Out of Beirut
Demos, T. J., Joreige, Lamia, Artforum International
From the perspective of an art magazine published in New York, the conflict that erupted this summer between Lebanon and Israel is at once near and far--a geopolitical situation of enormous gravity, wrenchingly and unremittingly conveyed in the global press yet difficult to plumb, perhaps by virtue of that very mediation. Artforum has, of course, neither the expertise nor the hubris to pretend to offer any corrective or comprehensive analysis. But we could not simply ignore the crisis.
As it happened, art historian and critic T. J. Demos had already begun work for us on a review of Modern Art Oxford's "Out of Beirut," an exhibition showcasing a generation of Lebanese artists, architects, and filmmakers whose work since the official conclusion of their country's civil war in 1991 has dwelled on pivotal questions of memory and the experience of history. As Demos prepared his essay for publication, history overtook us, and we sought to expand and deepen, even rethink, our consideration of Beirut's remarkable cultural resurgence of the past fifteen years. We turned to five individuals involved in the show--Lamia Joreige, Bernard Khoury, Walid Raad, Walid Sadek, and Christine Tohme--and asked them to reflect on the Lebanese crisis and its implications for their practices and for the culture at large.
THE EXHIBITION "OUT OF BEIRUT" opened innocently enough last spring. Organized by Modern Art Oxford curator Suzanne Cotter in collaboration with Christine Tohme, director of Ashkal Alwan, the Beirut-based arts organization, the survey promised an exciting profile of contemporary Lebanese art and another chapter in the story of its growing international reputation. The work of fifteen artists and the anonymous collective Heartland would be on view for two months, accompanied by a program of seven films and symposia featuring prominent speakers such as curator Catherine David and architect Bernard Khoury, whose work is also included in the show. As part of a veritable cultural renaissance taking place in Beirut following the country's fifteen-year civil war, Lebanese artists have generated an influential array of work that reconsiders the nature of photographic documentation and the projected image, with critical insights arising largely in their conceptual examinations of traumatic memory and the workings of the archive. Many of these artistic engagements reflect on the continuing legacy of the civil war--an umbrella term that includes battles between the country's competing sectarian militias, successive Israeli invasions and occupations, and Syrian meddling--and, indeed, this was the case for nearly every work on view at Oxford. At the time of the show's opening, no one could have foreseen that the gravity of these investigations would soon be dramatically underscored by contemporaneous events: On July 12, four days before the exhibition's conclusion, Hezbollah militants killed three and seized two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid, sparking a monthlong, full-fledged military conflict followed by a tenuous cease-fire (still in effect at press time). If it had seemed the work on display in "Out of Beirut" was concerned with exposing and examining the psychic aftershocks and uncanny mimicries that had become fixtures of everyday life in post-civil war Lebanon, one was now led to surmise (perhaps accurately) that these artists had in fact been suggesting all along that the terrible conflict had never actually ended.
One of the most poignant commentaries in the exhibition was Lamia Joreige's Here and Perhaps Elsewhere, 2003, a video exposing the persistence of war memories even while stressing their volatility. "Do you know of anyone who was kidnapped around here during the war?" asks the artist as she comes across pedestrians while retracing the Green Line that divided western and eastern Beirut during the civil war. (Joreige uses archival photographs to locate the sites of former militia checkpoints along the line, where thousands were abducted. The video intercuts those black-and-white images with contemporary footage, underscoring the physical transformation of the city that took place once the fighting ended.) Some interviewees are suspicious of Joreige's inquiries, reluctant--even afraid--to delve into the past, but others encourage full disclosure: "If you know anything ... you should talk," one man urges another. Many freely share their stories before Joreige's camera. An older man tells movingly of losing a son in 1985 and shows the scars from his open-heart surgery--an operation undertaken to cure a disease caused, he believes, by grief and exacerbated by the unknown and perhaps unknowable circumstances of his son's disappearance. The father's psychic injury is still obviously raw, evidenced by his emotional accounting, which, within the context of Joreige's work, suggests that the effects of the violence--not quite so safely distant as some had thought--are far from processed in the culture at large. This desire to reopen the wounds inflicted by the tragedy of Lebanon's brutal past through direct documentary representation, and to remedy shock with comprehension, reveals one powerful approach to history in "Out of Beirut."
A nagging paradox, however, follows from Joreige's contention that comprehension depends on the awareness that our relationship to the past--or to the "facts"--is uncertain at best. And, in fact, the testimonials in her video belie the transparency of documentary evidence. (One man she approaches, for instance, refuses to provide further stories, explaining that "they may be true and they may not.... They won't give you the answer you're looking for.") Joreige is not alone in this quandary: If she invites communication, and thereby elicits its blind spots, Walid Sadek baldly confronts us with its absence. His Love Is Blind, 2006, invokes Beirut's once picturesque settings by reproducing just the informational labels for paintings by Mustafa Farroukh, a prominent Lebanese artist in the '30s and '40s who depicted idyllic scenes of the city and the surrounding landscape in the style of academic European art. Sadek's conceptual installation left ghostly white expanses where the paintings should have hung, the distance between two lines of additional wall text (composed by Sadek) corresponding to the dimensions of Farroukh's missing canvases. While the pictorial absences double the destruction of those geographical sites--not only has the geography changed but also the very culture that Farroukh's practice inhabited--Sadek's act of negation also implicitly questions the ability of visual language to convey loss. In Cotter's perceptive catalogue essay, she refers rightly to the "mistrust of the image as reliable document of history" among the artists in "Out of Beirut." Such a mistrust informs Sadek's pointed refusal to show what has been lost to the past, as if its representation would only repeat the violence by objectifying it, or would further offend by pretending to grasp some essential truth--even while his work, like Joreige's, still attempts to come to terms with destruction's lasting effects.
Other works similarly challenged any notion that language, whether visual or textual, might be used to convey the experience of war with uninterrupted continuity, rendering the idea of direct expression impossible while overtly manifesting injuries to representation. In Wonder Beirut: The Story of a Pyromaniac Photographer, 1998-2006, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige present a display of brightly colored postcards of touristy Beirut "appropriated" from the work of a Lebanese commercial photographer named Abdallah Farah. In fact an imaginary figure created by the two artists, Farah is said to have originally published these postcards in 1968, only to burn the negatives carefully seven years later when the war began, so that the images--scarred with gruesomely charred areas and twisted searings, punished nearly to the point of abstraction--would correlate with their actual damaged counterparts. As a text accompanying the work explains, "He imitated the destructions of the buildings he saw gradually disappearing because of bombings and street battles." Interestingly, the fictional construction recalls Sadek's deployment of Farroukh as a kind of elusive, intermediary figure, as a cipher to problematize representation. Indeed, Farah even keeps a notebook description of every photograph he has taken since the war but refuses to develop, which brings to mind Sadek's empty walls.
The photographer's pyromania also implies a therapeutic compulsion to work through a brutalized reality by castigating its falsifying and outdated representations, but the sometimes stunning visual results betray a perverted, parallel strategy of trumping violence through its aestheticization. Tapping into a similar set of underlying tensions was Paola Yacoub and Michel Lasserre's Summer '88, 2006, …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Out of Beirut. Contributors: Demos, T. J. - Author, Joreige, Lamia - Author. Magazine title: Artforum International. Volume: 45. Issue: 2 Publication date: October 2006. Page number: 234+. © 1999 Artforum International Magazine, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.