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Left: Ashkal Alwan director Christine Tohme. Right: Outisde the Beirut Art Center. (Except where noted, all photos: Houssam Mchaiemch)

NINE PERFORMANCES, seven panel discussions, eleven lectures, four artists’ talks, two walking tours, one museum visit, ten film and video screenings, and a six-hour colloquium: The fifth edition of the Home Works Forum on Cultural Practices in Beirut ran people into the ground for eleven days in a row, finally ending last Sunday.

Directed by Christine Tohme of the arts organization Ashkal Alwan, Home Works is the closest thing Beirut has to an international biennial, though since its inception in 2002, it has always managed to avoid the excesses and limitations of the format. Home Works happens not at specific intervals but whenever the situation in the city (and the region) allows for the staging of so many events at once. The first forum coincided with the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada. The second was postponed six months due to the US-led invasion of Iraq. The third, in 2005, was delayed another six months when Lebanon’s former prime minister Rafik Hariri was killed by a car bomb. The fourth was derailed twice, first when Israel pummeled the country for thirty-four days in the summer of 2006, second when the run-up to a round of local elections took a decidedly dark turn toward sectarian strife.

Home Works began eight years ago with a regional remit, concentrating on contemporary artistic practices in Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran. It has since branched out geographically by pulling in international artists, writers, and thinkers whose works resonate locally, or whose concerns challenge and expand those of their regional counterparts. An urgent, intimate, context-driven, and site-specific alternative to biennials and festivals, Home Works has never been a huge, scattershot exhibition helmed by a globe-trotting curator. Nor has it ever really registered on the art world’s list of don’t-miss destinations.

Left: Ashkal Alwan cofounder, Home Works technical director, and Zico House proprietor Mustafa Yamout, aka Zico. (Photo: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie) Right: Filmmaker Elia Suleiman and curator Jack Persekian.

That changed this year as the art world descended on Beirut en masse, braving the air-travel chaos wrought by volcanic ash to do so. They brought with them lunches and dinners and afterparties—in a word, networking. Okwui Enwezor—newly appointed curator of the sixth regional Meeting Points festival, another alternative format founded by Tarek Abou el Fetouh—held court on the fifth night of Home Works for a party thrown at the Hotel Saint Georges, replete with a cake celebrating the imminence of “MP6.”

Documenta curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev made icy quips at everyone she was introduced to, and gasped dramatically when Ali Fayyad—a member of Hezbollah’s central council who gave a lecture on the cultural tug-o’-war between the old Arab left and the new Islamist right—name-checked Michel Foucault. And Maria Lind, formerly of Bard, congratulated herself on the relevance of a question she asked about revolution, a topic that had been abstracted to within an inch of its life by a boring, insular discussion on arts education, which followed a shambolic panel chaired by Reem Fadda, a curator and art historian who, to judge by the hysterical edge in her voice during several other Home Works debates, seemed to be having a very bad week indeed.

Given the closed-circuit nature of so many discussions—oh look, Rene Gabri, Stephen Wright, and T. J. Demos are thinking out loud and talking among themselves in public again—Home Works 5 seemed strangely, disturbingly divorced from its context, a sense that was amplified by the palpable lack of a local audience for all but a few events, such as the performance Photo-Romance, staged three times throughout Home Works by Rabih Mroué and Lina Saneh, and a lecture by the inimitable documentarian Mohamed Soueid, held toward the end of the event, on Beirut as seen through foreign films from the 1960s and ’70s.

Left: Gaspard Delanoë and Yalda Younes in the dance performance I Have Come. Right: Artists Raed Yassin and Hassan Khan.

The most hotly anticipated and heavily attended Home Works event was a panel discussion on day three moderated by Walid Raad on the relationship (or lack thereof) between Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island and cities such as Beirut, Ramallah, and Cairo. Curator and novelist Shumon Basar kicked things off with a performance that tried to suss out Abu Dhabi’s motive in creating a cultural district from scratch. Among other things, Basar developed a deliciously naughty analogy between cultural scheming and spam, imagining that one day, an errant message popped up in Abu Dhabi’s inbox. “Do you feel something crucial is missing from your national psyche?” it read, and prescribed Saadiyat instead of Viagra.

Later, the Emirati writer and commentator Mishaal al Gergawi offered a frank appraisal of how things work: “I can come here, walk around Solidere, buy some art, and leave. What can you do for me? Home Works? Big deal. I can call Ashkal Alwan later, and I can talk to Christine, and I can ask her to do Home Works in Dubai or Abu Dhabi. Of course, she’ll refuse. But then I can find someone who’s left Ashkal Alwan, and we’ll do something close. We’ll call it, I don’t know, House Works instead of Home Works.” A pause. “It’s ridiculous to use the Guggenheim to develop relationships” between cities in the region. After all, as Gergawi and others pointed out, those relationships existed long before the Guggenheim came on the scene.

For all its promise, the panel failed to take the conversation very far. It seemed that at least half of the audience, coming from corners of the globe apparently not yet bored with Dubai bashing, just wanted to hear the UAE described on stage as authoritarian, totalitarian, or autocratic. The panel itself was also one of Raad’s by now well-known feints, a mechanism for generating material for an artwork as part of his ongoing project on the history of modern and contemporary art in the Arab world, so the notion of pursuing a genuine public debate seemed like something of an afterthought.

Left: Karim Ghattas of Liban Jazz with Hania Mroue, director of the Metropolis Art Cinema in Beirut. Right: Artists Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri.

In his introduction, Raad said that he hoped the discussion would both consider and produce new facts on the ground—political, social, economic, and aesthetic. But the ensuing conversation was more symptomatic than diagnostic. Among the questions lingering but unasked: Has Home Works grown so big, and so “art world,” because art scenes in the region are changing, becoming more professionalized or institutionalized? Has the specter of Gulf money done more harm than good? Are international institutions like the Guggenheim and Tate, by swooping into the region so aggressively, doing real damage to the delicate ecosystems of those art scenes? Was it naive to think that those international institutions might learn something from the experiences of much smaller and nimbler initiatives in cities such as Beirut, Cairo, Istanbul, Amman, or Alexandria? And what of the fact that so few discussions during Home Works 5 referred to a single artist or artwork? At the tail end of the Saadiyat discussion, the artists Hassan Khan and Oraib Toukan maneuvered the microphone away from the usual suspects and raised these questions in quick, forceful bursts. But with so many meetings to get to and parties to throw, there was no time to take up their comments. Maybe the time to reflect on them is now.