BEIRUT: It has been said that the meaning of a piece of art may vary depending on where it’s exhibited. Others disagree, as though such a suggestion implies something about the work’s integrity, the completeness (or incompleteness) of its execution.The sediment of this spat is among the stuff that’s stirred up by “All Mother Tongues are Difficult,” the solo show of videos, installations, embroideries, canvasses and drawings by Mounira Al Solh, up at Beirut’s Galerie Sfeir-Semler.
Greeting visitors in the gallery foyer is the installation “Clogged,” 2014 – 100 pairs of variously sized wooden clogs, the sort formerly crafted for Damascus’ hammamat (Turkish baths).
Art fair habitués will recall “Clogged” was first mounted last month at Art Dubai. Solh explained how the Syrian conflict – refracted through her extended family’s relationship with that country – had long hindered her work. The title “Clogged” reflects her creative blockage as much as the work’s fabricated objects.
Staged as an interactive performance in Dubai, “Clogged” invited well-heeled collectors and their hangers-on to shed their stilettos while assessing the commodities over flutes of champagne.
“Clogged” may have been experienced similarly at the well-trafficked opening of “Mother Tongues,” but a visit to the Karantina venue on a deserted weekday afternoon leaves a different impression.
Scattered about the gallery floor with a few foldaway stools for those who want to change shoes, the mute clogs evoke the abandonment of displacement. This reading ramifies beyond tales of rebel fighters and authoritarian states, but only if you’re aware that the craft of making these objects was marginalized by global commodity flows (aka “Asian-made flip-flops”) long before 2011.
The artist has her own – in this case microbial – reading of this work, but for onlookers raised in the so-called “Judeo-Christian tradition,” “Clogged” may express an adage about “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.” The glaring irony embedded in this reading is so obvious it seems gratuitous to note it: Damn few contemporary art patrons, or contemporary artists, have the faintest empathy for what most refugees must undergo.
Is art open to mutable readings? Does art require the onlooker to be as informed about what underlies a work as the artist who created it?
“Mother Tongues” is the 30-something artist’s first major Beirut exhibition since her 2011 solo debut, “Exhibition No. 17,” which saw her work share the gallery halls with Wael Shawky’s “Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File.”
English-language writers tend to fall back on a handful of words to describe Solh’s practice. “Mercurial” is one. Another is “performative,” harkening back to her fearlessness in making her persona the object of her video works. Whether the work frames her form or not, it is imbued with a playfully irreverent sense of humor.
This irreverent play is as integral to her work as paint would be to that of another artist. It is applied to the critical thought that informs the work of intellectually refined contemporary artists – and rehearsed by the priestly caste arbitrating its worth. The artist applies it to herself too. Witness “A Double Burger and Two Metamorphoses,” in which her persona confesses she was unable to read a book by French cultural theorist Jean-Francois Lyotard.
Play drives “Reclining Man with Sculpture,” 2008-2014, an on-going series of mixed media-on-canvas works, each of which reflect upon the Lebanese landscape. Four of the five pieces hung here depict Lebanese politicians in the midst of fictive encounters with contemporary art.
A Lebanese cardinal is captured in the midst of a performance he was invited to stage at the Venice Biennale. Placing the religious leader on the crowded Giardini along with four clerical lookalikes, the piece called upon the five performers to gaze simultaneously at the same point in space – and to avoid being documented while doing so.
The series’ title piece depicts a former Iranian president at Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art, arguing with a Lebanese sheikh-cum-political leader about the merits of Francis Bacon’s use of color in “Reclining Man with Sculpture.” “Deep down,” the Lebanese sheikh believes, “the painting looks better in its online picture than in its original form hanging in the Tehran Museum.”
Such wit is a familiar feature in Solh’s practice, yet “Reclining Man” suggests a departure from the work in her 2011 show. Like some other artists of her generation whose work has sidestepped the Civil War, Solh’s work has seldom hinged on viewers knowing Lebanon’s political obscurities.
The exhibition title embraces the two themes that preoccupy most of the works it contains. One is related to the NOA language school project, Solh’s collaboration with curator Angela Serino. Inspired by the common experiences of migrants learning Dutch in the Netherlands – where residents can subsist comfortably in English alone – the project reflects upon “what it entails to learn to speak and to live [among] many foreign languages.”
In the 30-minute “Vrijouiligers” (“volunteers” in English, “vrijwilligers” in standard Dutch), 2012-2014, the artist visits the drop-in center of Atlas, Belgium’s Flemish-education service. There she chats with immigrant volunteers and remarks dryly upon the variously broken Dutch they all share.
An Arabic-language iteration upon this theme is expressed in “Sama’/Ma’as” (Listen/Crush), 2014, six double-sided, textile embroideries (about 275 x 286 cm), which the artist says she made in collaboration with an expert draper of Armenian heritage.
Each work bears the three-consonant combination at the root of most Arabic words. The order of the three letters is scrambled on either side of each tapestry.
Solh cites the works of linguist-semioticians Ahmad Beydoun (particularly his book “Kalamon”) and Ferdinand de Saussure as inspiring this series. Though lamentably few contemporary art lovers have read Beydoun’s works in Arabic, anyone with the mobile app for Hans Wehr’s Arabic-English dictionary can enjoy the wordplay of these lovely objects as much the form.
The effect of the counterpoint between each three-letter pairing is comic deflation. One textile bears the noun “malak” (king) on one side, and the verb “lakma” (to punch) on the other.
The olive drab side of another work is emblazoned with “baath” (resurrection), the name chosen by the founders of the the radical Arab nationalist party, factions of which eventually came to power in Iraq and Syria. On the floral obverse side is stitched “abath” (absurdity).
This piece affords a convenient segue to the other liminal preoccupation of “Mother Tongues,” and inspiration for “Clogged,” Syria’s disastrous civil war.
In the 25-minute video installation “Now Eat My Script,” 2014, the artist muses over the obstacles to scripting this work while being pregnant – trapped in her body, ravenous, horny and easily distracted by the sounds of Syrian refugees in her neighborhood.
Alighting upon seemingly random anecdotes – a man filming his wife’s suicide on his iPhone, Solh’s Damascene aunt ferrying a slaughtered lamb across the border for a family barbeque – the piece’s camerawork commences with a slow pan over an automobile weighed down with a refugee family’s possessions and concludes with a detailed assessment of a dismembered sheep, displayed upon a white surface.
Her body obsessed with devouring a slaughtered lamb to sustain her fetus, her mind appalled by the visceral metaphors of “slaughter,” Solh’s narrator ponders the impossibility of depicting trauma.
Mounira Al Solh’s “All Mother Tongues are Difficult” is up at Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut, through July 19. For more information, please see www.sfeir-semler.com/Beirut