Culture

Today's war forces delay on installation exploring yesterday's

Interview

BEIRUT: This weekend, Ne a Beyrouth's sixth annual Festival of Lebanese Film should have been up and running at Cinema Sofil in Beirut. Singer Magida al-Roumi and dancer Carlos Acosta should have been fresh off performances at the Beiteddine Festival. And the dance troupe Caracalla should have been going through the last dress rehearsals for their grand finale at the Baalbek Festival, a three-night run of the "Villager's Opera."

In terms of cultural events, this August is full of "should-have-beens" in Lebanon. The outbreak of war on July 12 effectively shredded at least a month's worth of activities, possibly more, along with many more months, even years of behind-the-scenes preparations.

For artist Nada Sehnaoui, the construction of an ambitious new public installation on Martyrs Square should have been under way for a week now. She should have been ready for an opening in about 10 days' time.

But her project, too, has been indefinitely postponed. The postponement is all the more bitter given that it's the third one for a work that deals directly and intimately with memories of war - the idea being that war belongs to Lebanon's past, not its present, and that memories need to be excavated and shared before they are lost forever.

Since the mid-1990s, Sehnaoui has been doing work on Lebanon's 1975-1990 Civil War. Although she is a painter by training, Sehnaoui has, over the years, developed a strong signature style involving large-scale public installations, all of which require viewers to interact with and by their movements actually sculpt the space of the work. As evidence of her formal and aesthetic consistency, her installations look very much like her paintings, only larger.

Projects such as "Sand," produced for the Tunis Biennale in 2004, and "Waynoun?" ("Where Are They?"), commissioned by the Committee of Families of the Kidnapped and Displaced in Lebanon and installed in the Dome City Center Building in 2006, exemplify Sehnaoui's material and conceptual touch - she creates an orderly grid of evocative objects through which viewers must navigate.

"I try to make connections between the use of public space and my urge to have people reflect on their past and, by doing so, to create their own identity," she says. "They do so through their footsteps. What I do is direct their footsteps in a certain manner, but the point is to have a discussion in a public space about who we are - because who we are is written by what we've gone through."

In the summer of 2003, Sehnaoui embarked on what would become an ongoing project called "Atazakar" ("I Remember"). For the first installment, she issued an appeal: "Do you have a memory of daily life in Downtown Beirut before the start of the war in 1975?" Through announcements in the press and online, she asked people to contribute their recollections. Then she worked the responses into a public installation involving some 20 tons of newsprint, arranged in 360 stacks, each topped with a piece of paper that was either covered in memories or left symbolically black to signify the official policy of collective amnesia and historical erasure that came into effect with the general amnesty laws that were passed in the aftermath of the war.

"Atazakar: Fractions of Memory" was part one of her project. Part two, "Atazakar: Fractions of War Memory," extended her collective memory project to war-time Lebanon. It was initially scheduled to go on view in April 2005. But after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and the subsequent political turbulence that shook the country, Solidere, the real-estate giant which controls the space of Martyrs Square (itself not much more than an expanse of gravel with a reinstituted set of statues), called off all public gatherings in Downtown Beirut for security reasons.

"It took months of discussion and patience and convincing and finally in May," says Sehnaoui, "I was given permission to do the installation not on the same land [as the first "Atazakar"], because this lot has been sold, but on another lot that is totally adjacent to the statues. It's a nice shape, this square."

Sehnaoui's idea was to arrange a grid of stools on the lot - each of them square like the space itself, and rooted firmly in place, which required the consultation of a structural engineer. He, in turn, devised a plan for bringing in five trucks of soil to level the ground and rooting the stools in the earth.

The stools would be placed far apart to emulate the experience of the Lebanese population enduring the war, sitting in shelters, sitting at home, sitting apart, cut off from one another. Affixed to each stool would be a text, again either brimming with memories or left symbolically blank. Viewers would not be able to read the texts unless they sat down. As such, the installation would force the public to stop, reflect, and maybe, just maybe, call out to others on neighboring stools, defying the sense of imposed isolation.

"The construction was supposed to start on August 14," says Sehnaoui. "The opening was supposed to take place on August 31. But when I called the structural engineer, he said: 'I have no trucks. I have no employees. I have no fuel. And more importantly the material is now five times more expensive today.' So this is where we are. The engineer says: 'Forget about it this year,' and I think he's right. But this breaks my heart."

There is a chance, if the current cease-fire holds, that Sehnaoui will be able to pull off the installation in September. But she is doubtful.

"This the story: I was supposed to do this work right now but I am in a very weird and strange situation. I was supposed to do a work on the war from 1975 to 1990, and then I got caught up in another war. So when I woke up from being completely dizzy and stunned by what was happening, I decided, yes, I want to contribute."

Sehnaoui extended the period of "Atazakar: Part Two" until the present day, folding the Civil War experience into the latest round of brutal violence.

"It is my duty to do so and also it is an act of survival on my behalf, as it is an act of survival on the behalf of everyone who put their dissent on the side and stood up to this - because clearly this was a war of destruction against the whole country. Nobody can deny this, nobody. I mean, it's a joke to say that it's a war against Hizbullah and everybody can see this. "During the bombardment," she continues, "I thought to myself, is it possible that, since the age of 15, me and everybody else, we have been witnessing ongoing wars? This is beyond anybody's capacity. But then I saw that there was this amazing response with people helping out, especially the youth and in all regions, whether the Chouf, Broummana or Beirut.

"In 1982, when the Israelis invaded Lebanon, we were at the time killing each other. Now, when they invaded again and tried to destroy the country one more time, we were standing together, despite all our political differences.

"So I think perhaps now we deserve to have a country. We have matured. I feel proud. I think that maybe, maybe we have done something right. Maybe we have transmitted something to the younger generation. Maybe all these youngsters have parents who have told them: 'If you kill each other, you'll lose your country'."

Still, Sehnaoui is pretty sure it's too soon for her to resume her work in public just yet.

"What I do is not complicated. It's simple. But it's basically creating public spaces for meditation. I don't think it's time to reflect on this war yet. I think it needs time. I think it needs a year." In the meantime, Sehnaoui is collecting reminiscences of war-time experiences past and present. For the time being she is posting them on her Web site and trying to prepare calmly for a rescheduled installation, probably in the summer of 2007.

"We need to take our time. If we're not bombed to death again, then hopefully next year we'll meet again," she says, waving her hand warmly to indicate the public at large. "My work is collective. I initiate it but I need everybody to participate."

For more information on Nada Sehnaoui's art and the "Atazakar" project, please see www.nadasehnaoui.com

 

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