Exhibition looks back on Beirut's violent past, now made cruelly present

Fifth Columnist

SCITUATE, Massachusetts: Rayanne Tabet's installation "Fossils" should have been the last of its kind.

An arrangement of vintage suitcases covered in concrete, Tabet's piece carries the immediacy of Mona Hatoum's "Traffic" (a 2002 sculpture of two suitcases with human hair spilling out) and the solemnity of Rachel Whiteread's "Untitled (Pair)" (a 1999 installation of 18 cast bronze mortuary slabs).

On July 6, "Fossils" served as the threshold through which one entered the exhibition "Moving Home(s)" at Karantina's Galerie Sfeir-Semler. Tabet placed his different-sized, concrete-covered suitcases on the gallery floor in pairs and trios throughout the foyer. A few suitcases stood alone.

Tabet was born in the mountain village of Ashqout. He should have no memory of Israeli invasion. He was sevenwhen Lebanon's Civil War ended in 1990. He should belong entirely to the post-war generation.

"Fossils" reaches into what should be the very limit of his childhood memory - going to sleep every night with a bag packed with bare necessities at the foot of his bed.

As the gallery's owner, Andree Sfeir-Semler, described it, Tabet's piece explores the paradoxical relationship between heaviness and lightness, the pain of living through war and the need to be nimble and able to move.

The placement of each suitcase suggests at once an arrangement of cemetery graves, a broken grid of urban buildings, and the division of families thrust into exile. The material references the building stock of Beirut itself.

"Fossils," writes Tabet in his artist's statement, "is a reflection on erratic war scenarios as they become normalized. Our infatuation with the idea of having to leave our homes at any given moment during the civil war - and the fact that we had to have our bags packed beforehand in case of emergencies - grew to become [habit] ... In a way, the concrete transforms the suitcases into fossils or monuments that bear within them the tragedy of a given instant."

How cruel that this glance back at history, this reflection on reliquaries from the past, has become the horrific, anxious present.

Those Beirutis not displaced already, their homes not yet reduced to rubble, are now quaking in fear - gauging the possibility that the Israeli military offensive that began nine days ago will crush what is left of Beirut, and them with it.

Trapped between two extremes and held hostage by a war not of their making, their bags are again packed and ready to go.

Since Lebanon's Civil War ended in 1990, Beirut artists have probed and kneaded its history and experience to create works that are, by turns, critical, provocative, and poignant. Overall, the point has not been to make meaning of war, but rather to recover the faculty of meaning after its complete foreclosure.

Tabet's piece should have been the last mournful sigh of the post-war project. It will not be. But neither must it be lost. Now, it must be a link.

One of the most frustrating, fascinating aspects of Beirut's cosmopolitan post-war cultural life has been how ephemeral it is - fueled on projects, festivals, and one-off events as opposed to actual institutions or concrete venues. Because it is ephemeral, in times of crisis, it seems the first thing to go. Seems.

In Tony Hanania's 1999 novel "Unreal City," set in the late, ugly days of the Civil War, the narrator - an exile from Beirut - ruminates: "The city had become a dark star into which those blindly falling could send back no return signals, their final images suspended as if in some immortal relief against the void horizon."

Today, the signals are returning. Blogging, texting, emailing and the like ensures there is as yet no threat of falling blindly into that dark star.

"The amount of text, photos and videos that are escaping the bombing curtain and getting out is a quantum leap over what was possible in 1982," emailed the Visible Collective's Naeem Mohaieman on July 20. "It's up to us to act on it. Do not let this be the beginning of another decade-long occupation. Demand an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal."

I write this somewhat stranded in the small town near Boston where I grew up, having traveled four hours before Israeli warplanes began pummeling Rafik Hariri International Airport.

I have no idea whether Rayanne Tabet is safe, or Andree Sfeir-Semler, or any of the other artists who live in or traveled to Lebanon for the opening of "Moving Home(s)."

I have no idea how I will get back to Beirut with my own packed bag.

With a humanitarian crisis looming in Lebanon, a critical reading of Tabet's work seems crass. But, though this may sound foolishly optimistic, I am sure "Fossils" matters.

Holding on to Tabet's work, placing it next to Mazen Kerbaj's trumpet improvisation of a few nights ago entitled "Starry Night (Mazen Kerbaj & the Israel Air Force," maintaining these links, I am sure this means everything.

Thousands of kilometers away, blinking at indifference all around, I want to say I am sure Beirut's cultural life hasn't been destroyed; it's just been urgently rerouted. Still ephemeral yes, but still there nonetheless.

For now, Galerie Sfeir-Semler's Web site says the Beirut gallery is temporarily closed. This announcement follows the appropriately blustering alarm line, in all caps, "IT IS WAR IN LEBANON!"

"Moving Home(s)" was meant to run through late November. Perhaps the gallery will reopen and the show will go back up, though radically changed circumstances will have shifted its meaning. If that happens, Tabet's piece will no longer be the last of one era but the first of another.





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