Artists on holiday experience the city

BEIRUT: A few years ago, the artist Rayyane Tabet created a mischievous installation for a group show at a gallery in Beirut. The piece, titled “How To Play Beirut,” includes a video, a series of prints and a ping-pong table that has been transformed into a sleek, white sculpture supporting a panorama-style topographic map of the city.

All of these elements combine in a playful, probing study of how the vast complexity of the Lebanese capital was reduced to a drinking game – two teams, 20 plastic cups and the chaotic bombardment of ping pong balls chucked from either side – which was popularized by American fraternities in the aftermath of the Marine barracks bombing in 1983.

True to its namesake, the game was notable for its lack of enforceable rules, its undercurrent of inchoate violence and its baseline usefulness in getting its players very drunk, very fast. “If you played Beirut, you got bombed,” says one of the former frat boys Tabet tracked down and interviewed for the work.

Irreverent and ironic, “How to Play Beirut” untangles a mess of knotted histories and shows a preternatural patience for allowing disparate and seemingly unrelated narratives to unravel in unexpected ways. What could have easily been a perfectly satisfying one-liner becomes a rather more complicated inquiry into the camaraderie of men, anger management and cold war politics.

As such, Tabet’s piece, for all its palpable humor, belongs among the more serious contemporary artworks that have been made in and of Beirut in recent years, which take the history, memory and lived experience of the city not only as subjects to explore but also as forms to resolve.

Set against the example of Tabet’s work – as just one among scores of others – what is one to make of “The Beirut Experience,” an exhibition of around a dozen projects that distill the city down not to a drinking game but to a field trip?

Organized by the Swiss outfit Attitudes, the show, which opened last week at the Beirut Art Center, is based on the notion that sending international artists on an expedition generates interesting and enduring work. For “The Beirut Experience” – which follows similar, Attitudes-assembled excursions to Buenos Aires, in 2003, and Santiago, in 2005 – the curators Jean-Paul Felley and Olivier Kaeser chose 10 artists to make new work in response to the “very complex but stimulating Lebanese situation,” according to their accompanying statement.

Almost all of the artists – besides the one, Tony Chakar, who lives here – traveled to Beirut at least once over the last year. While many of them have worked with Attitudes numerous times in the past, each and every one was chosen for his or her specific interest in “notions which are essential to the Beirut and Lebanese context, such as architecture, urban planning, memory, history or cultural identity.” One might be hard pressed to name any other context, anywhere in the world, where such things are not essential, but no matter. The resulting show is light, fun, polite and pleasant – and a little mystifying as such.

At least two of the works in the exhibition – a proposal for the next installment in Lara Almarcegui’s series of guidebooks to wastelands and ruins; an interactive map on a computer monitor of Tony Chakar’s walking tours entitled “The Sky Over Beirut” – have been borrowed from larger, long-term projects.

In terms of bombastic and spectacular visuals, two works by Eric Hattan, a Swiss artist based in Basel, nicely anchor the show. A creaking wreck of a bus is parked outside the Beirut Art Center’s doors, with three video monitors inside showing the Beirut City Center Building (otherwise known as the Bubble or the Dome), a pair of hands playing with a paper bag and an amateur video shot in Beirut in the 1960s by the artist’s father, rooting the piece in personal history. Inside the building, Hattan has placed an assortment of random old chairs, each with a concrete leg, which were found abandoned on the streets.

Mark Lewis, a Canadian artist based in London, is showing a video, “Beirut,” that follows the façade of the Napoleon hotel up to the Hamra skyline, across abandoned buildings to an absurdly posh balcony where a woman swims ludicrous laps in a tiny rooftop pool, a stroke and a half in each direction – as voyeuristic and is it pitying.

Adrien Missika’s video “Dome” approximates Beirut as Tripoli and lends loving, Super 8 film footage to a bare-chested teenager who, like a roughish incarnation of Rimbaud, runs around the derelict theater in Oscar Niemeyer’s international fairground, twanging music from the rebar that hangs from the ceiling.

The Romanian artist Dan Perjovschi has been sending postcards to Zico House since the spring, which are now stuck to the Beirut Art Center’s front windows, and a collection of around 60 of his hilarious drawings have been transferred onto the white walls. More broadly responsive to the year’s worldwide political upheavals, the drawings include one of a policeman in riot gear telling a demonstrator to go home and protest online. Another, placed just above Chakar’s work, shows a figure in front of a computer saying, “Your memory is ridiculous.” If that’s pointed sarcasm, then it might be the show’s only real edge.

Elsewhere there are Marc Bauer’s drawings of video games and the Pigeon Rocks (the latter entitled “Memory of a Romantic Landscape”) and texts hinting at a little danger here and a little desire there.

Overall, however, the exhibition feels like a retrenchment on at least three fronts. In a city where artists once took their work to the streets, it looks safe and tame in an art space. At a time when the habit of artists hopping around the world from workshops to residencies has come into question because the gesture of site specificity and context sensitivity is too slight, “The Beirut Experience” abbreviates meaningful engagement to a quick vacation.

Moreover, in the aftermath of other, similar projects – Studio Beirut’s vicious and lovely takedown of the tourist guide, titled “Beyroutes”; the extended, multifaceted series of workshops and research projects by 98 Weeks, called “Beirut Every Other Day” – what does “The Beirut Experience” add to the mix, and what will it mean when the show travels to Geneva next year, where “the experience” will no doubt be celebrated as some well-intended, grant-funded encounter with wrecked and ruined third-world things?

Exhibitions are of a kind – they are introductory, celebratory, corrective or subversive. Whether subtle or overt, they have something to teach. It’s not clear what anyone in the Beirut Art Center’s immediate audience will learn from “The Beirut Experience,” and an amiable diversion, like an idle drinking game, is not enough.

“The Beirut Experience,” curated by Jean-Paul Felley and Olivier Kaeser, is on view at the Beirut Art Center through Nov. 19. For more information, call 01-397-018.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 19, 2011, on page 16.




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