BEIRUT: Some people go to art galleries to buy - to shop among the works on view, whether for the purpose of investment, decoration or passion. Other people go to art galleries to see - to engage the works on view, whether for the purpose of education, appreciation, exposure or challenge. For the latter category, arguably the majority of the art-going public in Beirut, the latest exhibition at Galerie Sfeir-Semler in Karantina is not to be missed.
"Beyond Images" is the fourth show to fill this sprawling, 1,000-square-meter postindustrial space. It is a departure from the previous three in that the works have not been selected by gallery owner Andree Sfeir-Semler but have rather been curated by Akram Zaatari and Jean-Marc Prevost, who culled through the collection of France's Fonds National d'Art Contemporain (FNAC) to assemble the show.
Falling under the umbrella of France's culture ministry, FNAC consists of a vast collection of artworks that the French state has either commissioned or acquired from living artists over the past 200 years. As it stands now, the annual purchasing budget is nearly $4 million. FNAC is not a public museum, however, but rather a state entity that stores, lends and consigns the works in its collection. So it is that this show has arrived in Beirut.
To their credit, Zaatari and Prevost have not done a round-up of greatest hits but have instead organized a tightly themed exhibition that has great relevance to how many artists in Beirut are working today - namely, exploring critical art practices that insistently mine the territory of images produced for documentary and/or journalistic purposes, with consideration for the social, economic and political factors that inform aesthetic work. The show is also shot through with tangible references to Lebanon and the Arab world, a nice way to suture the works to the locale.
Lebanese artists are represented as well, including Paola Yacoub's work with Michel Lassere on seemingly incidental snapshots of landscapes in South Lebanon, and Mona Hatoum's awesome (for lack of a better or more sophisticated word) photograph of her husband's copious black back-hair arranged in a soap sudsy pattern like Van Gogh's "Starry Night." (As with Janine Antoni's equally awesome image of a tongue licking an eyeball, Hatoum's photograph has the perfect one-two punch of repulsion and attraction underscored by its critique of intimacy and the corporeal.)
By far the smash hit of the show, however, is Jean-Luc Moulene's sculpture "Bleu Gauloises Bleues - 441" paired with a wall-full of images from the artist's series "Objets de Greve" ("Labor Strike Objects").
Using a visual style that highlights the blurred boundaries between advertising still-life and fine art photography, Moulene shoots pictures of products that are made while workers are on strike, when a substitute workforce shows solidarity with the strikers by sabotaging brand imagery. Thus, the 441 packs of Gaulouises Bleues that have been stripped of their logos, or the front pages of The International Herald Tribune for which the printers have dropped the photographs.
Elsewhere, "Beyond Images" offers viewers an excellent introduction to a wide range of contemporary work by the likes of American heavyweight Bruce Nauman (born in 1941 in Texas), avant-garde filmmaker Chantal Ackerman (born in 1950 in Belgium), clever urban dystopian Absalon (born in 1964 in Tel Aviv), artful minimalist Adel Abdessemed (born in 1971 in Algeria), and newly minted art star Anri Sala (born in 1974 in Albania), who, in a side note, has made better work that the bland two-screen video projection being shown here.
With 16 artists represented, and with a through-line dealing with the mechanics of signification and the creation of poetic space, it's a show that takes serious time to digest. It's worth the effort. You may not be able to buy anything, but you'll certainly be able to learn something.
"Beyond Images" is on view at Galerie Sfeir-Semler in Karantina through June 29. For more information, please call +961 1 566 550