BEIRUT: Anyone entertaining the idea that Beirut boasts a hip and credible contemporary art scene should drop by the Nicolas Sursock Museum before the end of this month for a reality check. The museum's annual autumn salon - which, for the record, opened just as the northern hemisphere rotated into winter - is now in its 27th edition and features 100 paintings, sculptures, photographs, installations and assorted art-like knickknacks that range from promising to pedestrian to putrid.
A relic of 19th-century thinking with a few twists that are typical of Lebanon's conglomerate approach to bureaucratic efficiency, the Sursock Salon was established in 1961. Year after year, artists respond to an open call for submissions by trotting their stuff over to the museum. A jury composed of an odd number of members convenes to assess each piece. If so moved, the jury then picks a winner from among the works selected for the show.
Little has changed in 45 years. True, the committee overseeing the salon has slashed a policy that previously guaranteed a place for all artists who had been selected five times before. There are no more "friends of" the salon and all works are subjected to review, no matter who the artist is. But few accommodations have been made to address how radically the production and exhibition of contemporary art has changed in four decades.
At a time when the international art world is fueled on high-octane fairs and biennials, there is no curatorial hand behind the Sursock Salon. At such, it is not possible to commission works or consider proposals for, say, site-specific installations or conceptual interventions. A few years ago, a young artist who wanted to create a piece for Sursock was told she had to make it and bring it and submit it like anyone else. A few more years ago, according to local lore, Mona Hatoum, arguable the most famous living artist born on these shores, reportedly called to inquire about the possibilities of showing her work at the museum and was curtly dismissed.
As such - and despite its tony address, stiff demeanor and tea-time operating hours - the Sursock Salon is a resolutely local, even parochial affair. Its relevance outside Lebanon is virtually nil. A significant number of artists are absent from the salon year after year - their works are shown instead in galleries, screened during film festivals, mounted in public spaces, orchestrated for one-off events or ferreted abroad, so what do they need Sursock for?
But for better or worse, the salon is a crystal-clear reflection of the art being produced in Lebanon now, and of the art being taught in university art departments in Lebanon in particular. For a young art student in Lebanon, winning the Sursock prize is an achievement that is, if nothing else, locally understood as a mark of distinction.
This year's edition is curiously balanced - a reflection, perhaps, of a new jury lineup that includes a nod to the truly contemporary with Pascale Feghali and Walid Sadek on board alongside the usual suspects.
There are garish paintings galore. On one side of the style aisle, there is much hyperrealist pulp of eyeballs and angels and alpha-male nudes, as if Ayn Rand were featured a tad too prominently on the syllabi of requisite literature classes this term. On the other, there are bold, grand abstractions that emanate nothing but clogged paint.
Both photography and sculpture are strong and well represented. Anachar Basbous' "Ma Guerre," installed outside the museum's entrance, is one of the more compelling pieces in the show and it is granted the space to shine. A menacing contraption that towers like a stylized guillotine, it departs sharply from the organic, anthropomorphic white marble for which the Basbous dynasty is known.
Three photographs from Gilbert Hage's "Homeland" series are each diminutive in size, technically brilliant and deeply ambiguous - are these pristine photographs of buildings destroyed by Israel's July-August 2006 bombardment an attempt to aesthetisize war or deconstruct voyeurism and war tourism?
Hala Dabaji's two-part series "Art Grandeur Nature" mines similar ambiguities. The photographer has posed her subjects in front of advertising billboards stripped of their content. As such, the viewer stands viewing them viewing nothing, interrogating museum culture and art as spectacle at once.
Also promising are Yves Atallah's photographs - entitled "Paysage" - and Lina Nahle Pokorny's enigmatic diptych, "La Metemorphose de Mali."
One of the most striking works on view in this year's salon, the one that stops viewers in their tracks, is Elissa Raad's "La Vierge Veuve" ("The Widowed Virgin"). The artist's skills are palpable in her application of paint - the canvas is covered in extreme precision and detail. And then there is the walloping subject matter - a woman propped on a stool, leaned against a wood-planked wall, tussled black hair covering her face, arms hanging limply behind her, legs spread at the knee, underwear seemingly lost. There is smashed glass to one side, an open window to the other. Is this a scene of violation, of rape? Or is it a portrait of longing, of desire left unfulfilled for so long it has withered? Is this rustic interior a ruin or a refuge? And what's behind that wood-planked wall, anyway, or for that matter, outside that window?
In general, sexuality - and particularly male sexuality - gets a fair shake at Sursock this year, though Sonia Bosnoyan's three "Caresses" are a bit perplexing and Bassam Lahoud's male nude ecstatically straddling a large tree truck is, well, laughable if taken as art.
Artistic responses to war - whether to the latest one in Lebanon or to those that came before or to war in general - are evident throughout. Nada Sehnaoui's "30 Aout 2006, Banlieue Sud de Beyrouth" ("August 30, 2006, Southern Suburbs of Beirut") is mural-sized and yellow-hued and marks the latest articulation of a grid aesthetic that suits her ongoing project on memory and violence - assembling and ordering evidence to stave off the inevitable amnesia. Less directly, painter Fulvio Codsi's futuristic lovers hang their heads as their hands drip a thick sludge of fuel oil or violence or blood or tragedy or wrongdoing or all of the above.
And then there is the winner. Samar Mogharbel's "Voitures Piegees" ("Boobytrapped Cars") is a no-brainer for the prize. Composed of six iron sculptures of wrecked cars, its relevance to Lebanon is sharp and its execution is both powerful and evocative. The objects themselves are perhaps too precious in size and it is difficult to find a meaningful through-line between this and Mogharbel's previous work. But all in all, it is a triumphant piece worthy of Sursock's top honors.