Rene — Beirut artists dampen Western fantasies at Venice Biennale

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Beirut artists dampen Western fantasies at Venice Biennale
But shambolic organization at prestigious show hampers Lebanon’s underexposed talent
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie
Daily Star staff
I’ve never been to Beirut so I can’t say anything specific,” admits Francesco Bonami, the contemporary art curator in charge of this year’s prestigious Venice Biennale. Bonami may lack first-hand experience here, but he does know the city through a handful of its more internationally exposed artists. “I feel that (Beirut) is one of those places that can stir a kind of lay fantasy in the Western art world,” he says.
If Beirut inspires a particular fascination in the West, then the Venice Biennale evokes widespread career lust among artists everywhere. So the fact that five artists from Beirut are featured there should come as good news, one would think. But, then again, the 50th outing of venerable Venice has become, in the words of one curator, “a complete mess.”
Artists Walid Raad, Tony Chakar, Bilal Khbeiz, and the team of Paola Yacoub and Michel Lasserre are all exhibiting works in progress at Venice’s Arsenale space this summer. None save Yacoub and Lasserre, who live part of the year in Paris, were able to attend the opening ­ the invitation, if it came at all, arrived with less than a week to spare, no time for a Lebanese citizen to obtain a visa for travel abroad. None have seen how their art has been physically presented ­ though a few did get a nice DVD version in the mail. And none have been particularly impressed with the critical feedback ­ scant, superficial and, in some cases, wildly off base.
For these five Beirutis, plus Palestinian photographers Taysir Batniji and Randa Shaath, the Venice project grew out of curator Catherine David’s Contemporary Arab Representations project. (For the first time, Venice’s curator delegated the show to nine additional curators, though Bonami’s decision has yielded somewhat disastrous results). David scaled down and reconfigured her exhibition for Venice, inviting artists to present fresh works in a new, if more contentious, context.
“When (David) came to Beirut, we all agreed that the work we did in Contemporary Arab Representations was behind us and we wanted to move on,” says Tony Chakar. In a relatively quick slice of time, Chakar put together a new project, based on the idea that “to make a portrait of Beirut is impossible.”
Beirut: The Impossible Portrait (And Now Will You Let Us Play with You?) consists of still images projected on a screen, with the official photographs of a pristine and restored Beirut double exposed with pictures Chakar took walking around town, capturing his version of the city in all its indications of decay. Underneath the images runs a text, set up like a CNN news bar, with a story Chakar wrote about a man who finds an architect’s notebook while strolling through Achrafieh.
The tone of Chakar’s title is meant to be cutting ­ the images of Beirut so often sold to the world are precisely those of downtown and Solidere. For Chakar, these pictures are too eager, shamelessly trying to convince the West that Beirut is civilized, modern, European, as if the city were a little kid falling all over himself to impress his older brother’s friends.
Bilal Khbeiz also created a work specifically for Venice. Self-Portrait: Knowledge Does Not Precede Effort features filmed footage of Khbeiz’s wife, who is Iraqi, reading a text on screen. Subtitles beneath her convey another series of texts that Khbeiz wrote in the style of Borges, Derrida and Baudrillard. Nearby, a computer screen carries yet another text Khbeiz wrote about Afghanistan.
The work tackles such issues as how a people construct images of themselves, how death and violence function as components of ideas, and the interplay between what Samuel Huntington once called “the West and the Rest.”
“This work was specifically made for a Western audience and a Western venue,” says Khbeiz. “It has a trap on which the work is set. The trap speaks to the relationship that binds the West to the rest of the world, and specifically to us.”
Paola Yacoub and Michel Lasserre have created two issues of a magazine called OV ­ produced on DVD ­ each capturing events within a single week. Theoretically, the exhibition gives the artists a chance to test audience reactions. But they are suitably diplomatic about the venue, admitting Venice’s elitism on the one hand, and crediting the Biennale as a performance on the other.
Walid Raad, meanwhile, has presented the latest in an ongoing series he is working on under the auspices of the Atlas Group, his quasi-fictional foundation formulating a history of contemporary Lebanon. My Neck is Thinner than a Hair: A History of Car Bombs in the Lebanese Wars 1975-1991 (Volumes 1-245) Engines unfolds a series of still images that scroll like microfiche. Like much of Raad’s work, his Venice piece betrays a sharp intelligence and a pointed sense of humor, though he is reticent to divulge the full details, as it’s still part of a work in progress.
In general, it has become sport for art critics to complain about the Venice Biennale every time it opens. But this summer, reports have been especially scathing, the show repeatedly denounced as inarticulate, chaotic and jumbled. Whenever anyone has mentioned the Contemporary Arab Representations project at all, they’ve concluded that it has simply been completely overwhelmed.
The Economist likens this edition of Venice to “channel-hopping on cable TV ­ hundreds of programs but not much you want to watch,” while in the latest issue of the magazine Flash Art, Melissa Dunn writes: “The feelings of disappointment one has leaving the exhibition is mixed with misgivings about what interesting works might actually lay buried here, entombed like sunken ships lost in a turbid sea.”
Bonami insists that the critics are missing the point, and about David’s show in particular, he says: “Most of the other exhibitions in the Arsenale have a metaphorical edge, while David’s show has a very documentary feeling and approach so it’s a kind of awakening to the world.
“I think visitors found this portion of the show necessary.”
But David is less kind. If she could have things her way, she says she would have shut down her own show completely. “The critique of the Biennale is that it’s not a place where you can work precisely. Too many elements are out of your hands.” In regard to logistical matters, she spits the words “the idiocy of Venice” with contempt.
For the artists themselves, feelings are mixed. “I’m not interested in being there as part of a spectacle,” says Khbeiz.
“Europe doesn’t impress me much,” adds Chakar. “The percentage of intelligent people is the same everywhere in the world. Some European cities smell as bad as Beirut and the people are dressed as badly there as they are here.”
Raad, who has the most experience at such events, is more circumspect. “The occasion to exhibit becomes the occasion to continue to work. You don’t necessarily get the most critical response,” he says, “but when I went to Documenta (last summer), it was amazing to see other artists working, and to know that there are other people in the world with kindred concerns. That can trigger an interesting dialogue.”
This is a great shame for the Beiruti contingent at Venice. Raad, Chakar, Khbeiz, Yacoub and Lasserre all have a valuable new line on their resumes, one that will no doubt reap benefits for them in the future. But a great opportunity has been missed for artists and audiences alike. Contemporary art is as doused in politics as anything else, and these five artists do much to complicate the existing dialogues both between and about East and West. If visitors to Venice can’t manage to find or engage with the Contemporary Arab Representations project because the whole show is in shambles, then they have lost a chance to be provoked, exposed and challenged by a new set of crucial works.
This is also a great shame for those of us here in Beirut. The Lebanese artists who have their work up at the Biennale this summer do not show often here. For better or worse, they opt for temporary exhibitions and don’t have gallery representation in Beirut ­ either because they work in video and few galleries are willing to take the risk of showing what is still frustratingly considered “difficult” art, or because they are so disillusioned with the gallery system here that they couldn’t be bothered to take part in it.
“There is no art market here. There is no gallery system here” is a refrain they all utter often. They direct their efforts abroad because they have ambitions beyond the local market and its habit of selling pretty paintings to decorate the pretty living rooms of their pretty relatives. These artists have done a great deal to prove that culture actually matters, that art making is not just an idle concern of the slightly rich.
But the real loss is that these artists, often dismissed by local critics as a pretentious clique, also have the most to say. In many ways, their work is more relevant and more vital than anything else that is being produced here today. As artists, they do not shy away from the untouchable subjects of Lebanese politics ­ such as Syria’s role in the country, the legitimacy of the current government, the reconstruction of downtown Beirut, the resistance in the South, corruption, and the fine line between an era of globalization and a legacy of pan-Arabism still lodged in the region’s throat.
As to “the failure of contemporary art to address contemporary concerns,” Raad says, “I’m not sure what contemporary art can do. When was the last time an art event triggered a real discussion?”
It has certainly failed at Venice. But there’s still a small chance it will succeed about nine months from now, when Raad, with the help not coincidentally of Chakar and Khbeiz, presents My Neck is Thinner Than a Hair in full. This time around, he’ll be showing his work right here in Beirut.
The 50th Venice Biennale is on view through Nov. 2. For more info, check out www.labiennale.org