On the ghosts of artworks past

BEIRUT: “Despite being abandoned,” recalls the unnamed narrator in Fadi Tufayli’s “Paragraphs from a Blink Map,” Qasr Heneine “contained the presence of some hidden movement, the specters of which appeared within its darkened windows.”

“When Saleh touched one of its smooth surfaces, a fine layer of the reddening plaster surface peeled away to reveal the sandy stones that made up the castle’s walls and pillars. He began to smile ... It was as though he was reading a secret text, a coded message in the sandstone, which appeared suddenly with the touch of his hand, that instrument of his vivid and refined vision.”

Lodged between autobiographical fiction and an urban history of the Beirut quarter of Zuqaq al-Blat, Tufayli’s piece is among those included in “Spectral Imprints.” The book, recently launched at Ashkal Alwan’s Home Workspace, also resides in the space between document and artfully rendered recollection.

Edited by Rotterdam-based curator Nat Muller, this 160-page work documents a short-lived exhibition of five works by artists from the fictive “Menasa” (Middle East North Africa South Asia) region – Pakistan’s Risham Syed, Lebanon’s Raed Yassin, Palestine’s Taysir Batniji, Egypt’s Wael Shawky and Lebanese duo Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige.

The exhibition, itself called “Spectral Imprints,” was held during the 2012 edition of ArtDubai, the emirate’s yearly art fair. The five projects arose from a pot of money the artists got from the emirate’s Abraaj Capital Art Prize, one of the fair’s prestigious side events.

The book is the ghost of that exhibition. Of what use, you might ask, is a book about an exhibition that ran less than a week, one whose individual works (being privately and exclusively owned) perhaps may not be exhibited in public again?

Awarded since 2009, ACAP originally saw monies awarded to individual artist-curator teams. The free-standing works the teams created were then displayed independently of one another during ArtDubai.

Two years later, recipient artists were asked to work with a single curator. Muller, ACAP’s 2012 curator, decided to build a cohesive exhibition around the artists’ works.

A veteran of the MENA art scene, Muller was well placed to find and conceptualize the thematic commonalities in these artists’ works, giving “Spectral Imprints” the sort of critical rigor often ascribed to world-class exhibitions.

Consequently, though not all the works in “Spectral Imprints” were necessarily the most profound pieces these artists had ever produced, the aesthetic weight of the exhibition was greater than the sum of its parts.

Syed’s “The Seven Seas” is a series of four quilts made of fabric collected in Turkey, Bangladesh, the UAE, Sri Lanka, the U.K., India and Pakistan. They depict 19th- and 20th-century maps of the port cities of Izmir, Colombo, Mumbai and Ras al-Khaimah. The works connect contemporary geopolitics with the Britain’s cotton trade of the last two centuries, interweaving the history of textile production with tales of political resistance.

Yassin’s “China” is comprised of a series of seven china pots, produced at China’s porcelain capital of Jingdezhen, all depicting key battles of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 Civil War, all rendered in the manner of Persian miniatures.

In 1985, Taysir Batniji celebrated his brother’s wedding with his family in Gaza. Two years later, his brother was killed by an Israeli sniper. In an effort to represent his personal loss, to render the absent tangible, Batniji etched a series of inkless “drawings” on paper, based on family photos of his brother’s wedding. The result is “To My Brother” a series of 60 hand carvings from photographs on paper.

Hadjithomas and Joreige’s “A Letter Can Always Reach its Destination” is a video installation based on the artists’ decade-old collection of SPAM and SCAM emails soliciting cash donations from their recipients and often promising easy riches.

The artists transformed their textual source material into visual narratives enacted as monologues by nonprofessional actors.

Much of Shawky’s recent work has been interested by the process of transition embodied in the Crusades. “A Glimpse of Clean History” is modeled on a painting by the French artist Jean Fouquet (1420-1481), depicting Pope Urban II’s 1098 sermon, which is thought to have helped provoke the First Crusade. Shawky’s version of the painting is a medieval marionette theater, which recreates the painting’s figures as ceramic dolls.

The principal shortcoming of publications like “Spectral Imprints” is that they are no substitute for eyeballing the work in situ. That said, the volume – designed by Beirut-born Huda Smitshuijzen-AbiFares, the founder of Holland’s Khatt Foundation – is itself a handsome vessel.

AbiFares and Muller are generous in number of pages allotted to photographic reproductions – of both works in development and finished pieces.

As a practical companion to the exhibition, “Spectral Imprints” includes Muller’s detailed interviews with the artists about the creation of these works and how they relate to their broader artistic practices. These provide interesting, entertaining insights into the artists’ practical imaginations.

To add layers of aesthetic and critical complexity to the exhibition, Muller commissioned three new texts composed in response to the works.

In “Imaginal Materials,” Canadian art theorist Laura U Marks argues that artists be liberated from the burden of representation, that their imagined works be allowed an existence autonomous of the “factual” material reality that inspires it.

These works, she writes, “are not documents: they are physical expressions of an imagined (not fictional) past. They crystallize the imagined past in objects, just as one can extrude hitherto impossible forms from algorithms using a 3-D printer.”

Coming from the other side of the critical universe “Writing Back to History: Take Two,” by London-based Palestinian-Lebanese theorist Hanan Toukan, borrows from Foucauldian notions of archaeology to argue that these works examine “the discursive traces and orders left by the past in order to write a ‘history of the present’ ... In a time when art and revolution are increasingly connected, the works in this exhibition subtly remind us that the political urgency that captures our contemporary imagination is part of fragile and fleeting moments that contribute to the snowball effect of history.”

Discussions of urban morphology are invariably figurative. “Paragraphs from a Blind Map,” Tufayli’s fictive memoir of Zuqaq al-Blat swerves off this discursive track, not recollecting the quarter visually, but in olfactory and tactile terms.

“Spectral Imprints” is available

for purchase at the Beirut Art Center and online from IDEA Books:

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 05, 2013, on page 16.




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