I do want to do something.


There is too much love between us
December 29, 2008, 11:01 am
Filed under: Art stuff, Beirut notes

i_m_too_sad_to_tell_you

This is the review I wrote for Walid Raad’s exhibition at Sfeir Semler Gallery , “A History of Modern and Contemporary Arab Art”. Another version of this review can be found in Bidoun’s current issue, Kids. The review is a bit long and needed to be shorten, some paragrahps are a bit dense as well, but I still think that there are some passages in this review that are important, and do not appear in the published one.

Such as the title, “There is too much love between us”.

There is still no official news nor any rumors concerning the participation of the Lebanese pavilion at the next Venice Biennale planned for June 2009. A silence that confirms its exceptional first participation in 2007 and openly puts into question the nature of a national pavilion in a country still undergoing a vivid process of nation building.
In 2005, The Sfeir Semler gallery now hosting Raad’s recent exhibition in Beirut, A History of Modern and Contemporary Arab Art_Part 1_Chapter 1: Beirut 1992-2005, attempted to launch the first national pavilion. A venture that never went through due to the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Raffic Harriri in 2005.
If the development of Lebanese modern and contemporary art is deeply intertwined with the history of modern Lebanon, Raad, with this new exhibition takes the cultural and artistic sphere as a stage where to look at the way Lebanon’s recent history traumatically affects its present. This visibility resides in the awareness of the impossibility to see, speak or represent things that have been irretrievably lost due to a “surpassing disaster” (in this case the Lebanese protracted civil war). A notion inspired by the artist and writer Jalal Toufic’s concept on the “withdrawal of tradition past a surpassing disaster”.
The challenge in the creation of an artistic stage allowing for this paradoxical visibility is to keep it from withdrawing into the establishment of an art system and its market. A challenge that Raad addresses frontally since his new project is also about exploring the spaces, names, institutions and relations that make the “art world”. In particular how these have come to form a narrative for what accounts to be “contemporary Lebanese art”.
A narrative that closely involves Raad’s persona and his artistic peers.
This first exhibition chapter on modern and contemporary Arab art is an attempt to process and translate how historical perspective is created; what distance can you see and write from, how far or how close are we in the making of this history and how to “show” it. In order to translate information and material, Raad, in his usual fashion, adopts a classifying system by creating different sections as subparts of his chapter. These sections unfold in the gallery space like pages of a missing art history book, occupying each a separate room along a central wall– Preface: Title 23, Appendix XVIII: Plates, The Atlas Group (1989-2994), Museums, Walid Sadek’s Love is Blind (Modern Art, Oxford, U.K.), Index XXVI: Artists.
Along the central spine, the show divides into two main parts. On the one hand, more sculptural works having each a separate room, on the other side of the wall, a large room containing a series of equal size large color prints, Appendix XVIII: Plates. An important part of the research carried by Raad is translated in these plates; the information he gathered on the creation of a national pavilion, a series of indexes taken from international art magazine and catalogue dedicated to contemporary Lebanese art, an archive on modern Lebanese artists belonging to the researcher Kristen Scheid. The information conveyed is hardly decipherable; some plates seemed to be magnified to the point of abstraction, in other plates (such as with the archive), the material is simply not legible. Importance is drawn towards the layout, the typography, the colors used as background. The effort made to grasp what is presented moves the viewer back and forth in a game of abstraction and physical involvement. While the colors and the size of the prints are immersive, the limits encountered in accessing the information and the mirror image sent back by the large reflective surfaces, can’t but remind the viewer of his/her physical presence in he space.
The same goes for some more sculptural works. In the section, The Atlas Group (1989-2004), an impressively executed mock up of the Atlas’ group retrospective held at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin. The poetic detournement of the Operator # 17, who, every day would redirect, his surveillance camera monitoring Beirut’s sea side promenade to videotape the sunsets is screened in miniature as part of the mock up. Although the viewer has to bend his head to have a glimpse the work, its position in relation to the rest of the show is clearly visible and conceals the choices behind the layout of an exhibition. The mock up of a show, a device often used in museum’s to visualize the final outcome of an exhibition, is presented as the open graveyard of the Atlas Group and religiously demands the attention of the viewer trying to identify some works he/she might already knows. Following museum fashion, a note on the wall of the gallery written in Arabic and in English, “do not touch”.
Similar to the system of a Russian doll game, the mock up echoes the gallery space we are standing and raises some questions such as, how is the space in the mock up, different from the one we are in? Rather than collapsing local and international settings- a white cube in Beirut, or a Museum in Berlin, Raad seems to want to highlight the asymmetry of these experiences: what meaning would such a show have in another context, can you translate a name?
A series of 150 white vinyl names written in Arabic mounted on the white wall of the room dedicated to Section 79: Index XXVI: Artists, keep appearing and disappearing. The names belong to artists who lived and worked in Beirut over the past 100 years, who belonged (and still belongs since some are still alive) to other circuits, living rooms, and histories. No narration has, up to now bridged the gap between the scene that emerged in Beirut in the post war area and the scene active in the pre-war years. In this particular piece, the oscillating distance, physical and historical, creates an experience of the gap and this not only by pointing to its inaccessibility. Questions can then be raised in relation to how the disappearing/appearing act takes place; if any ghost is to come back, it also needs a voice that can break through and create a rupture. Although used in a very astute way, the accomplice white walls of the gallery might not be the right stage for this encounter.
The private gallery space, in fact, with its limits and possibilities, has major role in the way the works are developed. As the press release announces it, the gallery is presenting the “first solo exhibition of Walid Raad in the Middle East”. Although Raad has performed and shown his works in Beirut on several other occasions such as the Homeworks forum or the former Ayloul Festival, it is the first time that his works develops exclusively in relation to this specific setting and takes the development of the art system as a topic in itself.
The performative- and potentially transformative- aspects of his multifaceted practice usually including talks and presentations, shifted for this particular exhibition to a more sculptural, object based works (this also considering the tremendous amount of research that Raad has carried in order to collect the information and whose process remains invisible). If the viewer through the work is always reminded of his/her presence, the silent echo of Raad’s missing voice also inevitably resonates. Self-references and the continuous deferral, reflective surfaces, physical limits, the impossibility to access can certainly provoke a reaction but does not allow much space for any type of transformative response or “hysterical symptoms”.
Instead of opening up a space for reflection, the endless play of deferral and the many critical questions raised, closes possible roads for the understanding and experience of cultural and art in Lebanon, their future possibilities if not their present conditions and past histories. In that sense, the closure in Raad’s show paradoxically acts a first document concealing a silent and powerful voice.
Creating a document, a legacy, an institution in the cultural sphere leads us to formulate a question pertinent to the their absence in the Lebanese context; does Lebanon need a national pavilion when the nation state is  a problematic and questionable form of organization? Are institutions and documents need first to be established in order to be contested? These questions, although impossible to answer, must be kept open, and maybe this through the utopian “desire to meet the masses once again”.

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