BEIRUT: In an interview some years back, Beirut-based curator Rasha Salti explained the historical origin of the word “curator.”
It referred, she said with a sly grin, to “someone employed to care for infants and the mentally and emotionally ... challenged.” More conventionally, art curators are seen to occupy the space between the artist and the public, who purportedly appreciate the stuff, or at least purchase it.
Salti never remarked on which side of the equation “infant” and “mentally and emotionally challenged” referred – the artist, or the public. As she participated in “The Impossible Works of Raed Yassin,” you couldn’t help but wonder whether Salti recalled the linguistic history of her job title.
Devised by the eponymous Lebanese artist, this performance was staged at Beirut Art Center, its walls freshly scrubbed of its most recent exhibition.
“Impossible Works” was hitched to the labor of not one but five curators. Joining Salti in the white cube were countryman Amanda Abi Khalil, Holland’s Nat Muller and Eline van der Vlist and Briton Kyla McDonald, all of whom have somehow been implicated in the Beirut art scene.
The premise of “Impossible Works” is simple. Yassin had each of the five confabulate a work, each attributed to him, which is impossible to stage.
The performance saw the five take up positions at discrete locations around the gallery, alongside exhibit titles stencilled on the wall. There they explained their respective works to “the public,” wave after wave of them.
“Impossible Works” is premised on an amusing reversal of roles. Though they can attain minor-key fame, art curators by definition play second fiddle to the artists whose work they stage, explain and conspire to create.
The curators’ performances weren’t far removed from what they do in their day jobs, but since the five impossible works were nowhere to be seen, their labor was itself the “art.”
Yassin was present for the event, his role that of contented emcee. He ushered bemused and bewildered audience members from one exhibit to the other. If you happened along while the curators were busy or wetting their parched throats, he helpfully suggested you repair to the upstairs bar, to do the same.
Presented by Abi Khalil, “A Higher Square” proposed a vast, invisible public space that hovers over Downtown Beirut. The work “blurs the line between utopia and dystopia,” Abi Khalil suggested, “contradicting the nature of public space because it can only be accessed individually.”
She equated the work to “a Foucauldian heterotopia ... a space at once symbolical physical, and emotional.”
Salti’s “Blowback” posits a restaging of the 9/11 attacks. The performance won’t be located in New York, but Dubai, and won’t reproduce the twin towers but Bourj Khalifa.
“The idea for this project,” Salti reassured her listeners, “comes mostly from Damien Hirst, who described the Sept. 11 attacks as the most spectacular of performances. This idea of terrorism as performance was something we wanted to explore.”
What followed was a stimulating discursion, ranging from political economy to commemorative Pepsi cans, one citing such thinkers as Jean Baudrillard, Slavoj Zizek and Mike Davis.
McDonald’s “Monument for the Chameleonic Society” took up the challenge facing artists in designing site-specific works, whose audience is more diverse than the stuff bought and sold in galleries.
Because of how and why these works are commissioned, they cannot embrace the whole of society. “When you look at it,” McDonald noted. “Raed’s sculpture will be whatever you desire. If you want to see your dear leader, you’ll find him. If you want an abstract sculpture, you’ll see that.”
Yassin’s one-minute-long “The Opera of Whispers” is to be hummed simultaneously by every person on the planet. “You could say this is an opera for the masses and by the masses,” Muller suggested. “It’s a quintessential event because everyone is participating, but also the quintessential nonevent because there is no singularity.”
As she wended forward Muller would hum the tune of the opera, as though ruminating between thoughts.
“At once colossal and a nonevent, its commodification is impossible,” she continued. “The ultimate event that we want to own, we cannot own.”
Van der Vlist’s “Album from Another Planet” tells a story of a surreal 78 RPM recording of five tracks. Yassin’s collaborators included luminaries like Um Kulthum, and saw him somehow participating in a conference on aesthetics staged in Cairo in 1948.
While impossible to stage, none of these five works is alien to Yassin’s varied practice, which ranges from improvised musical performance to photography and installation.
The ramifications of “Impossible Works” could be heard rattling through the creaky structure of contemporary art practice. Yet its greatest accomplishment may be that – with Yassin acting as usher to five absent works – the artist’s name filled the gallery.