Friday, August 30, 2013
First published on THE CULTURE TRIP
Bringing Middle Eastern Art to NYC: An Interview with Blogger turned Gallerist Taymour Grahne
Middle Eastern Art is still under represented in the international art world and understanding of the history and depth of art in the region is still poor, particular in America. As Arie Amaya-Akkermans discovers, blogger turned gallerist Taymour Grahne has spent much of his career seeking to change this under representation, revealing the breadth and scope of Middle Eastern art firstly through his blog and now through his New York gallery.
Monday, August 26, 2013
First published on THE MANTLE
[Ermitage IV, postcard, Gregory Buchakjian]
It all begins with the syntax of an image: The knowledge that the moment can be repeated, altered and remembered; an illusion of permanence that is fundamentally an optic operation. Yet, the absoluteness of the image-moment, altogether suspended presence, stands on the way of this syntax. The photograph is always ghostly and immediate, everything has been already seen. There are no units within the image – as there are in paintings – and any attempt at formal analysis, will inevitably lead to the dissolution of the visual field. Unlike the material on the canvas, subject to the morphology of change, developed photographs do not respond to stimuli. They are construed as blocks of reality and simultaneous interpretation thereof, but the interpretation has been already closed off by the limits of the event.
Rolf Tiedmann writes on Walter Benjamin’s theory of perception and the photographic stand-still: “That is, to assemble large-scale constructions out of the smallest and most precisely cut components. Indeed, to discover in the analysis of the small individual moment the crystal of the total event.” Photography as an analytical operation effected on the thin boundaries of the moment, opens up as the trigger of an accidental creative force begot by the event. In the words ofAlain Badiou, “An event is the creation of a new possibility. An event changes not only the real, but also the possible.” Hence, once the image has faded from immediate contact with the eye, the possible unfolds as a horizon for the re-configuration of the real into the boundless project of history.
Images, however, can exist without an adequate referent in reality or in the absence of such referents. The correspondence theory of truth, anchored inclassical metaphysics and the Thomistic “Veritas est adaequatio rei et intellectus” (truth is the equation of thing and intellect), postulates a perfect agreement between thought, truth and reality. While this is still the prevalent idea insofar as perception is concerned, the rise of visual literacy and the stand-alone qualities of the modern painting object – from Manet through Magritte – has produced a new apparatus of consciousness beset by internal contradiction. Images seemly operate on the same principle of Hegel’s logic: “Everything is inherently contradictory.” Contradictions are the only way in which we can understand life.
[Photography by Francois Sargologo]
At the heart of photography’s problematic relationship to the real and the possible, lies also its ability to generate singularity: A point at which an object cannot be defined, distinguished or limited. In science, space-time singularity is a location where measurements have become boundless and the coordinate system is shattered. Similarly, in photography, the decentering of the traditional painting subject towards the margin and the introduction of motion has made images unstable and fragile by expanding the consciousness of the eye into an expanse which is no longer visual: Here lies the realm of the possible. What is the power and authority of the image if it is an unreliable container for memory which can be manipulated? Images articulate not objects but realities that convene on the Zeitgeist.
The question of the fragmentation and dissolution of images and the intrinsic relationship to memory was at the heart of Pellicula, a group exhibition across different formats, at Galerie Janine Rubeiz in Beirut. Photography here – in the works of Gregory Buchakjian and Francois Sargologo – confronts us with the abetted ruins of photographic memory. In the preface to the exhibition, Buchakjian takes us on a brief exploration of the topography of ruins in photography: In 1920,Man Ray composed the enigmatic “Dust Breeding” photographing from above, a work of Duchamp, “The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even”, at a time when it was unfinished and laid horizontally untouched for a year. Ray’s expose captures the accumulation of waste and dust as tiny particles and pellicles.
The contemporary ruin was born in photography. In their artistic practice, Buchakjian and Sargologo show us not only that photographs – and images in general, or the visual repertory that makes the world understandable – are subject to ruin but that the initial image is a ruin already. Both of them, dealing with their hometown Beirut, choose to acquire a lens that permits to see right through the terrifying breath of the Lebanese wars of the 20th century, precisely by means of bypassing the aesthetic code of war photography and turning towards more intimate spaces where the decomposing body of Beirut – as an extended organic whole – becomes blurry, incomprehensible and contradictory. Their predilect trope is an out-of-focus, where the epicenter is emotional and the field of vision limited.
[Ermitage IV, postcard, Gregory Buchakjian]
A photographic ruin is not the attempt to capture a fleeting moment of decay or disintegration, but rather, as Benjamin put it, an allegorical and critical vehicle. The ruin, for him, is not an object but a process, a means of cleaning the symbolic order of the ruin, and approach history through minimal reduction: “The beauty of the ruin dissolves when the light of the divine knowledge sheds its light. Ruins are above all intelligent meta-images.” Stripping away the symbolism – political, religious and historical – of a freeze-frame, Buchakjian and Sargologo return to fundamental painting objects existing independently of their background noise. These objects are not narrative and stand outside the semantic order; they present themselves as archetypes, containing the basic units of experience – the moment.
Gregory Buchakjian’s “Leningrad” is at the same time a photographic installation and excavation. Found in the rubble of an apartment in Beirut, the postcards and stereo slides revolve around the story of two men who dwelled in the same building: Adnan, a Palestinian accountant who left for the United States at an unknown date, and “Abu Awd” (a pseudonym, but a real persona), a member of the General Command of “Al Assifa” forces within the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The story is textually reconstructed “in-situ”, with archaeological precision, based on found objects and without any narrative elements other than the ruin status of the dilapidated building. The ownerless objects – touristic images of Leningrad, postcards from the USSR – are muted signs from a shadow world.
This type of archaeology is a common place in Buchakjian’s work, whose photographic project turns from a documentary enterprise into an exploration of latency – raw images become obscured by literality. Photographing abandoned buildings in Beirut, chasing after the movable traces of history in a city pierced by the melancholy of destruction. The constant re-making of the city under neo-liberal corporatist administrations bent on re-making the present in order to configure the past as a vacuous gap, relocates the ghosts of war into imaginary spaces and his photography appears sometimes as a simulation. This most recent project remains unfinished and intangible as physical ruins fade into oblivion, but re-appear anew in the form of more violence, more bombings, more and more death.
[Photography by Francois Sargologo]
The artist commented on the project during a visit to Istanbul, on how a certain day a trip was scheduled to photograph a house that happened to not exist anymore on that day. There were no traces of a lived history. An empty plot of land, not public and not private, devoid of markers. His previous project,“Nighthawks” (tribute to Edward Hopper), documented the decadent night life of Beirut, with dark and gloomy images, depicting the escapism of Lebanese society, fraught with instability and turmoil. His project was an affirmative statement that glamour cannot emerge without melancholy. His practice on the found images relocates the past as a suspended state in which there are no entrances or exits. The event is closed-off as an allegory on the leap of time; the void.
Francois Sargologo’s “Au-delà de la Mer” (Beyond the Sea) is a lyric lamentation on the visual syntax of a city that he does not attempt to recreate, but simply to highlight its more essential qualities. It is not the nostalgia of mourning but of something circulating, vivid and present. The photographs, taken in Beirut in the 1980s, were lost and then many years later found and torn apart from theirmemory environment, then re-staged not as continuity, but in a voyeuristic manner: Mere glimpses accompanied by texts written thirty years later. The oscillating images do not strike us as pop art or an archive. They are a casual monument to happiness and do not indulge in the distance of the physical ruin. They are close and warm. Yet they’re very far away. Their power lies in the impossibility to become real now.
Something familiar emerges in Sargologo’s work. The coffee tables behind which missing relatives were awaited. The family photos of those who never returned. A pristine Levantine garden abandoned when entire families left Lebanon to never return, but the fruits are still on the table, the trees are still blossoming. His places are more real and tangible than the battlefields. These places still exist in the debris out of which a collective is re-mapped and made understandable. The emotional distance from the images attests to the fact they were excavated and presented as autonomous objects with muted meanings. The texts are poetic but candid, almost invisible, from a ghost-world. But they are crystal clear as the site of happiness.
[Gregory Buchakjian, installation views]
Both Buchakjian and Sargologo toy with the apocalyptic imaginary in the traditional sense – a symbolic universe that codifies an interpretation of reality leading towards another world; the images are not left alone to speak by themselves. In this parallel world, heaven descends upon earth and in turn, the earth ascends into an inferno. The project of history is intercepted by the crude logic of the present, in which the trail of contradictions implodes into a heterogeneous viscous substance. In the words of Benjamin: “History is the object of a construct whose site is not homogeneous, empty time, but time filled by now-time.” Being faced with the binary choice between history and freedom, the artists choose the latter and permit history to collapse under its own roof, at the expense of unleashing the critical powers of truth.
Unlike photography of war, the two Lebanese photographers are not in search of moral images that can elicit explicit reactions – fear, dread, disgust, pain, horror – but rather singularities; undefined, loose, smothered. Irredentism is a commonplace in their work, and by negating the possibility of redemptive and redeemed images, they place themselves at the edges of laughter. A laughter that is neither comic nor sinister, but a crystalline affirmation of the necessity to live without illusions, at the edge of a volcano, turning this into something marvelous and heart-breaking, while at the same time frightening and mysterious. Or, asJacques Derrida put it, when talking about his friend, the late Sarah Kofman:“This ray of living light concerns the absence of salvation, through an art and a laughter that, while promising neither resurrection nor redemption, nonetheless remain necessary.”
Walid Sadek wrote recently about the “labor of missing”, discussing a number of contemporary Lebanese artworks, exploring the inexorability of the act of waiting for the return of those (persons, images, moments) missing from the war. Sadek postulates that it is only by giving up on the illusion and requisite of their re-appearance that waiting and the labor of missing can truly take place. Buchakjian and Sargologo recognize this interstice, and while it is not an empty space, they are not attempting to replace an unfillable presence with a ghostly visit. In their work, the labor of missing is an environment of memory and not of mourning; not a wasting away or a Messianic bravado. It is about living without illusions but at the threshold of hope, a hope whose inner contradictions remain unresolved.
[Francois Sargologo, installation views]
"Pellicula" was on show at Galerie Janine Rubeiz in Beirut in April 2013, the exhibition also included works by Bassam Geitani and Hanibal Srouji.
Monday, August 19, 2013
First published on THE MANTLE
[Mashrou3 Leila, Istanbul, 2013]
It was the year 2009 in Beirut. That’s when Mashrou3 Leila, perhaps one of the most popular Lebanese bands, appeared in the public eye for the first time. The story is well-known: They sent two demo tracks to Radio Liban 96.2 FM Modern Music contest, one of which was the now legendary “Raskit Leila”, heard also in the background of another classic of Beirut pop culture, the short film “Beirut I Love You (I Love You Not)”, a tribute by Mounia Akl and Cyril Aris to Jean Pierre Jeunet’s film “Amelie”, set in modern Beirut (later turned into a TV/web series by LBC channel). Mashrou3 Leila won the competition that also unearthed other talents likeSandmoon and Anthony Touma. But their story begins in 2008 at the American University of Beirut when the violinist Haig Papazian, guitarist Andre Chedid and pianist Omaya Malaeb invited people to jam with them in order to relieve the tensions typical of being an undergraduate in a country enamored with war.
And so Mashrou3 Leila, not a band but a project, was born. Their soft melancholy lyrics popularized, coupled with a seven-piece ensemble bordering on funk and folk rock that could have been labeled Indie, had it appeared ten years ago but nowadays stands as a thing of its own. The journalist Ziad Makhoul, one of the members of the jury in Radio Liban contest, put to words what he heard at the time: “A bastard baby and sumptuous orgy somewhere between Goran Bregovic, Abdel-Halim Hafez and Iggy Pop. Hipster but not too amateurish but not too romantic but not too eye catching but not too elegant.” And since then, the project of Hamed Sinno, Haig Papazian, Omaya Malaeb, Carl Gerges, Ibrahim Badr, Firas Abu-Fakhr and Andre Chedid has become something of a phenomenon in the Arab world. This requires further explanation: An almost casual blend of sexual ambiguity, idiosyncratic Arabic songs, and a now well established almost pop aesthetics of ruins slash glamour.
Yet Mashrou3 Leila is not a discovery and one could hardly go anywhere past the countless features, interviews and what not that have appeared in press all over the Middle East. There seems to be so little to add. Two albums and many concerts later, the once quasi-underground band (a Protestant university hidden in a green corner of the Middle East hardly qualifies as underground) has moved to center stage and whether one is hypnotized by their music or not is already a bit irrelevant to their overall presence. When writing about Lebanese music, I wanted to go to pristine untouched places: The folk sounds of Sandra Arslanian and Eileen Khatchadourian, the almost-installation electronic performances of Marc Codsi, the melancholy of Safar Barlik. It’s not that Mashrou3 Leila wasn’t interesting to me, but it felts simultaneously too distant and too close. And as time elapsed, I moved from film and music to fine art and somehow the exclamation mark of Mashrou3 Leila remained.
I questioned whether it was not too commercial? After all, they gathered crowds in the thousands across the region and God knows how close I could come. I mean, my interaction with art was different: Usually I had very personal contact with obscure young painters and remotely known installation artists that I met in random dilapidated houses. And this wasn’t willy-nilly: I belong to a generation in the Middle East that has been told repeatedly that the art is bad because censorship, because no critics, because no institutions, etc. And as everybody was looking West – not so much as a style but as a stage for performance – I was bored and wanted to be that critic; though later I realized criticism is boring as it requires a critical distance from what is being talked about. A distance I would never permit myself to have from art. I wanted to invade works of art, ensembles, and films; hence nearness and even friendship was a requisite for this task.
[Mashrou3 Leila, Istanbul, 2013]
But these things are usually oblique and not necessarily straightforward. Every time I read another interview with Mashrou3 Leila, another polemic, gender this and that, Israel this and that, Palestine so and so, Lebanon this and this; that I never found interesting and the conversation lost some edge for me, although I remained always alert and curious to their music. I recognized intimately the place where it originated, just like I did with Annie Kurkdjian’s painting or Gregory Buchakjian’s photography. Something autonomous but uncontrolled: Beirut in 2006, the turning points, the tipping points, the return, the uncertainty. And the same melancholy that comes after suffocation: Do not talk about this, do not talk about that. Do not dress like this, do not dress like that. Love is between a man and woman. This is the way we are supposed to live. And the screaming inside as the sirens and planes buzzed outside, containing this fear, sometimes curious, sometimes paralyzing.
The voice of Hamed Sinno and the violin of Haig Papazian, both unpunctuated and unrestrained, were often part of my early morning repertory as I lay in vigil leafing through Michel Fani’s “Dictionaire de la Peinture au Liban” and studying the writings of Sarah Kofman, trying to find that voice that I was in search of when addressing art: “Art is not a matter of some shadow world that could be opposed, in any simple sense, to the real world of the living. Art upsets the opposition between these two worlds, causes each to slip into the other.” I hated the idea of a Lebanese or an Arab art; I wanted a non-descriptive topography for art in which the artist is not compelled to remain within certain restrictive boundaries of gender, ethnicity, nationality, only in order to please a contemporary audience hungry for pornography of war and suffering. The more it bleeds, the more it sells. And as those thoughts circulated, the music sometimes uplifted me, sometimes bled me out. It was always different.
It was something rather intimate, a private space in which both the music and I exhausted all our vital forces until a sentence looked perfect on paper, although it would become disappointing the day after. A change of scene. Istanbul, March 2013, lying in bed for days, with a heart broken and left behind in Manama. Reading from the journals of Susan Sontag: “I will never just outlast this pain. (Healing passage of time, etc.) I am frozen, paralyzed, the gears are jammed. It will only recede, diminish if I can somehow transpose the emotion –as from grief to anger, from despair to assent. I must become active. As long as I continue to experience myself as done to (not doing) this unbearable pain will not desert me.”But the music never changed. Perhaps it just became overwhelmingly incremental. I had this theory that sounds record memories better than images; images are often a cruel and frozen reminder of what no longer is, whereas music is perpetual re-enactment.
And then Mashrou3 Leila in Istanbul. I toyed with the possibility; I shouldn’t burn, I thought, but then it seemed as the possibility of returning to something, to something that circulated succinct but unexpressed. How close could I come? And then I found myself right there, across the band I had tried to skip so many times. And by right across I mean, only a few centimeters away. I remember almost the order of the songs, the first one in particular. And how I broke crying there, it was even funny. Words and people who write have their common stories, especially when they’re the words of others, some private property that you appropriate in secret. It could have been so many hours, but yet it all elapsed in a second. Anywhere but Istanbul it was then. A lifeline between Beirut and Manama that somehow broke suddenly allowing only enough time to pick up the little pieces and flee.
[Mashrou3 Leila, Istanbul, 2013]
And politics in Beirut. We’ve all heard it. It’s all terrible and bad. Life sucks. There’s no hope. There’s no escape. Just the continued deathless death. Where is your ID? One of the local greeting forms. The penchant for fireworks and heroes trying to save those who do not want to be saved. This intoxicated extension of the Holy Land in which there is no option but being savior or saved; no place for the simple free man. It all came back to me immediately, with flying colors. As I looked around the rather small hall, the Turkish fans – who thank God couldn’t cry with the lyrics – and a small group of Lebanese, Syrians and Israelis crowded at the front. I couldn’t be too bothered as I was completely withdrawn into the performance of Sinno and Papazian that might as well have been one of those carefully staged performances of Ali Cherri; drawing in the air with instruments and voices the imaginary maps of a country that could never really exist, except when looking at it from here.
That night I sent the band an e-mail telling them about the paralyzing effect that the performance had on my persona, like a teenage girl sending fan letters. And everything I put on Instagram, because that is what you do in 2013 to belong to the instagrammar of contemporary feelings, dating and visual literacy. The next day I returned for the second performance and in a surprising twist of events I had a casual chat with Hamed, the man that had made me cry the night before. He reminded me of the artists I had met in the studios: Nonchalant and casual, friendly and somewhat unrestrained, laconic but yet not quite phlegmatic. I guess art happens just like that. You’re not really in control. You don’t really know what you’re doing. And there I was, finally closing my circle with Lebanese music, outside my comfort zone, in a city I hated then, and unable to write it out for many long months. We talked about meeting in Beirut; being now unsure whether he or I remember.
Later that night, in a frenzy, I met a young architect from Aleppo who had come all the way from his place of refuge in Eastern Turkey to see Hamed Sinno perform live, being one of the many fleeing from the horrors of the Syrian war. And that made my grief at the time seem so insignificant, which comforted me in a way. I had just taken leave of my friends and sat with him, half-inebriated, on a bench next to Taksim Square waiting with him until morning for his bus to return to hell. And yes, this is a brutal place, not suitable for young people, certainly not for artists; and it is all the more reason to dare to do so many things. I’m reminded now of a time when I was a conscious student of Hannah Arendt and came across her dedication to Karl Jaspers in which discussing the cruel cold facts out of which the political thought of the 20th century was born, she adds, “I have not accepted the world created by those facts as necessary and indestructible”.
There’s no other form of resistance more adequate and brave than simply daring to live in these times, to create, to produce art, to unearth possibilities. And no, art will not liberate anyone, it is powerless before bombs and snipers, but it is dignity’s only life insurance in such troubling times. It sounds silly, but really, the alternatives are few. And soon Mashrou3 Leila will release a new album, I listened to the song and all; yet I will not be there but nonetheless it gives me relief that life never stops in Beirut. And while sometimes I wonder though, about the architect from Aleppo, that moment was one extended unforgettable sound, standing across Hamed and Haig, seeing art face to face, for the first time. Or, in the words ofMichael Cunningham: “There is still that singular perfection, and it’s perfect in part because it seemed, at the time, so clearly to promise more. Now she knows: That was the moment, right then. There has been no other.”
[Mashrou3 Leila, Istanbul, 2013]
Mashrou3 Leila will launch their third album in Beirut, August 28th.
First published on THE MANTLE
[Sandmoon at the Fete de la Musique, Beirut, 2013. Courtesy of Karim Sakr]
There’s much hearsay about the Lebanese music scene, labeled both “underground” and “alternative”. Perhaps both terms are overloaded with a certain idealization that borders almost on the soft power of activism: Something marginal, at the fringes of a turbulent political reality and almost illegal. This isn’t entirely untrue, but the daily reality of Lebanon is different: Pop stars sing at sit-ins of Salafist preachers and people record songs in basements as the Israelis are shelling Beirut. Sometimes resilience – and the Lebanese flaunt it with pride – is a code word for irresponsibility, but life goes on. The painter Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui told me last year: “In fact I never painted the war in a Goya like manner, being surrounded by tragedy and horror I did not feel like bringing the blood and gore into my workspace. I realize now that it is only many years later that one allows oneself to release the self-imposed control so necessary for survival.”
But perhaps music offers a different pathway in which the artist is unable to protect himself in the same way that material stuffs allow; music is the uncontrollable and uncollectable, you have much less of saying in what you’re doing than say painters or even photographers. The immediacy is absolute and the results evaporate once you’re achieved them. There’s a recording industry of course, reproducible copies, rehearsals, concerts, and what not. Yet there was that first time, the moment of seeing art right in the face, for a fleeting second. And then there’s the music scene in Beirut, collateral to the contemporary art scene. A scene is a horrible word. Reminds you of drunken ordinary people in extraordinary clothes crowding in the corners of white cube galleries. I prefer the word clusters. In fact, I became acquainted with the music from Beirut because of the films ofJoana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, which led me to Marc Codsi and aninterview.
The very informal Marc opened a world for me in which art and music overlapped in distinct ways. Beirut is small after all. There’s Mashrou’ Leila too, everybody knows, even provincial me chatted with them once in Istanbul; and some others of course. As Marc pointed out to me, the usual filters of art don’t really exist in Lebanon – critics, managers, labels – therefore the cluster is concentric. Joana and Khalil often remark that in absence of critics, it is artists who have to take on the task of speaking about their own work. My experience with fine art and the art galleries in the entire Arab world is basically the same. The music genres in Beirut are somewhat defined and by now, a bit homogeneous. The pioneering days of Zeid and Yasmine Hamdan, Marc Codsi, The New Government, and others, are kinda passé. There’s room for innovation always though, and in a region beset by turmoil, one has to innovate in order to survive his own life. It’s almost a reflex.
And that’s how I found Sandra Arsalanian, the singer behind the Indie projectSandmoon, based in Beirut. A number of clips on the Internet led me to this mesmerizing sadcore voice, accompanied by slow and diffused instrumental sounds, minimal, percolated and with the strong but continuous crescendo of folk music.Indie in Lebanon? It’s not that I was surprised, since after all I had spent days listening to Codsi, whose work borders on sound installations and the kind of sounds that accompany found photographs and overexposed negatives in a gallery space. Sandmoon was different; though I could hear the beating latency of anyone who has been to Beirut, the riveting waves, sounds that grow into elliptic and concave forms, and that punctuate the war-scared buildings, there was also a far-away. It wasn’t a distance or a territory. A movable far-away. I knew those distances well, stranded between three countries, so far away from my birthplace.
[Sandmoon at Waterfront, Beirut. Courtesy of Raymond Gemayel]
Encountering Sandra, it wasn’t just about the musician in “différance”. It wasn’t only about music, but about reclaiming a place in reality as our own in order to contest it. Always the politics that we could never agree on, but keeping the sense of humanity and dignity that makes art worth the name. Though rooted in Lebanon, in so many ways, through my work, and through the steel-proof hope that one day it will be a place to live with that dignity we tried to practice, I viewed Lebanon with entirely different eyes; perhaps partly clouded by the fact that my lens is accentuated by the reactionary environment of the Arabian Gulf. Also, in a way, it is interesting, because none of us lived through the Civil War. Do we share a sense of guilt about that? Perhaps so. The far-away emerged rapidly as we became more familiar and quickly an exchange in a language for me almost forgotten – Dutch – ensued, adding another layer of both familiarity and distance from Lebanon.
And she begins her story: “Beirut, 13th April 1975 (the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War). Ten days later I was born. Seven months later, I boarded a plane with my family and left (read: fled) to Belgium. I am of Armenian origin, conceived and born in Lebanon. I grew up in the West, but at home it was very much the Middle East. It’s both disturbing and enriching. The balance ticks one way or another depending on the circumstances. 32 years in the Benelux and then all of a sudden, an urge to flee again, this time to where I was born. The story of many; many Lebanese, many people whose country is ravaged by war. War, departure, return, the meaning of home (the physical, the emotional, the metaphysical), the quest for identity, nostalgia.” Can Lebanese artists stop licking their own wounds? That’s what art critics often ask me. But what is one to do when the privilege and responsibility of history is denied? When more and more war keeps ravaging it every time?
She continues: “We should make a tabula rasa and start anew. Like Downtown Beirut. Maybe we should sing about Solidere (the new historical downtown which unsurprisingly has nothing historical about it in a neoliberal frenzy). But somewhere between the Serail and the Corniche, the bullet laced Holiday Inn stands tall as a reminder of past wounds. I always wonder why they don’t demolish it.” Speaking at ease about her musical influences: Classical, Armenian, Oriental and Protestant church hymns, reminiscent of the folk tunes, and all varieties of good and bad pop, folk, jazz and bossa nova. She started off making music in Belgium and playing with several bands. Early in 2009, she admits to have known next to nobody in the music scene in Beirut and just having heard about the usual names, Scrambled Eggs, Soap Kills, Lumi. It was around the same time that I wanted to be a writer; I also knew nobody, except one painter, and hadn’t still figured out how that was to be done.
It was that year that a small breakthrough happened: “I had just amateurishly recorded a few songs on my cheap Casio synth, and saw a poster for Radio Liban’s Modern Music Contest, sent in a copy of the songs, got selected and that’s when it all really started. That’s where I met Fadi Tabbal, who records and arranges the albums of the most of the Indie scene now.” Coincidentally, that’s how I became familiar with her music; finding the release of Radio Liban and listening to all the tracks, trying to get a vibe of the scene where Mashrou’ Leila was born, when trying to write about them. “Summer 2009, I started recording with Fadi. It was just the two of us, with the occasional help from Tony, the drummer. I was unaware at first that I was intending to record a full album. But I knew that one day if I were to make an album, it would be called “raW” – read “War” from right to left. And after a year in the studio, there it was: Raw. Raw as in the roughness of War. Raw as in the unpolished treatment of the songs. Raw as in unprepared.”
[Sandra Arsalanian. Courtesy of Karim Sakr]
We talk about the song titles and their themes: An album soaked in sadcore, nostalgia, lost happiness. The band was formed in 2010 and lasted for some two years with performances in and around Beirut. On and off about the music scene in Beirut, the growth, the new players, some diversity, and what not. And then more talk about war. That thing so intent on stealing the future, time after time. And Sandra is back with Sandmoon for a 2013 remake, with new band members and everything else. The new album, slated to be called “Home”. I had the pleasure of having a sneak preview of some of the songs, and the concept is cunningly matured, departing from the minimal Indie of the early 2000s into more acoustic and polyphonic sounds that are still natural, bordering on folk music and very familiar, personal, removed from the aesthetics of transparency, unfurling into warmer spaces that open up with personal stories, whispered lullabies and a voice geared towards the center of the ensemble.
The nine songs, written and composed by Arsalanian, elevate the sadcore into certain moments of ecstasy and affirmation, yet a fundamental melancholy remains:“Though sadcore is still at the core of the album, there are some happier, crazier moments that sugarcoat the initial melancholy. That’s what Home is all about. Release scheduled for fall 2013.” I can’t help but ask myself what it this home all about, the one that Sandra and I are looking for, through writing, through performing and through staying on the revel of life in one of the world’s most difficult regions. Perhaps it’s not that the question is irrelevant, but most likely the answers are. The late philosopher Gillian Rose offers a suggestion as she lays dying in a hospital bed in England in 1995: “I will stay in the fray, in the revel of ideas and risk; learning, falling, wooing, grieving, trusting, working, reposing – in this sin of language and lips.”
And the topic of war returns each time Sandra and I speak. This reminds me of sitting with Lebanese art historian Gregory Buchakjian and Turkish artist Hale Tenger at a restaurant in Istanbul, speaking over lunch. Gregory wrote at the end of his book, “Useless violence makes history. Useless violence makes art history.”There’s an inescapable edge in this, in which one finds himself collecting debris from history, and trying to insert some hope in the world precisely by removing the possibility of redemption or hope, or in the words of Algerian artist Abel Abdessemed, “We don’t need hope. What we need is truth.” Long by-gone are the days of beautiful art, Gregory and I agree, because the redeeming and quasi-religious function of beauty has evaporated in the course of the Arab world’s most violent century. We are talking about an art that speaks truth to facts without leaving us at the mercy of their brutality. What we need is re-interpreters of what we were never told; archaeologists of culture.
And Sandra Arsalanian is one of those archaeologists skilled in excavating the cultural memory of the present through her melancholy sound, altogether primal and intimately bound with her Armenian heritage – an obsession I share as I dig up the stories from the pre-oil Bahrain of wooden doors, mud huts and fishermen, just like Bahraini sound artist Hasan Hujairi. And this no nostalgia, but rather a radical openness towards the past as memory rather than historicism. The Armenian-Lebanese, whose new folk sounds remind me of Eileen Khatchadourian, another Lebanese singer of Armenian heritage and yet voluptuously contemporary, is yet not an artist from the far-away; she is from the here and now, drinking Lebanon in, with all its paradoxes, its wounds, its moments of happiness: She performed at the Fête de la Musique in Beirut, this June, as a political sit-in gathered in front of the Lebanese parliament. One of the dozen sit-ins that happen every year with no apparent result.
Yet, sometimes the tragedy seems to overwhelm and engulf us completely, for example with the recent bombings in Beirut. At the same time, the order of reality cannot be transformed without a wholly new order of political imagination, of which art is one of the building blocks. I have always loved a certain thought of the philosopher Franz Rosenzweig when he insists that the purely human element in art and in life is that which is equal and common to us all, that element awakened by and in tragedy. It is in those moments when the chips are down, when everything that is at stake seems so volatile and fragile, those are the moments when art stares at you right in the face and demands from you understanding that there’s no aesthetics of life, there’s only the raw materials of and in the world. The raw materials that sometimes read as war, as tragedy, as loss; out of which we derive the most elementary human capabilities. Helene Cixous completes the thought when she says: “Everything that is (looked at justly) is good. Is exciting. Is “terrible”. Life is terrible. Terribly beautiful, terribly cruel. Everything is marvelously terrible, to whoever looks at things as they are.”
[Solitude, videoclip still, 2011]
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