Haim Sokol "Our coming was expected on earth"
In his new project Haim Sokol yet again goes over Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of
History and borrows the phrase without beginning or end ‘Our coming was expected on earth’ for
a project name. In such a manner, out of context, this citation sounds like a piece of a monologue,
but whose monologue is that? Who are these “us”? Benjamin wrote about the historical redemption
of the oppressed past, about a weak Messianic power that every new generation is endowed
with, about a secret agreement made between past generations and the present one. Sokol
naturally means all of that, too, but he suggests that this citation should be taken literally, ‘on
earth’ meaning ‘on land’. This simple interpretation makes the work alarmingly up-to-the-minute,
as if these words were said by the people at sea, or, rather, the ones in its waters. Put that way, “us”
aren’t the contemporaries living here and now, on behalf of who Benjamin speaks. Sokol’s “us” are
people sailing from one continent to another in search of a better life. Thus, he switches over the
citation and, generally, all of Benjamin’s talk from historiosophic dimension to the geopolitical one.
Not without some self-irony, the artist paraphrases the classic definition by Rosalind E. Krauss and
calls his work under the project ‘painting in the expanded field’. He implies a variation of painting
and installation, which is neither one nor another, still retaining features of them both. The water
landscape of the first part of the installation changes to abstract terrains, as if watched from a
distance and through haze. A sophisticated observer will easily recognize references to Minimalism,
Abstract Expressionism, and, naturally, late Turner, and even Romanticism, while we’re on the
subject of landscapes. Globally speaking, Sokol’s ‘painting’ refers to the contemporary Western
culture. It might be that only this component of the Western civilization brings the escapees some
hope of redemption. Indeed, in the first place, people tend to flee from genocide, slavery, war,
famine – everything that the Western civilization hasn’t just overcome, but has casted away at the
value-conscious level. Of course, not many of the hundreds of thousands crossing the ocean have
heard of Turner, but all of them have heard about freedom, respect for individuals, value of individual
lives. This is where expectation of expectation hidden in the name of the project is revealed.
However, Walter Benjamin warned against dualism of any civilization. ‘Without exception the
cultural treasures he (a historical materialist – V. L.) surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate
without horror’, Benjamin postulates in Thesis VII. And further, ‘There is no document of
civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism’. Haim Sokol knows and understands
that perfectly well, and that is why he interprets historical materialism literally in his project.
The water surface appears here as dirty water in pails (rather vivid in its totality, though), and earth
turns out to be spots and stains of cheap paint on glassine, thick paper treated with bitumen oils,
intended for roof insulation (the irony is that this material is to block water). The artist makes
geopolitics meet historiosophy, thus causing an irrepressible conflict. Having found physical salvation,
his characters might be not redeemed from the historical point of view. Moreover, these are
mutually exclusive. No one is expected anywhere. At the best, some of them might find their way
to freedom through manual labor – backbreaking, tedious, and low-wage. In fact, it is not culture
that liberates someone, but the labor, as was once etched on the gate to hell.
Eventually, the project’s name turns out to be a tragic monologue recited by a chorus perishing in
history, and Sokol’s ‘painting’ appears to be a poetized underside of the new terms of exclusion
and oppression in the expanded post-colonial field.