BEIRUT: Atfal Ahdath appreciate the double meaning embedded in their moniker. One translation is “Juvenile Delinquents.” Another is “Children of Events” – “events” being a euphemism for Lebanon’s 15-year-long Civil War, and for the periodic spasms of civil delinquency that have erupted since 1990.The three members of Atfal Ahdath are already recognized for the wide range of solo work they’ve devised over the years.
Though he’s known for his contributions to local group exhibitions – his photo series “Interrupted Landscapes” at the Beirut Art Center’s 2010 “Exposure” show, for instance – Hatem Imam also quietly works with Maya Moumne on the Cinema House Furniture project – a funky urban design outfit specializing in reconditioning late-20th-century furniture.
Vartan Avakian – who contributed to “Exposure” an amusing exercise in extreme close-up photography-cum-guessing game – is among the cluster of international artists now creating work for the 2013 Abraaj Capital Art Prize, one of the lucrative side events of ArtDubai.
Raed Yassin is known for his work as an improv musician, Lebanon’s trash culture ambassador and as an alumnus of the 2012 Abraaj Prize – for which he produced a series of China pots, each representing a pivotal battle from Lebanon’s Civil War, all of them depicted in the manner of Persian miniatures.
Atfal Ahdath gathered for a rare group interview to discuss their debut Beirut exhibition, “Take me to this place, I want to do the memories,” which opens Wednesday at the Running Horse Contemporary Art Space.
“‘It’s part of an ongoing project,” says Yassin. “It started at the Sharjah Biennial two years ago. Then it developed and was shown again in the Sultan gallery in Kuwait ... Lately it was in Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum ... It wasn’t easy coming back home. You have to go all around the world first.
“We wanted to show at the Running Horse because it’s at once a fine art space and a commercial space ... We’re not just targeting one audience.”
“There’s no conflict in the topic itself with production and consumption,” Avakian says. “We’re not designing works that can sell but what we’re working on are things very much available in the market anyway.”
The work on show is the fruit of Atfal Ahdath’s ongoing research on contemporary studio photography practices in the Arab world. Studio practices have been taken up by other Lebanese artists – notably Akram Zaatari, who as founder of the Arab Image Foundation, has explored past studio practices in this region.
Atfal Ahdath’s work is something else again.
“These practices are very different from past studio practices,” Yassin observes. “Now the relationship to the image is different. First because it’s the digital age ... and also [because of] the accumulation of political and economic and social changes.”
The work draws on a bank of images derived from the artists visiting photography studios around the region and having their pictures taken individually or together.
“When you get your photo taken, a backdrop is added via Photoshop,” Imam explains. “The relationship between us and the backdrop is our area of interest. Why are we being placed in this particular landscape? What does that mean? Who do we want to be? What does this say, not only about us but about the practice itself, about the photographer?
“It’s no surprise,” he adds, “that these images are, to a very great degree, similar.”
“The aesthetics, they differ,” Avakian rejoins, “but the scenarios they stage go in one direction.”
“This Place,” the book that emerged from the trio’s Sharjah debut, is comprised of a single composite photograph that’s been folded to form 16 leaves. The artists are multiply represented against a range of landscapes, holding poses that some might regard as “cheesy.”
“It’s one massive landscape,” Imam says, “one place that’s made of many different places. The implication of the book is that all this fantastical world that we want to belong to is practically one place. It’s the place where we will go to fabricate our memories.
“We’re also looking at the whole practice of landscape [representation], whether it be painting or photography. If you have a figure standing in front of this landscape, what does it mean in terms of power, in terms of ownership?”
“The nice thing about this world,” Avakian says, “is that it is one world, but it is artificially connected. It’s quite obvious.”
Self-representation has been one of the abiding features of Atfal Ahdath’s early work.
“By placing ourselves in the practice, we want to show that we’re not only looking at it from a distance. This distance – which you find when you look at works about studio practices – is always the aesthetic of a different age, of a different society, of a different face. It was important for us to put ourselves in the work because we don’t feel much estranged from this practice or aesthetic.”
“Or even class,” Yassin adds.
“This is the aesthetics of the working class,” Avakian continues. “We were all brought up in working class families. These kind of aspirations and secretions we’ve lived physically.
“This work can have a kitsch effect on some people. ‘Kitsch’ is a distance that happens between a certain person and the work. There are no kitsch aesthetics. There is an aesthetic that you look at and, by deeming it kitsch, you are creating the necessary distance between you and this type of aesthetic.
“I don’t feel class distance between this practice and myself. I don’t want to be outside the picture and showing you the practice of this other class, this other community, this other society someplace else. That’s why we have to be in the work.”
Atfal Ahdath’s work is constantly evolving and the newer works in the Running Horse show move into a different direction.
“What you will see at the Running Horse is the evolution of the idea Something different from Sharjah and the Mori,” Yassin says.
“We’re adding a new series that doesn’t have us in it. We took the templates of these couples’ bodies and we made some ornamental patterns of them, because ornamentation somehow has to do with peoples’ ideal way with expressing the wedding.”
“What also fascinates us about the work that’s being done in the studios,” Avakian says, “is that they are clearly looking at photography in a different way. Generally you would think of a photo as a document of the past. Even if you take the picture now, it’s a record of the now that just past.
“In this work it’s scenarios of the future. This is why the working title of this new series is ‘Memories of the Future,’ because nothing in them is happening now.”
“That’s why it’s called, ‘Take me to this place, I want to do the memories,’” Yassin says. “There’s the class issue. There are those who can’t really afford to have memories. They go and fabricate the memories. Doing the memories is part of their postponed life, let’s say.
“So they go stage this, and they can even go in the imagination to the most-fancy places they want to be. They can go take these photos with backgrounds that they can be anywhere. Some people were even put on the background of the moon.
“The question is what is the limit of your aspirations. What’s so interesting was their imagination and how big it is.”
“What’s funny,” Imam says, “is that there are limits. The moon example is an exception. Most of them have the cars and the houses and so on but even those, they’re sometimes like a Saab from 2001. It’s not that extravagant.”
“Apparently,” Avakian says, “there’s this practice of people wanting to have a wedding picture. And they don’t even have the means to make a wedding or even rent a dress. So there are templates of couples that are bride and groom ... This isn’t based on what the photographer represented. People came and asked for this. It’s based on a market need.”
“Take me to this place, I want to do the memories,” a solo exhibition by Atfal Ahdath, is up at the Running Horse Art Space from Jan. 16 to Feb. 2.