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Directly upon entering the Beirut Exhibition Center, where the exhibition How Soon is Now: A Tribute to Dreamers is being held, one is confronted with a huge 1997 aerial photography of Beirut. Circle of Confusion is in fact a kind of puzzle made of 3000 fragments. The visitors are actively invited to remove its parts, to appropriate one by one, a neighborhood or a piece of shore from the city. As the historical image becomes more and more riddled with holes, the mirror underneath it slowly uncovers. The image is thus constantly transforming with the actual movements in front of it, but what mainly transpires from this disjointed mosaic is the image of the visitor, in a kind of inversed gaze, whereby it is himself as a viewer that is reflected.
From the onset, the visitor is thus confronted with a complexification of space, and of his own position in it. Immediately, through the fragmented photography of Beirut, the Lebanese capital where both artists grew up during the 15 years of civil war and the focus of their long-standing artistic efforts, he finds himself in play within the exhibition space. Yet, this reflection can only occur at the expense of the integrity of the original image.
Beirut, the city, is also far from being easily grasped, torn as it is between its multiple pasts and future aspirations. Destroyed and reconstructed time and again, its architectural landscape reveals a multitude of heterogeneous traces stemming from different times and events. Layers of signification are superimposed to this already cluttered environment through the posters and graffiti reflecting past and present political ideologies. Beirut does not exist, reads the provocative note on the back of the fragments composing Circle of Confusion. "Yet it does", writes curator Mirene Arsanios in the text accompanying the exhibition—but not as a clearly circumscribed, tangible space.
On the back of the wall showing Circle of Confusion, the evolution of the apparatus, the gradual disappearing of the aerial image, is projected in a loop—Beirut is constantly deconstructed only to emerge anew. Difference in repetition, which fated the history of Beirut, becomes an essential element of its possible image.
And somehow, each of the works shown in this exhibition produces possible images of the fragmented Beirut through the questioning of the status of existing images. Lebanese Rocket Society: Elements for a Monument, the newest of the presented artworks, focuses on a special historical moment, unfolding it in a complex constellation embracing its manifold repercussions: it concerns an almost forgotten project undertaken by a group of researchers at the Armenian Haigazian University in the 1960s. While Americans and Russians were engaged in their frenzy space race, these Lebanese scientists created the first rocket in the Arab world. The scientists were dreaming of exploring outer space, however, the subsequent involvement of the army introduced a certain ambiguity as a rocket can also possibly be used as weapon. This project appears to the artists as a prism, reflecting at the same time the quest by a small group for scientific progress, the quasi-romantic dreams of liberty, the tense political situation of the cold war, and the emerging ideologies in the Arab world.
Lebanese Rocket Society is conceived as a work in progress made of different parts, some of which not shown in the exhibition—i.e. the full-scale reproduction of the rocket Cedar IV, which was donated to the Haigazian University, and the experimental documentary film, which will be launched later on in 2012.
Within How Soon is Now?, the installation is quite complex. An archive film on a small tv-screen displays the launching of Cedar IV, then on a long wall aside, 32 oblong equidistant photographs are hanging next to one another. Brought together under a single gaze, they reproduce the original Cedar IV, each segment depicting only a small part of it. A closer look further reveals that the fragments are not flat images, but volumes, produced through the folding of the whole image into 32 pleats, exhibiting only one visible facet, the others remaining present but hidden, latent. Under each fragment, a page of The President’s Album (which is also the name of this photo-installation), reproduces the launching of Cedar IV. Next to these, a film shows one of the researchers who worked back then on the project, browsing through this album and explaining at the same time how the rocket worked, thus actualizing through his personal memories this past moment.
There is also a series of photographs shot while transporting the reproduction of Cedar IV through Beirut to the Haigazian University. While the urban surrounding appears in a sharp way, the rocket itself is blurry, probably due to the speed, but making it actually almost indiscernible from the missiles that destroyed entire sections of the city. The perception of the real is infected with imaginary connotations of the now.
Another work related to this project is A Carpet, a 5.5x3 meters carpet with the pattern of a stamp of Cedar IV, produced in 1964 to celebrate the 21st anniversary of Lebanon’s independence. This carpet reproduces the same size as another one, woven in the 20s by more than 400 Armenian girls, and offered to the White House in recognition of the American help to their orphanage in Lebanon. Some reproductions of archival photographs and films documenting the procedure are equally presented.
The Golden Disk is the last element in the context of The Lebanese Rocket Society. Visually, it is a projection on the floor of a disc, continually turning, and a timeline enumerating the sounds that are diffused in the same space: satellite sounds, alphabets in different languages, a Kaak vendor, a speech of president Nasser in 1967, etc. These heterogeneous tracks echo the sound environment of the 1960s—not only sounds from everyday-life, or the enthusiasm of scientists for their new discoveries, but also the political atmosphere of hope in pan-arabism. As with the Voyager Golden Record, which Americans sent into outer space as an imprint of life on earth, have we become completely alien to the sounds of this era?
Aside from these contemporary works, a few older projects are presented in the same space, forming an intimate dialogue between all the works. Lasting Images and 180 Seconds of Lasting Images consist of a short super 8 film that belonged to Joreige’s oncle who disappeared during the civil war, and the individual prints of its 4500 particular frames. One can hardly see through the whiteness of the images; from time to time a ghostly appearance can suddenly be discerned. As in Circle of Confusion, the visitor finds a kind of puzzle, but here, it is composed of instants, spread out spatially to form a tableau of time-images. Latent Images also deals with undeveloped images, those taken by the photographer Abdallah Farah. Instead of the photographs, one can see images of the undeveloped film rolls and 38 black pictures resembling contact sheets with descriptions of what would have been seen on the photographs.
Two films are presented on tv-screens: Barmeh/Rounds, featuring Rabih Mroué driving in a car around Beirut and talking about the city which, being completely overexposed, is not discernible. His speech and the sound of the radio refer to the surroundings, but these remain nonetheless phantasmal, unreal, intangible.
Don’t Walk retraces a personal experience of the two artists: in 1999, Hadjithomas was confined to bed for several months due to a dangerous pregnancy. During this period, she filmed her intimate surroundings while Joreige filmed the outside world, and brought it back to her.
Bestiaires and Equivalences are series of photographs of traces found in Beirut. Bestiaires shows material details such as pieces of metal or remnants of destroyed cars. These appear strangely familiar, phantasmagoric—associations with animal shapes arise, opening up an almost surrealistic understanding of the environment; the affinity with Brassai’s Involuntary Sculptures is obvious. Equivalences presents in a rather confusing way dilapidated dwellings in Beirut; the composition makes the image almost abstract.
How Soon is Now: A Tribute to Dreamers sheds a light on very different aspects of Beirut, its past, its present, and its past as perceived in the present, weaving different temporalities and intertwining realities through possible images and forms, opening thereby an access to the dreamy, imaginary elements they contain. "Is awakening perhaps the synthesis of dream consciousness (as thesis) and waking consciousness (as antithesis)?", asks Walter Benjamin in his Arcades Project. "Then the moment of awakening would be identical with the "now of knowability" in which things put on their true—Surrealist—face."
Professor of Philosophy of Art at the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts. Currently preparing her PhD on Walid Raad's "Atlas Group Project". She lives and works in Beirut and Paris.
How Soon is Now: A Tribute to Dreamers
28 February - 20 April 2012
Beirut Exhibition Center (BEC)
The exhibition is presented by Ashkal Alwan and Beirut Exhibition Center
Curated by Ashkal Alwan
Associated curator: Mirene Arsanios
As recipients of the Abraaj Capital Art Prize, their work will be shown at Art Dubai, Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai, 21 - 24 March 2012
Lebanese Rocket Society: Part III, IV, V
18 March - 19 April 2012
The Third Line, Dubai