PRINT October 2006

T. J. Demos

Lamia Joreige, Here and Perhaps Elsewhere, 2003, still from a color videos, 54 minutes.

THE EXHIBITION “OUT OF BEIRUT” opened innocently enough last spring. Organized by Modern Art Oxford curator Suzanne Cotter in collaboration with Christine Tohme, director of Ashkal Alwan, the Beirut-based arts organization, the survey promised an exciting profile of contemporary Lebanese art and another chapter in the story of its growing international reputation. The work of fifteen artists and the anonymous collective Heartland would be on view for two months, accompanied by a program of seven films and symposia featuring prominent speakers such as curator Catherine David and architect Bernard Khoury, whose work is also included in the show. As part of a veritable cultural renaissance taking place in Beirut following the country’s fifteen-year civil war, Lebanese artists have generated an influential array of work that reconsiders the nature of photographic documentation and the projected image, with critical insights arising largely in their conceptual examinations of traumatic memory and the workings of the archive. Many of these artistic engagements reflect on the continuing legacy of the civil war—an umbrella term that includes battles between the country’s competing sectarian militias, successive Israeli invasions and occupations, and Syrian meddling—and, indeed, this was the case for nearly every work on view at Oxford. At the time of the show’s opening, no one could have foreseen that the gravity of these investigations would soon be dramatically underscored by contemporaneous events: On July 12, four days before the exhibition’s conclusion, Hezbollah militants killed three and seized two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid, sparking a monthlong, full-fledged military conflict followed by a tenuous cease-fire (still in effect at press time). If it had seemed the work on display in “Out of Beirut” was concerned with exposing and examining the psychic aftershocks and uncanny mimicries that had become fixtures of everyday life in post–civil war Lebanon, one was now led to surmise (perhaps accurately) that these artists had in fact been suggesting all along that the terrible conflict had never actually ended.

One of the most poignant commentaries in the exhibition was Lamia Joreige’s Here and Perhaps Elsewhere, 2003, a video exposing the persistence of war memories even while stressing their volatility. “Do you know of anyone who was kidnapped around here during the war?” asks the artist as she comes across pedestrians while retracing the Green Line that divided western and eastern Beirut during the civil war. (Joreige uses archival photographs to locate the sites of former militia checkpoints along the line, where thousands were abducted. The video intercuts those black-and-white images with contemporary footage, underscoring the physical transformation of the city that took place once the fighting ended.) Some interviewees are suspicious of Joreige’s inquiries, reluctant—even afraid—to delve into the past, but others encourage full disclosure: “If you know anything . . . you should talk,” one man urges another. Many freely share their stories before Joreige’s camera. An older man tells movingly of losing a son in 1985 and shows the scars from his open-heart surgery—an operation undertaken to cure a disease caused, he believes, by grief and exacerbated by the unknown and perhaps unknowable circumstances of his son’s disappearance. The father’s psychic injury is still obviously raw, evidenced by his emotional accounting, which, within the context of Joreige’s work, suggests that the effects of the violence—not quite so safely distant as some had thought—are far from processed in the culture at large. This desire to reopen the wounds inflicted by the tragedy of Lebanon’s brutal past through direct documentary representation, and to remedy shock with comprehension, reveals one powerful approach to history in “Out of Beirut.”

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Wonder Beirut: The Story of a Pyromaniac Photographer (detail), 1998–2006, one of eighteen postcards, each 4 1/8 x 5 3/4".


Paola Yacoub and Michel Lasserre, Summer ’88, 2006, one of twelve black-and-white photographs, each 17 3/16 x 22 7/16".

A nagging paradox, however, follows from Joreige’s contention that comprehension depends on the awareness that our relationship to the past—or to the “facts”—is uncertain at best. And, in fact, the testimonials in her video belie the transparency of documentary evidence. (One man she approaches, for instance, refuses to provide further stories, explaining that “they may be true and they may not. . . . They won’t give you the answer you’re looking for.”) Joreige is not alone in this quandary: If she invites communication, and thereby elicits its blind spots, Walid Sadek baldly confronts us with its absence. His Love Is Blind, 2006, invokes Beirut’s once picturesque settings by reproducing just the informational labels for paintings by Mustafa Farroukh, a prominent Lebanese artist in the ’30s and ’40s who depicted idyllic scenes of the city and the surrounding landscape in the style of academic European art. Sadek’s conceptual installation left ghostly white expanses where the paintings should have hung, the distance between two lines of additional wall text (composed by Sadek) corresponding to the dimensions of Farroukh’s missing canvases. While the pictorial absences double the destruction of those geographical sites—not only has the geography changed but also the very culture that Farroukh’s practice inhabited—Sadek’s act of negation also implicitly questions the ability of visual language to convey loss. In Cotter’s perceptive catalogue essay, she refers rightly to the “mistrust of the image as reliable document of history” among the artists in “Out of Beirut.” Such a mistrust informs Sadek’s pointed refusal to show what has been lost to the past, as if its representation would only repeat the violence by objectifying it, or would further offend by pretending to grasp some essential truth—even while his work, like Joreige’s, still attempts to come to terms with destruction’s lasting effects.

Other works similarly challenged any notion that language, whether visual or textual, might be used to convey the experience of war with uninterrupted continuity, rendering the idea of direct expression impossible while overtly manifesting injuries to representation. In Wonder Beirut: The Story of a Pyromaniac Photographer, 1998–2006, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige present a display of brightly colored postcards of touristy Beirut “appropriated” from the work of a Lebanese commercial photographer named Abdallah Farah. In fact an imaginary figure created by the two artists, Farah is said to have originally published these postcards in 1968, only to burn the negatives carefully seven years later when the war began, so that the images—scarred with gruesomely charred areas and twisted searings, punished nearly to the point of abstraction—would correlate with their actual damaged counterparts. As a text accompanying the work explains, “He imitated the destructions of the buildings he saw gradually disappearing because of bombings and street battles.” Interestingly, the fictional construction recalls Sadek’s deployment of Farroukh as a kind of elusive, intermediary figure, as a cipher to problematize representation. Indeed, Farah even keeps a notebook description of every photograph he has taken since the war but refuses to develop, which brings to mind Sadek’s empty walls.

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Distracted Bullets, Symptomatic Video Number 1, 2005, still from a color video, 15 minutes.

The photographer’s pyromania also implies a therapeutic compulsion to work through a brutalized reality by castigating its falsifying and outdated representations, but the sometimes stunning visual results betray a perverted, parallel strategy of trumping violence through its aestheticization. Tapping into a similar set of underlying tensions was Paola Yacoub and Michel Lasserre’s Summer ’88, 2006, which asserts the impossibility of representing destruction neutrally, rendering even finer the line between objective documentation and subjective viewpoint. Yacoub accompanied a photojournalist around bombed-out Beirut in 1988, taking her own black-and-white pictures of the carnage. Reprinted now in high contrast, the images of rubble-strewn wastelands populated only by the hulking concrete skeletons of bombed-out buildings appear ghostly and sketchy. These documents of war are shot through with the dread of their visualization.

Provocative moments were created in the exhibition’s physical installation when the fictional and factual were juxtaposed (if not in seeming opposition), yielding complex interactions where the qualities of one ended up not so easily distinguished from the other’s. For example, Akram Zaatari’s Saida, June 6, 1982, 2003–2006, a photograph that documents the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, when the artist was sixteen years old, faced Walid Raad’s large-scale photographic cycle We Can Make Rain but No One Came to Ask, 2006, composed of mostly white surfaces with nearly illegible fragments of text at the bottom, culled from an investigation that Raad and two collaborators conducted into a 1986 car-bomb explosion. Zaatari, like Lamia Joreige, plays the artist-as-reporter, seeming to scout out hard information to prove what cannot be easily understood (indeed, his photograph showing a number of explosive bursts on a hilltop could convincingly substitute for news images of recent Israeli rocket attacks). Raad, akin to Sadek, clearly signals his doubt that such “factual” documentation is possible, utilizing material from a partly fictional archive of contemporary Lebanese history maintained as part of his fourteen-year project, The Atlas Group. By mixing fact and fiction, Raad conveys psychological truths that escape “official” transcriptions of events. At this point, dry information is peripheral to the subjective consequences of violence in language—the lacunae, stuttering, and displacements that are Raad’s true subject. Yet any seeming dichotomy between his work and that of Lamia Joreige and Zaatari is hardly pat: For just as Joreige’s documentary embraces multiple fragmented stories, rendering the idea of a unique truth impossible and testifying to the inevitable dance between memory and forgetfulness (and invention) that determines any historical account, so Zaatari’s photograph is actually a digital composite that assembles several images captured at different times into a constructed event, the entirety of which a straight documentary photograph could never have depicted.

Bernard Khoury, B018, 1998, Beirut.

The documentary impulse of Joreige and Zaatari here converges with the critique of representation by Raad and Sadek, suggesting that all the work in the exhibition in some sense counters the fictions that are commonly presented as objective “facts” in the mass media, especially in relation to mainstream accounts of the Middle East. But the convergence also points to the most compelling aspects of “Out of Beirut,” where individual works joined documentary reportage with aesthetic consideration, drawing the two into a critical and mutually informing relationship. Consider, for example, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s single-channel video projection Distracted Bullets, Symptomatic Video Number I, 2005, which shows five different nighttime views of Beirut during holidays, political celebrations, and religious festivals between 2003 and 2005. On each occasion, residents set off fireworks and discharge rifles, unleashing a mesmerizing sound and light display that creates a kind of sociopolitical map, as the locations of the explosions reveal neighborhoods’ different affiliations and religious makeup. The short, staccato bursts of gunfire and plumes of light also echo battles not far in the past. And indeed, casualties resulting from errant bullets are not rare, intimating that one result of prolonged hostility is the unshakable habit of death. The video’s undeniably dark humor suggests one possible survival strategy. Unfortunately, this ghostly reminder now seems a harbinger of what was to come.

Perhaps it was unsurprising that this work, and several other strong projects in the show, was tied to the realm of architecture, where aesthetics meets everyday life in urban planning—a particularly strained discipline in contemporary Beirut, given the antagonistic forces of reconstruction and remembrance as well as of private and public interests. An inclusion that stood out in this regard was B018, 1998, a nine-and-a-half-minute video by architect Bernard Khoury of the eponymous nightclub that he designed on the location of a former refugee camp and site of a violent 1976 militia attack. (The club remains intact, though the architect’s Bank of Beirut Building in Chtaura was recently damaged by Israeli rocket attacks.) Khoury has long been a vocal critic of the “naive amnesia” of the Lebanese government’s postwar rebuilding efforts, as seen in the false nostalgia of the designs favored by Solidere, Beirut’s leading development corporation, which selectively reference the colonial architecture of the ’20s and ’30s—conducting what artist and writer Jalal Toufic, also included in “Out of Beirut,” terms a “war on the traces of war.” And yet, what could be more dubious than to promote historical awareness through the construction of a vogue discotheque? Khoury met the challenge brilliantly by casting the club as an underground bunker, with a severe, hard-edged atmosphere of slick black surfaces flanked by velvety red curtains that evokes both gothic minimalism and funerary chic. It achieves a morbid commemoration through stylish interior design, wherein architecture internalizes the historical conditions of its site. The video documentation on view at Oxford was shot in infrared—mimicking military night vision—and shows a descent past bouncers and fashionable young denizens, the camera moving toward the bar’s bunkerlike pit, where flashing lights, grinding music, and convulsive bodies express a bizarre translation of the phenomenology of warfare. Dancing offers a mode of therapeutic expression—in fact, some survivors reportedly gather in melancholy tribute in this spot where relatives met their end—but, as significantly, Khoury reinserts the potential oblivion of the nightclub setting within the living contradictions of Beirut.

One significant achievement of “Out of Beirut” was its ability to linger on such living contradictions. The art demonstrated that documentation is never fully truthful and, correlatively, that the deepest encounters with reality necessarily entail a flight into imagination, personal and cultural alike. Indeed, “Out of Beirut” proposed through its fictional figures and ancillary narratives that art’s most provocative function is to allow the reality of war—what increasingly seems a perpetual condition—to emerge at the level of representation, debunking the complacency and illusory consensus of official myths. Far from being solely responsive to its local context, the exhibition consequently offered a microcosm of concerns that are paramount in contemporary art around the world today. A sad irony was that if the art on view proposed that the civil war had never really ended, the hypothesis was confirmed all too tragically.

T. J. Demos is a lecturer in the department of art history, University College London.