Out of Beirut
Modern Art Oxford
13 May-16 July 2006
The work of 18 Lebanese artists has been brought together for this exhibition at Modern Art Oxford, many of them showing for the first time in the UK. Over 15 years may have passed since the end of Lebanon's civil war, but politics and memory are still major preoccupations for these artists: unsurprising in a country where the Prime Minister was assassinated last year by a car bomb, and whose civilian population is, at the time of writing, suffering in the resurgent conflict between Hezbollah and the Israeli Army.
The architect, Tony Chakar, whose work also appears in the show, asks in an email exchange recorded in the exhibition catalogue, 'Why is it that we cannot start talking about art - strategies, practices, or whatever - without first immersing ourselves in politics?'1 This question, and its rhetorical assumption that, especially in Lebanon, art is not separable from politics, haunts the practices of these artists and gives rise to some powerful work.
The average visitor probably won't know the specific details of Beirut's past conflicts - in which case, Lamia Joreige's hour-long documentary film, 'Here and Perhaps Elsewhere', would make a good place to start. In what was, for me, the exhibition's most nuanced exploration of the interrelationship between memory and trauma, the artist walked the old 'green line' that divided Beirut into east and west, filming with a hand-held camera and asking the people she met the simple question, 'Do you know someone who was kidnapped here during the war?'
The documentary consists of their responses and recollections, and what soon emerges from the continual layering of testimony as she crosses neighbourhood religious boundaries is a sense of the precariousness of even recent history, and the realisation that all memories are to some extent unreliable. It is through inclusion and multiplicity, and the gradual accretion of details and stories - sworn to be true, or frankly acknowledged to be rumours - that the watcher of the film comes to understand something of the complexity of Beirut's traumatic history.
The majority of those kidnapped or 'disappeared' were civilians, taken by one or other of the militias in tit-for-tat responses as they tried to cross the lines, and often never seen again. At each crossing point, the picture freezes and fades into documentary photos of how the area looked in the war; the once-devastated landscape now vanished under new highways or buildings. The sound of building work and drilling carries through the streets in many of the mini-interviews, a counterpoint to the memories triggered by Joreige's questions. The film makes no claims to be part of some kind of healing process; on the contrary, it includes citizens who talk about the futility of remembering, one man exclaiming, 'How can I recount their names?' Another chides the artist, saying that by asking people to remember those who have vanished, without confirmation of death, she is cruelly reawakening the hope that they may still be alive.
Joreige's presence is elided into the shaky movements of the camera and the occasional prompting question, giving her subjects a certain autonomy. They use this freedom to take her questions in different directions: some recount neighbourhood gossip; others have forgotten entirely, or want to remember instead their relatives who were killed. Their other concerns intrude into the discussion: Iraq, Palestine and the economy. Joreige always asks for the disappeared's name: it is always given, a bald fact sitting astride blurred memories. In the last few minutes of the film, which is worth watching in its entirety, the artist asks another shopkeeper the by-now familiar question. One of the names reeled off catches her ear, and she asks more about this man, and the circumstances of his death. It turns out that he was her uncle.
In her catalogue essay, Kaelen Wilson-Goldie quotes one of Joreige's interviewees, who tells her there is no point in recording these stories 'because they won't give you the answer you're looking for'.2 This is indeed the case if the artist is looking for some sort of historical truth; but it would appear that Joreige's project has less to do with this than with trying to understand how people have recovered or let slip their personal and collective memories of those who vanished. A related point Wilson-Goldie makes is that the civil war is in danger of becoming 'one overarching trauma which effectively masks over or represses many others',3 such as token democracy or a non-independent judiciary; this is a risk that Joreige's film takes.
In the built environment, no less than in an individual's memory, versions of the past compete to influence the future. In an article in issue 99 of Frieze magazine, Tony Chakar summarised the planned reconstruction of Martyr's Square as an example of debate between two such conflicting visions:
Should Martyr's Square be open to the sea, thus becoming a Parisian-style boulevard, or should it remain an enclosed square, in the traditional style of medieval Arab cities? What was debated was obviously more than the mere morphology of a square [...] Latent in the debate was Lebanon's future.4
Bernard Khoury has attempted to duck such a discourse in designing BO18, a nightclub sited in The Quarantine, an area deeply scarred by a militia attack in 1976. The club is underground, depressed in order to 'avoid the over-exposure of a mass that could act as a rhetorical monument',5 as Khoury puts it. His video piece for the exhibition is a night-time exploration of the club. At first, the site seems to be an almost derelict open space, filled with cars. The club is nearly invisible, a hole in the ground open to the sky. The camera peers down: lights, music and people dancing.
Lebbeus Woods has made the case for 'new spaces of habitation constructed on the existential remnants of war', claiming that they 'do not celebrate the destruction of an established order, nor do they symbolise or commemorate it'.6 Instead, he sees the physical scars of war as 'the beginnings of new ways of thinking, living and shaping space, arising from individuality and invention', and thus as an opportunity for a new type of community 'that precludes the hierarchical basis for organised violence and war'.7
The majority of post-war reconstruction in Beirut was entrusted to one building company, Solidere, owned by the future Prime Minister and assassination victim, Rafiq Hariri. Following the bombing that ended his life, mass demonstrations took place in Martyr's Square, with the protestors calling for, among other things, an end to the presence of Syrian troops in the country. Two of the works in the exhibition mark this event: Gilbert Hage's simple photos show ordinary citizens at the demos standing in front of a section of graffiti-covered wall, young and old alike, while Ziad Abillama's lo-fi video directs confrontational questions about Lebanon's future towards members of the public and records their responses. It's a pity that only a few of Hage's photos are displayed in the gallery (160 are shown in the catalogue), as the value of the work surely lies in the cumulative effect of seeing recorded many of the individuals who came together in a (non-sectarian) protest.
Other works in the exhibition are compelling but more frustrating. Walid Raad's photographic plates 'We Can Make Rain But No One Came To Ask' are part of an ongoing project that is constructed around records of one particular explosion that took place in Beirut in January 1986. The plates are large, and mostly blank, with a thin strip running along the bottom like the line demarking the footnotes on an academic text. Looking closely, the line consists of photographic montages, with black and white portraits, location shots, news stills and reproductions of signatures and diagrams colliding. Beneath the line are sparse numbered footnotes in English, with the text cut in half horizontally to render it semi-comprehensible. The information seems to be hiding in the margins, trying to disappear (or being made to disappear) into the extra-lexical template of an authorised document. I was reminded in some ways of Xu Bing's A Book from the Sky, for which the Chinese artist diligently invented a totally meaningless language of some 4,000 characters, carved printing blocks for each one and produced a whole encyclopaedia of books, bound and formatted in the traditional Chinese manner, and scrolls many hundreds of non-words long. Both projects seem to share a distrust of words and the transmission of information, while paying homage to the ritual forms which information takes.
A fiction created by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, 'Wonder Beirut: the story of a pyromaniac photographer', demonstrates similar misgivings about published information. 'Abdallah Farah' is a postcard photographer whom the artists supposedly met in the 90s, who had published a series of photographs of Beirut's tourist attractions in the late 60s. As the civil war continued through the late 70s, 'Farah' started burning and damaging, little by little, the negatives that had produced the postcards, mirroring and then outdoing the destruction around him. The artists have 'reissued' these burnt images as a new set of postcards, full of tears, bubbles and lacunae. The visitor is encouraged to take these postcards away: they might function as a reminder of just what lies behind the recent reconstructions, or perhaps constitute a perverse act of triumph over adversity.
'Debate begins with the acquisition of culture', claims one of the interviewees in Abillama's film. But the two surely go hand in hand: culture, when it is growing and not ossifying, is the feeling-out of new spaces and new methods, a process for which debate is necessary. And, rightly enough, certain types of culture (of plurality, of non-certainty) foster debate. 'Out of Beirut' provides a snapshot of positive debates and cultural explorations taking place in the city; let us hope that, in spite of the physical and social damage Lebanon is facing, they continue to prosper.
1. Wright S. Territories of Difference: Excerpts from an E-mail Exchange between Tony Chakar, Bilal Khbeiz and Walid Sadek. In: Cotter S (ed). Out of Beirut. Oxford: Modern Art Oxford, 2006: 64.
2. Wilson-Goldie K. Contemporary Art Practices in Post-war Lebanon: An Introduction. In: Cotter, S. (ed). Out of Beirut. Oxford: Modern Art Oxford, 2006: 82
3. Ibid: 88.
4. Chakar T, Zolghadr T. 'City Report: Beirut' Frieze magazine, May 2006.
5. Khoury B. BO18. In: Ibid: 97.
6. Woods L. War and Architecture, Pamphlet Architecture, 15. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1993: 14.
7. Ibid: 19.