Out of Beirut

Article excerpt

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.

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Living Contradiction

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.

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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. …