Critics’ Picks

Amanda Riffo, Pierre, 2006.

Amanda Riffo, Pierre, 2006.


“Nafas Beirut”

Espace SD
Dagher Building, Charles Helou Avenue, Gemmayzeh
October 12–November 17, 2006

What do you do when your city comes under siege? If you’re an artist in Beirut, most likely you document the moment—not in its grand narratives but rather in its intimate details. The war in Lebanon this summer caused crushing damage, but it also provoked a rush of artistic responses, and “Nafas Beirut” attempts to collect and collate them all. Curators Sandra Dagher and Zena al-Khalil have dubbed their exhibition “a platform for artists bearing witness.” This, plus the high number of participating artists (forty-five), would seem to suggest an all-inclusive affair and the varying quality that would inevitably result. To be sure, there are pieces here that are more therapeutic than anything else. But curatorial precision is in evidence as well.

Marking the show’s entrance, for example, is an untitled sculpture by Ziad Abillama. A sleek Minimalist signpost with five arrows indicating “Arabes” in all directions, Abillama’s piece probes his own position of privilege (a descendent of local princes and unwitting member of a right-wing, francophone Christian family) and is all the more fitting given that he is largely credited with reactivating the Beirut art scene after an earlier war, in 1992. Mazen Kerbaj’s Starry Night, 2006, a six-and-a-half-minute recording of the artist’s improvised trumpet “duet” with the Israeli Air Force on the night of July 16, perhaps the most striking and enduring work to emerge from this crisis, circulated widely during the war as an MP3. Its power is ratcheted up a notch here—installed in a black room, it forces gallerygoers to engage with it in total darkness.