So You Think You Can Dance

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie at the 7th Home Works in Beirut

Left: Artists Yasmine Dubois Ziai and Brian William Rogers. Right: Ashkal Alwan director Christine Tohme with artist Ahmad Ghoussein. (All photos: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie)

AT THE END OF MAO II (1991), Don DeLillo’s prescient yet strangely underappreciated novel of art, terrorism, and mass hysteria, a New York photographer named Brita turns up in Beirut’s southern suburbs to photograph a shadowy militia leader called Abu Rashid. It’s the later stages of the civil war, and Brita is on assignment, winding her way through destroyed buildings and a stubbornly vibrant street life. “Her driver is a man about sixty who pronounces the second b in bomb,” writes DeLillo. “He has used the word about eleven times and she waits for it now, softly repeating it after him. The bomb. The bombing. People in Lebanon must talk about nothing but Lebanon and in Beirut it is clearly all Beirut.”

This passage pushed into the forefront of my brain two weeks ago and has stayed there ever since. The bomb. The bombing. As it happened, on November 12, I was late for the opening of Home Works 7, the most recent iteration of an event featuring talks, lectures, performances, debates, exhibitions, film programs, and more, which the pioneering arts organization Ashkal Alwan has been holding every few years since 2002. It was a Thursday evening, and the two main exhibitions—one an earthy study of bodies and materials called “On Water, Rosemary, and Mercury,” curated by Ashkal Alwan’s founding director, Christine Tohme; the other, media-savvy and cerebral, titled “What Hope Looks Like After Hope (On Constructive Alienation)” and assembled by Alexandria-based curator Bassam El Baroni—weren’t quite ready. A performance by Brian William Rogers and Yasmine Dubois Ziai, which would never overcome its technical difficulties, was delayed by an hour. The energy in the old furniture factory that Ashkal Alwan calls home was more agitated than festive.

Left: Curator Reem Fadda with artist Marwan Rechmaoui. Right: Curator Bassam El Baroni with Amal Issa.

Why? Two explosions had just ripped through the mixed, densely populated district of Burj al-Barajneh, in the southern suburbs, right as commuters were coming home from work and families were gathering for dinner. As Tohme was welcoming the crowd and setting the news in context (two suicide bombings, a third thwarted, and a fourth escaped, all claimed by the Islamic State as a move against working-class Shiites and a message to Hezbollah regarding its support for Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war), her colleague Garine Aivazian told me twenty people had been killed. By the time I climbed up to the roof to see Marwan Rechmaoui’s Blazon—a magisterial new mapping of Beirut and “the war to come” through a vast collection of flags representing neighborhood affinities and divisions therein—and returned to the ground floor to check on the performance, dealer Saleh Barakat told me the number had risen to thirty. It reached above forty as I called it a night, the second b in bombing sounding louder and louder in my mind.

And the sad thing is—Home Works is always like this. There is always a disaster just passed, happening now, or about to occur. For previous editions, it was the outbreak of the second intifada; the invasion of Iraq; the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister, Rafik Hariri; the 2006 war with Israel; and fighting in the streets between Hezbollah and rival forces, including Hariri’s political movement, Tayyar al-Mustaqbal. For that reason, and because the disturbances that characterize everyday life in Beirut have become so routine, Home Works tends to happen when it can and, among artists and other such intellectuals, when it needs to, or when the various conflicts in the area known euphemistically as “the situation” have become complicated enough to demand some articulation through questions, a gathering of friends, and a good two weeks of discussions anchored to works of art and discursive propositions that are often, and by necessity, more speculative than polished.

Of course this time around it wasn’t only Lebanon but the whole world that had turned upside down. The night after the explosions in Burj al-Barajneh, there were the Paris attacks, and then, a few days later, the hotel siege in Mali. Brussels was on lockdown. Russia announced (note, did not threaten but merely stated) that it was closing Lebanon’s airspace for military drills. By the time of the party marking the end of the event last Tuesday, Turkey had shot down a Russian jet over Syria (and then, as if it were some terrible video game, local rebels shot and killed the pilot as he was parachuting down to the ground). At that point a friend who had worked on at least five of the fifteen films screened for Home Works 7 asked me earnestly: “Are we basically celebrating one last time before the start of World War III?”

Left: Documenta 14 artistic director Adam Szymczyk. Right: Artists Natascha Sadr Haghighian and Setareh Shahbazi.

Amazingly, for all that, there were only two cancellations in the entire program. The local public was robust, and young, which may be because Ashkal Alwan has also become in the past five years an experimental art school, which in turn drew students from all across town. Among the visitors, there were few mercenaries in evidence. No one seemed to be shopping for a future show, or paying fealty to a patron (that was the month before). It was mostly a collection of familiar and/or fearless friends. In the latter camp were key members of Team Documenta 14: artistic director Adam Szymczyk and curators Paul B. Preciado and Pierre Bal-Blanc. Among the former, the curators Catherine David, Maria Lind, and Corinne Diserens; Achim Borchardt-Hume from Tate Modern; Giovanni Carmine from Kunsthalle St. Gallen; Tamara Corm from Pace; Aleya Hamza from Gypsum in Cairo; Antonia Carver from Art Dubai; and Farida Sultan from the Sultan Gallery in Kuwait.

The artist Hassan Khan was in town from Cairo. Francis Alÿs, showing The Silence of Ani, was visiting from Mexico City. The writer Stephen Wright flew in from a shell-shocked Paris. Mai Abu ElDahab, of Mophradat (Arabic for vocabulary, and the new name of the organization formerly known as the Young Arab Theater Fund) came for a few days from Brussels, as did the curators Samar Kedhy and Khadija El Bennaoui, from a museum in Marseilles and an art center in Ghent, respectively. The curator Koyo Kouoh was in Beirut because the organization she founded four years ago in Dakar, Raw Material Company, was getting ready to launch an event not unlike Home Works. “The art scene in Senegal isn’t as vibrant as it is here,” she told me thoughtfully, “but we have a long history of criticality,” a rare thing anywhere. How did it happen? “We had a poet as president”—Léopold Sédar Senghor, the founder of Négritude—“for over twenty years.”

After the first edition of Home Works, in 2002, Tohme wrote a kind of open letter about the intellectual figures whom the forum had called forth. “For long decades, we only translated into Arabic the books produced by the West that we deemed convenient,” it went. Only recently had they begun “to place the seriousness of ideas and preoccupations as the criteria for calling upon a certain intellectual, from the far ends of the earth, to come and present her/his work and ideas to us. It is to those few that we owe what we’ve accomplished today.” Home Works 7 felt like a reunion of them all. And as one artist, writer, filmmaker, and thinker after another grappled with what the hell had been happening to them in the past few years—in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon; in the face of money, markets, modernity, and capitalism run amok; in the name of feminism, labor, activism, and the sorry fate of the region’s archaeological heritage—Home Works 7 also felt like it was for us, whoever “us” may be.

Left: Artist Marwa Arsanios with Ashkal Alwan's Garine Aivazian. Right: Writer and curator Rasha Salti with Koyo Kouoh of Dakar's Raw Material Company.

On Friday, November 13, the artist and filmmaker Ahmad Ghossein delivered a terrific lecture-performance on illusion, delusion, and the loss of wonder, all told through the stories of a magician, a sculptor, and an architect. On Saturday, four activists who had been involved in a summer protest movement in Beirut debated one another with enough cogency to give hope for the future. At the back of the room, Szymczyk weighed the merits of making some kind of Beirut-centric statement of solidarity on Documenta’s blog. I couldn’t quite follow his logic (and at that point, I was naive enough to think that politicians in Europe and America wouldn’t conflate the wack jobs of ISIS with desperate Syrian refugees), so he put it in the simplest terms: “Wherever there is life, we should go there. But wherever there is death, we should just push it away.”

From there, I wandered into a lecture by the artist Matthew Poole, just as he was saying: “What does any of this have to do with art? I mean, what the hell are we doing here when bombs are going off and people are being killed and we’re involved in this luxurious, bourgeois act?” He paused; he continued. “Art that’s not art is bourgeois, is ideologically violent. But when art is art…” And indeed, that was the thought to complete for those two weeks.

On Sunday, November 15, the artist Ali Cherri paired up with archaeologist Sam Hardy for a powerful discussion of ruins, museums, the destruction of Palmyra, and the roaring trade in stolen antiquities. Later that afternoon, outside the theater Dawar al-Shams, I ran into Frie Leysen, the Brussels-based curator of the performance program for Home Works 7. She’s an old hand in Beirut, having organized the fifth edition of the festival Meeting Points, back in 2007. “It’s much quieter this time,” she said. “Meeting Points was nine cities. This is only one. But it’s good. The performances are full.” What’s happening in the world is a mess, she added. “The night of the attack we were fully booked but the theater was only half full.” Leysen furrowed her brow. “When something like that that happens, what do you do? You don’t go out.”

Left: Artist Ali Cherri with filmmaker Ghassan Salhab. Right: Zena Takeiddine with architect Khaled Malas.

But throughout their history, Beirutis do go out, especially when times are this tough. The city generates a particular intensity, which often drives people crazy with the sense of life being lived in an extremely full but terribly fragile way, jostled all the time by corruption, dysfunction, and the barest of contradictions. It is also a tiny city with an enormous ego, and the contemporary art scene is the same. It exerts an influence in the region and the world that is totally disproportionate to its size.

Still, it’s always hard to know how to judge the forum. With the palpable exception of Tarek Abou El-Fetouh’s contribution in 2013, the exhibitions are never very good, or coherent, as exhibitions. This time was no different, though there were flashes of brilliance in projects taken one by one (Rechmaoui on the roof; Abbas Akhavan and Saba Innab in the Beirut Art Center). There were no famous names or scandals on the level of a keynote lecture by Jacques Rancière (still hot in 2005) or a Foucault-quoting member of parliament associated with Hezbollah (still sexy in 2010). For the most part, Ashkal Alwan organized a challenging program of knotty ideas and unknown names. The strongest moments tended to be spoken—in Ghossein’s performance; in a lecture by Tony Chakar (a work-in-progress still searching for a conclusion) proposing the richness and diversity of religious iconography and mystical texts as the start of an adequate response to a phenomenon like ISIS; in another lecture by the writer and activist Nahla Chahal on returning the notion of dignity to political discourse; and in another lecture still, by the Istanbul-based writer Suna Kafadar, who linked poetry to politics in a beautiful text about forms being drained of their meanings, a recurring theme.

Left: Dealer Aleya Hamza with Ashkal Alwan's Mohammed Abdallah. Right: Curator Frie Leysen.

The wildest moments, meanwhile, tended to be danced—most notably in the last performance, Marlene Monteiro Freitas’s Of Ivory and Flesh (Statues Also Suffer), which was arguably the weirdest and most intense piece of choreography for live bodies that I have ever seen onstage. Consider, first, that Monteiro Freitas is a virtuoso in at least six ways (I recognized her immediately from a Boris Charmatz performance for Home Works two years ago), and then imagine a collision of all this: a stage set like a boxing ring; the authoritarian atmosphere of Ismail Kadare’s novel The Palace of Dreams (1981); a bombastic Omar Souleyman track (“Warni Warni”) on repeat; a male dancer drenched in sweat, drool, and smeared makeup, plowing into the audience, looking for a little tenderness; and everything inspired by Alain Resnais’s film with Chris Marker, Statues Also Die (1953), which was banned for decades in France. Two nights in a row, the crowd went nuts, and I mean up on their feet, arms in the air, screaming their admiration nuts. Then the four principal dancers, including Monteiro Freitas, showed up for the closing party and kept it going until the early morning hours.

A few days later, I met the novelist Elias Khoury for breakfast. He had been expansive and charismatic on a panel I had moderated for Home Works 7, and I was curious to hear more about the rifts he had mentioned, which had cracked through the art scene decades earlier, when Khoury was running an experimental theater, Masrah Beirut, and codirecting an event known as the Ayloul Festival, a precursor to Ashkal Alwan. The story he tells is one of sadness and loss, but also frustration over what he sees as political neutrality and complicity with the ruling class. I looked out at the sea, which was absurdly blue and still for the start of winter. Years ago, the journalist Samir Kassir, who was killed by another bomb, another bombing, wrote that Beirut’s “playfulness and love of show and spectacle” never failed “to conceal its inner seriousness.” I remembered a talk by the Syrian architect Khaled Malas, which raised a number of tricky questions about how the language of art can function as political action in a war zone. “Sadly I am romantic enough to believe in art still,” Malas said. Aren’t we all, to our endless hope and peril.

Left: Beirut Art Center director Marie Muracciole with artist Abbas Akhavan. Right: Artists Basma Al Sharif and Ben Russell.

Left: Artist Rabih Mroué. Right: Artists Maxime Hourani and Lawrence Abu Hamdan.

Left: Writer Haytham El-Wardany. Right: Marlene Monteiro Freitas's Of Ivory and Flesh (Statues Also Suffer).

Left: Artists Vartan Avakian and Raed Yassin. Right: Dealer Joumana Asseily with filmmaker Elia Suleiman.

Left: MuCEM's Samar Kedhy with Khadija El Bennaoui of Kunstencentrum Vooruit. Right: Curator Zeynep Oz with artist Khalil Rabah.