History Lessons


Left: Artist Walid Sadek and designer Jennifer Hage Obeid. Right: Artist Akram Zaatari with Centre Pompidou curator Clément Chéroux. (All photos: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie)

BEIRUT IS TWO HOURS FROM DAMASCUS BY CAR, an hour from Cairo by plane, and if one were to travel due south and keep going—a journey once common but currently impossible—Beirut would be a leisurely four-hour taxi ride from Gaza City, with a view to the Mediterranean all the way down the coast. But no matter how close, Beirut these days feels a world away from the revolutions and wars that have been rumbling through neighboring countries for nearly two years now. Twelve months ago, the city seemed eerily calm. Now it just seems stagnant, a sad, enervated aberration among the more hopeful strands of the so-called Arab Spring. Upheavals elsewhere in the region have only complicated Lebanon’s problems by subtracting tourism and adding serious economic strain, an idle Syrian elite, and hundreds of thousands of refugees competing for low-wage jobs that have simply vanished, sucked into the vortex of an unofficial unemployment figure that was already drifting well above 25 percent. In the meantime, the government remains as cynical, dysfunctional, and hostile to the betterment of its people as ever, and no meaningful collective movement expressing a demand or even a desire for change has materialized. “What saves you from despair in Beirut,” writes the poet and painter Etel Adnan in her book of letters, Of Cities and Women, “is the very difficulty of living in it.”

And yet, in total defiance or blind indifference to the overall grimness of the situation, the contemporary art scene here continues to grow. There are more artists, galleries, and nonprofit arts organizations than ever before. Initiatives that began as youthful ambitions and scattershot plans have matured into more or less sustainable institutions. Patrons and financial backers both clean and questionable have begun filtering into the system, offering various forms of funding and support. And still the quality of critical discourse remains bracingly high. “It’s becoming impossible to live here,” the curator Ghada Waked told me two weeks ago, as we were standing outside the opening of a splashy new gallery in Mar Mikhael. “But there is still something special about Beirut. There is an urgency to the issues and the discussion of ideas that you don’t find anywhere else.”

Left: Dealer Andree Sfeir-Semler. Right: Ashkal Alwan director Christine Tohme with Home Workspace Program resident professor Matthias Lilienthal.

That opening, for Walid Sadek’s first-ever solo exhibition at a commercial gallery, marked the start of a weeklong surge in late November, as the generation of artists who had jump-started Beirut’s art scene back in the 1990s came together again for the first time in years. In his 1991 novel Mao II, Don DeLillo described the Lebanese capital as a millennial image mill, a place where militia leaders say things like, “We do history in the morning and change it after lunch,” and a totally self-absorbed city where voices on the radio murmur: “Our only language is Beirut.” Displaced by two decades, DeLillo’s observations still held up over a handful of days punctuated by exhibitions, formal dinners, informal talks, fundraisers, and a high-voltage symposium, which was explicitly convened by the artist Akram Zaatari to reconstitute a core group of Beirut-based artists, and to write, revise, and revisit the history of what they’ve done in the twenty years since they met.

Of course, it says something about Beirut’s white-knuckled willingness to risk total failure that the exhibitions for Walid Sadek (at Galerie Tanit-Beyrouth, the new Beirut branch of Naïla Kettaneh Kunigk’s thirteen-year-old gallery in Munich) and Walid Raad (at the Sfeir-Semler Gallery in the industrial district of Karantina) were both nearly derailed by construction and customs, respectively. One of the most difficult artists of the Beirut bunch, Sadek is known for making art from texts and nearly immaterial gestures. The nimbleness of his practice ended up saving the show. On the afternoon before his opening, on November 27, the gallery, which is located on the ground floor of an unfinished apartment building, was still a construction site lacking both walls and windows. Sadek only got into the space that evening. Eight people—friends, students—spent the next seven hours working on a floor drawing. Then, at 3 AM, Sadek shook his head, shrugged his shoulders, and wiped the whole thing away. “When it’s not working, you just know,” he said the following night, when the exhibition, titled “On the Labor of Missing,” opened in a barely finished and seemingly empty space. Three works that Sadek described winningly as “furtive”—a tiny drawing, a cement bench, and a wall tag for Henri Matisse’s 1918 painting Violinist at the Window—were tucked into the more unassuming corners of the glass-and-concrete gallery.

Left: Art critic Joe Tarrab (aka The Cook) in a walkthrough by Walid Raad. Right: Beirut Art Center founders and directors Sandra Dagher and Lamia Joreige.

No one seemed to mind or be at all surprised. Lebanon’s most senior art critic, Joe Tarrab, who has been drafted as a character into Walid Raad’s ongoing project Scratching on Things I Could Disavow, declared joyously that Sadek’s artwork was the space itself, and the act of bringing us all there. Ghada Waked and the photographer Gilbert Hage congregated with their students (both teach at the Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts), including the promising young artists Yves Atallah and Joanne Issa. Nearly all of the participants in Ashkal Alwan’s Home Workspace Program, past and present, milled around the crowd, which represented a notably broad cross-section of artists and other creative types—including the filmmakers Ghassan Salhab and Gheith al-Amine, the artists Ali Cherri and Hatem Imam, the designers Karen Chekerdjian and Jennifer Hage Obeid, the singer Hamed Sinno of the band Mashrou’ Leila, and the curators Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, who did their best Gilbert and George impression (“a young Gilbert and George,” Fellrath stressed. “Very young”), before dashing off to a gala dinner hosted by APEAL, the organization responsible for Lebanon’s national pavilion at the forthcoming Venice Biennale.

Two nights later, on November 29, Raad’s second solo show opened at Sfeir-Semler with an installation so elegant it completely masked the fact that the works had been stuck in customs for weeks, and had been only set loose and delivered to the gallery forty-eight hours earlier. After repeated laps around the cavernous space, filled with the artist’s ongoing series on the history of modern and contemporary art in the Arab world, the crowd decamped to Mayrig, an Armenian-Aleppan restaurant in Gemmayzeh, where I squished into a corner table with Raad, his sister Myrna (Lebanon’s reigning golf champ), the curator Rasha Salti, the artists Tony Chakar and Rayyane Tabet (who was Raad’s student at the Cooper Union), Tamara Corm of Pace London and the Museum of Everything (who also sits on Ashkal Alwan’s board), and my former Bidoun colleague Antonia Carver, the director of Art Dubai, who was in town for a flash visit.

Left: Artist Jean-Luc Moulène. Right: Artist Ali Cherri with filmmaker Ghassan Salhab.

Carver and I opted out of the debauchery to follow at Django, the default dive bar of this particular faction of the art set, to rest up for “History of the Last Things Before the Last: Art as Writing History.” Zaatari organized the symposium, which began the next morning in the incredible factory space in Jisr al-Wati that houses Ashkal Alwan, with Centre Pompidou curator Clément Chéroux. For the next two days, a hearty audience packed in for an earthy interview with the artist Jean-Luc Moulène, a slightly more disconnected talk by the art historian and philosopher Georges Didi-Huberman, and panel discussions revisiting key works by Raad, Chakar, Khalil Joreige, Ghassan Salhab (including a beautiful excerpt from his film 1958), Lamia Joreige, Marwan Rechmaoui (who rarely divulges his working process in public), Ali Cherri (clear-sighted on his recent video installation Pipe Dreams), and Marwa Arsanios (who delivered a lovely talk on her ongoing project All About Acapulco).

Inspired by the writer Siegfried Kracauer’s analogy between the work of photographers and historians, the gist of the symposium was to propose that the artists of Zaatari’s generation were, in effect, writing the history of their time and place in Beirut, not only in the absence of any official histories in Lebanon, but also because facts had proven so slippery that history had become a highly subjective entity suitable to artistic and more specifically photographic practice. This was all well and good until Chéroux asked a clumsy question—“Why does the civil war manifest itself so strongly in architecture?”—which, no matter how many times he rephrased it in English and French, could not stop the sound of a train sliding off its rails. From that point on, everyone was defensive, as in, “Why is the war so present? Let me tell you.” After the second day was done, one curator remarked, not unreasonably, that the participants from the Centre Pompidou, who coordinated the symposium with the Arab Image Foundation and admirably managed to do so despite last-minute cancellations, had mostly been “a nuisance” during an otherwise productive conversation.

Left: Arab Image Foundation director Zeina Arida. Right: Artist Arno Gisinger with art historian and philosopher Georges Didi-Huberman.

“I wanted to bring the artists of my generation back together to talk about their work,” Zaatari said simply, when I asked what had been at stake for him in arranging the event. “Because we don’t meet anymore, or if we do, we meet as friends and we don’t discuss what we do.” On this front, the symposium was a success, and the talk of generations had a galvanizing effect on artists ten to fifteen years younger than Zaatari and his peers. “We come to everything they do,” said one such artist, who divides her time between Beirut and Berlin. “Every show, every talk, we’re there. When I see artists younger than me in Berlin, I wonder what kind of music they listen to, what they’re interested in, because I know they’re cooler than me. This generation of artists will never look at us like that,” she said, “because we follow them everywhere.”

As the discussion drifted out into the night, I realized the symposium also had a structural problem: The artists were mostly from Lebanon, the historians were all from France. No mention had been made of that dynamic. A few notable voices had been missing—the artists Rabih Mroué, Lina Saneh, and Jalal Toufic—but even more painful by their absence were the historians Kamal Salibi, who passed away last year, and Samir Kassir, the charismatic journalist and author of a majestic, six-hundred-page history of Beirut, who was killed in a car-bomb blast in 2005. Twenty years ago, just as Zaatari and co. were starting out, Kassir published a gutsy book on the civil war. He told an interviewer at the time that the hard work of writing Lebanon’s history was “something all the Lebanese have to do if they want to build a political society which is not based on lies.” For the art scene in Beirut to be anything more than anomalous or anachronistic, it might have to start taking that task seriously, not only as the subject of a symposium but also as the stuff of real life.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie

Left: Collectors Elham and Tony Salamé. Right: Curators Till Fellrath and Sam Bardaouil.

Left: Artist Marwan Rechmaoui. Right: Lunch in the Home Workspace.

Left: Architect Bechara Malkoun with artist Marwa Arsanios of 98 Weeks and Setareh Shahbazi of Spectral Days. Right: Artists Joanne Issa and Yves Atallah.

Left: Artist and architect Tony Chakar. Right: Musician Hamed Sinno of Mashrou3 Leila with an artwork by Walid Sadek.

Left: Artists Ghassan Maasri and Ahmad Ghossein. Right: Artist and filmmaker Gheith al-Amine.

Left: Artist and filmmaker Nesrine Khodr. Right: Curator Amanda Abi Khalil with Nayla Tamraz of Université Saint-Joseph.

Left: Stefan Tarnowski of the Home Workspace Program with artist Paola Yacoub. Right: Artist Hatem Imam.