Creating a safe house for experiment

BEIRUT: One of the notable features of Jisr al-Wati is its anonymity. Nowadays the brightest star in this otherwise vacant quarter – synonymous with soulless thoroughfares and flyovers – is the unnamed tortoise currently gracing one wall of Ashkal Alwan’s Home Workspace.

To mark the end of the first edition of Ashkal Alwan’s postgraduate arts study program, the space has opened its doors to the public in an informal Open Studios exhibition of works-in-progress created by its first 12 graduates.

Enter the tortoise.

The reptile is the principal protagonist of “And the Last Shall be First,” a mixed media installation by Jerusalem-born Noor Abu Arafeh.

The most conspicuous part of her work is a pair of gigantic photos of the tortoise. These prints are not most impressive – still photos of a creature renowned for its slow movement, no matter how monumental, simply re-state the obvious.

From the other side of the passage, however, the sound of cascading sugar cubes emanates from four wall-mounted iPad-sized video screens. Each screen frames one vista, looped until the next power cut.

The last screen features a piece of knitted material, being gradually unraveled. Next to it, fingers stack sugar cubes; the stack gets to be seven or eight cubes high before toppling over. The first screen frames a wall of cubes, which immediately tumbles over.

In her notes in the Open Studios’ catalogue, Abu Arafeh briefly ponders the meaning of the word “erasure.” She then nods to “The Wretched of the Earth,” Frantz Fanon’s seminal 1963 work of post-colonial theory.

“I wanted these works to test the notion of erasure in its abstract and visual aspect,” she writes, “using elements that have a personal association in my mind to the places I have lived.”

On the second of Abu Arafeh’s four screens, the tortoise, head barely protruding from its shell to the left of the frame, ponders a fresh lettuce leaf a few centimeters from its mouth.

The creature’s head tentatively approaches the lettuce, as if to smell it. It then turns to gaze impassively at the camera lens for a minute or so.

The tortoise cranes its neck to see what might lie beyond the lettuce, then turns and wanders off, leaving the lettuce untouched.

There are few easy generalizations in the work at Open Studios. Four of the artists are Lebanese. The remaining eight hail from the U.S., France, Italy, Egypt, Palestine, Jordan and Kuwait. The 12 work with a wide range of media – photography, sound, video, film, installation, publication and activism.

The resident professor of this first Home Workspace program, and curriculum designer, is Bethlehem-born artist Emily Jacir.

A force on the international art scene, her work has garnered a bushel of prizes – including the Golden Lion for artists under 40 at the 52nd Venice Biennale, the 2007 Prince Claus Award, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation’s 2008 Hugo Boss Prize.

The artist also has a proven track record in arts education, having been associated with Ramallah’s International Academy of Art since its inception.

Jacir says she tried to gear the Home Workspace program to the students. “Having gone through the applications ... I was intimately aware of where the students were in their practice and their educational background. It was then that I began to design the program.

“There were several things to consider. It’s the first year. We’re still in the process of defining what this is going to be. And the students were coming from such different backgrounds. Some were literally coming from a BA or BFA. Some had barely any art background. Some have shown before.

“So I structured the program based on what my personal interests are, the theoretical trajectories I was interested in unpacking with them but also with an eye on who they are, the work I saw of theirs when they applied,” she continues. “I tried to make it encompassing enough to include all of them at their different levels.

“That’s why I didn’t want a show at the end of the year,” she adds. “I wanted an open studio because I didn’t want the year’s focus to be on a final project – ‘We’re gonna have an exhibition and a final project.’

“I very much emphasized the idea of failing, making experiments, trying something new. Though some have completed projects, this is supposed to be about showing work in progress.”

Given the exhibition’s premises, it seems unfair to assess Open Studios with the sort of acerbic eye reserved for shows in high-end galleries.

Indeed some of these works-in-progress – the social practice work of Egyptian-American activist-artist Sarah Farahat, the intimate performances of French media activist Raphael Fleuriet – resist this sort of critical in-gallery assessment.

That said, there are works here that (like Abu Arafeh’s Fanon-infused tortoise) prick the imagination in ways not unlike the work of more mature artists.

Take “Place Undone,” a pair of mixed media installations, both working with a window motif, by Samar Kanafani. Though her video work is known on the local scene, Kanafani’s installations mark a departure.

The more sculptural of the two finds a three-sided wall, an approximation of a bay window, mounted on a table. Its “interior” has been piled with mounds of soil. Looking through the window from the convex “outside” – as if into the room of an imagined house – you find carefully formed hills and valleys, a sculptural conflation of “home” and “landscape.”

Joe Namy’s restless assortment of sound and photographic works centers on “(a(versions,” a vinyl LP – a compilation of sound art works by several Lebanese artists – mounted on a turntable with a set of headphones.

It’s easy to dismiss the artistic merits of cueing up an LP on a record player. Yet there’s something in the use of relatively antique consumer technology as a delivery system for non-commercial work that does give the exercise of listening greater resonance. The snaps, crackles and pops arising from the vinyl surface testify to the ephemeral (or perhaps accumulative) nature of archived sound.

“When I was designing this program, I had in mind my own experience with the Whitney Program in New York,” Jacir says. “It’s similar to that structure but involves practicing artists, not just theory. It was important to have actual artists doing workshops with them.”

There were also workshops dedicated to art theory. “The goal was ... to shake them up in the studio, to push them, to take the rug out from under their feet, make them feel uncomfortable. Make them do things, disrupt their studio practice, so that when they go back to their studio [they carry something new with them].”

For those with an exhibition history, the students’ time at Workspace seems to have provided a prism through which to refract their previous practices. With “The Third Thing,” Egyptian video artist Mohamed Abdelkarim has made an experimental work that deliberately engages with the language of cinema.

The pieces in “How to build without a land?” by Palestinian-Jordanian artist Saba Innab, blend those elements of architectural drafting and ruin, landscape painting and map-making which she has successfully explored in her exhibited work.

Kuwaiti-born artist Tamara al-Samerraei has created two new works. Covering the wall of one exhibition room, her “Wall Paper” is a series of rectangles adorned with motifs from the artist’s previous work.

Though the motifs are repeated, no two rectangular components are identical. Hung nearby is a photo of several pages tacked in a stack to the wall. The topmost sheet is blank, suggesting sketchbook pages divested of images.





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