Walid Sadek

Beirut Art Center

Walid Sadek’s first solo exhibition, “Place at Last,” came relatively late in the career of an artist and writer who has been active, if not exactly prolific, for more than fifteen years. In the mid-1990s, Sadek produced a number of fiercely influential and foundational works that helped set the tone and agenda of Beirut’s then-fledgling contemporary art scene. Many of those early pieces were text-based interventions—posters, postcards, diminutive publications, a few delicate broadsheets—and most were conceived either for a series of public projects initiated by arts organization Ashkal Alwan between 1995 and 2000, or for the annual Ayloul Festival, which ran from 1997 through 2001. Their very form anticipated alternative channels of distribution.

Sadek’s first proper show, by contrast, fully depended on the cavernous, postindustrial space of the Beirut Art Center, where he arranged a collection of untitled works made (or modified) since 2004 into three categories: “Learning to See Less,” “Love Is Blind,” and “Mourning in the Presence of the Corpse.” With the help of local craftsmen, he created a muscular, notably architectural installation, designing walls, doorways, and an angular partition that cut through the space like a scar. But the work still asserted itself lightly, so lightly that some wondered whether what was on view in the space—texts printed on paper and silk-screened onto the walls, a faint pencil drawing, a broken black circle painted seemingly in a single stroke on the floor, a selection of wall labels that seemed to indicate a collection of missing paintings—was in fact the work, or art at all. One could have easily decided that, no, this was not art but rather an attempt to make literary thought spatial. “Learning to See Less,” for example, included a series of eleven aphoristic texts, each identified (or imagined) as being on the back of a canvas depicting the story of Cimon and Pero, the Roman Charity, in which Pero clandestinely breastfeeds her father, Cimon, who has been sentenced to death by starvation.

“Mourning in the Presence of the Corpse” featured a black circle on the floor around a column adorned with a Plexiglas label reading WALID SADEK (B. 1966), KOZO OKAMOTO RESIDES IN GREATER BEIRUT, 2008–2009. Another label, affixed to a wall just outside the circle, read KOZO OKAMOTO (B. 1947–D. 1972, 1985, 2000), TO HEAR A WEATHERVANE SAY YES, C. 2009. Okamoto was one of three members of the Japanese Red Army (JRA) who perpetrated the Lod Airport Massacre in 1972. Okamoto was tried in Israel and sentenced to life, but as part of a prisoner swap with Palestinian factions, he was released in 1985. More than a decade later, he was arrested in Lebanon and jailed with four other JRA members for entering the country on forged passports. All were released in 2000, but only the other four were deported. Okamoto remained, and became the only foreigner ever granted political asylum in Lebanon, where he lives to this day.

Okamoto’s story is not widely known in Lebanon or even in Beirut. Sadek does little more than name him in his work and provides no background. Still, he insists that Okamoto’s story—like those of Cimon and Pero or the dozens of other figures who are cited in his oeuvre—is easy to find. The details are no more than a Google search away. A good day’s thinking lends them relevance and resonance. Sadek expects viewers to pick up clues, seek out the stories, and connect them to their own experiences. It’s a lot to ask, but then again, it may be an important challenge to take up. Sadek seems to be searching for ever-newer forms of active and productive engagement in an increasingly passive world.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie