Monday, April 29, 2013

At the Ocean II

For T.A. 

There's that river in my mind, the one that had been an ocean once, to which I had been, or had wanted to be. I hear it whistle to me in the soft pulsations of an air so thick that it almost yellowed. And I saw the ocean morning, it was 4 AM in Manama, and never had one felt so free in the whole of his life, never had one felt so close. The waters did not move, and I speculated for an entire night and an entire morning, after the sun found me, half undressed, wanting to have everything... Believing that I already had had everything. There was always going to be more, and we were going to laugh, in such a way that only the eyelids can laugh, forcing the corners of the mouth into a steep plateau and then descending, looking away, trying to find themselves in the intoxication of the miracle; this miracle out of which survival is possible only in duos. And maybe I had been insane, that I know not, not now when the air has become so thick as to single out the island from the rest of the known universe. I looked for other planets, planets that could sustain life, places where I would find shelter, galaxies with more hope, brighter stars. 

There was that one morning in Istanbul when I set on the journey, of the search, of the path. What a puzzling day it was, so incredibly prosperous the air, and for the first time since the winter I could see ships crossing the waters, going to foreign countries. And all my countries are foreign, all my ports of call are temporary. I stood in the balcony, feeling that I was about to fall, from exhaustion, from guilt, from lack of memories. I had nothing that I could call mine, no land, no scar, no memory even. Everything was but a vague trace. That's when I began to look for those planets with Emre, the planets that would walk out of his formless sculptures. The first thing that I wondered about was whether there were oceans in those planets. I thought for a moment that I had missed the appointment, because of my tendency of being always late, of being always delayed, prey of a Saturnine revolution. Or maybe it was that I was being awaited in one of those planets, because they had oceans. I imagined them to be beautiful, beautiful water underworlds, private hells.

Emre reminded me of all that... I didn't want to go anywhere, I didn't even want to move. This wasn't even about geography. Life is the same in all the places, a constant justification, a permanent dislocation, the knowledge that you could be free elsewhere, that there were other places, that this didn't have to be this way, that nothing really had to happen. Why would you fly for three days to reach the future far away? Everything now is a solid extension of the present, which in every moment of the day continues to alter the past. Traveling there was such an illusion after all... "Welcome home", that was one of the final sentences. There was nowhere else to go after that, how could I? I didn't want that finality, this sense of arrival, like an anchored ship. I wanted to travel everywhere, taking this whole island with me. Its pink mornings, the shade of the palm grooves, the asphalted mutilations, the warmest air, the permanent sense of being lost, and that, that small hand. I wanted to place it atop my palm, to make sure that I could enclose it, protect it. 

"Because we aren't going anywhere". And that I had known too, the finaly had reached me the moment I took off on my first plane, I had had then everything that could be. And what a priceless moment I was in. I had admired their paintings with the humility of someone who had never really seen, of someone who was discovering the world for the first time, discovering all what could be had. It was a little palace, and the cushions engulfed me sweetly, amidst the smiles, after a long afternoon with Jamal, and the most exquisite elixir that I had known to exist, overlooking the abetted ruins in Saar. And she knew how to smile too, when she placed that one painting atop the table. No, it wasn't a top the table, but hanging from a wall, near the entrance. "The Land of Peace". The tiny houses as if looked at from above. That painting was like a message in a bottle... I didn't forgot the colors. I remembered everything in Adliya, a few days later, trapped between the smile of Jehan and the obsession of leaving something there, something behind, a real trace.

That was my only possibility. No painting or writing ideas, only questions. Surah al-Fatiha, I learnt later from Jamal, in a letter. The poet must die, so that some of us learn to love life more, I heard once. There was instinctive writing on the painting: "His being consumed my existence completely. Now I can work again". Rima said that I still knew the colors, that I still remembered the colors. But in the end she never came, she never came to Istanbul, just like Abdulrahman didn't either. And I did remember the colors, they were an earthy palette, with doors and tapestries, chalk walls, the purple in the garden, Sami's smile, and that watermelon drink in Seef. The green gate at Faika's home and the delicate ochre of the carpets in her father-in-law's home. That painting is the only thing that was really left, from my stellar journey. The one only thing I will claim for myself, should I ever see Adliya again. And that conversation still missing with Haya. The past would change, the origin would change, the destination too. Only the present was to remain broken. 

And to think it was only six months ago, that hurricane in New York. The things I thought then, the things I felt, they all burnt together with the bridges, together with the gaps; they burnt in a single fire, and their extinction was immediate. There were no funerary rites, no mourners, no announcements, no candles, not even ashes. It was all of a sudden a white room, and I disappeared in it too, without as much as knowing. The only fear was that I could never again write. This is not your day, this is not your day, this is not your day, death told me as I crossed through the small village around Juffair under the inclement sun. One wrong turn and everything changed... Crossing into Muharraq and then finally reaching Salmaniya in the end, without much as knowing what I was doing. It was a strong metaphor for my journey... One little wrong turn, and everything faded from view. An insignificant turn, and I no longer saw the Gulf Hotel. But I didn't want to see it. Else I wouldn't stop staring, looking at words in the air, so broken, so fooled, so misunderstood.

The only true fear: That writing would never come again, that it had stayed in that room, overlooking a supermarket. The struggle to define yourself, to become something else, to never be the same, to leave behind. How to leave without ever having truly been? Suspended in a present that is not yours, and that you didn't choose, with the obligation to weigh on, to participate, to appear. To think that you had always thought this way, that you had always been this important person. But you're still suspended, living from the little hours, without knowing if a future will come, without knowing if this future will be backed by a past. Maybe it was just the illusion of posession, maybe it was simply a dream, a nightmare that contained tiny beautiful dreams wrapped in an even bigger nightmare. And you will never know. They will never know. The letters that will never again be read... Only your skin knows. You wouldn't even know if other skins know. What does it mean to be there? What does the distance mean? What does it mean to lose everything?

But I wasn't afraid. I was never afraid. Or I was afraid, yes, but I wasn't afraid of that. So many times you called that name, in the dark, when you couldn't sleep. And you wonder if unknown names slept well that night. Once you saw them in a dream, in which they were angry and burnt, burnt with open wounds, with scars, burnt with coals, with bullets, also burnt with memories. I never wondered, I never faltered, even when I wanted to. Every moment was a constellation of its own, every day was true, and truer than the one before.  Every morning was delightful, and the conquest of a heaven that spaces wouldn't know of. And Katherina said, I would like to give myself away, to give myself as a person, as a present to somebody else. I didn't falter at the vertigo, at the nausea, the free fall, the jump. Impossible as it might have been. Impossible as I knew it to be. And I kept nothing, with the exception of a voice note, and a stack of printed conversations that one day I will toss into the sea, right there, where it all started, at the ocean, at the fort, in the island.

I did forget my language, my aesthetics, my poetics. But they were all useless. There's no aesthetics of life, there's no aesthetics of art. Aesthetics is a contemplative point of view, and that Katherina and I agreed on after six or seven years of wandering across different but parallel lines in the horizon. And I haven't found a new language, because art is also silence, art is also restlessness, art is also the void. Embracing the void. And perhaps I would have never seen her again hadn't I come to Istanbul. Perhaps I would have never seen art face to face, this scary moment, this paralyzing moment... Hamed, Hale, Mari. But I'm still waiting, we're all waiting after all. We don't know what we're doing here, there's no peace of mind, there's no consolation. There're only fulgurations, detours, delays, and why not say it, accidents that become miracles that later become accidents again. There's Rana after all... The knowledge that you're awaited somewhere. And there's no mercy down here either, there's only dialectical damage. We're all at risk.

We're all in the crossing, at this liminal border. One can never miss what he never had. But the craving is constant, the desire of gain, the fear of loss, the pleasure of the in-between. You couldn't have known. And you couldn't be a mortal if you had. And you should never forget... Never. It is a fallacy to live with memories but without the past, because it is being firmly anchored in the present what gives you permission to alter the past as the present unfolds into your hands, and you have sole ownership. It's your duty, to remain in exile, to remain foreign, to remain unrecognizable, and therefore human, open to the turbulence. My cities of life, my cities of death. Beirut, Manama, Istanbul. In that order. Remain in exile, even within the confine of your own home. Refuse being encircled, refuse being defined, refuse the end of becoming, the finality. Never pack, never leave, never stay. Keep circulating, making part of the absence, withdrawing into a solid fullness, composed of interminable journeys.

That moment... Seeing art in the face, right in the face, for the first time...

Saturday, April 27, 2013

This is Not an Exhibition Review

Artist Collector Network by Burak Arikan

All those articles about the booming art scene in Istanbul… One after another, pouring over the Western newspapers was not the reason why I chose to live in Istanbul. I personally didn’t choose to live here; it was an accident caused by another accident that little did I know how much it would shape the course of my “career”. I did not have a career or even an aspiration to, and started writing about contemporary art from the Middle East out of entirely personal motivations.

At a point it might have even been a political project to approach difficult questions in a region in turmoil from the margins. A few days ago I went to see for the second time the show “Aeolian” at Rodeo Art Gallery and could spend a good deal of the afternoon with Emre Huner, the artist behind the show. Between one cigarette and another, the conversation drifted away from the actual artworks into some travel memories, shared frustrations and “art talk”.

“Art talk” is not a metaphor for those profound and challenging conversations that many people imagine that artists have with each other and with the rest of the acolytes in the art religion: Gallerists, dealers, critics, curators and what not. Art talk actually is the small talk that happens in the corner of exhibition openings: A little gossip, a little complaining, and always making sure to assert how one does not belong to the art world, how one actually hates the art world.

“I will not attend any openings anymore”, I said a couple of weeks before, finding myself intoxicated by this micro-cosmos of celebrities and the rituals associated with this complex network of creativity, business and frivolousness that is called nowadays the art market. A lot of kissing and hugging, a lot of drinking, a lot of flirting, and in the end of the day, a great sense of isolation that makes us cling to each other, in order to feel less the pressure of the world against this undefinable profession.

And during six weeks I stayed mostly at home, thinking about this great arts scene in Istanbul that everyone is talking about. I felt that I needed a critical distance from the noise of the “scenes” in order to assert that I do not belong there, that I am special, that I am different, that I am independent. This is not real. This is not real. I said to myself over and over as I leafed through the pages of endless exhibition catalogs and books trying to feel inspired to write about art.

A few weeks before, while visiting the studio of another Turkish artist, Hale Tenger, we talked about what it is that “inspires” you to write about art, and our conclusion was vaguely similar: We do not read art texts or art books. The raw materials to approach contemporary art precisely that, raw, things like history books and novels, films you loved, conversations with friends, the daily news in this endless show of parody and horror called the Middle East.

Art writing has a tendency to say very little, to prevent the forming an opinion, to discourage judgment and more than anything, to obscure some artworks that are actually already obscure and perhaps not really good. There’s such a thing as bad art, there’s such a thing as awful exhibitions, there’s such a thing as wrong curatorial practices. But we don’t talk about that in Istanbul. This great arts scene that everyone is talking about exists only in the mind of some writers elsewhere.

It’s not that art is bad… Or maybe some of it actually is, but it’s more something like this: We live at the center of this gigantic and formless mass called Istanbul but we are not even in or from Istanbul. We have a tiny prison called Beyoglu, that exists in an altogether different dimension and if the end of the world would come, we wouldn’t hear about it for days, being so busy attending openings or recovering from countless glasses of wine from three different openings in the same night.

And we live in this prison willingly. I’m calling it a prison because in spite of being subject to constant abuse, impossible traffic, long distances by foot, insane rent prices and asshole landlords, pollution, endless hills, impossible noise, and a rather deteriorated quality of life, we refuse to leave and it is common to hear friends saying that leaving Beyoglu is like going overseas. Some of us even go abroad more often than outside this prison with leisure facilities.

Last night on a taxi with Derya Demir, a gallerist friend, dying from a headache caused by an exhibition the night before, traveling far out to Etiler to attend another opening, we heard ourselves saying “this shit better be good, if we’re going this far already”. And never mind, it was great, but then you begin to understand that Beyoglu is also a portable concept: The same ten people move everywhere in pairs and groups. Discuss each other. Love each other. Drink each other. List goes on.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In the end of the day, beyond the petty fights and the endless gossip about who pays and who doesn’t, who is good and who isn’t, which gallery has this or that issue, people in Istanbul I find, are a lot more open and kind than in many big cities. It doesn’t take you too long to get to know the “scene”, and whether you want to be part of it or not, it is a personal choice, the doors are somehow always open.

Of course this applies to expats more than it does to other Turks. But yet Istanbul is not something you are born into, Istanbul is something that you become. It is hard to tell when this actually happens, but one day you wake up and realize you have acquired the imaginary citizenship of the imagined crossroads. But no crossroads in Istanbul really exist. Mari Spirito, a partner in many day and night adventures, has always told me this isn’t crossroads but purgatory.

A lot of people actually end up in Istanbul like I did, by accident. Then one day they wake up and realize they’ve been here for ten years. Beyoglu takes everything from you: Your money, your patience, your liver, your time, and guess what? It does not give you back anything. You need to reclaim energy from the city on your own. Usually this energy is best reclaimed in groups, sitting for tea at the London Hotel at 4 pm, which usually becomes whiskey at 4 am in the blink of an eye.

But wait, it does sound like the perfect setting for an art scene, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not. Art does exist in Istanbul and I kid you not, there’re many artists, in all degrees of ages, accomplishment, style, technique, concept, etc. But there’s no art scene here. Scene would immediately require two things: The first would be an audience for art outside the “experts” and also with an audience, comes the dialogue about art. None of them are present in Istanbul.

Artists and galleries work mostly in isolation, in isolation from each other especially because everyone is so afraid to criticize. There’s no criticism, because hey, we’re hot-headed Middle Easterners and take everything personal. The only thing being discussed is actually personal traits of this and that artist, of this and that gallery owner, but it is never about the works, it is never about the shows. It is never about anything.

Many artworks are constructed in self-referential ways and are more about a personal narrative. Sometimes people tell you “you don’t get it, do you?” but who the hell really gets art? If there comes a day that an art writer comes to “get art”, that day he should drop out and go to work in finance. And some people do write about art, no question about that, both in Turkish and English. But the reviews are not positive or negative. The reviews are about art reviews, actually.

In our conversation, Emre Huner was telling me about how in an interview he was asked his opinion about the booming art scene of Istanbul, and he thought that maybe it would be better to talk about the articles about the booming art scene than about the actual thing. Turkey is a country with identity issues, and this is surprise to nobody, that still belongs to a larger region where the making of art is at best problematic.

Without a strong tradition in arts – and I’m not making this up, Orhan Pamuk held the same view – there seems to be the question of the foundations of art. Ottoman painting is hardly the inspiration for contemporary art and whatever Turks and Lebanese call modernism has next to nothing to do with modernism, it is a late classical realism profoundly embedded in colonial and imperial narratives. To say “go back to basics” in Turkish art is nothing short of an oxymoron.

It seems to me at times as if some young artists are running too quickly too conceptual art without the mastery of at least one technique and while this is the actual standard practice in the Western world, openly promoted by art schools, it does not make it any less lame. The relationship of Turkish art to the surrounding is very fragile; no discussion whatsoever with Arab art and somehow at the margins of European art. But hey, it’s 2013, who cares where art is from? All art is art, right?

This would be fine weren’t it the case that certain artists are being bought, exhibited, collected and discussed not because all art is art but because they’re Turkish. The well-meaning Western collector wants to see the cute little things that we produce you here in spite of being abused, tortured, jailed, molested, brainwashed. In the meantime, parties go on unmolested in Beyoglu seven days a week without giving a single thought to any of that horrible present we market ourselves through.

And you know well that nobody goes to openings except us the same ten people who get smashed together three times a week. And this is great in a way, we’re all becoming sort of friends, sort of professional acquaintances, sort of buddies, because most of us are actually quite young. In the end of the day one of the risks associated with an “art career”, is that our private life is also our professional life. Our most intimate belongings are on show for display and sale.

So everybody talks about this important artist, that important curator, that important gallery, that important critic. Important, important, important. Whatever. No one gives a damn. Not Turkey, not Istanbul, not Beyoglu. Most people don’t even know we actually exist. We’re not important to anybody, except ourselves and each other. This isn’t to say we don’t do good stuff, but art in Istanbul – and the Middle East – is not part of the public sphere. It is not shaping it in anyway.

And this is not because artists aren’t interested in this – some of them clearly aren’t, but that’s a different story, but because we happen to live in a very oppressive country in a city in which outside our bubble an ocean of covered heads thrives without any need whatsoever for your fancy ideas. And hell, there’s no freedom here, and that’s why we are drinking three times a week and hiding in your exhibition salons. There’s no alternative. But we never talk about this.

At every exhibition the same happens… The same dude comes, gives you the same kiss, tells you how nice the show is, drinks your wine, networks a bit and then leaves to catch the next shame train into the same five bars. Rinse and repeat. That is not to say this city isn’t great, and actually it is full of miracles, it gives you more space to breathe than any Arab country ever will, and it can be quite comfortable if you do it right.

And the isolation is such that we aren’t bothered by the art world even. This weekend at the super fancy opening at Borusan, all the Beyoglu kids stick to each other even though there were quite a crowd, some important curators, some very interesting artists, and why not say it, a super high-profile crowd including some society ladies. But that didn’t bother us at all. We weren’t there to talk to anybody, but ourselves.

“Turkish art is problematic”, tells me Cynthia Madansky, an American artist recently shown at SALT. And what does that even mean? I think that’s a way to say Turkey is problematic. At times this country reminds me of Latin America. So proud of a certain history which more than anything is imagined, and at the same time wiping out the traces of the real history. A Lebanese friend is all excited about coming to Istanbul to see Istanbul Modern. I’m a lot less.

The building is great, the view is fantastic and the coffee shop is super hype. The artworks… Well, let’s not talk about it. Things look a lot fancier than they actually are, and if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, you find yourself across botoxed bimbos in leopard heels carrying five kilos of silicon in the most upscale dinners as the prospective clients for your artworks. And this isn’t bad; this is just life, and what galleries, dealers and what not have to do to keep sponsoring free wines.

We shouldn’t be troubled by it; we just have to keep going business as usual. There’s nothing wrong with living in the bubble, but if we’re already at it, maybe it’s time to have an actual discussion about art, since there’s just us after all… It doesn’t have to be intimidating, really. It’s just that well… The art is getting a bit boring, and sure as hell there’re clients for boring art too, but what a pity it would be to be part of this batshit crazy city and do art in isolation.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013


First published on THE MANTLE
[Insomnia, Jehan Saleh, installation]
The obsession with temporality that has shaped most of contemporary art – and the entire visual culture of Modernity slash Contemporaneity – seems to have come to a terminal point in which the nature of time is no longer associated with the great metaphors of the modern era: Travelling, hyper-spaces, absence of boundaries. The emphasis has shifted from the temporal – and therefore from the purely historical: wars, processes, actualizations – into the nature of finished things, objects and the whatness of everyday life. Space has acquired notoriety because of how estranged it has become from the notion of “place”, and though this was common knowledge to the cultural sciences for over a hundred years, it has begun to appear as a problem in art only very tardily. Occupying a space is something correlative to a moment in time, therefore space appears only momentarily within an aggregate of experiences that lacks in specificity but exceeds in emotional content.
The re-birth of space – and the artistic inquiry into the nature of places – is not necessarily new and appears in European theoreticians such as Henri Lefebvre, against the philosophies of time on which Modernity fed. Were these theories anti-Modern? Perhaps not, but certainly reactionary, and attempted to retrieve some of the sacral qualities associated with “place”, as a point of origin or departure. Architecturally speaking, hyper-spaces challenged the distinction between place and space, creating living environments that lack the permanence of a “home”, and then transported them to the post-colonial world without the necessary cultural transitions. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman speaks often about the “solidification” of the modern project after the flexible “liquid” state of development and progress, which appears to do what solids are meant to do: To cancel time. The denizens of the time-world have become displaced from the intensity of the journey.  
To put the journey of time to a halt essentially means to reconsider the notion of travel and movement at all, against the temporality – which here means lack of permanence – that has been imbued in space. Displacement seems to be not only a sociological term for urban migration, war demography and economic struggles, but also a part of the internal vocabulary of what it means to be contemporary. Contemporary against what? That would be the first question. In the absence of referents, points of departure and grand narratives with strong glue to define imagined communities, displacement becomes the fundamental experience of belonging in society: Are you displaced too? To be dis-placed means to question the instability of being against the background of the intoxication caused by time-travel. A curious project in Bahrain invited a number of young promising artists to take their stand on what it means to be displaced and its impact on the surrounding.
[Shove 2, Kady Mattar, mixed media on canvas]
Bahrain was the perfect setting for such a project: A multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society on an island in the shores of one of the most geo-politically complex regions in the world, a young developing state with a post-colonial heritage and at the same time the cradle of ancient civilizations, migrations, trade routes and even mythical origins. The ABCAD Art Center, of Albareh Art Gallery, served as the platform of a 3-months long mentorship at the heart of which, there was not only an inspiring process of technical improvement but also the direct confrontation with displacement and personal and social identity in a place as formless and in constant flux – laboratory of modernity and guardian of tradition at the same time – as Bahrain. The vision of ABCAD’s director, Hayfa Al-Jishi, was combined with the hands-on skills of curator Mo Reda and Bahraini musicologist Hasan Hujairi, blending into an aesthetic experiment aiming to map more accurately what art from the Gulf region should reflect.
Hujairi’s work is indicative of this trend: As a musicologist working on impalpable and uncollectable materials – sounds and installations – he begins to question art from the contemporary perspective of ephemerality and the appearance of traces that has characterized contemporary art since the 1980’s but that failed to arrive on the shores of the Gulf – with the sole exception of Emirati conceptual artist Hassan Sharif and to some extent the work of Bahraini artist Anas Al Shaikh – which is still largely concerned with traditional painting, in which today it would be safe to include abstract, under the aegis of art patronage and the gallery format.Preludes, the series of artistic interventions preliminary to “Displacement, aimed for free expression in conceptual formats and an interesting performance exercise in which Hujairi asked participants to draw at the sound of experimental music.
Curator Mo Reda worked closely with the participants – over a dozen of them – in developing visual vocabularies embedded in contemporary contexts in order to implement meticulously research-based pieces as a part of the exhibition. Although there might have been a great divergence between the set of skills, conceptual development and ultimately, performance of the participants, there were some particularly remarkable works in the exhibition, by young artists that had been previously exhibited by the gallery.
Jehan Saleh’s “Insomnia” (installation, ink and charcoal on paper) was a very clean – and in that sense transparent – attempt at dislocating familiarity and stability: A bed is often a metaphor for comfort and security, highlighting the smooth transitions between comfort and discomfort, security and anxiety, pleasure and pain. In Saleh’s work – not unlike her earlier transformation of photographs taken while traveling into anonymous shadows – sense and contradiction, flow and halt, sleep and restlessness, place and un-place, unfold simultaneously into a dream-like world that yet carries traces of personal realities and experiences as impossibilities. The enclosed and yet visible room-like installation offers calm and discomfort at the same time, blurring the critical distance between private life and public observation. The deconstruction of the familiar space is yet not complete and leaves an empty in-between to be completed by the experiences of the viewer.
[Red Line, Zuhair Al Saeed, oil on canvas]
In a more traditional format, Zuhair Al Saeed’s “Redline” (oil on canvas) creates a fully continuous but yet abstract “boundary” between the inner world and the possibilities of representation, in a minimal painting that explores the shift between liquid and solid that defines contemporaneity as such: Freedom of movement, freedom of intellect, freedom of representation, are all external constraints that possess the individual rather than liberate him. A certain demand for a pictorial language available to any audience regardless of cultural bias, is achieved in this work with almost whimsical simplicity. Unlike Saleh’s work, Al Saeed’s transitions are nowhere smooth and the construction of identity is questioned throughout: Why are we hiding behind walls? Why can’t we overcome boundaries? What does it mean to be inside? Is it different from being outside? The white texture is more disquieting than comforting and asserts a boundary more than the lineated boundary itself.
Lastly, Kady Mattar’s paintings, Shove 1 and 2 (mixed media on canvas) while in line with some of her earlier work – she maintains the expressionist use of color in quarter tones – there’s an unsettling disfiguration of the human figure into thingness, objects and non-descript places. The distance between the eye and representation seems a lot further than possible and in line with Saleh’s work, Mattar’s painting appears as transitions between dreams and realities, between hopes and fears, between questions and doubts. Flat surfaces acquire contours from disordered planes, and re-organize themselves without specific composition. The canvas is a snapshot of a larger idea that is ought to remain unformed for now, and that must be revealed only from oblique planes. Her work, however, is not a locus of anxiety, and she remains safely anchored in a plurality of styles and geometrical lines that might yet gain more from the painting by losing some continuity.
Other highlights of the exhibition were Mohammed Salim’s “Identity” (a mixed-media installation) and Ali Hussain Mizra’s “No” (another installation), that while being conceptually outstanding, perhaps would require a more thorough investigation on the materials. Overall, “Displacement” was a first step in the direction of challenging the technical formats of art in the region into more timely artistic interventions. While most of the works are not exhibition-ready material, many of the artists have shown not just an interest but a range of technical capabilities, and it is still necessary to strengthen concepts in line with contemporary thematic lines and use of the medium.
The concept of the modern is still a challenge for Arab artists that are often unable to stand onthe margin between Modernity and Tradition, perhaps not being entirely aware that both concepts (particularly what is called in Arabic "turath", or heritage) entered the Arab consciousness only in the 19th century and as a product of colonialism. No contemporary art worthy of the name has ever been produced under the aegis of a single ideological continuum and it is for this reason that art is always so fraught with paradoxes, contradictions and suspended judgments.
For art in the Gulf region to evolve in the direction of global art while remaining authentic -without the trap of the heritage and the origin, no longer available today - it is necessary to embrace contradiction, to embrace doubt, to incorporate instability and uncertainty in the conceptual and material production. It is only then that art will be tantamount to freedom.  
"Displacement", on show at Albareh Art Gallery, Bahrain, between March 27th and April 7th, 2013. The exhibition was supported by Tamkeen and the Economic Development Board of Bahrain.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Researchers, Utopians, Dreamers

First published on The Mantle
[Group portrait taken before the launch of Cedar III]
“Permit it at last be, after having so well and truly been.” –Samir Kassir
The space race that took hold of the historical imagination in the mid-to-late 20thcentury amidst the fresh and turbulent memory of war is represented in the historical consciousness of the modern age, in names such as SputnikExplorerand Apollo. These names are immediately familiar not only to the experts, but to millions of laymen and TV audiences that have experienced them in countless films, comic strips, cartoons, science programs and even on the evening news. There are other names too: For example that of the first astronaut, when the Sputnik II was launched by Russia in November 1957, with the first space passenger, a female dog nicknamed Laika, name by which the world still remembers her. Over the following years, several countries issued postage stamps in memory of Laika: Romania, Poland, Mongolia, Hungary, among others. As late as 2007, Bosnia-Herzegovina issued a postage stamp commemorating the 50th year of her historic space flight.
But who remembers today the Cedar IV? Launched in 1964, this space rocket was launched emblazoned with a Lebanese flag and capable of reaching 200 kilometers into space, or at least some 100 kilometers above the Karman line, which is conventionally used as the start of outer space in aerospace records keeping. Lebanese artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige tell us about their perplexing discovery: They discovered the image in a book published by the Arab Image Foundation; a postage stamp with a rocket on it. “The rocket bears the colors of the Lebanese flag – an image we don’t recognize, we don’t understand. It does not belong to our imaginary,1 That is how the project titled “Lebanese Rocket Society” begins: “Did the Lebanese really dream of participating in the conquest of space? It’s hard to believe and rather surreal. We ask our parents, our friends… No one remembers anything, no one knows what we’re talking about.2
A simple search on ‘Lebanon’ and ‘rockets’ in any library or search engine would produce all predictable results: HezbollahIsrael, war, destruction and more war. Archives in Lebanon produced but little results, and the question for the artists here was: How could this happen? How such a grandiose story, of the first rocket of the Arab world once commemorated with a postage stamp, disappear from historical memory? Disappearing objects nevertheless are not a foreign territory in the work of Hadjithomas and Joreige: “This is also what we have focused on in our research: Referents that cannot be located.”3 In the 1960’s, the Lebanese Rocket Society, a space project from Lebanon, began at the Haigazian Armenian University in Beirut, under the direction of mathematician Manoug Manougian. He and his students launched rockets – eight of them – with the dream of exploring space. In 1967 the project was stopped and quickly forgotten.
1967 was an unexceptional, or rather unexceptional year in Arab and Lebanese history, setting the conditions for what would become the long Lebanese Civil War – that perhaps really has not ended – and that would bring to an end the golden years of Lebanon. What Samir Kassir called the ‘laboratory of modernity’ was officially aborted and Hadjithomas notes that “this was a traumatic moment in which we inherited a moment of disenchantment.4 The artist questions the notion of an aborted modernity by saying that “I don’t think that we are any more modern today than, say, back then. I think we had a different perception of ourselves.5 This coincides with Kassir’s assessment that the disappointment with and of modernity in the Arab world is not a product of modernity but of the collapse of modernity. Here one could add however, that disappointment is part of the intense irony of modernity about itself and part of its survival mechanism.
How is it possible then that an adventure like the Lebanese Rocket Society did not leave traces in the present? Joreige explains in an interview that it is because it doesn’t fit into the current imaginary of Lebanon, cruelly tainted by war. “We’re product of a situation”, he explains, adding that this background noise of war and conflict is not only a background but a full ground, against which we are subject to a political production of reality. The research for this project – at present consisting of various installations, photography, different artistic interventions and the documentary film “Lebanese Rocket Society: The Strange Tale of the Lebanese Space Race” – led them to people who were involved in the project and ultimately to Manougian, living in the United States and who surprisingly had everything: Documents, photography, film. But the film isn’t simply a historical documentary: There is an incisive intervention on the part of the artists.
Hadjithomas and Joreige present in their film a tale – no less strange than that of the Lebanese space race – as a tribute to dreamers, to those Lebanese, Armenian immigrants fleeing from persecution and death and that found themselves at home in Lebanon, at home enough to look up and dream of outer space without military aims. The artist’s realized dreams was creating a scale-size sculpture of the once famous Cedar IV, and bring it to Haigazian University, where the Lebanese dream of conquering space started once. To subvert and transform the meaning of the rocket, clean from violence and war and for the purpose of science and progress:“…Create a rocket that looks like a missile and say, this is not a weapon, this is the fruit of what we once were, of what we can still be today: Researchers, Utopians, Dreamers.” Navigating through the impossible Lebanese bureaucracy, in which rockets have only negative associations, building it, transporting it. Indeed a dream.
[The Golden Record]
In a recent text, discussing their project they fasten to note: “Furthermore, making a sculpture as a tribute to the project and those dreamers means giving a materiality to that absent imaginary. It also means questioning the possibility of a monument (with all its connotations) to science, insofar as our society has very few unifying elements, little shared history, and many community or sectarian monuments erected by micro-powers.6 Repeatedly they have added too that their project was not nostalgic, then what is it? The concluding part of the film is an animated film that imagines Lebanon in 2025, had the space race of the Lebanese not cut short, with a futuristic museum holding the entire history of the Lebanese Rocket Society. Are they bordering in science fiction then? Perhaps, but they conclude their written meditation on the film with a thought of Hannah Arendt, about moving in the breach between past and future:
“In the preface to The Crisis of Culture, Hannah Arendt defines the notion of breach as the moment of rupture in which man, caught between past and future is compelled to project himself into an uncertain future, and therefore into the possibility of starting something new, of inventing himself in uncertainty.For Arendt, the main idea is to envision the past not as the past, the narrative, the tradition, but as the continuity of memory that allows man to find his place in the world no matter how hostile and confusing. How to move in the world when the elements of judgment afforded by traditional histories are absent? “The thread of tradition is broken, and we must discover the past for ourselves – that is, read its authors as though nobody had ever read them before.8 Opening the vaults of this curious project was not about idealizing a past already vanished and archived, but to re-enact it in such a way that the message would be: Objects in history may appear closer than they seem.
Already in 1962, the members of the Lebanese Rocket Society installed at the tip of the rocket transmitters broadcasting the message “Long Live Lebanon!” on the waves of Lebanese radio after the launching of their rockets. Similar to the messages launched in space missions on golden records with sounds intended to offer a glimpse of life in our planet. The first probes of sound will arrive closer to any celestial body in 40000 years. Similarly, “The Golden Record” from the Lebanese Rocket Society is an installation with an engraved soundtrack that attempts to reproduce sounds from the 1960’s, in another dream… What if the Lebanese had sent their rockets far into space in the 1960’s? What probes would have they sent? One is here reminded of an extract from the official communique of President Carter, installed in the Voyager: “This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours”.
And how hard is Lebanon trying to survive, to survive war and malaise, to survive occupation, to survive itself above all. But if I may return to Hannah Arendt briefly, I think the input of the 20th century thinker for this mesmerizing project and film stands not just at the margin of being able to move between past and future – enacting the present – but with the powers of the imagination. For Arendt, in her rather strange reading of Kant’s Third Critique, the imagination appears are one of the most important activities connected with the faculty of judgment because, “to think with an enlarged mentality means that one trains one’s imagination to go visiting.9 For Arendt, imagination and its result, the enlarged mentality, is the political quality which enables one to take a step back and distance himself from his own life in order to wear someone else’s shoes; to ask the question, what would I do if I were in shoes other than mine own?
The utopian dream of Hadjithomas and Joreige isn’t simply a fantasy but the establishment of the possibility of a political reality – farfetched as it might seem – in which we produce the full ground of our experiences rather than being subject to the background noise of violence and war. Theologian Philip Goodchild suggests that utopia isn’t merely an aspiration, but adds: “We shall also suggest that politics, rather than consisting purely in a convention for extending sympathies and harmonizing interests, may be founded on a third, utopian sphere, where truth appears once more as the ground of vividness and imagination”.10 The utopian isn’t an enemy of reality but rather an integral element of its configuration. And perhaps this is what happened to this impossible state and its impossible dream to reach for outer space: The problem is not that Lebanon imagined too much, but that too quickly it stopped dreaming.
The final message of “Lebanese Rocket Society: The Strange Tale of the Lebanese Space Race” may be: Our crisis is a crisis of the imagination.

Readings @ Albareh Art Gallery

First published on ArtClvb

Albareh Art Gallery presents “Readings”, an exhibition by Lebanese painter Fatima El Hajj, rendering homage to the “book” and the act of reading – the building block of human culture. In these paintings, the Wardanieh-born artist, classically trained in her native Lebanon, and then in Leningrad and Paris, explores the material intimacy of reading through a visual pilgrimage, unfolding as pastel-colored gardens of pages and words. Exhibited internationally since 1985, El Hajj deploys the use of modern elaborate techniques alongside motifs from the world of nature, intellectual landscapes and spiritual meditations.

For El Hajj, reading is not an accumulative journey but instead, a timeless presence filled with introspection and warmth, taking cues from the lesson of Saint Augustine, “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page”. Her canvases open up before the viewer in the dream-like form of time travel, demanding from those who want to enter them, careful observation into the nature of things, looking at their internal composition. The contemporary reader, skilled in noise and preoccupation, will find himself perplexed by the sobriety and smooth harmony offered here not in wholes, but as fragments of postcards from far away.

Gardens and nature occupy a prominent place in her work, indebted to her fascination with the greenery of Wardanieh from an early age, growing vegetables and roses in the family estate, and then later on, the beautiful garden of roses outside her atelier in Rmaileh, near Sidon. The artist remarks, “My passion for colors came from my daily observation of roses blossoming and continuous season changing. As I sat in my garden to draw, I made sure to be in the presence of all degrees of green, red and yellow”. While paintings of nature are often associated with figurative landscapes and still-lifes, El Hajj reaches beyond.

The modernist technique, somewhere between Pointillism and Impressionism, is not simply mapping nature as an emotional landscape but attempting painting impossibilities: breeze, air, wind, the sounds of water, the morning dew, the fog, the smell of leafing pages. Through the succession line of her mentor Chafic Abboud, the greatest of Lebanese painters and a pupil of the French school, she receives directly the impetus of the old masters and her work admires Monet with the brush, who also painted from his garden of lilies in Giverny. “Color is my day-long obsession, joy and torment” says Monet, sharing with El Hajj the obsession with light:

“What I am looking for, instantaneousness … the same light spread throughout, the same light, the same light”, exclaims Monet. And it is precisely here that Fatima El Hajj, somewhere between abstract and figurative painting, leaves the European masters behind to enter her own world in Lebanon and the Levant: Her shadows are not inanimate beings or merely decorative, but rather souls full of light and flight. She received inspiration from the facsimile of a manuscript she found during her research at the Bibliothèque nationale de France: The illustrations of Yahya Ibn Mahmood al-Wasiti for a thirteenth-century collection of stories written by the poet Abu al-Qasim Muhammad bin Ali Al-Hariri.

Following from the exhibition “Gardens of the Spirit” – a retrospective of her work from 2005 to 2010 –, “Readings” expands the spiritual dimension of her work, showing how the activity of reading – not the quick leafing of pages on the Internet but the intimacy of touching the pages of a book – opens the vessels of the soul and transports the person to a world of serenity, where purification through color invades her frameless canvas and emulates travel through lands foreign but yet recognizable through the great wisdom of the past. The strong light of the Levant that inspired European painting, appears here as a spiritual warning against darker times.

Fatima El Hajj’s “Readings” warns against the bookless “marketing” society that devours the environment and replaces the experience of beauty with abstractions, in a reckless drive of market consumerism. In her work it is possible to leave behind the intoxications of modern life and enter a moment both serene and sublime. All what is necessary is to pause and contemplate. As art critic Shaun Randol remarked recently: “In contemplation, we lose the desire to consume because we are busy getting lost in art, in beauty, in truth, in ourselves and in each other. The future always deferred becomes the ever living present. We cease to live in the market and begin to live in the moment.”

About Fatima El Hajj

Fatima El Hajj was born in Wardanieh, Lebanon, in 1953. She is a graduate from the Institute of Fine Arts at the Lebanese University and received art training in Leningrad and Paris. At present, she is a professor of art at the Institute of Fine Arts in Lebanon. Since her first solo exhibition at the Spanish Cultural Center in Beirut, 1985, her work has been showcased extensively throughout the world and is part of several important public and private collections.

Several works of the artist have been sold at important auctions, including “La Lecture”, sold at Christie’s Dubai Modern & Contemporary Arab, Iranian and Turkish Art in 2011, and that can be seen as a prelude to the current exhibition, “Readings”. She received the International Picasso Award in 1984 and is a recipient of the first prize for the 2007 Emmar International Art Symposium, Dubai. The exhibition runs April 9th through 30th. 

Arie Amaya-Akkermans

Source: Albareh Art Gallery