BEIRUT: “Arabic Home Interiors, Volume I,” is so small it’s virtually comic. Playing out on a mobile phone-sized screen, Vartan Avakian’s video installation is minute enough to make the false wall that frames it look vast. Only one person can view it properly at a time, which – given the work’s genre antecedents – seems appropriate.The piece is comprised of a slow-moving, uneventful, montage. The camera pans over one wall of a bedroom, rising from the bed to the cupboards and shiny red drapes. The scene cuts to another shot of a hallway, at the end of which is a door that the camera never seems to reach. Elsewhere, a bed is more or less in order, save the butt end of a pillow protruding from a pillowcase dappled with Hallmark-style hearts.
The fruit of four years research, Avakian’s work draws upon the vast oeuvre of amateur adult movies. Shot around the Arab world with a variety of consumer-quality audio-visual equipment – from VHS tape on up – these low-resolution home videos have found an Internet audience.
Whether you have a soft spot for porn or not, “Arabic Home Interiors” compels onlookers to recall the convenient marriage of coitus and the moving image. As is well known, commercial cinema’s approximations of intercourse are ironically at odds with real sex, because maneuvers that arouse visually don’t necessarily feel that great in practice, and vice versa.
The point of porn, by contrast, is expert explicitness – action sequences of sweaty-looking coitus, marked by extreme close-ups and money shots – an expertise later embraced by TV cooking shows. Homemade porn can only aspire to expert explicitness, generally lapsing into comedy or something more sordid.
Carefully excising the “point” of amateur porn – Avakian’s montage is utterly devoid of human beings, let alone sex – “Arabic Home Interiors” focuses only on the tracking shots: the amateur filmmakers’ efforts to emulate the arty interstitial bridges designed to build suspense (or something) for the observer-voyeur.
These moments between events obviously resonate in Beirut – where people measure out their lives in power cuts and (lately) car bombs. As a study of the in-between, Avakian’s work also echoes the importance of absence – an abiding preoccupation of contemporary art since at least the 1950s, when the West first fell in love with mediated sound and image.
“Arabic Home Interiors” occupies one of the six surfaces set aside to host “Whistling in the Dark,” the five-person group show, curated by Aischa Berg, most of whose artists are, or have been, associated with Ashkal Alwan’s Home Workspace program.
The exhibition is hosted by Workshop Gallery. About the size of a studio flat kitchenette, this Jisr al-Basha alcove probably has the distinction of being the smallest contemporary art space in the greater Beirut area.
Both the title, “Whistling in the Dark,” and the works it showcases offer a cogent reminder of the estranged relationship between visual art and storytelling.
One position, long-held and not without critical footing, has it that an artwork ought to stand on its own. If that portrait of Uncle Rustom glowering down upon the supper table – or the landscape of some rural idyll, painted on an ersatz Lebanese window shutter – needed explaining, partisans of this view say, then it’s not art.
It’s a position that has been superseded by contemporary art exhibition practices, which employ narrative liberally. A show’s exhibit tags are likely to include an individual work’s title, media and dimensions complemented by miniature essays. Exhibition catalogues tend to have images of the works operate in counterpoint with artists’ remarks or curatorial essays.
Such writing is useful. Gormless members of the public – curious to know why a canvas painted a uniform shade of blue is worth millions of dollars, or how a deceased house cat (splayed into Superman pose, stuffed and equipped with remote-controlled propellers) is “art” – sometimes want to know, “What’s the meaning of this?”
Joe Namy’s “Constellations” (2012) is deceptively freighted with narrative. The subject of this portrait-shaped black-and-white photo is one of those transparent plastic cases designed to hold cassette tapes, its surface scratched and smeared with fingerprints and other detritus of use.
Excluding indecently young onlookers, few will wonder what the object represented here is. Yet to shrug off the image as meaningless is to ignore what a cassette tape case signifies in the still-young history of sound documentation, and the vital place it has occupied in the standardization, commodification and diffusion of analogue music recordings – which since the digital revolution have come to acquire a patina of “retro.”
Something similar might be said about the sculptural installation of Ilaria Lupo. The work bears various names in various languages, depending on which exhibit tag you stumble upon. One English-language tag reads, “The forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest.”
The work replicates a charming low-tech approach to home security: Cement is trowelled atop the wall that surrounds your house and planted with shards of broken glass – consensus preferring smashed beer and soda bottles.
Lupo’s security measure has been mounted atop the false wall separating the exhibition niche from the commercial design space out of which it’s been carved. Is the exhibition’s decidedly noncommercial art being protected from the design-buying general public, you wonder, or vice versa?
Maeve Brennan’s video installation “Core Sample” (2012) is really two works with one title.
Projected against the inside of the gallery’s front window is the image of a stone that appears to ignite around the edges. In the alcove abutting the exhibition niche is a table topped with a rectangular basin, into which has been poured enough motor oil to make the surface reflective. Upon it is projected a (non-Arabic) home interior, the camera gradually zooming on a stone object (the core sample in question) at its center.
“Core Sample” is actually the fruit of a fascinating research project the artist undertook into the oil-bearing rocks in County Dorset, England, which introduced her to the geologist who, having made an important oil find in the region, was written out of history by the Thatcher regime.
Brennan’s core narrative stands at some distance from the imaginative work she’s created, but it is at a more mature stage of development than Daniel Barroca’s “Notes on the vibration of the nervous system.”
Visually intriguing and utterly inaccessible, the work is comprised of a number of pencil-on-paper sketches, the most cogent of which are geometry-defying webs of dot-connecting straight lines.
The written ruminations accompanying Barroca’s sketches describe his inquiries into how erasure and cancellation “can underlie the value of memory and things in themselves” and how perception is conditioned by the context and media through which an object is received, questions accentuated by the artist’s move from Lisbon to Beirut.
Barroca’s sketches are opaque, whether you’re innocent of their relationship to his musings or not. Yet his ideas bristle with a curiosity and intelligence that may yet be sublimated into profound artistic expression, something more pertinent to contemporary experience than a portrait of a scowling uncle.
“Whistling in the Dark” is up at the Workshop Gallery until 1 March. For more information, see www.workshop-gallery.com.