“Who reads newspapers after the day is over?”
Nadia Sehnaoui pauses for half a second, as if remembering. “Besides those fascist researchers sitting in archives? Breathing in all that dust.”
She gestures briefly at the walls. “Here I’m proposing that something that is thrown away so easily maybe should not be thrown away.”
Mounted on each wall is the better part of a month of news in the form of front pages from L’Orient-Le Jour. The news does not appear as it was printed. The black and white is augmented by further layers of color, image and text. This is the substance of Sehnaoui’s latest exhibition at Galerie Epreuve d’Artiste Peindre L’Orient-Le Jour, Annee 1999.
The installation treats the covers of L’Orient-Le Jour as palimpsests canvasses effaced of their original meaning and reused to say something else.
The practice was common in medieval Europe, when the forebears of Western culture forgot how to make paper, and the calf skins used for writing materials were too expensive to lie around unused or thrown away.
Sehnaoui’s tampering is more selective. Some stories and photographs, sometimes the bulk of a page, are struck from the public record. Others often pulled from the deeper recesses of the newspaper are highlighted by color and image and thus given a prominence originally denied them.
Sometimes they get the artist’s editorial comments. Thus the headline “Naomi Campbell a Beyrouth” (Naomi Campbell in Beirut) is greeted with “et alors?” (so what?).
The installation is at once subversion and creative censorship. Applying rich color, block-print and free-hand images or extra text to news’ black-and-white medium renders a portion of the paper decorative, defacing the pain of recorded events.
Moving “buried” stories to the front page effectively shifts the priorities of the public record, and history.
It all began with a 1991 story in the Boston Globe. An insignificant one, it seems, as it was lodged somewhere in the bowels of the newspaper and got about 7 centimeters of column space.
“It was a list of Lebanese civil war statistics. The number of dead. Wounded. Disappeared.”
Sehnaoui shakes her head. “I could not believe so little space could be devoted to such a long war, to so many people.”
Her career as a conceptual artist, she says, has been a response to that peculiar treatment of this particular list of statistics which inspired her first series of installations.
Peindre L’Orient gives that career some symmetry, as the show puts the Boston Globe clipping into context.
“Ages ago I wrote an MA in history on the Westernization of daily life in 19th-century Beirut I read about what people did and put it on paper.
“What I’m doing here is a reversal of that. I’ve taken somebody else’s words, the work of these 100 or God knows how many people, and added my input … Myself, I suppose.”
“So why L’Orient-Le Jour?”
“I started reading L’Orient-Le Jour when I was 13, and I’ve been a serious reader ever since. Especially newspapers, which I read cover-to-cover every day.
“Also I think that, as a foreign-language newspaper, perhaps it has more freedom to speak the truth. About the Israeli withdrawal, about the Syrian presence, and so on. I have sympathies with it.”
Sehnaoui says the installation is about process. The process begins with reading the paper.
“I read the articles and decide if I want to recompose the front page or not. Sometimes I don’t. Most times I do. Then I go to work on the page. But it’s never finished by the end of the day. You always have to take it up the next day to see what you’ve said. You probably add to it. Maybe change it completely.
“Then after you’ve finished with all the individual days of the month, you have to look at them as an organic whole. This year of mine, it took a year and eight months to complete.”
Some of the months are given special treatment. November will not be found on the walls. Instead it sits neatly shredded in a bowl, an installation called Ras-le bol (Fed Up).
December also stands out. Sehnaoui says the West’s obsession with the turn of the millennium simply struck her as a drizzle of white noise. Most of the days of December are thus reduced to the original white, but for the odd story or headline as if struck blank.
The most familiar day in the exhibition is April 13.
“I was working on April and part way through it occurred to me that my mind wasn’t on my work. I kept remembering that phrase from TS Eliot, ‘April is the cruelest month.’
“April was a cruel month in this country. The war began on April 13, 1975. Nothing on April 13, 1999, could mean anything.
“That’s why this page is the one from 1975. I’ve painted on it but I haven’t altered any of the texts. Except one. I added the 7-centimeter column from the Boston Globe. It was sitting on my desk for 8 years waiting for me to use it.
“Now finally it can end,” she smiles, “I hope.”
Peindre L’Orient-Le Jour, Annee 1999, is at Galerie Epreuve d’Artiste on Rue Sursock until Dec. 9