Letters with the Brodsky Quartet. The quote “I kiss the air about the place that should be your face” is repurposed as graffiti for the context of the exhibition. A chain of associations, from global events to works of art like Romeo and Juliet, can be linked through the experiences of longing, loss and love that are meant to be underscored by the placement of the quote in the gallery.

I gave a speech on the occasion of the opening reception for the exhibition. The text for the speech ran approximately as follows:

Hello. I’m a little embarrassed to be standing before you right now, called up to give a performance at an opening for an exhibition of artworks made in response to the Syrian refugee crisis. It’s not that it wasn’t my idea, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. But it’s not really a performance so much as a story that I want to tell, and the story isn’t really about the Syrian refugee crisis. It has more to do with me and my own experience, which is far from that of a refugee. And I don’t even play a large role in the story.

Nevertheless, I’m going to tell you that I was walking in Montreal recently, going from point A to point B, when I realized that if I walked one block over, not really going out of my way but just slightly changing the path I was taking, I would walk right by the location of the Café Sarajevo, which I hadn’t been to for years.

In the early ‘90s, I was studying English Literature in Montreal, and the Café Sarajevo had just opened up around that time. A friend of mine got a job there as a waitress, and so my circle of friends and I would hang out there. It was a great place, with low comfortable couches and lots of cushions to relax in. The drink that I habitually ordered at the Café Sarajevo was a Pernod with orange juice, but that is another story.

Of course, right at this time the Bosnian War was taking place. The proprietor of the café, Osman, was from Bosnia, and so it became a kind of community and cultural centre for Bosnian refugees. Osman owned the whole building and he made an apartment on the second floor available to those who needed it. At the time, the café offered a welcoming atmosphere not only for me and for the Bosnian refugees, but also, incredibly, for the singer songwriter Rufus Wainwright, who could be heard caterwauling and playing the piano in there on a weekly basis.

It was around this time that I saw the film Ulysses’ Gaze at the Montreal World Film Festival. In it, the American actor Harvey Keitel plays a Greek filmmaker who travels to Sarajevo during the Bosnian War in order to look for a lost film that was made by the first Greek filmmakers at the beginning of the twentieth century. His journey is a long one, and so is the movie. Its running time of three hours feels even longer because of its slow pace and dreamy atmosphere. It encouraged me to behave as if I were on a long journey, and so during the course of the film, I wondered around the theatre, I went to the bathroom and the concession stand, and I took several naps. I would often wake up at some point in the movie where Harvey Keitel was waking up at another stop along his way.

One striking image that remained with me from that film is from a scene that shows a cargo ship slowly leaving a harbor. The deck of the ship is entirely filled with the jumbled, disassembled parts of a giant statue of Vladimir Lenin, his bald head facing and his index finger pointing onwards. It’s hard not to read this image as pointing to the break-up of the Soviet Union as being one of the causes of the Bosnian War.

I also remember seeing Harvey Keitel naked and crying in this film. Now, in the ’90s this was not a rare sight. You almost couldn’t go to see a film without having Harvey Keitel show up naked and crying. But it was always memorable, less so for his physique, which was formidable, but more so for the sounds that he made, which cannot be imitated. From the scene in Bad Lieutenant where he gently weeps, stoned and naked, to doo wop music, to other scenes with more fully throated keening. I cannot capture the quality myself. It is like the sound of a wounded animal. Harvey Keitel crying is actually now an internet meme, and there are many clips you can find online. You can even download an mp3 of Keitel crying and mix it into your Electronic Dance Music if you wish. Now, I tell you, Keitel’s tears are a wholly suitable response to the injustices of the era, if not those of today.

I felt like crying like Harvey Keitel when I arrived at the address of the Café Sarajevo. It was long gone. There were no visible signs that it had ever been there. The awning was gone and when I looked inside the door at the entrance, the space had been completely renovated and was now a shallow storefront where you might buy a cell phone. It was empty too. There were no cell phones. I began to doubt that I was even in the right place, but I scanned the street and my memories and I was sure of it. To my body it felt right. And it made me feel more deeply the sense that I had lost touch with most of the people that I knew from that time. Although a few had stayed in Montreal, most, like me, had moved on to other cities and are now scattered around the world.

I returned to Ottawa, and I was inspired to track down a DVD copy of Ulysses’ Gaze and watch it again. Although it was set in the present at the time, the film is a loose retelling of the Odyssey and Keitel’s character is supposed to be the mythic adventurer Ulysses or Odysseus. Though it was a complete coincidence, it was exactly 20 years since I had seen the film, the same length of time that it took Odysseus to return home to Ithaca after the Trojan Wars. It was also about the same amount of time since I had last been to the Café Sarajevo. Unlike Odysseus, who returned to find his wife Penelope still waiting for him after all that time, I had returned to the Café Sarajevo after twenty years to find it packed up and gone.

The odyssey that Harvey Keitel’s character undertakes has an even unhappier ending. Spoiler Alert: Everybody dies! He has returned to his homelands to find the lost film, and he does eventually find it in Sarajevo, but unfortunately, when he runs it through a projector, the image is lost. Just as I faced the façade of a building that was now unrecognizable to me, Keitel’s character, with tears streaming down his cheeks, watches a blank screen.

Seeing Ulysse’s Gaze again, another image is even more resonant for me now. When Keitel travels through the Balkans on his way to Sarajevo, he sees numerous refugees of the Bosnian war crossing the countryside. You could fade in to today’s news coverage of the refugees of the Syrian war traversing the same territory and the similarities would be strikingly uncanny. I suppose that one of the themes rehearsed by this story is that you can’t go back to the past, even though history seems to keep repeating itself. There is a slim ray of hope in the film however that suggests if the story were to be told again in a different way then it might have a different ending.

In a scene late in the film, the characters find that on a foggy day in Sarajevo, residents can come out in the streets without fear of being shot by a sniper. These days take on a festival-like atmosphere, with music and dancing. Local actors even put on a performance of William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. Keitel watches as they run through the famous Balcony Scene, and his voiceover repeats the line “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”

There are so many memorable lines in the Balcony Scene, where the star-crossed youths first pledge their love to each other: “But soft what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east and Juliet is the sun.”; “Oh Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art though Romeo?...That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”; “To be or not to be.” That is not the right quotation, but enough with the quotes already. They’re memorable. Perhaps the scene is so memorable because we want to remember the lovers this way, before they meet their tragic fate. And they keep talking in order to postpone the moment too. Finally they agree to meet the next morning at 9 o’clock. Juliet says she will not fail to do so “’tis twenty years till then” implying not only that it will feel like twenty years until that time but also that she would not fail to meet him even if the date set were twenty years later.

They meet and are secretly married by the Friar who hopes that by doing so he will end a long standing feud between Romeo and Juliet’s families. Of course, spoiler alert, it doesn’t end as they wish. Everybody dies! In a complicated turn of events Juliet takes a potion that makes it appear as if she is dead. The friar sends a letter to Romeo to tell him that Juliet is not really dead, but the letter never makes it to him. Of course, you know the rest of the story.

It is true that the fact that letters can go astray is responsible for the tragic end to Romeo and Juliet but it is also the reason why their story can be taken up and interpreted in so many different contexts across time, appearing in places that the author never imagined, like in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. It is also the reason why I can take a quotation from The Juliet Letters by Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet and place it in the context of an exhibition about the Syrian refugee crisis.

Letters for Juliet (detail), Installation view, Gallery 101, 2016. Photo: Jennifer Covert

I’ve painted the line “I kiss the air about the place / that should be your face” on the gallery’s walls. [The break indicates that the line is split into two sections, which are painted on separate walls at a distance from each other.] The quote is taken from the song “Who Do You Think You Are?” which is meant to be a reading of a postcard written by a lover who suffers cruelly from the absence of his loved one.

“Who Do You Think You Are?” is one song from an entire suite that takes its inspiration from the real “Juliet Letters” of Verona. Each song can be interpreted as being one of the countless letters that the lovelorn have actually addressed to the fictional Juliet, which often end up stuck to the walls of a courtyard in Verona where the Balcony Scene purportedly took place. What is extraordinary is that people write these letters knowing full well that Juliet cannot really answer them. Still they do it, with faith that their entreaties and their pledges will reach their rightful destinations.

In conclusion, I would just like to say that although the space between us is what makes it possible for letters to get lost on the way, it is also what makes it possible for us not only to make but also to keep promises. Thank you.