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Still lives in a raucous world
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BEIRUT: A couple of years back, a young activist posted an image of herself on a social networking site, breasts exposed, as an expression of protest. A short time later, F, as she is named here, found that someone had hacked her website and electronically scoured her nipples from the image. Perturbed, she posted a notice decrying this vandalism against the Web representation of her body. “Lost: My nipples have disappeared from the internet! I don’t know how this happened! ... Please help me find them.”

Looking into this incident, Wael Kodeih (aka Lebanese rapper Rayess Bek) learned that the lords of the online marches (Facebook, et al.) had developed an algorithm to purge potentially offensive body parts from the pale.

Software glitches made it necessary to have actual humans perform random checks on risky sites, a labor outsourced to Safe Public Media, a Casablanca-based concern. It appears SPM employs a fellow named Youssef Darkawi to ensure that no online nipples go unflensed.

Naturally, Washington’s National Security Agency also enters into this story, and the SPM and NSA intrigue around F’s vandalized baps provides the narrative core of Kodeih’s 2013 work “Lost and Found.”

The piece is comprised of two components. The first is a stack of small fliers bearing F’s original bare-breasted photo (nipples expurgated) and the activist’s pleas for help. The second is a late-model Macintosh computer that the viewer can use to find further evidence of SPM malfeasance.

The tale of F’s disappearing nipples, and how it ramifies in the shared condition of 21st-century humanity, is appealing for its dual nature.

On one hand, it emerges from the world of postpartisan political activism that has mirrored real-world dissident movements like Occupy Wall Street and the premilitant stages of the “Arab Spring.”

On the other hand, “Lost and Found” is a thing of cyberspace, entangling “fact” and “fiction” with a narrative elasticity redolent of the oeuvre of Walid Raad.

Kodeih is one of 15 artists whose work is now on display in Exposure, the Beirut Art Center’s yearly exhibition-competition for emerging artists with some connection to this city.

On the rain-sodden afternoon that The Daily Star visited Exposure, a piece of A4 paper covered the computer screen of “Lost and Found” with the message “Temporarily Out of Order.”

It would be satisfying to imagine that an act of SPM subversion had snuffed the BAC’s Mac. The busted computer could also be an integral part of Kodeih’s piece. Either story would be less annoying than a mundane technical problem.

Chosen by a selection committee comprised of filmmaker-artist Rania Stefan, curator Tarek Abou El Fetouh, art historian and artist Gregory Buchakjian and philosopher Fares Chalabi, Exposure’s works range over a wide landscape of practices.

These include photo series, painting, sculptural and handicraft works, the most-accomplished of which stand as concise evocations of raucous imagined worlds beyond the gallery. They also serve to provide intriguing foils to Exposure’s multimedia and video installations.

One of these, Maxime Hourani’s sprawling exploration of the performance and representation of dissent, emerges from an engagement with politics not unlike Kodeih’s.

One of its two principal components is “Space for Protest.” Located behind a display of progressive political literature from the 20th-century Middle East, it’s comprised of a facsimile of a green-screen studio, where collaborators can be photographed holding placards.

On the other side of the hall, Hourani’s “Disembodied Places: The Withdrawal from Geography” is a screen saver-style panoramic shot of the Bekaa Valley, festooned with green-screen images of local cultural laborers holding placard-borne aphorisms – “Make Me a Mother,” one declaims, “Same Shit, Different Saddam,” intones another.

Exposure’s installations include some of its best-realized work.

Take “Behind the Sun,” a gripping video installation by Beirut-based Kuwaiti artist Monira al-Qadiri. The work conflates found audio and video elements to form a uniquely personal vision of recent regional history.

The audio is a nearly 10-minute piece of VHS footage that records the oil fields of Kuwait in 1992, spewing flame and black smoke after the retreating forces of Saddam Hussein set them alight. Accompanying this apocalyptic vista is a piece of unnamed Arabic poetry, the recitation of non-Quranic verse apparently being a staple of the religious television programming of the day.

Evoking one of her country’s more photogenic episodes, “Behind the Sun” is reminiscent of “Lessons in Darkness” (1992). Werner Herzog’s filmic response to Kuwait’s oil fires was to combine helicopter-borne shots of the smoke and flame with the German writer-director’s musing voiceover. The combination, Herzog said, aspired to the quality of science fiction.

Qadiri’s deployment of Arabic verse will remind some of Wael Shawky’s video work “Cave” (2006), in which the Egyptian artist was filmed walking up and down the aisles of a well-lit supermarket while reciting the eponymous Quranic sura.

If “Behind the Sun” finds some inspiration from these earlier works, it is unique for the manner and substance of its departure from them. The VHS camera’s on-the-ground visual language gives the piece an aesthetic that is at once improvised, personal and, perversely, nostalgic.

“And the stars / as they illuminate the walker’s path,” intones a baritone voice in Arabic, “Oh how many galaxies and nebulae / fly in the universe of space / like sunken atoms.”

Recited in counterpoint to the VHS images, the poetry evokes the cosmic in an altogether different dialect than “Lessons.” Indeed, Qadiri’s juxtaposition of verse and image makes Herzog’s fumbling toward the sublime seem forced by comparison.

An equally immersive, if more formally variegated, work is the multimedia installation “Possible and Imaginary Lives” (2012). A collaboration between Beirut-based Yasmine Eid-Sabbagh and Brussels-based Rozenn Quéré, the work springs from a project produced by Switzerland’s Festival Images, Vevey, where it won the event’s International Photo Award.

This accomplished piece takes its departure from the stories of four strong-willed Palestinian sisters who grew up in Lebanon but were ultimately separated by migration. The oldest sister, Jocelyne, went to Cairo. Frieda, the youngest, moved to Paris. Stella left Lebanon for New York while her twin Graziella remained in Beirut.

Though the installation assembles (and occasionally doctors) photos of the four sisters and draws upon (sometimes fictionalized) interviews with three of them, “Lives” is a fictive recreation of the four women’s collective biography.

Archival photographs, clustered as if hung on a living room wall, adorn the installation’s “foyer,” while a score of period pop tunes and ambient sounds (delivered via speakers in the rear of the room) fill the space. A pair of slide projectors cast family photos upon one wall, interspersed with inter-titles of the sisters’ sometimes-muffled testimonials, which are the work’s main audio component.

In addition to being engrossing and at times amusing, “Lives” is an impressive deconstruction of a by now knee-jerk impulse to render past lives as documentary film.

Easily the most courageous and personal of Exposure’s works is Shirin Abou Shaqra’s “I Think the World of It,” 2013. This three-channel video and sound installation sublimates the artist’s encounter with cancer, and the avalanche of anxiety this “rite of passage” inspired.

The work’s complementary images are projected on three walls of the installation. One frames a sort of narrative prelude, showing the artist shaving her head in preparation for shooting the video.

The other two walls frame a near diptych. Upon one wall is an image of the artist standing, shorn and nude, staring expressionless past the camera as a pulsing discoloration seeps through her body.

Facing this vista is another of vines creeping across an ornate tile floor toward the artist’s nude thighs and feet. An animated imitation of time-lapse photography, it represents a sobering metaphor for the disease – a cannibalism of voracious growth.

“Exposure 2013” is up at Beirut Art Center until Jan. 11. For more information see http://beirutartcenter.org/exhibitions or call 01-397-018 or 70-262-112.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 24, 2013, on page 16.
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