Lamia Joreige: ‘Anything you film in a certain reality at a certain moment is a diagnosis of a present’
The artist, one of six finalists included in the Artes Mundi 7 exhibition, talks about her project Objects of War, a collective history of the Lebanese civil war, and her newer “poetic essays” exploring neighbourhoods in Beirut through film, photography, drawing and installation
by ANNA McNAY
Lamia Joreige (b1972) is a visual artist and film-maker who grew up in Lebanon during the civil war (1975-1990). She makes work about her own and others’ experiences, creating a new collective history, aside from the one presented in the media. Using archival documents and oral histories, she interrogates the notion of truth and explores the aftermath of war in her city, Beirut.
In 2011, Joreige’s work Objects of War (No 1 to 4, 1999-2006), a series of video testimonials and personal possessions, was the first major piece of Lebanese art to be acquired by the Tate Collection.
Joreige is one of six artists to have been selected to show in the Artes Mundi 7 exhibition (21 October 2016 – 26 February 2017), the UK’s leading international contemporary art prize, from which a winner will be selected in January 2017, to receive £40,000, the UK’s largest monetary prize awarded to an artist. In the run-up to the exhibition in Cardiff (jointly held at the National Museum Cardiff and Chapter art galley, Cardiff), Joreige explained some of the concepts behind her work in a Skype call from Beirut.
Anna McNay: You grew up in Lebanon during the civil war and this experience forms a key part of your work. Your Objects of War series, the first major piece of Lebanese art to be acquired by the Tate Collection, comprises video testimonials from people who lived through the war, talking about their memories and relating them to objects of personal significance, which are displayed alongside the videos. How did this work come about?
Lamia Joreige: It was a project I began in 1999 when it was essential to speak about what happened in the Lebanese Wars. In short, I wanted to use the idea of oral history and, through asking each person to give me an object, I wanted to reflect on the archaeology of war and notions of subjectivity versus a grand history, like the one recounted in the media. I wanted to work with discourses and speeches that were more a part of the subjective experience of the civil society. I asked people to give me an object that would be the point of departure for their personal story of the Lebanese wars and how they had experienced them. The objects are diverse: they range from a guitar to a photograph to a video tape to a Walkman to a jerry can. All these objects are displayed alongside the looped videos. There is an intimacy to the many stories that will never be an exhaustive history, but that gives a sense of collective memory. And, alongside the testimonies, you have the objects, like relics.
AMc: In Objects of War No 1, you edited the final piece, but in Objects of War Nos 2, 3 and 4 you left the testimonies in their entirety. What led you to this decision?
LJ: When I made Objects of War No 1, I wanted to film each person three times and reflect on the notion of memory from one version to the other. I was interested in the idea that the slippage of memory and the gaps, even in one person’s various recountings of the same story, could actually undermine the notion of truth. But, very quickly, I realised this could become very anecdotal and also quite long and boring for viewers, since each account would be repeated three times. Then I realised that I didn’t have to do this to undermine the notion of truth. By filming someone, we can already choose whether to believe them or not. There’s already an element of fiction in it. I didn’t want to throw away the material, as I’d filmed some really interesting people, but there was very little difference in each of the three versions of each person’s story, so I had to do some editing to reduce more than an hour of footage to something shorter. For Objects of War No 2, I decided to leave the camera rolling and let each person recount their story without the need for editing.
Incidentally, there is now also an Objects of War No 5 and Objects of War No 6, which I made to show in the New Museum, New York, in 2014. They’re each more than an hour long. I haven’t had time to upload excerpts from these to my website yet. Whenever I get an opportunity to show something again, it’s always more interesting for me to continue to film than to reshow something the same. So, from time to time, I continue this project.
AMc: How do you go about getting participants? Do you put a call out for volunteers?
LJ: No. I did that once when I showed it in Lebanon in 2000. I put out a call for anyone who might want to take part but people didn’t really respond. So I film people I know and interesting people around me. The range is vast. In 2003, I filmed people from all different social and political backgrounds.
AMc: You have now been shortlisted, from more than 700 nominations, as one of seven artists to take part in Artes Mundi 7 for the Artes Mundi Prize. What will you be showing in the exhibition? Are you making new work?
LJ: No, I’ll be showing a work called Under-Writing Beirut, which is a project I began in 2013. Like Objects of War, it is an ongoing work with different chapters. Each chapter investigates a different neighbourhood or area of the city. Most of my work is grounded in the city of Beirut. For now, there are two chapters. The first is called Under-Writing Beirut – Mathaf (2013) and is about the National Museum of Beirut. Initially, I began investigating the whole neighbourhood, but, very quickly, I narrowed it down to focus on the museum itself.
Lebanon has a contested national identity and we had a civil war that lasted more than 15 years and these problems are still unresolved. So, for me, it was not just a criticism of this idea of a national identity, but also an opportunity to explore some of the different layers, using different methodology. I like the idea of digging into different layers of history to create poetic form. For instance, during the civil war, the museum was on the dividing line between East Beirut and West Beirut, which we used to call the Green Line. On that Green Line, there were checkpoints and passage points. The most important passage point was located right on Museum Square. A lot of the history of the museum is linked to this period of war. During the war, there was a sniper who made a hole in what used to be a very beautiful mosaic, the Good Shepherd. He made the hole in order to shoot strategically [from inside the museum] at people on Museum Square.
Part of my installation includes a set of photographs and a sketch. One of the photographs is from the museum archive, and one is my own present-day one, showing the hole, filled from the outside so the wind won’t come in, but with the mosaic itself not having been restored. Then I made a sketch with the measurements of the hole and, from this, I made the 100kg sculpture, which is an imprint of the void of the hole made by the sniper. I had a 3D drawing made from my sketches and photographs, and from this drawing I made a mould for casting the concrete. It’s not an exact replica – I call it a “poetic reformulation”. The use of concrete was inspired by the fact that, during the war, the director of the museum and his team poured concrete on the sarcophagi and walled in an entire room in order to protect objects in the museum from being looted or destroyed by the militia, armed forces or passersby. The mosaic of the Good Shepherd, however, could not be protected because it was vertically attached to the wall.
Then there is also a video with a 180-degree garden view, which re-enacts the point of view of the sniper, had he been alive today. Nothing really happens in the video: it’s more about the point of view of the camera, seeing the garden instead of the wall. There’s also a series of black-and-white pictures taken with a pinhole camera from my window overlooking Museum Square. Everyday, for months and months, I would put this shoebox with photographic paper on my windowsill. Because the past is unresolved, I was interested in producing images that were black-and-white, a bit ghostly, a bit blurry. The pictures are really small. Each of them is unique, obviously.
When I was doing my research, I was not allowed to go into the museum storage. I was looking for objects that were damaged by the war. I had already photographed some in 2010 for another project. For various reasons, including a misunderstanding of my artistic practice, and the fact that I was not an archaeologist, I wasn’t granted access to the archives. So, with permission from the Ministry of Culture, on 15 December 2012, I made a list and took photographs of all the objects that were visible in the museum – or, rather, of all the labels. I made a work reproducing the entire museum in one image. This image encompasses all of the objects that were visible in the museum that day. The image unravels the politics of the museum and questions identity. Next to it, in the installation, is a book called Objects Missing from the National Museum of Beirut, which suggests that there are things missing, without our knowing why or how. Maybe they were looted or destroyed. Things simply disappeared without our knowledge.
Obviously, this is not as tragic as the people who disappeared during the war. I have made several projects relating to these people: one was a film called Here and Perhaps Elsewhere (2003) and another was a more personal film called A Journey (2006). So I’m not comparing the disappearance of these museum objects to the dramatic disappearance of human beings, but just suggesting that some things disappeared and some things have been left unresolved. The book, therefore, is always shown next to the large print of the list of labels. It’s shown under Plexiglas, so it can’t be opened. I cannot tell you whether or not there is actually anything inside!
There’s one last element to this chapter, which is a silkscreen. It’s a combination of a photograph I took and one I bought from a journal, showing armed forces in Museum Square, right in front of the museum. It’s a construct.
And that’s the first chapter.
AMc: And is there a second chapter as well?
LJ: Yes. There are currently two chapters and both will be on show in the Artes Mundi exhibition. The second chapter is called Under-Writing Beirut – Nahr, and it investigates another neighbourhood on the edge of the city, where, in 2009, I co-founded a not-for-profit space called the Beirut Art Center with Sandra Dagher [a Lebanese curator]. The area was entirely made up of abandoned factories, built in the 1950s and 60s. No one lived there and there was only one factory still active. If you step away from the Art Center, you are by the Beirut River, which defines the eastern border of the city. A century ago, the river was full of water, but, for at least the past 30 or 40 years, for eight or nine months of the year, it is dry. It has become a dump for the nearby markets and it also gets filled with sewage. Even before the water reaches Beirut, there are factories dumping chemicals in the river.
Many years ago, I was shooting a video for another installation in this very strange landscape. I was scouting for locations and we found a place where we could access the riverbed. We took the car and I did a sequence shot of the river. Many years later, in 2013, I was interested in the notion of landscape and the idea that this place is something like a suspended space: it’s not a river any more, but it’s not a space you could inhabit. It’s not constitutive of Beirut life in the same way as the Thames or the Seine have been part of the construction of the identity of their respective cities. But it is the point at which many migrants, including the Armenians, following the Turkish genocide in 1915, and later the Palestinians and the Syrians, came and settled. So many of the neighbourhoods around the river and facing the area where the Beirut Art Center was built are those of people who fled their countries.
I became interested in the landscape of the river and, in 2013, I made a short film called The River, which deals with notions of displacement, exile and landscape. Then I became interested in collecting maps and using them to understand the topography of the area. I started to make wax, pastel and pencil drawings, based on these maps. I will be showing a few of these at Artes Mundi. Finally, I was interested in the history of the migrants, as well as the recent gentrification of the neighbourhood. Since we opened the Beirut Art Center, another art association opened its school a year later and then some architects moved in and, finally, real estate developers began some residential developments nearby. Factories were destroyed to make room for these projects. Most of the projects have Syrian workers. Traditionally, there have always been Syrian workers in Lebanon, but, because of the war in Syria, there is now a huge number of refugees in Lebanon. So my project includes a multiscreen video installation, which tackles both the history of the river and that of the migrant workers.
AMc: How did you select this particular work to show in Cardiff? Did you consider its resonance with current global issues of migration and refugees?
LJ: Not really because I started work on the project long before this massive wave of migrants. But it will obviously be connected to the crisis in Syria. It will not be directly addressing this, however. The stories of people who have settled around the river are the stories of people who were fleeing tragic events, so there will, of course, be resonances. A historian described this bank of the river as “a belt of misery”.
AMc: To what degree do you consider your works to be of a documentary nature and how much is your interpretation or artistic licence?
LJ: My work is always situated somewhere in between the two. In many of my previous works, I used a documentary form or practice. But there are always elements of fiction or mise-en-scène. Of course, I’m also attached to the idea of recording a certain reality, but it doesn’t mean that it cannot be transformed. There’s always that fine line between documentary and non-documentary. You could say that anything you film in a certain reality at a certain moment is a diagnosis of a present, if you are recording a real, not staged, event. So when I film the river, I am recording it at this moment in our history. But it’s more of an essay film. You’re absolutely right though that, although it’s not going to be a documentary, it will have documentary footage. There are, for example, interviews with the janitor of the Beirut Art Center, because he is a witness of the transformation. I have footage from various angles of the neighbourhood. There is an attempt to grasp the reality of the place, so, absolutely, there will be large elements of documentary, but it will not be a documentary film – for now, at least. Maybe later. For now, I’m more interested in placing images together and making a portrait, where the construct is also physical in the space.
AMc: Is it therefore important for you that all the constituent elements of a chapter are shown together?
LJ: I think, for now, I would want them to be, yes. But I am still working on it. I’m interested in associating some images in a different way than the montage of a documentary.
AMc: You work, it seems, across a lot of media. What is your artistic training? Did you study fine art?
LJ: Yes, I studied painting and film-making at Rhode Island School of Design.
AMc: Do you still paint now at all?
LJ: I don’t paint, but I make drawings. There will be a few drawings, based on maps of the river, in the show.
AMc: How involved are you still with the Beirut Art Center? As well as being a co-founder, you were initially one of the co-directors.
LJ: Yes. We appointed a new director in March 2014. I’m still on the board and we work on fundraising strategies and supporting the programme. I’m no longer involved in the day-to-day stuff.
AMc: Was that a conscious decision on your part so that you had more time for your own artistic practice?
LJ: It was for a series of reasons. From the beginning, my colleague Sandra and I knew that, if we were to create an institution like that, we would want it to continue without us. The success of it would be defined by having someone else take over. Also, yes, it was really very difficult to continue to make my work. Time-wise, on the one hand, but also because Lebanon is a very small country and it was not easy to be in that position as an artist. People suddenly look at you in a different way. I knew that it would be difficult. More spaces have opened since, but, at the time, we were the only space showing contemporary art of this kind. It became a bit tricky to be in that position while I was an artist.
AMc: So, now that you have more time and scope to focus on your art practice again, what will you be working on next?
LJ: I recently got a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, so I will be going out there in September next year to produce the third chapter of Under-Writing Beirut, which will be focused on Ouzaï, a southern suburb of the city.
• For more information on Lamia Joreige’s works, see her website.
• The Artes Mundi exhibition will run from 21 October 2016 – 26 February 2017 at the National Museum Cardiff and at Chapter, Cardiff. The prize announcement will be on 26 January 2017.