I’ve been interested in the work of the German artist Christoph Faulhaber since 2009, when I first heard about a project he had initiated in Hamburg. Entitled, “Guantánamo Allocation Center,” it involved creating a site for a proposed relocation center for Guantánamo prisoners who cannot be repatriated because they face the risk of torture in their home countries, in order to “foster [a] public dialogue on the issue of accepting former inmates from Guantánamo” (click on the photo to enlarge).
As Faulhaber explained in an interview, the site was in “the HafenCity, the former Free Port, [which] was until recently a border region. In other words, here, in what was, and still is, the city’s face to the world, the legal situation was different. And that’s the issue with the question of what to do with the remaining prisoners too.” Crucially, as Faulhaber also explained, “These people are not only beyond the reach of international jurisdiction, they have also been expatriated, they can’t go back or anywhere else. They are the first global outlaws in history.”
For his latest Guantánamo-themed exhibition, dealing with some of the former prisoners who cannot be repatriated, Faulhaber has focused on six of the 38 prisoners in total who have been given new homes in 15 countries with which they had no previous association. Ten of these countries — Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain and Switzerland — are in Europe and have taken in 23 prisoners in total, and five other countries — Bermuda, Cape Verde, Georgia, Latvia and Palau — have taken 15 others.
However, the last of these transfers took place in August 2010, and it seems that other countries’ generosity has come to an end — as, perhaps, has their willingness to overlook the fact that America itself has resisted calls to rehouse some of the men (with President Obama, the Justice Department, the D.C. Circuit Court, the Supreme Court and Congress all having acted to prevent any cleared prisoner from making a new home in the US).
These themes continue to have a resonance with Faulhaber’s “Guantánamo Allocation Center” project, although that closed in January 2010, seven months before two prisoners were actually resettled in Germany. However, his latest project, “Palau Triptych,” is intimately related, asking how artists should respond to Guantánamo, even though his stated aim is, more particularly, an examination of how art is perceived internationally.
Faulhaber focuses on six Uighurs (Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province, whose release was ordered by a US court in October 2008), who were given a new home on the Pacific island of Palau in October 2009, but whose resettlement was initially being discussed with the German government. Five of their compatriots ended up in Albania in May 2006, four in Bermuda in June 2009, and two in Switzerland in March 2010, while five remain in Guantánamo, and are perhaps the ultimate “global outlaws.”
In his focus on the six men, Faulhaber traveled to Palau, where he interviewed the Uighurs’ Australian interpreter and the President of Palau, Johnson Toribiong. As a result of this visit, he produced an 18-minute film, “Palau — Blue Sky,” with Daniel Matzke, which has been exhibited in galleries around the world since May 2010. A one-minute excerpt is here. Faulhaber also traveled to Shenzhen, China, to visit the Oil Painting Village Dafen, which is the world’s biggest commercial center for the reproduction of artworks, where he worked with local artists to create oil paintings of the six men based on photos, thereby providing a sly commentary on their inability to return home.
The key themes of this latest exhibition, which is showing at the Produzentengalerie in Hamburg until July 23, are as stated in the publicity for “Palau — Blue Sky”:
In this series of works Faulhaber focuses on some main questions surrounding the ideological and philosophical notion of the “picture” today: How strong is the global prevalence and regime of the picture? What kind of pictures are we supposed to conceive when thinking of Guantánamo? What is the state of the picture with regard to a global system of industrialized tools for copies, imitation and reproduction? Or, as W.J.T. Mitchell has raised the question: “What is the work of art in the age of biocybernetic reproduction?”