The art of frustrating expectations

OXFORD: Along a white wall in an upper gallery at Modern Art Oxford - a 41-year-old, non-profit contemporary art space in this university town an hour or so outside of London - hangs Walid Sadek's 2006 series entitled "Love is Blind." The works consist of plain white labels and black texts in English and Arabic, each identifying a painting by early 20th-century Lebanese painter Moustafa Farroukh, in much the same style as a museum tag - title, date, medium, collection.

In proximity to each label, additional texts are stuck directly to the wall, their placement corresponding to the dimensions of the indicated painting. These are evocative and poetic statements that are at the same time weirdly incomprehensible. Aside from those labels and texts, there's nothing else. Most glaringly, there are no paintings by Farroukh to match to the lyrical Lebanese landscapes mentioned on the labels.

About an hour into the opening of "Out of Beirut" - an exhibition at Modern Art Oxford featuring the work of 18 contemporary artists more or less living in Lebanon, including Sadek's new series - a young man sidled up to the wall, leaned his face into one of the labels, looked up at the blank space above it, furrowed his eyebrows, looked right and then left, and said finally to no one in particular: "Wow, I don't think they had time to finish installing the show."

While not necessarily the response the artist intended, the young man's reaction illustrates what may be the primary hinge on which this exhibition swings - that of frustrated expectations.

"Out of Beirut" is not a comprehensive survey or overview of contemporary artistic production from Lebanon over the past 15 years, for better or worse bracketed as the "post-war period." Nor is it a strict roundup of "the group" (in reference to the artists associated with the Ashkal Alwan organization who are, sometimes unfairly, spoken of in terms better suited to the mafia) or a reprise of curator Catherine David's long-term project "Contemporary Arab Representations," which involved a touring exhibition three or four years ago featuring some but by no means all of the same artists included here.

"Out of Beirut" may be a sampler of sorts, but it's a sampler of artistic practice more so than geographic place. As such, it seems to expose, in one work after another, what viewers want from this show - tidy encapsulations of what Beirut "is" or what Beirut "means" - precisely by showing work by artists who refuse to satisfy such expectations.

For "Beirut," one could easily substitute "Lebanon," "The Civil War," "The Arab World" or "The Middle East," all to the same effect - namely, a constant refusal to represent such "things" by illustrating the impossibility, even the irrelevance, of doing so, and beyond that, maybe the faulty presumptions that underlie being asked to do so.

"Out of Beirut" grew out of a trip put together by the UK-based nonprofit arts organization Visiting Arts. In April 2005, a dozen or so curators from institutions across the UK came to Beirut, Cairo and Alexandria on a kind of cultural fact-finding mission. Among them was Suzanne Cotter, Modern Art Oxford's senior curator and the force behind "Out of Beirut."

"I arrived in Beirut at four in the morning in early April 2005, just three weeks after a massive car bomb had killed the [former] Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri," writes Cotter in the exhibition's accompanying book (to which, for the sake of full disclosure, this writer contributed). This exhibition, then, may be regarded as one of the more productive if entirely coincidental consequences of the so-called "Beirut Spring."

And fittingly enough, that's exactly where "Out of Beirut" begins - on the ground floor, with a selection of Gilbert Hage's plein-air mobile studio portraits taken at the base of the Martyrs Statue from February to March 2005. From the seeming breakthrough posed by those demonstrations that were attended by the young and the old and regardless of sectarian affiliation, one moves swiftly to the more complex underbelly of those historical events.

Turn the corner from Hage's portraits and you find Ziad Abillama's "Why Do You Keep on Dying?" - a lo-fi video piece in which the artist pesters people on the street with a set of urgent questions, cutting into the deep cynicism of the situation by eliciting responses that throw up a lot more complexities than were captured by the media at the time.

From these two works, the show progresses up to the second floor, coursing through new and recent works by Paola Yacoub and Michel Lasserre (reviving a set of incidental photographs taken in 1988, their incidentalness being precisely the point, as if Yacoub, who took the shots while accompanying another photojournalist around war-torn Beirut, was bored with the supposed monumentality of war reportage and the war "story"), Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige (the video installation "Distracted Bullets," which seems to have grown in resonance since its Beirut showing last year), Lamia Joreige (the documentary-style video "Here and Perhaps Elsewhere") and more.

Overall, the show feels remarkably minimal and spare, which is, first, surprising, given the number of artists' works on view; and, second, necessary, because those works require a great deal of time to wrap one's head around. Tony Chakar's "A Window to the World" bears so many walls full of text that it tests the patience of even the most committed art-goer. Joreige's "Here and Perhaps Elsewhere" is 54 minutes and doesn't really work as a walk-in, walk-out affair.

Arguably, outside of the anonymous Heartland collective's great cartographic installation in a stairwell, the three standout works are Sadek's "Love is Blind," Jalal Toufic's "Mother and Son: A Tribute to Alexander Sokurov" and Walid Raad's "We Can Make Rain but No One Came to Ask," consisting of four plates post-dated to 2007.

Sadek's piece, like his catalogue essay "In Health but Mostly in Sickness: The Autobiography of Moustafa Farroukh," seems to be concerned with an effort to bridge the distance between the generation of artists to which Sadek himself belongs and the previous generation of artists who were active in Lebanon before the Civil War. But just as in Jalal Toufic's theories on the withdrawal of tradition in the event of a surpassing disaster, it's a distance that cannot be bridged; thus the absence of Farroukh's paintings.

As Sadek explains in the exhibition material, the piece "confronts the viewer with a past without an image and a present with an excess of place." Perhaps what makes it impossible for a critical artist working today to relate to Farroukh's work is the fact that those early 20th-century paintings of prosaic Lebanese landscapes and villages and seasides are so hopelessly academic, along with the fact that given everything that's been written about Farroukh (and specifically in his own memoirs) the mythology of "the artist" totally overruns the actual work, which seems on the whole irrelevant to the texts, art history and contemporary practitioners.

Raad's contribution takes a burrowing turn in the body of work that includes "My Neck is Thinner than a Hair," exploring a single car bomb detonated on January 21, 1986. The four large-scale images feature displaced (and upside down) footnotes about two men, Georges Semerdjian, a fearless photojournalist, and Yussef Bitar, a munitions expert, along with thin strips of images collapsed into a kind of impossible chronological timeline. As with previous pieces, "We Can Make Rain" locates itself deliberately on the margins of official narrative histories, finding fascination in imagined minor characters and events happened elsewhere, off the map.

Toufic's installation is strikingly laid out across another wall as a framed photograph, other images and two screens playing excerpts from Hitchcock's "Psycho" and Toufic's own video of his sleeping nephew "A Special Effect Termed 'Time,' or Filming Death at Work." What does it all mean? No idea, except that it delves into the flexible space between mother and son, collapsed or stretched or wrecked through substitution, and the idea that that relationship is the absolute root of trauma. In other words, a Lebanese artist's trauma might not always be the Civil War, pace Bidoun magazine's snarky but admittedly on-point phrase book for Beirut, which instructs potential travelers to learn to say, "Love your video installation, is it about the war?"

"Out of Beirut" is on view at Modern Art Oxford through July 16. For more information, please call +44 1865 813826. The exhibition program also includes a symposium to be held on May 25-26, a film program curated by Christine Tohme, a series of talks with architect Bernard Khoury and Jalal Toufic and a performance by Rabih Mroue.





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