Permanent Temporariness


The NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery is hosting ‘Permanent Temporariness’, a mid-career retrospective of work by Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, co-directors of architecture studio and art residency programme DAAR.

Opening on 24 February, the exhibition will explore how experience is shaped by the understanding of ‘permanence’ and ‘impermanence’ through a series of seven major installations and performances focusing on the social, cultural and political dynamics that shape the lives of displaced Palestinians.

Some of the artworks to be featured include ‘Living Room’, a performance piece that lays bare the customs and cultural significance associated with this space among traditional Arab households, and ‘Refugee Heritage’, a series of lightbox-mounted photographs taken by an official UNESCO photographer at Dheisheh camp in Bethlehem – the world’s oldest refugee camp.

A third installation, ‘Concrete Tent’, which was originally created in the garden of the Al Finiq Cultural Center in Dheisheh, will be reconstructed for the upcoming exhibition. According to the architects, it will serve as a pavilion that embodies the contradiction of the “permanent temporariness of Palestinian refugees”.

“The project tries to inhabit the paradox of how to preserve the very idea of the tent as symbolic [with] historic value,” said Hilal. “Because of the degradability of the material of the tents, these structures simply do not exist anymore. And so, the recreation of a tent made of concrete is an attempt to preserve the cultural and symbolic importance of this archetype for the narration of the Nakba.”

With many Palestinians living in camps for more than half a century, DAAR’s directors ask whether or not these spaces should be preserved for the sake of the people’s narrative and history. It’s an aspect of architectural preservation that hasn’t been widely tapped yet. And according to Hilal and Petti, in the last few years, architectural conservation has become a field of knowledge and a practice able to reframe our understanding of aesthetics, cultural heritage and history.

“We started to preserve and protect structures built centuries ago, and later on, we discovered that even modernism, which claimed to be ahistorical, needed to be preserved,” said Petti. “We ended up considering rough industrial zones as national heritage. Refugee camps became sites of heated discussion on what needs to be remembered and what needs to be forgotten.”

He added, “If we look at refugee camps with the lens of architectural preservation, how might our understanding of camps change? Refugee camps are considered temporary spaces to be quickly dismantled, but how then do we understand Palestinian refugee camps that are now almost 70 years old? Can we consider them cultural sites to be preserved?”

Petti and Hilal noted that it might be “disturbing” for people to look at refugee camps from this perspective – removing the temporariness of refugee status strips away any remote comfort the general public has when hearing about displaced people and their plights.

“One of the urgent questions becomes: Do Palestinian refugee camps have history,” said Hilal. “And how could this history be mobilised for the right of refugees to return instead of being perceived as a threat? At the same time, how does the concept of architectural heritage change when applied to refugee camps?”

This article was originally published on designMENA. Image credit: NYU Abu Dhabi.

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