Ministry of Culture


A novel way to make art

BEIRUT: Stumbling inside from a leafy courtyard, the visitor comes across the bricks-and-mortar equivalent of a cabinet of curiosities. In one room, two life-size rag dolls, their woolen hair gently waving in the breeze from a nearby fan. In another, a hugger-mugger pile of matchboxes and glue-packaging. In a third, a voyeuristic display-case containing intimate snaps from a day-trip to Baalbek.
The occasion was “Six Books Six Bridges,” the type of one-off, themed group exhibition that Beirut does so well. Najah Taher, Ghassan Maasri, Raed al-Khazen, Jana Saleh, Karine Wehbeh, Dalia Khamissy and Tamara al-Samerraei displayed works inspired by novels. Part of the events surrounding Beirut’s year as World Book Capital, which is providing the pretext for all manner of activity, the show was seen Friday through Sunday at Hamra’s Zawiya studio.
Aiming to “create a dialogue between the novel and other art forms … emphasizing their synergy and complimentaries,” “Six Books” gathered together an array of different disciplines, including photography, video, installation and animation. The exhibition saw varying conceptions of what it means to be “inspired” by a novel. Some participants took a very literal approach, illustrating a quote or theme. Others had a much looser connection to their source.
The fastness of the bond between artwork and source wasn’t necessarily an indicator of the cohesion of the project. Karine Wehbe’s installation “Baalbeck Blues,” one of the most satisfying contributions, is related only tangentially to its purported source-material, Ha­nan al-Sheikh’s “Beirut Blues.”
“Beirut Blues” is written in the form of letters to convey the trials and tribulations of a woman living through Lebanon’s Civil War. Wehbe’s installation is built around four photographs found by the artist while rummaging through Beirut’s Sunday treasure-trove, Souk al-Ahad.
Showing what appear to be two Lebanese men and two foreign women, each photograph depicts a couple, in varying formations, kissing next to a Baalbek attraction. To these, Wehbe adds photographs of her own, an imaginative projection of what the remainder of the role of film might have contained. Filtered through the hazy, sepia-tinted ambiance of the original 1970s snaps, Wehbe adjoins landscape shots and scenes in a hotel room.
The installation displays these images alongside a retro cassette player, a postcard sent to a certain Jawad Awad at the onset of war in 1975 (“I’m so sad to hear about what has happened in Lebanon …”) and a fold-out booklet showing “12-views of Lebanon,” a selection of the saccharine, hand-tinted photos that for so many represent the glory days of the pre-war period.
Using Sheikh’s book to represent the violence and chaos of the Civil War, Wehbe’s installation is an attempt to re-live the carefree optimism that characterizes Lebanon of the early-1970s in collective memory. Often talked about as the heyday of the glamorous young country, Wehbe suggests that an element of fantasy might have crept into such reminiscences.
“I think that the insouciance and the happiness that my parents so proudly recount was intense only by relativity,” says Wehbe in Hisham Awad’s accompanying text.
“The war that started in 1975 made everything that preceded it look majestic … Inaccessible, the photographs and other ‘found’ objects, manifest a failure to relive August 1973, in 2009.”
Somewhat more engaged with the text was a captivating interactive sound-and-video work by Raed al-Khazen and Jana Saleh. Based on Paul Auster’s novel “Ghosts,” the second volume of his “New York Trilogy,” the work seeks to capture the different moods of Auster’s book while putting the spectator in a central role.
Auster’s postmodern novel follows the characters Blue, Brown, White and Black, who lives on Orange Street, through a detective fiction narrative. Interpreting each character as a different aspect of the author and his New York life, Khazen and Saleh put together a series of sounds and visuals to capture these different moods. Both, until recently, residents of New York, the artists are well placed to talk about life in the city.
“All I Want to Feel is Blue,” the pair’s response, comprises video footage from Saleh and a soundtrack composed by Kha­zen. The “orange” section, for example, shows Saleh’s footage of a contemporary dancer at various locations in the city, accompanied by Khazen’s New Wave sounds. For the “white” segment, Khazen composed an ambient guitar accompaniment to angular, high-contrast shots of urban scenes.
An interactive element linked input from microphones placed in Zawiya studio’s courtyard to a blue stain that tainted the screen, like ink dropped in water. The intensity of the stain was tied to the volume of the conversation outside, spreading or mutating as the crowds of gallery-goes fluctuated. Through their impact on the final experience, Khazen and Saleh integrate the spectators into the artists’ interpretation of Auster’s private universe.
By reinventing “Ghosts” through the prism of their own artistic practices, and building in the unpredictable dictates of group behavior, Khazen and Saleh provide a very different experience from reading a novel. The spectator is far from the tight control of a single authorial voice. Despite these ruptures with the source, the work might be seen to share a certain un­nerving, absorbing atmosphere with Auster’s text – an instance, perhaps, of the “synergy” between books and plastic arts.

Date: 10/22/2009
Author: Matthew Mosley
Article Newspaper: Daily Star
Share This Article