BEIRUT: It is a classic desert horizon. The stark line between blue sky and dun-colored landscape bisects the frame at the three-quarter mark. Perfectly centered is another ragged yet straight line – a roadway extending from the bottom of the frame to vanishing point.
The keffiyeh and thobe-clad man steps into the lower left-hand side of the frame and immediately crosses to the right side of the derelict motorway. As he does, he briefly glances over his shoulder.
He strides toward the vanishing point, a black plastic bag in hand. A transport truck passes invisibly behind the camera, creating a Doppler effect. Long before reaching the horizon, the man disappears.
Watching Jananne Al-Ani’s not-quite two-minute-long piece “The Guide,” you may nod at the simple elegance of this cinematic gesture. You may wonder about what Ani had in mind when she instructed the anonymous man to cross the road when he entered the frame.
You may wonder at what it is about a desert landscape that invests movement with greater existential weight ... or what the fellow’s carrying in that black plastic bag.
It turns out the Anglo-Iraqi artist had neither the man nor his plastic bag in mind. Walking through “Groundwork,” her solo exhibition now up at the Beirut Art Center, Ani recalls the man’s performance being completely unscripted.
He just happened to be walking toward the Iraqi border this day, she recalled. He also may have been the only figure to pass that day who did not stop to quiz her about why the devil they were pointing a super-16mm camera at nothing in particular.
This is part of the charm of “Groundwork.” Ani’s exhibition serves as a reminder that art need not require that something be made to represent something else. Art – film included – is a way of seeing.
For many of these pieces, the way of seeing is contrapuntal. The BAC is projecting “The Guide” against a wall, into the left-hand corner of which has been inserted a miniature monitor.
That small screen is home to the one-minute DV work “Flock,” also from 2008, which captures a flock of sheep moping about on the far side of an expressway. Another tractor-trailer blows past, this time between the camera and its subjects. To see this, the onlooker has to step forward, obscuring the 16mm projection with its shadow.
The counterpoint between the pairs of works in “Groundwork” never sounds quite the same.
“Untitled (Groundwork)” (2013), the newest piece in this exhibition, looks like a formal echo of “The Guide” and “Flock.” Projected upon one wall is a digital photograph of the Arizona desert, which looks not unlike a white wall peppered with shrapnel holes. This image has been digitized to rotate on its axis.
From the lower left-hand side of the wall projects a disk, at the center of which is a circular video of ants streaming out of their nest, shot from directly above. The circular screen marks the limits of the rubble the insects have scattered outside their entry hole.
Gazing at the composite image, the effect is to make the rotating desert look not unlike a negative image of a nighttime sky.
For those who follow Ani’s work the highlight of this show will likely be “Shadow Sites I” and “Shadow Sites II” (2010 and 2011), which are being presented together (both projected upon the entire wall of an enclosed room) for the first time. They take their names from the airborne practice of locating otherwise indistinct topographical features by noting the lengthened shadows they project when the sun is near the horizon.
The original piece is comprised of excerpts from a super 16mm film that was shot over the Jordanian desert. The film looks down upon discrete enclosures upon the landscape – primitive (yet still operative) agricultural furrows, verdant circular fields born of contemporary irrigation, industrial-scale sheep ranches, new villas and archaeological sites.
For an observer willing to stand still for long enough to absorb the shifting topographical tones captured by the 16mm camera, the experience of “Shadow Sites I” can be a bit vertiginous.
This effect can also be felt in “Shadow Sites II,” which captures the same discrete landscape features, but uses more monochrome digital photographs. The camera appears to zoom upon these sites until they melt and reform as something else – so the foundations of a Nabatiyyan town appear to bleed into a new-looking walled structure.
The oldest piece, “The Visit,” (2004), combines “Echo,” VHS-to-HD (1994), and “Muse,” digitized super 16mm (2004).
“Echo” is comprised of four separate monologues, all running alongside one another simultaneously. The four discuss the aftermath of a visit (of a man, perhaps an absent father) and its emotional impact upon them and another woman (perhaps the mother).
Ani makes art from this drab documentary premise through selective sound editing – silencing three of the testimonials in order to sample isolated phrases, sometimes juxtaposing these shards of monologue with a cacophonous four-voice chorus.
“Echo” is the last in a series of works which feature the same cast of four to five women (the artist, her three sisters and mother). The first of these was the artist’s 2009 installation, “A Loving Man,” which was among the works in “Closer,” the BAC’s opening exhibition.
“Muse” is the first of Ani’s most-recent series, each of which evinces a much more cinematic aesthetic, using the desert landscape as its canvas.
Like “The Guide” and “Flock,” “Muse” is set on a barren, gravel-strewn desert plain. A gent in a suit walks into the frame, his movement that of one deep in silent conversation with himself. For its 15-minute duration, the piece follows him wandering in and out of the frame. At times he simply paces. Other times he moves deliberately, as if tracing the limits of an extinct household.
As the shoot wears on, the shadow he casts grows longer, a literal representation of the passage of time that underlines the existentialist themes implicit in the piece’s location and (want of) action. As a standalone piece “Muse” is an homage to Beckett. Paired with “Echo,” it suggests two stones in a vast, otherwise invisible, discursive mosaic.
Jananne Al-Ani’s “Groundwork” is up at Beirut Art Center until April 6, for more information call 01-397-018.