A constellation of Beirut’s beauty

BEIRUT: Alfred Hitchcock’s film “Rear Window” shows how nosiness can be elevated into an art form.

Rendered immobile by a broken leg, James Stewart occupies himself by prying on the movements of his neighbors.Stewart eventually transforms from nosy neighbor to static sleuth as it transpires that something fishy is happening across the yard. Nonetheless, much of the joy of Rear Window lies in granting audiences permission to peer into the goings-on of Stewart’s eccentric collection of locals.

Photographer Nadim Asfar’s latest exhibition “Constellations” takes a similar delight in turning an eye to the opaque activities of his neighbors. Unveiled at Downtown’s FFA Private Bank on Thursday – the latest in the bank’s twice-yearly exhibitions of local talent – Asfar’s images revel in the diverse life of the city.

Stationed on the balcony of his Mar Mikhael Nahr apartment, Asfar has snapped hundreds of images over the last few years of a patch of street below.

Each “constellation” of the exhibition – there are seven on show – is a selection of these photographs arranged by Asfar into a grid of 35 images. Every array uses images captured on a single day.

On first sight, these photographs look like the output of a CCTV camera. The god-like perspective, peering down on the heads of passersby, is inextricably linked with the imagery of surveillance. A closer inspection of the “Constellations,” however, reveals little more artistry – not to mention affection – than the images of one’s average security camera.

Specifying the rules of drama in his “Poetics,” Aristotle stipulates “unity of place” as a key requirement. Asfar sticks to this requirement with dogged regularity, a raised manhole cropping up throughout the photographs to signal that the same patch of road is being used throughout.

Far from being monotonous, Asfar reveals surprising visual variations on a single snippet of tarmac.

On some days, the surface of the street reflects a cold gleam, giving a chrome-like array of images. Other days cast a rich, watercolor-like wash of ocher across the road, with inky purple shadows inching in from the side.

Stepping into the proscenium arch of Asfar’s lens is a diverse cast of local characters, clutching shopping bags or umbrellas or at the wheel of a vehicle – a gas truck or a battered old Mercedes.

Abstracted from the usual signifiers of personality – we can’t see the details of faces, hairstyles or the specifics of their clothing – the characters of Asfar’s arrays are seen merely as bodies against a neutral backdrop.

What Asfar’s lens captures is a gesture or a particular arrangement of limbs. In some ways his preoccupations mirror those of a choreographer. There is a repeated focus on movement and the quirks of bodies.

It’s revealing to contrast Asfar’s “Constellations” with the work of Eadweard Muybridge, famed for his work on animal locomotion. Formally, Muybridge’s strings of stop-motion images – capturing the continuous strings of poses that make up a long jump or a cartwheel – resemble Asfar’s grids.

Asfar, however, doesn’t focus on the sequences. His images juxtapose frozen instants that we don’t normally spot among the stream of continuous movement. These moments are frequently somewhat clumsy or awkward, but nonetheless possess an unselfconscious beauty. Captured at an offbeat moment in the rhythm of a stride, for example, Asfar’s subjects flail their limbs or hunch their backs.

There’s no sequence or narrative to Asfar’s arrays. In one photograph, a car edges into view. In the next, a man with a wheelbarrow trundles across the frame. While the arrangement of images might suggest a graphic novel or comic book, the photographs are placed according to a notion of overall aesthetic balance.

Perhaps one of the closer artistic relatives of “Constellations” is “Broadway Boogie-Woogie,” one of Piet Mondrian’s first paintings on his arrival in New York, which uses grids and color to present a vivid sense of the life of Manhattan.

Asfar’s “Constellations” present a rhythmic, perhaps slightly more melancholic, paean to Beirut. The myriad incongruities of the city’s urban life are squeezed into neat grids, popping into frame or about to leave. A foot, a decorated car hood, a discarded juice carton: All take their place in the parade past Asfar’s lens.

“Constellations” will be on show until June 1 at FFA Private Bank, Foch Street, BCD. For further details, call Espace Kettaneh-Kunigk on 01-738-706.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 14, 2011, on page 16.




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