Spike Art, exhibition review, October 2008

Lars-Erik Hjertström Lappalainen on Juan-Pedro Fabra Guemberena

Juba – an intimate history of sniping

Brändström & Stene, Stockholm Sweden

Aiming at treating our relation to war, this exhibition wants us to invest some empathy in the figure of the sniper – the person who solitarily takes part of the combat by invisibly operating at a distance. Bring the distance to the war back home, to paraphrase Martha Rosler. Because at least we share this distance with the sniper. Juan Pedro Fabra has always worked on the military theme, at least since his video at the Venice bienale 2003, to which he came straight out of art school, head hunted by Francesco Bonami. If the soldiers were almost invisible in that video, the sniper is here in focus in one of the videos of this exhibition. Gilberto (2007) shows the stillness of a sniper in a garage. Not much happens. The video is only eleven minutes long, but almost impossible to endure. Boredom obviously is part of the job. Or is it just the wait? Looking at some photos of rifles in another room, I suddenly find myself ambushed by my own shadow, falling on the pictures and astonishingly reaching all the way up to the ceiling. Turning around to check the lightning, it takes a while too long to discover the empty camouflage suit of a sniper crouching on a shelf above me. This very simple installation is sufficient to activate the entire gallery space. It stresses the empty spaces as distances to cross, spaces of dangerous visibility and threats not yet identified as such.

Installation view, Juan-Pedro Fabra Guemberena, Juba – an intimate history of sniping, 2008

There is also C-printed portraits of soldiers, or actually of small, very authentic dolls. If the sniper here is associated to the iraqi sniper(s) Juba, who records his shooting of american soldiers and then takes it to the web, these toy-soldiers are american, played with by adult americans who stage the war at home, stage battles to come. In the ambitious video installation, Juba – an intimate history of painting (2007), a model of a bombed building is pierced by the beams from four projectors showing among other things people playing war games with that kind of dolls. In the middle of the model, there is a huge turning disco mirror ball, completely out of scale, reflecting light from the model onto the walls. Ambient music is being played. It is a captivating work, with a somewhat facile beauty provoking immediate tenderness and pity. It makes much of the same impression as John Lennons christmas song does.

The best work is a video diptych showing men in a monotonous labour: digging in what must be the remains of a bombed building, and on the other monitor they are trying to crush rocks or something. Again, nothing really happens. Around you the light spots from the disco mirror ball pass. You look at the videos like if it were photos, in great nostalgia of what once was there. Everything is now gone, the houses, the war, the life before the disaster. Then there is a cut and a close up on a war painted face, obviously a soldier hiding out somewhere, sending someone light signals with a mirror. The moving spots of light around me now change, from being signs of a party to signs of killing to commence soon. Watching the video again, I discover that kind of ill-fated reflexion in the landscape not far from the men. The former melancholy of the work now blends with fear in a curios sensation. And here I think I maybe brought a bit of the distance of war back home, this never experienced waiting filled of nostalgia for the past, terror for the future and intense boredom inbetween them.