BEIRUT: Depending who you talk to, it was a crisis, a disturbance, an insurrection, or a revolution. It began with trouble in Tripoli. Soon, people were blowing up bridges and blocking roads.
Bombs were tearing through neighborhoods all over Beirut.
Men, arms, and ammunitions flushed through the porous Lebanese-Syrian border. The Army lost control of large swathes of the country. Foreign intervention seemed both imminent and eminently disastrous. It was characterized as an internal implosion caused by the unbearable weight of outside interests.
It sounds like today.
In fact it was 1958.
Salah Saouli’s solo show at the Agial Art Gallery, his second to date after an exhibition of paintings two years ago, features a confounding series of eleven mixed-media works on paper. Like Joseph Cornell’s boxed assemblages, each piece is nested into a deep frame behind printed Plexiglas. All of them are untitled.
The surfaces of Saouli’s works are thick with newsprint, paint, and manipulated photographic prints. Many of them include portraits of men with big guns, their faces blacked out by dots. Various layers compete and obscure the legibility of the words and images that would otherwise lend meaning to Saouli’s found materials. Occasionally, one can make out a date, a place, or a well-known politician’s name.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is an elaborate installation of gaudily framed photographs, also embellished with notes and drawings, which are interspersed among tiny video screens broadcasting the recollections of elderly men and women who either observed or took part in the violence of 1958.
The installation, like the show itself, is titled “The Days of the Blue Bat,” after “Operation Blue Bat,” the codename for the U.S. intervention into this particular Lebanese crisis, involving 14,000 ground troops and some 6,000 Marines.
For decades, Saouli has been making work based primarily, though not exclusively, on Lebanon’s problems, from the fate of the missing who disappeared during the Civil War, to the application (and internalization) of censorship in the years after the 1975-1990 conflict came to an unsteady close.
Not one for immaterial gestures or lightweight conceptualisms, Saouli’s art tends to be densely textured, spatially robust and materially hefty. This is not to say they don’t jostle with ideas drawn from history, political philosophy and a lineage of cultural practice, just that his works are fundamentally weighty and tactile things.
“Until now I always work with my hands,” Saouli says. “I feel myself safe there. I can control things as I want.”
Saouli studied at the Lebanese University’s Institute of Fine Art, which is nothing if not conventional. In 1985, he left one divided city for another and settled in Berlin, where he continued his art education in a manner totally open to experimentation and threw all of the artistic disciplines together.
Saouli participated in the “old” Sharjah biennials before the event was upgraded in 2003. He also made work for “The Hamra Street Project,” one of Ashkal Alwan’s foundational events. Saouli was part of that generation of artists who left, got educated abroad, and returned with something new, but he was so disillusioned by the hustle of the emerging art scene that he stopped making work for a decade.
The inspiration for “The Days of the Blue Bat” came after the death of Saouli’s father.
Two years ago, the artist was sorting through the contents of the Beirut apartment where he was born. In a story that has become archetypal of the Lebanese capital in the 21st century, the building was slated to be razed, the land sold to real estate developers.
Among his father’s effects, Saouli found a cache of newspapers reporting on the events of 1958.
“When I began to read those newspapers, it’s exactly what’s happening today,” he says. “You just hide the names and dates.” Sometimes even the names are the same, just recycled among generations.
“It was awful and strange,” he says. “I hadn’t known much about 1958. It was taboo. Nobody talked about it.” When he began asking around, he heard contradictory things. “I had some milky memories. A few words my mother had said, and a cousin whose name means ‘safety,’ born just after the cease-fire.”
Accounts vary, of course, but to split the difference between two of Lebanon’s most noted historians, Kamal Salibi and Fawwaz Traboulsi, the crisis of 1958 erupted in the context of a particularly pressurized sequence of events, including Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal; the temporary fusion of Egypt and Syria into the United Arab Republic; the formulation of the Eisenhower Doctrine ( U.S. Marines landing in Beirut was the first application of that policy); and a coup toppling Iraq’s pro-Western Hashemite monarchy.
Lebanon’s president, Camille Chamoun, not only embraced the Eisenhower Doctrine but also made moves to suggest he was seeking another term in office. Arab nationalists and an array of opposition figures went ballistic. When the dust settled and the heavy-handed diplomacy was done, the Americans were gone, Chamoun was out of office, and Fouad Shihab’s presidency had begun.
Saouli is not overly concerned with the details. “I’m not making documentary films,” he says. There are portraits of Nasser, Chamoun, Ahmad al-Asaad and Saeb Salam in the larger body of work on which “The Days of the Blue Bat” is based, but the effect is atmospheric rather than expository.
“The audio files are all playing at the same level,” he explains. “They all sound as one, the noise altogether. It’s the same method for the images. You cannot see the whole picture all at once. You can only catch a word here, a face there. I was interested in the personal stories, the things not written.”
Indeed, linger in the room with Saouli’s work long enough and one begins to notice other things, such as four young men making a playful human pyramid on a beach, a veiled woman in defiantly nerdy glasses, a twisty-mustachioed man in a tarboush, body builders, motorcycles, fancy cars, crossword puzzles, tanks in the streets, and earnest-looking men at a dining table who appear to be planning a better future.
“With the end of the 1958 crisis,” Salibi writes, “the Lebanese situation returned almost immediately to normal.” Much had changed, yet everything is still the same.
Salah Saouli’s “The Days of the Blue Bat” remains on view at the Agial Art Gallery, on Abdel Aziz Street in Hamra, through April 20. For more information, please call 01-345-213 or visit www.agialart.com.