The Daily Star
"Ephemeral art takes root in the ruins above Beirut"
September 8, 2008
Number 12,706; Pg. 10
Author: Jim Quilty
Read this article online at dailystar.com
Ephemeral art takes root in the ruins above Beirut
ALEY: At the edge of the town of Aley, in the hills above Beirut, a cluster of stone houses of indeterminate age is scattered over two tracts of land.
This was a battleground after Israel's 1982 Lebanon invasion. Today, recent structures stand behind old ones, some tastefully renovated. Others are derelict, like skulls, decapitated, smashed open, burnt.
The cluster of properties, centered on the family house of Lebanese artist Ghassan Maasri, is home to the Artists' International Workshop: Aley, better known by its acronym, AIWA - as much an enthusiastic "Yes" in Arabic as it is a Japanese electronics manufacturer.
Maasri coordinates this two-week residency program, now in its second year. AIWA invites artists working in a range of media - painting, sculpture, installation, video, performance and sound - to share ideas and work within a setting that, familiar or not, is laden with the ramifications of past destruction.
AIWA 2008 gathered 18 international and Middle Eastern artists about Maasri's family manse from August 17 to September 1, going public with their work on August 31.
Perhaps because the setting is so affecting, a lot of installation work grew out of the workshop, most of it set within or atop the properties' several abandoned houses.
Copenhagen-based Palestinian video artist Larissa Sansour, for instance, collaborated with Lebanon's Youmna Chlala to make "This May Take Awhile," a mixed-media installation that is easier to hear than to see.
Voices arise from within one disemboweled structure. They tell stories, collected from Aley residents who were asked to explain the events of Lebanon's 1975-1990 Civil War.
The visual component is a mirror, mounted in the gaping, overgrown hole of a former window, nowadays used to stack firewood. The mirror is invisible until the spectator stands immediately before it, becoming implicated in the piece.
This was Sansour's first visit to Lebanon and the Aley setting heightened certain contradictions that she found lingering in her conversations with various people here.
"Everybody's version of what happened during the war was different, but responsibility always seems to lie with somebody else," Sansour recalled on the evening of AIWA's open house. She gestured to the installation's mirror. "It seemed important that visitors see themselves while listening to these stories."
Sansour is familiar with the workshop approach to artistic production, having spent time at Braziers, the artists' workshop in Oxfordshire, England, that encourages experimentation and exchange among artists working in different media.
Maasri too is a veteran of Braziers, one of a network of dozens of artist-led workshops founded in 30-odd countries under the aegis of New York's Triangle Workshop and Trust. Braziers was co-founded by British artist Gill Ord in 1995 and Ord was on hand for the last few days of AIWA. She says she was excited by the artistic potential of the Aley space.
"The site is very rich and heavy at the same time," she said. "There's all the war damage, while it also looks down on Beirut and the Mediterranean."
Maasri says he wanted to bring the Triangle model to Aley in order to broaden the range of artistic experience in Lebanon.
"Partly, AIWA grew out of the way the arts scene was developing in Beirut in the 1990s - festivals and galleries presenting ready-made products," Maasri explained. "AIWA is about work in progress. It's not about coming up with a finished product, necessarily. It's significant too that the workshop take place in a private space, not a public one, so there's not the pressure of a commission."
Like many artists hereabouts, Maasri betrays an interest in social change. "I started my studies in architecture [and later] became interested in context-centered work ... I felt there was a lack of emphasis on process. In architecture they always talk about process, but you soon see 'process' has little to do with development in this country.
"I'm not so interested in the art product changing things. It's about the process of making art that can make a change - art activity and space rather than art products and space.
"Last year," he recalls, "we had a Pakistani artist [Anab ul Firdos] here. When people in Aley met an artist from Pakistan it challenged their impression that people from there are only workers and domestics."
The most engaging of Maasri's two contributions to AIWA is "Be Prepared to be Disappointed," a doctored painting installed within a storage room enclosed by a cage-like iron gate. The room is arrayed with the sort of mundane, disused items you might expect to find in a storage cupboard.
Sitting atop an appliance is an oft-reproduced oil painting of a herd of wild horses charging across the plain - a clichd summation of American liberty, among other things. Glancing out from the edge of the herd is a cow. Packed with its own complex of social and cultural meaning, the bovine yanks the work into a different trajectory, suggesting, perhaps, that a herd of libertines is still, at the end of the day, a herd.
Not all the work coming out of AIWA was sculpture and installation. The site inspired New York-based multi-media artist David Greg Harth to design a performance he called "Middle Struggle." It's set within a canal running uphill between the Maasris' property and their neighbor's (which is also part of the workshop venue).
He placed two coal trolleys in the trench, rigging one to a rope-and-pulley system and filling it with water. The other he filled with coal.
Harth's Sisyphus-like performance saw him stand between the two trolleys and yank on the rope until the water-filled container reached the upper end of the canal. He then let it roll back down, took up a small pot dangling from his person, poured a single portion of water into the second trolley and a single handful of coal into the first. He repeated this painstaking procedure several times per performance.
"I'm interested in the artistic possibilities of physical exertion in incongruous places," Harth remarked afterward. "In the end I decided to do this performance several times throughout the day. I originally wanted to do it constantly between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., but in the heat and humidity I realized that would be a suicide mission. The struggle was enough."
With only a rough map to guide visitors to the work, AIWA's "open day" had the aspect of a scavenger hunt. Many of these pieces are interesting. As is the way with such games, some spaces provided particularly fertile ground for treasures.
One ruin was unusually rife with interesting work. On the floor at one end of the house, the sculpture "The Face and the Other Face" by Moroccan-German artist Nabil Makhloufy, looks, at first glance, to be a stylized model of the Beirut, or perhaps some other head-shaped urban skyline.
Upon closer examination, toy shapes emerge from the cityscape's individual structures, the buildings having been molded from the plastic packaging that cradles factory-produced toys. Several handguns are easily discernable in this skyline, as are the spectral outlines of various action figures.
Stepping back, the molded structures of this bulbous cityscape come to resemble the elaborate ridges of a human brain in profile. The work seems to suggest the childish preoccupations that frequently make up the mind of the city.
Just down the hall from "The Face and the Other Face," Lebanese artist Tagreed Darghouth's installation "Rose Etre" saw the artist take possession of the house's kitchen and subject it to a form-over-function beautification project. Walls (including the heads of garlic and tea towels hanging there), floors, stairs, countertops, sink and shelving - and the broom, bottles, bags and the like that happen to sitting on them - are all painted a uniform shade of pink.
A newly installed piece of glass, complete with roughly painted white cross, prevents access to the kitchen from the rest of the house. At once incongruously pretty and eerily monochrome, "Rose Etre" could easily be a critique of the gentrifying ethic ubiquitous in architectural preservation schemes.
Just across the hall from "Rose Etre," glass barriers are also integral to Ayman Baalbaki and Camille Zakharia's collaboration "Untitled." Coming upon this house, the two Lebanese artists found it littered with worn-out shoes, of various styles, vintages and states of repair.
They knew they wanted to deploy the shoes around this space but remained undecided exactly how, right up to the final days of the workshop - when, along with the several other artists with works in this house, they were engaged in intense discussions over how best to use the available space.
Ultimately they chose to bury them. A pair of frames were formed (or found) by removing the concrete floor tiles and stones to reveal the soil beneath the house. Within each frame, several shoes are partially buried in the ground, then covered by a pane of glass.
The effect is simple yet provocative. Equally reminiscent of either a landfill or a partially uncovered mass grave, the glass surfaces of "Untitled" resonate with art's preoccupation with spent lives and consumer goods. Indeed, the piece could easily be read as an ironic reflection upon AIWA's premises - making art within houses that war has rendered effigies of themselves.