Video art: the next generation that isn't


BEIRUT: Has the next generation of young Lebanese video artists arrived? Judging from the bulk of the 28 new video works screened over the last four nights at Masrah al-Madina, apparently not. The three-part Video Avril program organized by Ashkal Alwan (the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts) presented one set of works by seven relatively established artists ("Time Lapse") and two devoted entirely to fresh talent ("Video Works" and "Summertime"). If one accepts that the success or failure of an artwork hinges in some way on its ability to create an experience of aesthetic pleasure and/or its capacity to disrupt the status quo (be it institutions of power, the political order, historical amnesia or social relations) in a manner that is critically productive, then "Time Lapse" succeeded while "Summertime" and to a far greater extent "Video Works" failed.

But by bringing into sharp relief the precise shortcomings that plague artistic development and arts education in Lebanon today, that failure could very well be generative. The fact that so many of the videos were torture to watch identifies gaps in knowledge and experience that can now be addressed because they have been made visible.

This is something of a comeuppance for the contemporary art scene in Beirut, which is regarded as one of the best and most critical in the region. The scene that began in the late 1980s with the videos and films of Mohamed Soueid - and developed to encompass an impressive body of work by Akram Zaatari, Walid Raad, Ghassan Salhab, Jalal Toufic, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Rabih Mroue and Lina Saneh, Mahmoud Hojeij, Ziad Antar and Lamia Joreige, among others - has indeed become Beirut's strong suit in the card game of contemporary art.

Even as rightful recognition for those artists has been slow to evolve at home, they have all been feted by international festivals and biennials for a decade now. They have negotiated the ups and downs of the global art market - weary of the temptation to produce work to expectation and reluctant to have their videos reduced to cliche - and on balance their work has improved.

Video art in Beirut has developed and diversified within a dynamic self-made system of intersecting and overlapping platforms - such as the Ayloul Festival, Beirut DC's biannual Ayam Beirut al-Cinemaiyya film festival, Ne a Beyrouth's Festival of Lebanese Film and Ashkal Alwan's public art projects and the regularly staged Home Works Forum for Cultural Practices. But the first generation of video artists - whose members are now, for the most part, around or approaching 40 - has yet to yield a second. The problem may be that there are now too many platforms in Beirut, and not enough work to fill them.

"Video Works," which Ashkal Alwan hopes to make an annual and international event by 2008, is another such platform. "Video Works" was initiated early in 2006 and seeks to support up-and-coming artists. The plans for "Time Lapse" and "Summertime" came together in August 2006, when Ashkal Alwan created a fund for emerging and established artists alike to create artistic responses to the war.

In the months that followed the cessation of hostilities on August 14, hundreds of short films and experimental videos were made, circulated online and screened publicly in Beirut. Numerous initiatives emerged to support war works that were urgent and raw - from the "Videos under Siege" program slotted into Beirut DC's film festival and the "Nafas Beirut" exhibition at Espace SD to the Web sites Cinesamoud and Cinemayat. The outpouring of new works was stunning. Many were awful, but a few were outstanding - including a series by Rania Stephan, an untitled work by Ali Cherri and a few films funded and/or screened by Ne a Beyrouth, such as Wissam Charaf's "Le Heros Ne Meurt Jamais."

But Ashkal Alwan keenly recognized that some artists need critical distance to reflect on times of crisis. As such, the astutely named "Time Lapse" program presented more measured responses.

Some, such as Nadim Asfar's "Print (1)," an intimate exploration of love, sex and death, don't touch down on the war at all. Instead, Asfar uses an archive of his own photographs to pinpoint an exact moment of sorrow. "In 2005, a cloud went through my window," reads the video's onscreen text, "the image of this cloud is 2,560 pixels by 1,920 ... 2,560 by 1,920 pixels for the immensity and complexity of the world, my eyes, my feelings."

Lamia Joreige's "Nights and Days" twins beautiful images, each wrinkled with an incongruity referencing the bombardment and siege, with her characteristically poetic use of language. Maher Abi Samra's "Merely a Smell" presents a minimalist tableau that amplifies the fine line between beauty and horror. Both benefit a masterful union of image and sound (thanks to collaborations with Charbel Haber and Nadim Meshlawi, respectively).

Only Wael Noureddine's "July Trip" seemed stuck in the kind of pornographic media imagery of death and destruction that Video Avril was keen to dislodge. One has to appreciate the punk spirit of Noureddine's work - culminating with the line "I will liberate this city with a Krasnogorsk 3, a few reels of 16 millimeter and a crack pipe" - but "July Trip" is a letdown after his previous film, "Ca Sera Beau (From Beirut with Love)."

The eight chapters and two brilliant interstitial series that constitute the 80-minute "Summertime" are well packaged into a coherent unit, and each piece is short enough to be inoffensive. "Summertime" has its moments - a cartoon of Snow White's seven dwarves marching to a rousing rendition of Marcel Khalife's "Samidoun" in Rania Majed's "Newsbox"; the first of Rania Rafei's four movements in "The Four Seasons: Summer 2006" and the stillness of Halim Sabbagh's "Summer." But it also falls into the indulgences of adolescent naval-gazing.

Worse were most of the 11 offerings in "Video Works." Ali Cherri's 12-minute "Slippage" is an exception, and probably deserved to be collated among more experienced work. The artist engages in dialogue with Ilya Kabakov's installation "The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment," and the video opens with a powerful image of Cherri holding his breath as if preparing to bail out of Beirut by sheer force of will. In aesthetic sophistication and conceptual structure, Cherri's work was among the highlights of Video Avril. Also promising was Rami Sabbagh's "2mg of Rotten Blood on Pure White Snow" - a mood piece of striking images that plays out like a fashion shoot predicated on a murderous theme - and Rania Rafei's "Brain Cells," which has one terrific idea - the artist's body posed to resemble well-known images of corpses, then edited into an escalating dance - that could be excised from the hundreds of other ideas that clutter the work.

In general, though, the pieces in the "Video Works" program were too long, too sloppy and too undisciplined to have much staying power. Among the next generation that isn't, there seem to be no eyes capable of discerning good ideas from bad, and much less from images that work and the thousands that don't. It may be that nobody was ever looking for the first generation of video artists when they began working. Maybe, for the time being, nobody should look for the second, either.





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