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Arie Amaya-Akkermans 30 Jan 2015

Gazing into the Past and Future: Construction and Self-Construction at Exposure 6

The sixth edition of Exposure, which runs through February, returned to the Beirut Art Center last month. It is one of their signature annual exhibitions, showcasing some of the best emerging artistic talent from Lebanon and/or featuring work somehow related to Lebanon.

Under a new management in one of the country’s leading art institutions, the transformation of the show is remarkable in comparison to previous editions, with a truly curated exhibition that reflects not only the landscape of contemporary art in its global vocabulary, but a set preoccupations embedded locally and not only as histories but as conditions, structures and modes of reality. The curatorial insight of Marie Muracciole, recently appointed director of the center – for the first time an independent voice – echoes throughout the exhibition.

With the title “Under Construction,” the central theme of the show is the relationship between construction and self-construction, opening up the permeable space in between. From Muracciole’s catalog text, referring to the selection process: “The jury has paid particular attention to the relationship between these two aspects (construction and self-construction), discussing the necessary tension between occupying a real, physical space, and a more cerebral, imaginary one. In between, surprises and gaps occur. Special attention was given to the way in which ideas, matter, or things, resist individual will, generating an unexpected and controversial dialectic in the process of making art.”

While not all of the works reflect this to the same extent, a balance is kept between idea and composition.

The diverse group of artists, composed of Mirna Bamieh, Nour Bishouty, Roy Dib, Hiba Kalache, Jessika Khazrik, Arjuna Neuman, Georgette Power, Tanya Traboulsi and Tala Worrell, present each one their own version of ‘construction’, united by a very thin thread, working across very different formats and coming from different places and ages. Some of them are exhibiting for the first time, while others are more mature and established members of the local art scene.

“Under Construction” doesn’t imply that the works are unfinished, rather, it suggests the engagement with the open-ended territory of the city; redrawing boundaries on a permanent basis – be it political, social, cultural or sexual. In this viscous territory, unsure whether being destroyed or rebuilt, filled with scaffoldings, a temporal gaze finds its home.

Jessika Khazrik’s installation, “The Society of False Witnesses: The First Repository” (2014) critically stages a seldom discussed event in Lebanese history, when in 1987 thousands of barrels of toxic waste were imported from Italy (a move agreed upon via a bribe with one of the war militias) and disposed in the mountains and near the sea. However very accomplished, the work is cryptic and perhaps the most heterogeneous composition in the show, which reduces its impact as a performance of hidden histories.

Georgette Power’s “Vacance” (2014) opts for fragility in an attempt to dematerialize herself in a quite sculptural notion, staging a political body through minimal and almost imperceptible gestures that command the attention of the viewer.

In Mirna Bamieh’s “A Manuel How to Preserve Memory” (2014), a curious museum of memory is erected through functional relations between random objects. The artist, a Palestinian living in the convoluted Beirut of the Syrian catastrophe, finds herself unable to avoid a political discourse of the end of history as an Arab and Palestinian, but gracefully manages to find an intermediate space between active and passive memory.

Arjuna Neuman’s “Borrowed Scenarios” (2014) takes on an art history theme to poetically deploy the singularities between construction and identity by solidifying an otherwise free-floating memory, sculpting out the contours of the neo-liberal age. Loyal to the curatorial theme, the work is still relatively inaccessible.

A great surprise was to see Tala Worrell’s paintings, an absolute rarity in this type of exhibition nowadays and certainly in Lebanon. Trained in the language of American abstraction, conceptualism and post-conceptualism, the artist still manages to articulate the local preoccupation with the foundations of the real and how everything, even solid structures, are constructed through time and language.

Tanya Traboulsi’s photographic installation “Something Borrowed” (2014) is a narrative – across photography and sound, quite jocular at that, about the dilemmas of unmarried women in Lebanese society; the work is a departure from Traboulsi’s preoccupation with the city, but it is also an extension of this imaginary. Through the self-portraits, the artist adopts different positions, while circumventing them.

The most striking pieces in the exhibition, however, were the three installations tackling the issue of memory, albeit from radically different points of view and subject matters, disestablishing the obsession with history omnipresent in local art, and making their local preoccupations part of a more global language without blurring the lines of their practice as ‘fieldwork.’ Here we have Roy Dib’s three-channel video installation, “A Spectacle of Privacy” (2014), which follows from his earlier “Mondial 2010” (2014), and lays out the question of how the public and the private realm are unmistakably intertwined using sexuality as a metaphor for Palestine. Predictably polemic, this battlefield of intimacy provides an additional territory for the politics of the public realm: it’s inescapable.

Hiba Kalache’s meticulous drawings over layers of a divided Beirut, seen through maps, blockages and dis-junctions rather than junctions, are aesthetic to the point of dazzling. Seen from afar, they come off as contemporary abstract painting, but upon close inspection, they reveal an anti-memory deployed as a mapping The installation, “Untitled” (2014) marks a departure in the artist’s work from the controlled architectural aesthetics into a world of chaos still governed by the same rules.

Nour Bishouty’s different works, heterogeneous as a whole but self-contained worlds independently, are a discreet re-arrangement of memory blocks through reconstruction; attempting to grasp the forgotten not through language but through quotidian textures, bringing out public memory as intimacy.

It is a great challenge for a curator to be able to articulate the proposals of nine different artists into a cohesive mass, and sometimes the borders are full of edges, crossing into other territories at the expense of surprise. No less would be expected, however, from an exhibition that takes Beirut as a starting site for bodies and spaces. The result is perhaps too aesthetic sometimes but very satisfying to the careful reader and seer. These artworks are not striking in the expected ways of public art or biennial shows, they are far more discreet and require a lot of time to make sense of their infinitesimally small components. They are, in the end, a map of a certain condition, a direct gaze, and from there, one can only expect to see in the future, the terminated buildings. But in Beirut, perhaps not.