There are some interesting things in the V&A's current exhibition, Light from the Middle East: New Photography: Tal Shochat's portraits of fruit trees, for example, and Ahmed Mater's Magnetism series in which pilgrims circling the Kaaba turn out to be iron filings surrounding a cube-shaped magnet. But here I want to draw your attention to Jananne Al-Ani's video installation Shadow Sites II (2011), a sequence of aerial views in which the camera zooms down to reveal unexplained structures in the desert. The exact history and identity of these sites is deliberately obscure, so that you might be looking at archaeological photography, reconnaissance film, land art documentation or footage from the lunar module descents. There is a rather ominous soundtrack of wind and some unidentifiable machine hum; human life seem absent until there are a few bursts of distant radio crackle. The artist's intention had been to explore "the disappearance of the body in the contested and highly charged landscapes of the Middle East.'' In the video talk that I've embedded below, she discusses her archival research, studying, for example, the panoramic vistas photographed a hundred years ago by German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld. She shows how he re-touched an image to remove all trace of his own shadow, which had intruded into the frame.
The aerial views of Jordan in Shadow Sites II are very reminiscent of those taken after the Gulf War by Sophie Ristelhueber. In the video clip below Ristelhueber describes how she wants to play with uncertainties in scale: in one image, tanks are reduced to the size of match boxes, and she juxtaposes this with what looks like a distant grid pattern on a landscape but is in fact a close-up of a camouflage bag. In a Guardian interview Ristelhueber explained that she did not want people necessarily to connect her photographs with the war: "I don't give any clue that this is Kuwait. When I exhibited it in Johannesburg, people thought it was Africa; they recognised the sand, weapons and trails of violence." She goes on to say how one of these landscapes seemed uncannily similar to Man Ray's famous photograph Dust Breeding (1920), an image of the build up of dust on Duchamp's Large Glass that has created a kind of miniature desert landscape. Jananne Al-Ani says in the talk that she was influenced by Ristelhueber's aerial photographs, along with Werner Herzog's film Lessons of Darkness. This chain of art historical influence all the way back to Duchamp further distances Shadow Sites II from the reality of the lived landscape being flown over. I couldn't help wondering as I left the Victoria & Albert Museum whether this installation in this location would be seen as being about "the disappearance of the body", or simply another example of it.