Culture

While you were away? Nothing at all

BEIRUT: Three years ago, the artist Rasha Kahil was staying at a friend’s place in Berlin. Her host left her alone in his apartment for an evening, so she started messing around with a second-hand, 35-millimeter camera she had bought online. She took a few still lifes and random test shots. Then she found the self-timer and turned the lens on herself.

Setting the camera down on a table, a shelf, a chair, she took off her clothes and arranged herself in the kitchen, the bedroom, the makeshift dining room in between. Her friend returned later that night, but Kahil never said a word about what she’d done.

If the two of them are still close, then certainly, at this point, he must know that his houseguest spent her time running around his flat naked, taking quick and furtive self-portraits of her body tucked into the intimate folds of his domestic, interior life.

After all, his address provides the title (and his belongings, the backdrop) of the first image in Kahil’s bracing new series of photographs, “In Your Home,” which is now both an exhibition, on view until July 30 at Beirut’s Running Horse Contemporary Art Center, and a book, beautifully produced in a limited edition, each with a different print on the cover.

The quick history of “In Your Home” is this: After Berlin, whenever Kahil found herself alone again in someone else’s house, she whipped out her camera, stripped as much as possible and took a picture of herself naked in the space.

It didn’t matter whether her host was a friend, a lover or a total stranger, just as it made no difference whether the person disappeared for a night, an hour or a few minutes.

Kahil carried on from 2008 through 2011, in Berlin, New York, Beirut (where she was born) and London (where she is based).

“I was never scared,” she says. “More thrilled and excited. The adrenaline rush often kicked in.”

She did get freaked out once, during a freelance graphic design job, when she visited her boss at his office, which was, of course, his apartment – a perfect scenario for the project.

“He went down to make some Turkish coffee in the kitchen, and I sprang into action,” she recalls.

“But the adrenaline rush turned into the blind fear of him walking in on me naked. I only managed two shots before getting dressed.

She also got caught once, in the house of a friend whose mother came home unexpectedly.

“I heard her turn the key in the door as I was shooting myself under the sink. I barely had time to put on my T-shirt before she came into the kitchen. We were both surprised. When I told her that it was an art project, we relaxed and had a little chat.”

All told, the series consists of 36 shots rumbling with exhibitionism, voyeurism, defiance and vulnerability. Kahil’s pictures create an intriguing tension between public and private, self and other, the erotic and the abject.

In an elegant, art historical sense, “In Your Home” updates Edouard Manet’s “Le dejeuner sur l’herbe,” aka the birth of modernity, by emphasizing the body of a brazen female nude who couldn’t care less about her incongruous context.

In a grittier, more contemporary sense, the series shares a certain style with the work of Cindy Sherman, Francesca Woodman and Nan Goldin, who each in their own way dealt with the performative aspects of the body, femininity and sexuality.

With Kahil, however, that lineage is filtered through the street-wise fashion photography of Corinne Day, whose brutal and tender book Diary Kahil discovered when she was 18. That was the same year she took a class with the Lebanese photographer Gilbert Hage, and her father gave her an old Canon A-1 camera for her birthday.

“He’d had it since the 1980s, and passed it on to me when he saw that I was experimenting with photography. I used it pretty much every day for the next few years, mostly snapping portraits of my boyfriend at the time. I have over 5,000 pictures of our relationship,” which was on and off for over a decade.

As Kahil told an interviewer a few years ago, she recorded everything, “the fights, the passion, the sex, the disappointment.” After the last break-up, Kahil put her camera aside, and studied graphic design at the American University of Beirut.

“I abandoned proper photography for a few years to focus on making money through my design skills,” she says, adding that she only picked up her camera again after starting a masters’ degree at London’s Royal College of Art.

The exhibition version of “In Your Home” features 20 images that wrap around the walls of Running Horse in chronological order. Kahil’s body proves a mobile and malleable medium, as she moves from place to place and changes over time. Her weight fluctuates. Tattoos accumulate on her limbs and torso. She cuts her hair, bleaches her eyebrows, tans and pales.

We see the first shot of Kahil in Berlin. We see her propped up on a kitchen counter in London, smirking at the ceiling, wearing little more than knee socks. We see her curled up beneath a kitchen sink, stretched out under a desk and nestled into a closet behind a rack of someone else’s clothes. We see her lying on her side, a modern-day odalisque with late-afternoon light washing across her body.

Looking at the series, we become painfully aware of these phantom pronouns – us watching her among the affects of an absent them. What makes the exhibition among the most promising of the summer season is not only the fact of putting a young woman’s brash, confident and playful sexual agency on display; it is also the mark of an art scene diversifying its interests.

“It’s very tempting for journalists, foreigners, people in general to ask how the civil war has [informed] the work,” says Kahil, “and this is quite reductive. I think there is a thirst for art that delves into new discourses. The audience is there. It’s important to show art in Beirut that deals with topics more varied than what is commonly associated with Lebanese art.”

Rasha Kahil’s “In Your Home” is on view at Running Horse through July 30. For more information, please call 01-562-778 or visit www.therunninghorseart.com

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 15, 2011, on page 16.

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