BEIRUT: Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s “Language Gulf in the Shouting Valley” (2013) is rooted on what may be the Golan Heights’ best-known cultural activity.
Members of the Druze community straddle the border dividing Israeli-occupied Syria from Israel’s Palestinian lands. In lieu of direct communication, family members and friends on either side of the line fall back on shouting at one another from opposite sides of the cease-fire line, which has come to be called “The Shouting Valley.”
Abu Hamdan’s 15-minute “audio essay” is installed within a gray-painted alcove distinguished by sound-baffling foam strips on the left and right walls and atop the viewing bench (so it’s more comfortable than the others in this exhibition).
Intermittently a generous screen flashes to life with the video component of this sound work – shaky hand-held camera shots from the Shouting Valley – but the main body of the work issues from two small wall-mounted speakers.
The soundtrack has two components – the shouts and screams of residents from either side of the valley and Abu Hamdan’s interview with scholar Lisa Hajjar. An authority on the incarceration and torture protocols of the U.S. and client regimes like Israel, Hajjar discusses the liminal position of Israel’s Druze.
As they are heterodox Muslims, the Israeli regime has “Orientalized” the Druze as “non-Arab” collaborators. The only Palestinians eligible for Israel’s military draft, while still subject to its arbitrary land confiscation, young uneducated Druze men are employed in intermediary roles – translators in the occupation’s military courts, for example – that Israel’s Arab-Jewish citizens are discouraged from playing.
Druze conscripts face unusual pressure to demonstrate their loyalty to the occupation regime. In performance, the Druze translators are so aggressive and uncooperative during land-confiscation hearings that Palestinian plaintiffs are reduced to mere objects.
In Hajjar’s words, the Druze mouthpieces of the occupation are the grease that allows it to operate. Abu Hamdan proposes that, like the Shouting Valley, the Druze role as mouthpiece reflects the community’s liminal status as translator, transgressor, traitor and collaborator.
“Language Gulf” is one of 24 works now on show in “Ten Thousand Wiles and a Hundred Thousand Tricks,” the exhibition component of Meeting Points 7, the transnational contemporary art road show, up at the Beirut Art Center.
Abu Hamdan’s politically grounded installation art is more sophisticated than it appears. This is less a matter of artistic modesty than the BAC’s staging: As mounted here, the work’s sound design makes the shrieks issuing from the audiovisual footage much louder than the interview portions that give the piece its intellectual girth.
Ironically, informed members of the public skirting “Language Gulf” may assume they already know what the work is “about,” and not bother listening to it properly.
The exhibition context worsens matters. Like many audiovisual shows, “Ten Thousand Wiles” is a noisy beast. Regrettably, its Croatia-based curators WHW (“What, How and for Whom,” aka Ivet Curlin, Ana Devic, Natasa Ilic, Sabina Sabolovic? and Dejan Krsic) have set the three loudest works on the same side of the BAC’s gallery, a few distracting meters from one another.
Noise isn’t the sole distinguishing feature of the MP7 show.
Hailing from the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Latin America, these two-dozen pieces include an array of visual art, sculptural and photographic works as well as sound and video art. Whether emerging from an activist bent or archival practice, many of the works are politically engaged, though not necessarily partisan.
That said, there is immense diversity among the works in this exhibition, which cannot be properly absorbed in a single outing.
Alongside Abu Hamdan’s work, Jumana Manna’s 12-minute video “A Sketch of Manners (Alfred Roch’s Last Masquerade),” 2013, takes an utterly different approach to performative documentary.
At the entrance of the curtained alcove housing the work is a group portrait that, by the time you exit 12 minutes later, you will know documents Palestine’s last masquerade ball.
It was 1942 and Palestinians had emerged from the 1936-39 revolt against the British Mandate exhausted, their effective political leadership in prison or in exile. The British presence was clearly receding, though exactly what would replace it was still unclear.
A wealthy Jaffa merchant and member of the Palestinian National League, Alfred Roch participated in the London Conference, negotiating the relationship between the British Empire and Palestine. He sat in on negotiations by day and attended fancy dress-up parties at night, a fin de siècle fashion he introduced to Palestine society.
Introduced by one of Charles Baudelaire’s Orientalist fantasias, Manna’s video reenacts Roch’s final masquerade ball, including the shooting of the team photo hanging outside the installation. The main impression conveyed as dozens of nonactors, many wearing the harlequin’s greasepaint and costume, pantomime the Mandate-era Palestinian bourgeoisie sitting for this 1942 photo, is impatience and boredom.
Manna’s piece leaves the observer to understand that, though Roch’s masked balls never took root back home, the masquerade of exhausted peace negotiation characterizes the Palestinian condition to this day.
The politics embedded in “Ten Thousand Wiles” runs the gamut from self-evident to discrete.
At one extreme is Marwa Arsanios’ textual-audio-sculptural work “After Doxiades, a Proposal for a New Social Housing Project,” 2013, and “Common Assembly,” 2011-2013, by Palestine’s DAAR (Decolonizing Art and Architecture Residency) collective.
At the other extreme, Maha Maamoun’s 10-minute video “Shooting Stars Remind Me of Eavesdroppers,” 2013, captures a couple-festooned green space alongside the Nile, while, in voice-over, a pair of actors depicts two lovers discussing the politics of listening and being overheard.
Hanging nearby, and free to take home, are copies of Haytham El-Wardany’s bilingual 2013 pamphlet “How to Disappear,” a guidebook to the epistemology of listening. A peculiar cross between Wilhelm Wundt’s “Contributions on the Theory of Sensory Perception” and the Buddha’s “Fire Sermon,” Wardany’s fanciful how-to essay proposes sonic practices to bring agency to matters of individuality, social alienation and cohesion.
Another of the noisier works on show, Simone Fattal’s 46-minute video “Autoportrait,” 2012, looks like a shard of Lebanese modernism adrift in a sea of the contemporary.
As a piece of self-documentation, however, the work offers an interesting counterpoint to the other works on show. The video is assembled from the rushes of a work of self-portraiture the painter and sculptor commissioned from a pair of filmmakers, shot in 1972. Its premise, she confides, was her inability to paint her own face.
Accentuated by the young Fattal’s compulsive hair adjusting, the video oscillates between the artist’s candid, impressionistic, often distracted, recollections upon her life, her family, her practice and the challenge of working with film itself.
Before concluding with an extended sequence of the artist’s smiling face as she dances to a then-contemporary pop tune, the video folds in some exterior voices.
A French artist recalls an amusing incident while visiting Fattal’s family home.
“Everyone was chatting when Simone suddenly began to dance, as she often did. The look on their faces was hilarious,” he recalls. “It was utter incomprehension.”
“Ten Thousand Wiles and a Hundred Thousand Tricks” is up at the BAC until May 3. For more information, see www.beirutartcenter.org/exhibitions.