MANSOURIEH, Lebanon: Lebanese artist Ghayyan Al Amine’s three-minute film “Screen Savours” is an exercise in irony. Shot in Beirut, this video work uses film as a medium to explore the proliferation of screens in contemporary life.
Amine is one of four artists whose video works make up “NORM/No-madic Lives,” a traveling exhibition curated by British artist Simon Mack currently on show at Minus 5 in Mkalles. His piece begins with a typed question, “What is on our screens’ minds?” followed by shots of computers booting up and televisions switching on.
A minute or so in, a second question appears – “What is on our minds’ screens?” As if in answer, there follows footage of a gamine young woman on a walk around the city.
The light gradually wanes as she wanders the streets of Beirut, periodically stopping to stare at the giant LCD billboards. As darkness falls, these become the most vivid part of the cityscape, drawing the eye away from cars, buildings and passers-by to glance at images of an elsewhere.
Amine is the lone local artist whose work is included in “NORM/No-madic Lives.” His two videos – shorter and more playful than the three made by British team Phil Hargreaves and Simon Mack, Danish artist Lars Buchardt and Swiss artist Fred L’Epee – reflect a difference in approach to the medium.
Amine’s two videos are shot using straightforward color footage and, despite the lack of narrative development, might be mistaken for short films rather than video art.
The other works at Minus 5 are more experimental.
The selection of works on show – five single-channel videos and an installation piece by Mack – may be meager, but they require a substantial commitment from the viewer in terms of both time and thought. A sequential viewing of the videos – which are looped on a projector at the far end of the gallery, accompanied by their soundtracks – takes around 40 minutes.
Mack’s written statement on the exhibition points to the Arab Spring and concurrent global protest moments as the show’s inspiration, dedicating it to “the people of regime change.”
Mack’s installation, “staticZENtv” consists of seven old-fashioned television sets displaying nothing but static on their screens.
It is an act of rebellion against “the TV screen as potential mass distraction, propaganda and diversion for the masses,” he writes. The remainder of the exhibition aims to highlight the innovative use of digital technology in cross-cultural exchange.
Amateur video – shot by activists on mobile phones or cheap digital cameras and disseminated via YouTube or picked up by the mainstream media and labeled “citizen journalism” – played a crucial role in forming international perceptions of the Arab Spring.
Mack’s choice of video works for the exhibition therefore leaves room for an interesting exploration of the role of digital images in protest movements and its capacity to shape political, social and cultural understanding.
Unfortunately, any such reflections that might have been made by these artists are buried so deeply that they may well never see the light of day.
Like most video art, the works on show at Minus 5 are concerned with form rather than narrative. In this they are the antithesis of the Arab Spring footage. Perhaps this is the point Mack wishes to make, but the ambiguity of the exhibition’s intentions may raise suspicions that perhaps he simply gave in to the temptation to attach what has become a highly topical buzzword to a distantly related series of work.
“Push/Pull,” Hargreaves and Mack’s eight-minute sequence, uses a series of physical journeys from Liverpool to London, shot from train windows between 1996 and 2011, to convey an emotional journey.
A blur of horizontal movement, accompanied by the hypnotic drone of a sitar, gradually resolves into negative footage of the scenery outside the train windows. Power lines, industrial bridges and ugly buildings stand out in stark white, silhouetted against a brooding black sky, in which a menacing orange cloud floats like the toxic yolk of a rotten egg.
The wail of an approaching train is distorted, becoming a dissonant, ear-splitting warble. As the rate at which the scenery flashes past accelerates and ebbs, it is spliced with a still shot of a blue butterfly on a black screen. Caught in a moment of stillness, the living creature contrasts with the inanimate object speeding across the landscape.
Buchardt’s “The Future Does Not Need Us/Nobody is Interested in the Future” is the antithesis of the near-constant movement in “Push/Pull.” Running at just over nine minutes, this video collage consists of a sequence of semiabstract still shots that are restlessly cropped, flipped and reinvented, relentlessly forcing the viewer to reassess and reinterpret them.
The stills that comprise Buchardt’s piece have an element of Salvador Dali about them. Some are collages assembling seemingly unrelated slices of photographs or paintings into a single shot. The bright blue facade of a building is juxtaposed with what appears to be a photograph of the moon’s surface, while what looks like part of a plastic popcorn-maker floats incongruously in a the middle of a beautiful seascape.
The final video, Swiss artist L’Epee’s “The Passengers,” also weighs in at nine minutes. Part quirky French feel-good film – think Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Amelie” – part philosophical treatise, it consists of a poetic text narrated in French over 1950s Nouvelle Vague-style black-and-white footage.
Accompanied by an angelic choir, seagulls ponderously traverse the screen in majestic slow motion. A man in enormous black-framed glasses and an antique-looking hat stares contemplatively into the distance.
“The flesh,” the lugubrious narrator intones. “It’s the body already guilty, already dirty, obscene.”
An elderly lady, meanwhile, regards herself in a mirror, beside which hangs a large straw hat.
Seemingly an homage to Aidos, goddess of shame, modesty and the reverence that prevents men from wrongdoing, “The Passengers” explores the physical as it relates to the emotional.
Beirut is the exhibition’s third stop, after shows in Melbourne and Liverpool earlier in 2013. Exhibitions in Copenhagen, Berlin, San Francisco and Taiwan are scheduled to take place in 2014.
While the connection between Mack’s static-broadcasting TVs or Buchardt’s surreal sequences and the events – or video representations – of the Arab Spring requires something of a conceptual leap, “NORM/No-madic lives” has the virtue of standing out from the crowd.
This is thanks not only to Mack’s distant choice of venue – perhaps influenced by his expressed desire that the exhibition should circulate “outside of the traditional modes of gallery representation and control” – but to the exhibition’s global outlook, a rarity in a city dominated by site-specific exhibitions.
“NORM/No-madic Lives” is up at Minus 5 in Mkalles from noon to 7 p.m. Monday to Saturday until Sept. 7. For more information see www.minus-5.com.