BEIRUT: There are no epiphanies on the Internet, of course, but it can startle you. One member of the fourth estate, who came to maturity on the edge of North America in the 20th century, once professed that his most jarring online encounter came with a real-time satellite image of the house where he was born.
It’s odd enough to be able to “image” a place of such intimate obscurity at all. The fact that it can be done on a laptop during a commercial break in a football match does accentuate the strangeness of it, but what makes the experience truly dislocating is the perspective. The bird’s eye view of the structure razes the subjective recollections of place, standardizing it within the language of maps.
To be made the object of a map is to subvert the once-conventional relationship with the medium. Whether it’s used to resolve an argument about the exact location of Andorra, say, or to plan the landing of an invasion force, the map has been viewed as an instrument of agency.
The mundane expression of that agency has been the atlas.
More than a mere book reproducing the geographical features of the globe, the atlas featured multiple depictions of specific bits of the planet’s surface according to different criteria – from topography and political borders to population density and relative GDP.
Like other worthwhile books that cluttered middle class households – encyclopedias, dictionaries, almanacs – the atlas was represented as a source of objective knowledge of the world. Yet, as with all images, a map’s very nature is subjective: For all the things a map of Andorra might include, it excludes much more.
A collection of images that’s been printed, bound and placed on the market, the atlas combined two different practices of exclusive inclusion – those of mapmaker and editor.
In the hands of French philosopher, art historian and curator Georges Didi-Huberman, the atlas has become a profound metaphor to scrutinize our abiding relationship with images, specifically in the creation and exhibition of art.
“Afteratlas,” Didi-Huberman’s most-recent iteration of this theme, and the fruit of his 2012 collaboration with Paris-based Austrian photographer Arno Gisinger, is now occupying the main hall of the Beirut Exhibition Center.
The show is comprised of three video works and 33 photos of art, literature and, well, photographs. Yet “photographs” in the strictest sense of the term, are absent. The photographs that make up the main part of the exhibition have been reproduced as 3.1x2.4-meter images and applied end-to-end, directly to the gallery like wallpaper.
In form, “Afteratlas” is a montage of Didi-Huberman’s 2010 exhibition “Atlas: How to Carry the World on One’s Back.” First staged at Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, the show was a study of the creative process of some 140 artists, writers, filmmakers and theorists.
“Afteratlas” sieves these themes through the work of German art historian Aby Warburg (1866-1929), specifically his “Mnemosyne Atlas,” an atlas of art images.
Obedient art lovers (and on this occasion it’s useful to be obedient) will find the exhibition begins on the right side of the hall with a pair of Didi-Huberman’s videos.
Projected on one wall is “Mnemosyne 42” (2012-14), a 100-plus-minute work that simultaneously samples 25 different films and photos – including works by Theo Angelopoulos, Pier Paolo Passolini, Zhao Liang, Vsevolod Poudovkine, Glauber Rocha and Bertolt Brecht. The soundtracks of all but one of the works are muted.
Across the room is projected the eight-minute work “Aby Warburg: Plate 42” (2012), in which the camera scrutinizes one of the plates of Warburg’s original “atlas.”
Both works are effectively catalogues of images, each employing distinct approaches to exhibition.
The simultaneous representation of images employed in “Mnemosyne 42” seems a more “democratic” approach. The necessary shrinking of images that allows all 25 works to be projected at once, and the throttling of most of the accompanying soundtracks, means that this leveling method of exhibition makes it virtually impossible to appreciate any one work.
Working in counterpoint to this work, “Aby Warburg: Plate 42” offers a more leisurely consideration of individual works from Warburg’s exhibit. Panning shots of a surface festooned with photos are punctuated when Didi-Huberman zooms to momentarily assess one individual work after another. Consequently, the onlooker is able to appreciate individual works but at the expense of allowing the curator to decide which works are worthy of close examination and for how long.
It is useful to have a spell sitting before “Mnemosyne 42” and “Aby Warburg” before strolling through the rest of “Afteratlas” because, while nominally “about” the still and moving image, both videos actually thrust the role of the curator/editor into the foreground.
A gallery on the far side of the hall – unceremoniously separating exhibits 20 and 21 – houses Gisinger’s three-minute slideshow “Jacob Burckhardt, Alterhumer (antiquity)” 2012.
The work is a guided tour through one of the weather-beaten notebooks of the eponymous Burckhardt (1818-1897), perhaps the 19th century’s most influential historian of art and culture.
The term “notebook” hardly does justice to Burckhardt’s palimpsest of a document. Though there are handwritten notes here, most of these pages are preoccupied with the scholar’s own sketches, generously supplemented by maps and drawings he scavenged from secondary sources and pasted onto the leaves of the book.
Like the whole of Burckhardt’s oeuvre, this notebook is a record of scholarly research, yet it is difficult to deny its implied resemblance to an artist book – not least given the role of research in the practices of so many contemporary artists.
The 30-odd still images that loom between Didi-Huberman’s videos and Gisinger’s slideshow range from discrete studies of art’s relationship to images to (occasionally amusing) interrogations of the place of “authenticity” in art: none of the images in this show are, after all, originals.
The stills sample artists as varied as Gerhard Richter, Walid Raad, Jean-Luc Godard, Marc Bloch and, most chillingly, the Wehrmacht.
While the reproduced images are monumental in size, in hanging them Didi-Huberman, Gisinger and the BAC have conspired to take advantage of the walls’ structural features to undermine their visual integrity – their sacred quality, if you like.
Rather than using the load-bearing columns that project from the walls as natural frames for the 33 stills, the wallpaper-like images deliberately run over them. The exhibition moves from right to left, and it is routine to find the left part of a work at the end of one wall, wrapping around the surface so that the right half of it faces the opposite direction.
“Afteratlas” is a serious and cerebral exhibition that is buoyed by Didi-Huberman and Gisinger’s sense of humor. Pieces like “Palette, display case, platform truck, frame” and “The base awaits its oeuvre” suggest gallery exhibitions exist independently of the art they’re meant to hang.
“Painting, like war, is a game of chess” references a canvas depicting a door in the midst of being painted yellow. This piece proved propitious for a young woman and her parents, who were touring the show this day.
Clad in a yellow jacket, the daughter suggested that the work makes a nice background for a portrait photograph. Carrying a professional camera, the father agreed.
“Afteratlas” is up at the Beirut Art Center until 22 March. For more information, please see beirutartcenter.org.