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Land of milk, honey and conflict

Ethan Pierce ’14, a resident of Lowell House who is concentrating in Visual and Environmental Studies (VES) Studio Art Track with a secondary concentration in History of Art & Architecture, was awarded an Office for the Arts/Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships Artist Development Fellowship to curate a transnational, transcultural discourse between Harvard students and Israeli and Palestinian artists. His work has been shown in a number of exhibitions on campus and he is the head curator of the Monday Gallery and the bbp gallerie. Pierce has also been involved in set design for over seven Harvard theater productions and is a member of the Signet Society. In addition, he has served as a curatorial intern at the MIT List Visual Arts Center and at Klosterfelde in Berlin, Germany. He plans to pursue a career in studio art and curating.

Ethan Pierce '14

Ethan Pierce ’14 (photo by Mark Olson)

{Re}orientation: The Art of Reflexive Revision

While at Harvard, I  have devoted a significant amount of energy to exploring national memory, trauma, diaspora, and exile through the lens of art. I’ve  focused particularly on 20th-century German art history, but over the past year, a related narrative—that of Israel and Palestine—came to occupy more and more of my attention. Last March, I leaped at an opportunity to join 52 peers on a 10-day spring break trip to the land of milk and honey.

Instinctively, I began to explore methods of documenting this forthcoming trip and ways in which I could incorporate the experience into my studio practice. Well before hitting the tarmac, I decided to bring “The Walker” and “The Poet”—two of my fictional personae—along on the trip. Their project: to create a book of braille poetry embossed on top of visual images, which would be known as Silence, and which would explore the conflict and the dialectic between visual, tactile, and auditory.

My first venture to Israel and Palestine challenged this predetermined format. Dialogue—the antithesis of the silence I sought to grapple with—required partnership. Days after returning, I began recruiting collaborators for an expansive artistic project which would pair Harvard students and alumni with Israeli and Palestinian artists.

Sifting through photographic representation from Israel, May 2014.

Sifting through photographic representation from Israel, May 2014.

In May, a group of 40 participants—a diverse body, including an Iranian filmmaker, a prominent South African poet who lived through 23 years apartheid, and a number of VES graduates—embarked with me on an artistic journey to encounter, and hopefully better understand, Israel and Palestine.

Shifting Circumstances, Changing Foci

The experience of my Artist Development Fellowship has been one of rapid reorientation, which only intensified as my project moved forward—both in relation to rapidly shifting circumstances, and to my own budding awareness of the ethical complexities facing an artistic collaboration of this scope.

Since that point of departure, much has changed:

  • Silence fell to dialogue, and “here, without ” was constructed in its place. A fragment of a sentence which can be read as  “here” and “elsewhere,” the new title—like its subject—is purposefully opaque. (The New Museum‘s newest exhibition, coincidentally titled “Here and Elsewhere” after the Jean-Luc Godard film by the same name, features work by Arab artists and deals with many of the ethical dilemmas that I am now facing.)
  • The project has been emancipated from the original format of braille poetry on top of visual images, freeing participants to explore other modes of representation.
  • The deaths of three innocent Israeli teens and the subsequent chain of events have added layers upon layers of complication to an already complex and difficult project.
  • The direct pairing with the Israeli and Palestinian artists has fallen away completely, as we have become increasingly aware of the ethical complexities of involving them.
Early morning walk through the Old City, March 2014.

Early morning walk through the Old City, March 2014.

These changes have caused me to hearken back to the roots of this project, and to understand its real strength as a durational process of introduction and reorientation. These changes have challenged me to refine and articulate the goals and purpose of this project, strengthening it artistically and conceptually in the process:

  • To inject complexity and eradicate simplifications regarding Israel and Palestine.
  • To examine the outsider in relation to conflict, paying particular attention to the elephants in the room, including cultural colonialism and the fetishization of conflict.
  • To rigorously examine challenges of representing conflict and non-derivative narrative complexity in artistic discourse.

Moving forward, I am working with a tremendous planning team to develop programming for participants in the fall, including a weekend trip to New York to speak with artists, curators, and writers about working in relation to conflict. In the place of collaborators, we are working to create a really solid mentorship team of writers, scholars, artists, curators etc. who can help each of the Harvard participants work through their individual projects.

The End Product

For me, the “product” of this project is the process itself. The byproducts of this project will be an exhibition and publication, forthcoming May 2015.

  • The exhibition in the spring will highlight the participant’s artistic process, as well as the process of coming to terms with the complexity of the conflict. I think that it will be important to highlight the continued reorienting of the project in relation to new information, input, and the constantly changing landscape of the Middle East.
  • The publication, as I imagine it in this moment, will consist of an introduction, transcribed interviews with notable artists, curators and writers, commissioned essays, and documentation of the project as a whole and the disparate works within it. The publication would be broken into sections based on the themes for our fall seminars, including: Encountering Otherness, (Mis)Representation: Documentary Subjectivity, and Liminal Spaces.

Concluding Thoughts

My initial ideas have now long been discarded. The process—though trying—has been immensely and intrinsically rewarding.

If I were to define my experience so far in a tweet, I would say “@artists: Embrace change. Don’t be afraid to abandon ideas. It’s painful, but it gets better. #artscomplicated.”

Visiting a Jewish settlement in the Occupied Territories, March 2014.

Visiting a Jewish settlement in the Occupied Territories, March 2014.


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