BEIRUT: Virginia Woolf’s last novel was published in 1941, shortly after her suicide. Entitled “Between the Acts,” it describes the preparation and performance of a play about England’s history held at a country manor.
The audience sits through the historical re-enactments in the opening scenes, but are confused when they reach the final act, entitled “The Present Time. Ourselves,” in which nothing happens.
When the performers appear onstage holding mirrors, confronting the crowd with their own reflections, they realize the playwright is depicting the present by showing them themselves.
Woolf’s book serves as the inspiration behind Marie Muracciole’s three-year plan for the Beirut Art Center (BAC). The French art critic, historian and curator took over as director of the Jisr al-Wati space in February, replacing co-founders Sandra Dagher and Lamia Joreige.
Since then, Muracciole has been overseeing the last few exhibitions in the previous directors’ program, which included the recent solo show by Algerian artist Kader Attia and the upcoming exhibition by Italian artist Giuseppe Penone.
She’s in the midst of organizing “Exposure,” the BAC’s annual emerging artists exhibition – scheduled for December and January – which she will stage, for the first time, as a curated show.
Early next year, she’ll launch her own program of exhibitions, centered on the concepts of identity and representation.
“I have a kind of score for my program for the next two years and from then I will see what I will do,” she explains. “I had to decide it very quickly. The beginning of my program is in February 2015 and I’ve decided to give it a general title for two years, which is ‘Present Times.’ I took it from ‘Between the Acts.’”
Muracciole is intrigued by the book’s making the audience gaze back upon itself.
“These two scenes are very important for me and they relate to many things in contemporary art and also in contemporary history,” she says. “I think it [says a lot] about time-based art ... I won’t [only feature] performance, but will [emphasize] the relationship between visual art and dance and how dance in the past, and now in many other ways, is interacting with visual art.”
The act of holding up mirrors, she notes, has been echoed in political protests and in the photography projects they spawned.
In Allan Sekula’s “Waiting for Tear Gas,” for instance, the artist photographed students during protests in Seattle as they held up mirrors, forcing policemen to confront their own reflections.
She also cites a famous photograph by Alfredo Jarr, exhibited at the BAC in 2012, which captures students holding up mirrors during the French demonstrations in May 1968.
“I like the idea that inside of a conflict, instead of just hurting yourself, you look from the other side,” she says, “so you can really have a discussion.”
“I’ve organized this first year [around] the relationship between something that is only in time,” Muracciole adds, “like film, like dance’s relationship with art. The second year will be more focused on sound and music’s relationship with visual art ... What I like is the conflictual aspect of these relationships.
“I’ve also decided to turn more toward Africa ... I don’t want to close the door to Europe, but I want to create circulation between African countries and here.”
Muracciole’s first four exhibitions have been mapped out well in advance. “The first show is going to be called ‘The Unfinished Conversation,’” she says. “It’s the title of a beautiful video installation by [Ghanaian-English artist] John Akomfrah. He made this work about [cultural theorist] Stuart Hall ... Hall died last year so it’s a good way also to pay him homage. At the same time we’ll show works by Penny Siopis, who is South African, and Zineb Zedira who is Algerian.
“The whole show will be about how identity is something that you constantly have to construct. It’s not something that is given by your nationality, your race or your family or anything else. You have to manage many different things. This was the idea of Hall when he spoke about an ‘unfinished conversation.’ It’s an unfinished conversation with the world.
“The actual show will be downstairs. Upstairs, where I have decided not to go on with BAC Design [the design platform that’s been staged in the BAC’s upstairs gallery since the space early days], there will be some actual round tables. [That] means everybody will have a big, round table to put documents and images on, under glass, and we’ll make a roundtable around it. The public will be invited to discuss some special points weekly.”
Her second scheduled show is a solo exhibition by Cypriot artist Christodoulos Panayiotou.
“Cyprus is a very interesting country because it’s nearby, just half an hour away [yet] it’s Europe,” she notes “And they had this very strange, interesting story about identity and Christodoulos has made a few very good works about this. I think it’s interesting to look at this situation of inventing a national identity, but not from here. Because I’m French, I can’t step here and say, ‘Well I know about you, here it is.’
“The third show is going to be called ‘Aftercinema’ ... It’s going to be three different artists who are taking cinema as a primary material and making something totally different.”
The exhibition will feature work by Palestinian filmmaker Kamal Aljafari, who is working on a series of photographs documenting the Israeli “cinematic occupation” of his hometown of Jaffa, as well as Jumana Mana’s series of sculptures inspired by film footage of young men in east Jerusalem. Veteran French dancer and choreographer La Ribot will also be exhibiting work exploring the stories of extras who appeared in famous Hollywood movies.
The climax of Muracciole’s first year program will be an interactive exhibition by French dancer and choreographer Xavier Le Roy. In a work entitled “Retrospective,” Le Roy will work with local dancers to create a show in which dancers will approach visitors to talk to them about the history of dance and demonstrate movements.
Muracciole says that she is keen to build strong links with other local cultural institutions, such as Ashkal Alwan, and intends to place a major emphasis on attracting new visitors to BAC and diversifying its audience.
As part of this plan, she intends to transform the upstairs of the art center into an educational space, featuring regular roundtables and workshops and to work closely with teachers and children at local schools.
“This is the way we can change some people’s lives,” she says, “when children go to a museum where their parents would never take them and they see things that they would never have imagined.”
Regular concerts are also intended to be part of the program, Muracciole says, adding that she is working with experimental musician Sharif Sehnaoui on a program.
While Beirut is chaotic, she says, she appreciates the flexible approach toward programming and the creative freedom she has been given over the space, something she says would be hard to come by in France. Muracciole is discovering that in Beirut “everything is impossible,” she says, “but everything is also possible.”