All systems go? Not so fast

BEIRUT: "If things go back to normal this quickly, then it is abnormal," says Sandra Dagher, the 28-year-old owner and director of the multidisciplinary Gemmayzeh gallery, Espace SD. "I am happy but I feel very weird about it. At the same time, of course, I understand. Things have to continue. People can't just sit around and wait."

Three full days have passed since a tentative truce took hold in Lebanon - after 34 days of brutal war between the Israeli Army and Hizbullah fighters, which, in the process, laid waste to Beirut's southern suburbs, villages throughout South Lebanon and much of the country's infrastructure and economy.

Slowly, the cultural pulse of Beirut is beginning to beat again, after flat-lining completely for more than a month. All of Beirut's major movie theaters reopened on Thursday, and distributors are hopeful that they will receive new film reels once the blockade is finally lifted. Many bookstores in Beirut have also reopened, with employees similarly hopeful about replenishing their stock in the coming weeks. But this is a tentative restart at best, with many people reluctant to resume living and working as if everything had suddenly gone back to normal.

Espace SD opened a summer group show on July 6 - a review of all the exhibitions that have taken place in the gallery over the past 12 months. But Dagher closed her space just seven days later. She habitually takes a month-long hiatus in August, so the fact that her space is still closed does not actually depart from the norm.

But Dagher has had to rip up her fall schedule entirely. She will reopen Espace SD in September with a reprise of the summer group show. She has indefinitely postponed two shows - exhibitions of paintings and photographs, respectively - and will spend the next few weeks talking to the artists she works with to see if more timely shows, perhaps responding to or reflecting on the war, will be possible.

A major cultural venture Dagher was involved with on the side has been put on hold, its viability rendered uncertain by external, unforeseen though not entirely unpredictable circumstances. And Espace SD has also lost a key staff member, an American living in Lebanon who evacuated under duress. Dagher hopes she will return but says she knows nothing is for sure.

As for the war's financial impact on the gallery, she says, "For the moment we don't know. We can't say. The situation is still very shaky. I think art, at a time like this, is important, of course. It is important to continue doing events and exhibitions for the people who want to see and think about something else. But I know that's not how people in the main feel. We've lived this uncertainty already, all last year, we've felt it," she says, referring to the multiple political assassinations that afflicted Lebanon in 2005.

"But definitely there will be financial damage because I'm selling art. Even if I put on shows, even if I put on commercial shows - now, in October, November, December - everyone knows that sales are going to be slow."

One of Beirut's oldest and most established galleries, Galerie Janine Rubeiz in Raouche, opened its doors again to the public for the first time on Thursday, albeit with a modified schedule - for now, the space is operational only until the late afternoon. Like Dagher, Janine Rubeiz's director Nadine Begdache says she is taking a wait-and-see approach.

"We opened with the same show we had before," she says, in reference to "Coup d'Oeil II," a collective exhibition showcasing the works of young artists from the gallery. That show originally opened on July 12. War or no war, it is scheduled to run through August 23.

Begdache has postponed her September exhibition - "We just don't know whether or not we can do a big vernissage," she explains - but her schedule for November and December remains so far unchanged.

"It's too early to say," she says about the situation in general and the resilience of Beirut's cultural life in particular. "Right now, you have nothing. You just wait to see how things are going to go. I hope we'll have some movement but now I think people are not in the mood."

The one-year-old Galerie Sfeir-Semler, Beirut's most professional of blue-chip contemporary art spaces, also opened a new show on July 6, the now-painfully relevant "Moving Home(s)," featuring numerous works by international artists created in (and for) Lebanon (such as Balthasar Burkhard's black-and-white photographs of the cityscape). Soon after hostilities began, owner Andree Sfeir-Semler left Lebanon for Germany (she divides her time between the two countries), where she has been active in agitating for greater awareness about the war in the international community. Meanwhile gallery director Nathalie Khoury has been keeping an eye on the space, which is now open for a few hours every day, with tentative plans to resume regular hours soon.

The Agial Art Gallery in Hamra, a valuable resource for viewing the master's of modern and contemporary Arab art, had to close completely during the first few days of the crisis.

"We really had no electricity, nothing, those first few days," says director Saleh Barakat. After that, Barakat decided to open the space for just a few hours each day, pending power outages.

The point, he says, was to give artists a place to meet and talk. "You can imagine that people are not waiting in line to buy art at a time like this," Barakat says. An exhibition of paintings by Sudanese artist Hassan Musa remains on view.

Three days after the war began, Barakat was set to send out invitations to the gallery's next scheduled show - an exhibition dealing with the reconstruction of Beirut by painter Danielle Jenadi, a young American artist of Lebanese descent who had been living in Lebanon for several months, completing a new body of work that reflected back on some 15 years of rebuilding after Lebanon's Civil War. "Now, it's out of date," says Barakat with tangible sorrow.

On a more operational level, he adds: "I've had to bring back my armed doors." Barakat had taken down the forbidding metal security slabs just a few years earlier, replacing them with glass planes that gave the gallery a symbolic sense of transparency.

For his own part, Barakat was scheduled to leave Lebanon this week for the US, where he will be a part of the Yale World Fellows program this fall. Clearly exhausted, he says: "I'm going, even if I have to swim."

Curator Christine Tohme - who, as the co-founder and director of Ashkal Alwan, has been heavily involved in developing and nurturing the more critical end of Beirut's contemporary art scene - describes the current situations as follows: "It is complete turmoil, as it is in the whole of the country. We are trying to work to full potential but everything is completely fragmented."

Because Tohme works directly with artists on a project-by-project basis, she is more concerned with the production of work, as opposed to the exhibition of work. As such, she is scoping out a two-year plan for artistic responses to the war.

"We have a number of projects with young artists who are working now and we are expecting many more proposals from [filmmakers] Ghassan Salhab, Wael Noureddine, Maher Abi Samra and more. Some artists are paralyzed and numb. They feel they have no answers right now. They are slow in their approach. They are reflective. We decided to plan for two years to allow them to take a distance.

"This may sound sadomasochistic," she adds, "but this was a very productive period for me personally, just looking at all the wars we've lived through. This war isn't disconnected from the ones we lived before. It's a continuation."





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