BEIRUT: The Beirut Art Center’s commitment to contemporary art hasn’t faltered in its first years of existence, but one of its current exhibitions, among its strongest, draws on a story that’s over 2000 years old.
According to the soldier-writer Xenophon, author of a seven-book account “The Anabasis,” in the years leading up to 400 B.C. Cyrus, younger brother of Persian Emperor Artaxerxes, decided to depose his sibling.
Cyrus hired some 10,000 Greek mercenaries and led them to the territory now known as Iraq. There Cyrus’ outnumbered Greeks clashed with Artaxerxes’ armies, and were on the verge of victory when Cyrus challenged his brother to a duel, and lost.
With their employer dead, the Greeks were stranded, with no one to guide them home.
The story of the Greeks’ long, wandering overland journey – through the desert and eventually to the Black Sea coast, thence back home – is the allegorical outline of “The Anabasis.” It is also the rich and generative narrative that gives form and substance to Eric Baudelaire’s mesmerizing solo exhibition “Now Here Then Elsewhere.”
At the heart of the show lies an hour-long film, “The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images,” from 2011, which is screening, looped, in a room of its own.
The film is an epic of sorts. So too is the backstory of how it was made, along with Baudelaire’s plans to make a sequel, in more or less real time during the run of the current exhibition.
“The Anabasis” untangles the intricate stories of three fascinating characters – May Shigenobu, Fusako Shigenobu and Masao Adachi. Their lives were caught up in a history that saw radical politics, revolutionary cinema and militancy lure a faction of Japan’s extreme left into partnership with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in Lebanon.
Fusako Shigenobu established the Japanese Red Army in 1971, while living in Beirut. In the name of worldwide revolution and the liberation of Palestine, the group carried out kidnappings and hijackings, the most prominent being the 1972 Lod Airport massacre.
The three JRA members who committed that attack – killing nearly 30 people and injuring 80 – had carried their weapons in violin cases. Among them, only Kozo Okamoto survived. He was tried and jailed in Israel, released in a prisoner swap and eventually arrested in Lebanon for crossing borders with forged passports.
On his release in 2000, Okamoto was reportedly the only foreigner ever granted political asylum in Lebanon, where he lives to this day. All his colleagues were ultimately extradited to Japan via Jordan. Shigenobu was arrested that same year, having quietly, mysteriously, made her way back on her own. At her trial, famed Palestinian militant Leila Khaled was a defense witness.
Shigenobu was sentenced to 20 years. The real revelation at the time, however, was the fact that she had a 27-year-old daughter named May, who was still living in Lebanon, virtually unknown and undocumented, a ghost to the world. Incredibly, in “The Anabasis,” she talks about never having a passport, allowing no pictures of herself to be taken, and not knowing her real name was until she was a teenager.
Baudelaire was in Kyoto for a residency program in 2008 when he heard May Shigenobu’s story for the first time. Obsessed with the layered political legacies of the international left after 1968, he arranged to meet her. He filmed hours of interview footage, and then set the tapes aside for two years.
After ingesting a generation’s worth of Japanese cinema, in 2010 the filmmaker realized the missing piece in the puzzle was filmmaker and screenwriter Masao Adachi.
Adachi had written filmmaker Koji Wakamatsu’s strongest scripts. He moved to Lebanon to join the JRA. There, he abandoned filmmaking. He also effectively raised May Shigenobu until she was 10.
All the 16-millimeter footage Adachi had filmed was destroyed during Israel’s 1982 bombardment of Beirut. At a certain point, as he says in “The Anabasis,” he considered making revolution equal to making films, and took to scripting the JRA’s actions as a comparably creative act.
Now free, Adachi has returned to filmmaking, but he cannot leave Japan and will never be able to return to Beirut. In return for being interviewed, Adachi asked Baudelaire to film certain sites in Lebanon for him.
The footage that resulted from Adachi’s assignments – shot in gorgeous, grainy Super 8, spliced with newsreels, scenes from Adachi’s films and like-minded footage that Baudelaire shot in Japan – is the visual material of “The Anabasis.” Audio recordings of Baudelaire’s interviews with May Shigenobu and Adachi comprise the narrative.
Behind the large screen showing “The Anabasis” at the BAC is a hidden room housing the brain of the second film, a feature being made in collaboration with Adachi titled “The Enigma of Memory.”
In the adjoining rooms are five projects related to “The Anabasis” – including silk screens of newspaper pages and Adachi’s prison drawings. This makes for a dense, demanding and rewarding encounter with an art project of profound reach.
“The Anabasis” emerges from a pool of projects similarly obsessed with the JRA, including Walid Sadek’s mind-bending work on Kozo Okamoto, Naeem Mohaieman’s riveting film “The Young Man Was ...” and Johan Grimonprez’s masterpiece “Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y,” a stylized history of hijacking. In this esteemed company, Baudelaire’s work is among the most thoughtful, politically serious and aesthetically accomplished.
The show’s title is an obvious nod to Jean-Luc Godard’s “Ici et Ailleurs (Here and Elsewhere),” and in a sense, Baudelaire has brought together two great filmmaking friendships (Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, Adachi and Wakamatsu) that fell apart in and around Beirut. Perhaps the current collaboration with Adachi is an attempt to make that kind of partnership and camaraderie work.
The sweetest resonance of the title, however, comes through Adachi alone. “The question is how will Eric’s footage, shot with his own feelings, overlap with mine?” he says toward the end of “The Anabasis.” “That is what brings me joy.
“The point is to pursue here elsewhere,” he concludes. The notion that there is an elsewhere is romantic, but untrue. “There is only here,” wherever you are.
Eric Baudelaire’s “Now Here Then Elsewhere” is on view at the Beirut Art Center in Jisr al-Wati through April 6. The artist is screening a selection of films by Masao Adachi on Feb. 20 (“AKA Serial Killer,” 1969) and March 20 (“Prisoner/Terrorist,” 2011) at 8pm. For more information, call 01-397-018 or visit www.beirutartcenter.org