Immortality on display, in 54 boxes

BEIRUT: When the living recall the dead with fondness, as sometimes happens, it’s not unusual to honor their memory. Memorials can be as idiosyncratic as the imagination of the one doing the remembering. Take the case of the “Orvillecopter.”

At the 2012 edition of KunstRai, Amsterdam’s annual art fair, Dutch artist Bart Jansen unveiled a work he described as a memorial to his beloved cat, Orville. The artist had stuffed the beast – its pelt stretched out like a miniature tiger-skin rug – and mounted propellers on its four paws. With the aid of a remote control, Jansen’s memorial gave the gift of flight to his former feline friend.

The work had its detractors. While some found the concept playful and charming – gleefully glutting social media with photos of the airborne Orville – those with more conservative sensibilities derided Jansen’s gesture as a stunt. Sentimental cat lovers condemned the work as a form of animal abuse.

As its title suggests, “A Museum of Immortality,” the exhibition now gracing the central hall of Ashkal Alwan’s Home Workspace, is a study of that most radical form of memorial: resurrection.

Anton Vidokle, one of two resident professors at the Homeworks academy this year, organized this noncurated show, issuing an open call to artists – a cosmopolitan roster of Homeworks academy students and teachers – to create an installation immortalizing an extinct individual.

Of the 60 proposals, organizers selected 54 by pulling names from a hat. The only formal restriction on the contributions was that each work must fit within one of the 54 vitrines created to display them: wooden boxes – usually glass-fronted or glass-topped – whose dimensions approximate those of a coffin.

A wide array of media has been brought to bear in this exhibition.

There are objects and the odd USB-computer interface – and one work is exclusively tactile – but images and texts predominate. The latter range from handwritten notes to excerpts of texts to novels. The former include original and reproduced sketches, paintings and photographs, though – this being a postgraduate school of contemporary art – visitors will find a variety of video screens as well.

Though each component is prominently numbered (1-54), the show is not numerically arranged. Consequently it’s the modular design – credited to Nikolaus Hirsch and Michel Mueller – that conditions how works are received. Individual pieces can be absorbed both in their own terms and in juxtaposition with adjacent works.

One cluster, for instance, includes works by Jalal Toufic (who shares the professorial burden with Vidokle) and his collaboration with Graziella Rizkallah Toufic.

Toufic chose to reiterate his 41-minute, 2006 video “Mother and Son; or, That Obscure Object of Desire (Scenes from an Anamorphic Double Feature),” which interweaves audio and video elements of two apparently quite distinct films – Aleksandr Sukurov’s 1997 “Mother and Son” and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” from 1960. Shards of both films move across a flat-screen monitor, which shares its vitrine with the carcass of a wasp.

Above and to the right is Rizkallah Toufic’s “Victoria Rizkallah; or, The Sticking Out Hair.” A far more intimate video work (playing out on a tablet screen), it juxtaposes shots of the deceased Rizkallah’s open casket with scenes in which a tweezers-wielding young woman removes unwanted hairs from the still-living Rizkallah’s face. Alongside the tablet, a few white face hairs adorn a square of black foam, alongside a pair of tweezers.

No restrictions were imposed upon the selection of personages. Some artists chose more or less obscure historical persons.

Stefan Bakmand Andersen’s compilation of images of, and texts by and about, a thinker from antiquity called Stephanus of Byzantium has a patina of Google about it.

Amal Issa’s “Hope This Letter Finds You Well,” on the other hand, is an affecting altar to Abdel-Nasser Issa (1957-76), a relative killed at the start of Lebanon’s Civil War. His mortal remains rest in the cemetery of Shatila Camp, but a bureaucratic error misplaced his precise location.

For his “How to Say Goodbye,” Tony Chakar has stacked within a vitrine the collection of cassette tapes he can no longer use, thanks to the updated technology in his new car.

Mingling aspects of archive, library and trash can, Octavian Esanu’s “Untitled” seeks to resurrect the community of people that constitutes a particular individual (again himself), “including things made, produced, listed, documented or simply thrown away by people and beings that surround me.”

The premise of “A Museum of Immortality,” as proposed by art critic and media theorist Boris Groys, is the idiosyncratic model of memorial proposed by Russian philosopher Nikolai Fyodorovich Fedorov (1828-1903).

Fedorov saw mortality as the principal bane to the perfectibility of mankind, one that all of humanity should be unified in struggling against – the Common Cause, as he termed it – and was an advocate of bending scientific research to the task of radically extending life spans, with the goal of physical immortality and resurrection of the dead.

Given these premises, the single most entertaining work in this show is Alicja Rogalska’s “The Droste Effect (Lebanese Mormon Society),” which juxtaposes a contemporary view of immortality with that of Fedorov.

It takes its cue from a Wired magazine report that in a secure, subterranean vault, the “Mormon Church has squirreled away the world’s largest collection of genealogical material: more than 2 million microfilm reels ... [holding] around 2 billion names, a sizable portion of the total number of people who have ambled through recorded history.”

Rogalska’s vitrine holds a tablet-sized screen relating, with lacerating wit, the research initiative inspired by her discovery.

She inquired whether the Mormon vault included the name of Nikolai Fyodorovich Fedorov. As it does not, she undertakes a conversation with churchmen about whether he ought to be included. This amusing dialogue is represented in subtitles across a Google Maps-style search for the location of the church’s Utah vault.

They don’t appear to have understood the joke.

“A Museum of Immortality” is up at Ashkal Alwan’s Home Workspace until July 18. For more information, please see

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 19, 2014, on page 16.




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