The Novel of Nonel and Vovel
When Nonel and Vovel made work about the Middle East in 2000 they were asked: who are your audiences? When they make work about the Middle East in 2009 the common question is: do you do it because it is trendy?
The first thought crossing one’s mind after putting down The Novel of Nonel and Vovel (following an exhilarated sigh of disappointment that the roller coaster ride is over) is indeed a morosely existential one: who is going to read this book? Who is going to be inspired by it for action that makes a difference in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
The above quote appears in the ‘art & politics’ chapter of this inter-disciplinary multi-tasking, workaholic, split-personality-disorder-diagnosed Middle-East-conflict-in-space graphic novel in which every chapter is illustrated by a different artist, bracketed by questionnaires, essays, photographs, games and even a crossword puzzle. The climactic chapter is the only one written by someone other than the two artists behind this project, Oreet Ashery and Larissa Sansour. But when their superhero alter-egos Nonel and Vovel are getting ready to save the day and solve the conflict that transcends our planet’s borders (no spoilers!) the storyline is interrupted by a conversation between Ashery and Sansour in cameo appearance, illustrated into the sci-fi sequence sitting on a bench in London’s South Bank, discussing the problem of handing over the most dramatic chapter to a guest writer (Soren Lind).
Ashery and Sansour felt that the ‘notion of a fictional graphic novel alone’ is not enough, and wanted the ‘process behind the book to be transparent and grounded in our daily reality’. Therefore, the graphic chapters unfolding the storyline are interspersed with photographs of the two in relevant locations in Israel/Palestine and London — from the separation wall to a Sunday roast meal and Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth piece in Tate Modern, better known as ‘the crack’ — probably the most engaging and communicative piece of contemporary art in recent memory. Posing as two rather experimental performance artists (Ashery last seen dressed up as controversial 17th century messianic figure Shabbtai Zevi; Sansour notorious for her Sombrero-donning, gun-slinging character Bethlehem Bandolero) next to a piece of art popular enough to become a tourist attraction speaks volumes of the main question posed herein: can art change the world? Old question – fortunately, this book articulates it in novel (or should it say Nonel? Or Vovel?) ways.
There is a reason why it will only be revealed at this point that Ashery is Jewish Israeli and Sansour Palestinian. There is a reason it will only now be mentioned that the central concrete nemesis (notwithstanding a handful of sci-fi ones) they confront as superheroes is the separation wall in Israel, which they intend to break down. There is a reason why this review will refrain from making an analogy between Ashery and Sansour asking themselves whether their artistic practice places them in a ghetto separating them from the ability to influence reality, and indeed the wall, stranding the Palestinians in a tragically non-metaphorical ghetto. And the reason for that is that the emotions, prejudices, fears, mistrust and pre-conceptions we have in regards to the conflict on either side of the wall and of the left/right political fence constitute the more elusive and therefore more difficult wall to demolish.
Simply by revealing that this book is made by a couple of lefty arty-farty bleeding hearts, one risks erecting a wall between the crucial insights offered in their book and considerable potential readership. How sad it is that being divided to camps doesn’t mean dialogue, even polemic – but a secret, crawling civil war. How sad it is that global political discourse is light years away from the level offered by this book. How tragically deep the chasm between what politicians and artists see, how uncompromising the latter’s honesty, self-doubt, investigative drive and clarity. How seemingly easy it is for an Israeli and a Palestinian to find common ground anywhere besides their shared homeland.
Ashery and Sansour are lefty arty-farty types perhaps, but they are certainly not naïve and wide-eyed about it. On the contrary, they are only too aware of the traps and pitfalls they face, and go through acrobatic twists, leaving no stone unturned in their determination to understand their position as politically-engaged artists, and the relevance of said position for the rest of us unsuspecting fundamentalists. The quoted bitter assertion opening this review reveals their familiarity with the ways the world always finds ways to erect a dialogue-blocking wall around them: in 2000 their agenda is too ahead of its time to be noticed, and in 2009 they’re allegedly jumping some ridiculed bandwagon. To paraphrase Reem Fadda’s (rather opaque) text in the essay section closing the book, Ashery and Sansour seek a present where their voice is heard.
Therefore, the main conflict tackled by the book is not the Israeli-Palestinian one, but that besieging the artist torn between self-fulfilment and political commitment. The novel begins as our two artists are infected by a mysterious virus that is revealed to imbue them with ‘context-responsive’ superpowers, alas it comes on account of losing their creativity. Ashery and Sansour look political art in the eye as a praxis that often betrays selfish privilege camouflaged in good intentions. Ashery and Sansour ask one another the cruellest question: are we forced to choose between a life in pursuit of artistic goals and a life of committed activism? Are the two mutually exclusive? And, facing the severity of a century-long conflict, is the solution in the hands of heroes, freedom-fighters and messiahs? Are artists — and ordinary people for that matter — out of their depth in this equation? Is the position of the artist as a passive anarcho-pacifist — always averse to violence and to the notion of wielding any level of power — the privilege of those who are living a safe, sheltered life where strife and oppression are confined to the TV screen?
Ashery and Sansour’s quest for an answer constantly breaks the book’s ‘fourth wall’: their aversion to political power is exchanged with treating their practice as control freaks; they express reluctance to go with the flow of the genre and become ‘real’ heroes who at least make a difference in this imaginary realm. This compulsion to disturb narrative as such, shatter illusion whatever form it takes, refuse to serve as propagandists to their own agenda — as if illusion, myths, and propaganda are by definition enemies one must slay to unravel a precious, forgotten, common sense clarity — condemn them, and to a considerable extent every political activist, to remain perpetual underdogs — noble losers. Ashery and Sansour confess to being trapped; yet sharing this existential cul-de-sac with us stems out of a sense of responsibility and the urgency of a desire to break free.
The biggest underlying fear keeping every concerned citizen awake at night is, to quote John Lydon, that ‘better days will never be’: the impossibility to even imagine a world based on justice and peace. This fear underpins the superior text in the book’s essay section, curator Nat Muller’s allegorical sci-fi ‘Proposal for the Venice Biennnale Intergalactic Pavilion’. Muller is masterful — and hilarious — in imagining futuristic conflicts and trends leading up to ‘galactic liberation’, a utopian ground zero after which it becomes much harder to visualise the ways of the world and the role of its artists. Muller suddenly needs strife to trigger interest and tension. Under the ‘foreseeable obstacles’ section of her surreal proposal she details ‘unstable meteorological conditions across the Mediterranean’ threatening the realisation of Nonel and Vovel’s project. The next section ushers back what we’d think we managed to get rid of by the year 2212 — security, needed as precaution against a cult of revisionist settlers who falsely maintain that Palestine was never liberated.
If the only function we can imagine for future peacetime art is a bizarre repetitive re-enactment of a by-then unneeded heroism; If the only possible excitement, the only projected life-force is nostalgia for the extinct need to resist, aren’t we admitting our secret collaboration with the present’s state of strife to which we seem to be addicted? Nonel and Vovel make the bold step of asking this question. Possible answers contradict the aforementioned essayist Fadda’s ‘liberation through entering history’ position — three hints will be provided. First is Lydon’s above quote. Second is Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence (resonating with pre-historical ‘dreamtime’ and negating monotheism’s linear history). Final is something the recently departed thinker, essayist, columnist and artist Amos Kenan said in relation to Zionism, quoted in the biography written by his partner Nurith Gertz, ‘Unrepentant’. I paraphrase: ‘if the dream comes true and it’s not what we thought we wanted, it means there must have been something inherently faulty with the dream to begin with. We must therefore examine what is wrong with our dream’.