Tragic flights and misguided missiles


THERE are more than 3,000 miniature human figures in the gallery at Patriothall. Suspended on transparent wires, they descend in an undulating sheet from the far corner of the room like a breaking wave, a waterfall, or a tumbling cascade of humanity. The light catches the wires as though it really was a cataract and you were seeing the spray above it. The figures are all the same scale. They are also very summery. Their faces are hardly distinguished, nevertheless they are all clearly differentiated by pose and by costume.

As though journeying together, they all face the same way. Made of wax, they are also unified by their colour, which is in a narrow range from white to pale gold and pinky grey. The wax is also slightly translucent. Together with their pale colouring and the way they are turned towards you, this makes them look like an army of tiny ghosts descending from the sky. And that indeed is what they are…

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These figures are part of Jane Frere's Nakbah Project, or the Return of the Soul. Through her agency – for she did not make them – they personify and commemorate the Palestinian An Nakbah, the Catastrophe.

It happened 60 years ago this year. The inhabitants of that part of Palestine that was to become Israel were driven out of their homes to make way for the new Jewish state. "The people without a land required a land without people, and the creation of the state of Israel – as is now being revealed by Israeli historians such as Ilan Papp and Benny Morris – required a deliberate strategy to rid the land of as many of its indigenous population as possible, through a process of violence and terror," wrote Jane Frere in The Scotsman last month.

Indigenous is perhaps the wrong word there, for in fact with tragic symmetry, the people of Palestine were driven into exile exactly as the Jews themselves had been driven from the same land by the Romans 2,000 years before. Two wrongs can never make a right, however, even when that first tragedy of the Jews was compounded by the greater evil perpetrated against them by the Nazis.

While Israel celebrates its 60th anniversary,the ongoing tragedy of the Palestinian people has come back to haunt us all. Jane Frere is not political, however. It is not her intention to join this painful argument on one side or the other, only to let the people speak through art. In addition to the 3,000 figures in this installation, there are another 3,000 in a similar installation currently on display in Jerusalem and the total number is expanding all the time. It's her intention that, symbolically at least, each one of these figures should represent an actual human story.

The way they are hung together was suggested by the film, Soraida, a Woman of Palestine, directed by Tahani Rached. In the film one of the characters describes a dream in which she saw hundreds of Palestinians hung from laundry lines, like clothes hanging out to dry. In their own special Purgatory, they are kept in suspension, unable to touch either heaven or earth.

To achieve her aim, Jane Frere set up workshops in Bethlehem and the West Bank and then in the refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon where she taught the techniques for making the figures. Then in turn her students taught them to others. But in parallel to this, she recorded stories, asked questions, tried to root the figures in memories of homes abandoned. They are stories of fear, flight and loss. So often, too, they are stories that include an account of departure 60 years ago with expectations of a quick return. Many Palestinian families still treasure the heavy key to the ancient door of an abandoned home.

Some of these stories are woven into a sound tapestry that accompanies the cascade of figures. Others are told on the walls and in film, but it is the figures themselves that bring home the truth most forcibly. The representation of actual period costume was part of the teaching in the workshops. This gives the figures a distinctive and authentic appearance. The study of movement was also part of the teaching, so not only are they all facing the same way, they are also moving as a crowd moves, as one. Nevertheless, they are not an anonymous mass. Some are carrying children and possessions. The gestures of all are animated and diverse. They are individuals in tragic flight, a flight that has not ended even after 60 years.

Indeed in some of the stories, because of the massacre at Shatila camp during the war in Lebanon and the renewed savage fighting in Nahr al Bared camp last year, individuals and families have had to flee several times. An Nakbah had been a recurrent tragedy.

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Jane Frere says that Return of the Soul should not be mistaken for a political work. Rather it is an expression of humanitarian and spiritual concern; its message is that it is time to break this cycle of catastrophe. There are those who will say she is being disingenuous, that she cannot opt out of politics like that. Nevertheless, it is right to be reminded of what we too often forget, and in the voices of the Palestinian people themselves, that the price of the creation of the state of Israel was tragedy for the people of the Palestine.

The claim that this work is non-political is also supported by the character of the work itself. It is gentle and not at all polemical. It is also collective, not individual. The artist is only an enabler, an inspired enabler, certainly; nevertheless her own point of view is not what matters, only the truth of the stories enshrined in this remarkable work.

Here the contrast between this show and Protest Pictures by Richard Hamilton, currently at Inverleith House, is illuminating. Hamilton's art is explicitly committed. He allies himself with a cause and puts his art at its service. The causes are miscellaneous and range over more than four decades, but all fit more or less within the prevailing liberal opinion of the time. The earliest is a savage response to Hugh Gaitskell's abandoning of Labour's anti-nuclear position in 1962.

Hamilton turns Gaitskell into a Famous Monster of Filmland with more than a nod to Francis Bacon. He supports Mick Jagger, arrested on suspicion of using cannabis in the 1960s, with a series of double portraits based on a newspaper photograph that seem to degenerate progressively into a representation of a psychedelic state. He supports the hunger strikers in the Maze prison and the liberal cause in Northern Ireland with a trio of emblematic portraits. He protests at the shooting at Kent State University of students demonstrating against the Vietnam War with film footage turned into telling still images, but he also protests wittily against imposition of museum charges.

He satirised Thatcher in an installation that greets you as you enter. An operating theatre is set up with a television screen above the bed from which she glares down at you, the implied prostrate patient – terrifying. He brilliantly castigates Tony Blair's fiction of WMD and his deluded militarism in the second Iraq war. In a full-length portrait of an uneasy-looking Blair as a cowboy, Hamilton manages to suggest he has dressed up to play Cowboys and Indians, but has been unexpectedly transported to the real thing. He looks scared.

These images are often telling, but they are specific to their time and cause, and to the artist's opinions. They seem dated in a way that Jane Frere's installation is not, nor will be, for it touches on something universal.

• Return of the Soul: the Nakbah Project is at Patriothall Gallery at WASPS until 18 August. Richard Hamilton: Protest Pictures is at Inverleith House until 12 October.