Just another free Blogger theme

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Unveiled: New Art From The Middle East is an exhibition which claims little beyond its title. There is no obvious reason why this particular group of artists should be brought together in the same exhibition, to claim that somehow they represent art practices in the Middle East would be misleading, there are no obvious stylistic connections or over-riding concerns among the various artists on show. Paradoxically, this liberates the exhibition and allows the visitors to relate more to the individual works on display. This show does what it says on the tin, and does it successfully.
In contrast to Catherine David's Contemporary Arab Representations, a series of exhibitions that ran for several years since 2001 in various cities, Unveiled does not assume the burden of representation, and does not expect the artists to give an insight into Arab culture, cultural ambassadors they are not. What they do is give us free-standing art works that can (mostly) speak for themselves. This was a breath of fresh air.
Take for example the two works by Marwan Rechmaoui Beirut, Caoutchouc and Spectre, previously exhibited as part of Contemporary Arab Representations. It's the first time that I've seen his work shown outside of that context and liberated from the company of Deleuzian texts and yet another grainy video of someone's aunt, and it was like seeing the artworks for the first time. Caoutchouc is a large scale map of Beirut reproduced in black rubber in relief, that represents the city in a surprisingly novel way. Common to the work of most Lebanese artists of his generation, the problem of knowing the city is a central theme in Rechmaoui's work, yet his take on it is very personal and specific. The abstract conventions of map-making are subtly manipulated, allowing us to look beyond the physical city.
In Spectre (The Yacoubian Building, Beirut) Rechmaoui creates a scaled-down version of an iconic modernist building in Beirut in concrete and glass. The building is depicted at a specific point in its history, after it was evacuated during the Israeli attacks on Lebanon in 2006, and bearing the traces of its decades of existence in a troubled city. The artist faithfully depicts the smallest details, such as the heavy metal doors that become common during the civil war, but this is far from a process of pure documentation. The tension between the building's abstract repetitive form and the little details that Rechmaoui chooses to highlight, the story of the decline of a city and the fate of its inhabitants is being told cleverly and sensitively.
Rechmaoui's works are representations of his unique and personal way of looking at the city, and his ability to translate that into material form without excessive expressionism but with the subtle hints that allow us to see the city through his eyes. Isn't this the unique skill of the artist? By contrast, Diana Al-Hadid's works take expressionism to a new high, vigorously melting the symbols of modernity into twisted lumps of plastic. If Rechmaoui's works are masterpieces in under-statement, Al-Hadid's works are loud and garrulous. Curiously, they seem to be less personal precisely because of this quality.
The Tower of Infinite Problems and the other pieces on display by Al-Hadid, are large shards of metal and plastic, constantly at odds with gravity and at various stages of collapse and ruin, some of have completely surrendered waiting, presumably, for the inevitable crawl of green that is the fate of all ruins. The works are masterfully produced, but that has long ago ceased to be a quality to be praised in art. What is genuinely disturbing about the shattered towers is not Al-Hadid's unique vision in as much as that images of catastrophe have become so common today to arouse any interest, in me at least. Rather than seeing an artist struggling with the world around her, all I could see is yet another Virilio inspired take on modernity and the implications of taking technology to an extreme.
Al-Hadid as a Syrian-American artist is trying to give expression to the two cultures that she belongs to and on the way highlight issues such as cultural conflict. But the impression that I get, and perhaps this is the one fault line that can be traced in the entire exhibition, is that this is someone who have accepted those categories such as culture uncritically, and her work becomes less personal because of that. To a certain extent, this is the main difference between the works of the artists who live in the Middle East and those who live in the west. The first group don't have the luxury of thinking of their context in terms of abstract categories; it is above all a lived reality that they have to struggle with on a daily basis. The second group seem to have escaped the confines of that reality, but it's a false liberation that gives their work that abstract distant quality.
This is particularly true of the paintings of Nadia Ayari. The catalogue says of her: "Ayari didn't start working with her Middle Eastern subject matter until she’d moved to America and notions of cultural heritage and identity came to the fore." And it shows. Only someone far removed from the lived reality of the Middle East can attempt to sum it up in such a collection of visual clichés. This is Orientalism for the 21st century, rehabilitated by the fact that it is being committed by a native. All the more cause for concern. The struggle of the people of Palestine and Iraq today is not so much to get recognition for their misery, but to stop the west from constantly portraying them as perpetual victims, and in the case of Ayari's paintings, literally in such a flat manner.
Flatness, that old paradox of painting, has been revisited by two of the Iranian artists in the exhibition, Ramin Haerizadeh and Ahmad Morshedloo. Not so crassly, of course, but with thought and sophistication that re-asserts the notion that are is truly universal, and an experiment began by a French artists a hundred years ago could be picked up again by someone in Iran today. Not as a distraction from life, but as a unique way of dealing with it and sharing that vision with others.
Haerizadeh's collages are powerful in combining the conventions of collage with traditional Persian painting and crafts, using mostly his body as raw material. The effect is astonishing, producing intriguing works that on closer inspection reveal the manipulation and distortion involved in re-packaging his severed limbs and his chubby face to produce hyper-real bodies suitable for our age where the body has lost its integrity and has been appropriated by various institutions.
Morshedloo's work is particularly powerful, not only because it declares that painting is not dead as an art form, but because of the insistence that his subjects caught in a moment of daily life are not the vacuous abstractions we have to expect from depictions of that part of the world, but are subjects in their own right regardless of how much their attire hides or reveals of them. The contrast between the naked men and over-clad women does nothing to distract from that, these are living breathing subjects. We are made even more aware, paradoxically, through Morshedloo's unique perspectives and foreshortening effects. This is not crass realism, but painting at its best. The less said the better.
Finally, the last piece which attracted the most attention from the visitors is Kader Attia's Ghost. The aluminium-foil empty shells that represent Muslim women in prayer, a hundred or more of them perhaps, are very powerful visually. Though to me personally the effect is not particularly due to Attia's social 'comment' in as much as it is the representation of the hollow body in that most fragile and transient of materials, aluminium foil. For all I care, they could have been a group of Jedi warriors looking for their contact lenses, the effect would have been the same. There is something about the power of visual depictions that we seem to have abandoned in favour of art with a message, and perhaps that is too much of a burden. Attia's work is an example of the power of that form of visual exploration that used to be called sculpture.
The last room in the exhibition is dedicated to old masters from the Middle East, and it suitably takes me to my conclusion. In societies where visual art was not an established tradition, those early masters embarked on what seemed to their contemporaries an alien endeavour, a career and a life in art. They did that for two reasons, one to create their own modernity in countries that were still ambivalent about it, and secondly, to become full-fledged individuals in societies where the concept was struggling to emerge against the tyranny of older institutions. In Unveiled, we see that struggle continue. There are artists who have to live in countries that find their activities superfluous, but in their struggle to assert their individualism they are producing thoughtful and engaging works of art. On the other hand, there are those who seem to have surrendered their individuality in favour of a formulaic and self-indulgent art that is obsessed with identity. It's a fine line, but this exhibition will allow discerning viewers to judge for themselves.
It doesn't take much to provoke the Lebanese, so a project like Cedars Island (http://www.cedarsisland.com) was bound to be controversial. The large development on the Lebanese coast proposed by Noor international is described as "a residential, commercial, recreational, and touristic site made for luxurious experience", built on reclaimed land in the shape of, what else, the Cedar Tree. Mind you, it's not really like a Cedar Tree, but the idealized shape of the national symbol that has been constantly re-drawn by everyone from the Lebanese flag designer to the national airline to the various political parties (mostly on the right).
Yet, the specific nature of the responses to Cedars Island is quite revealing. The 'protest' kicked off like much else with a Facebook group, that utterly meaningless form of desktop activism. Within a short period of type it attracted thousands of disgruntled Lebanese internet users. The objections ranged from the environmental to the aesthetic, the common denominator being that everyone was offended. It is not difficult to see why, to start with the development is a typical Dubai-style development, which is enough to send the Lebanese into fits of rage. Regardless that hundreds of thousands of them make a living in the Gulf, the attitude of the Lebanese towards that part of the world has always been a negative one. Dubai on the Damour coast, what an affront!
Some people were even annoyed with the fact that the project will have palm trees. Palm trees on our shores! Oh poor cedar tree... In a country where everything from the type of car that you drive to your favorite TV station is politicized, it's only natural that even trees can have such ideological significance. The Christians used to whine about the palm trees that the late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (allegedly) planted in Beirut and Saida, importing that alien tree from the Arabian Peninsula to our 'virgin' coastline. Somehow they feared that those trees will subliminally take over their political affiliations to the land of the cedars.
Then, the environmentalists stepped in, naturally. Greenpeace Lebanon (how proud am I!) is conducting a study on the effect of island on the marine eco-system. Happily, we even have a proper green party in Lebanon now (in as much as a green party could be proper). I haven't found out what they have to say about it yet, but I am sure they will not be thrilled. In a brilliant article in Al-Akhbar ( http://www.al-akhbar.com/files/pdfs/20080820/p06_20080820.pdf ) Bassam Al-Qantar exposed the 'party' for what it is: an elitist club for the affluent and the well connected.
Like any 'protest' of that nature in Lebanon it is not the farmers of Baalbek and Hermel who are protesting, it is someone else protesting in the name of the Lebanese people. It is only those who don't have to live at the mercy of nature than can afford to idealize it. In a country where hundreds of thousands of people live in areas with no economic prospects whatsoever, the Greens will take it upon themselves to stop any development project that can offend their aesthetic sensitivities.
No one has yet looked at the number of jobs that such a development will create or the volume of economic activity that it could generate. Details. People don't like the Cedars Island and therefore it has to stop. This is from people whose understanding of economics is so distorted that thousands of them joined another Facebook group to nominate the governor of the Central Bank to the Nobel Prize because of his wisdom and genius. Presumably, the ultra-conservative economic policies of hording foreign cash reserves and promoting banking policies that are slightly more advanced than those of Hammurabi.
To make matters worse, thousands of Lebanese people have been going to the West to get degrees in American and European universities where they un-critically accept the prevailing orthodoxies of environmentalism and sustainability and then head back with a clear recipe of how to cure Lebanon from its ills. Thanks to the collapse of the Left in Lebanon, progressive voices have long ago died out completely. It used to be the Lebanese left that argued for more industrialization and development to give the Lebanese working classes a better future, while the "Right" (Kataeb and co) dreamt of milking their goats under the starry skies of Mount Lebanon.
Today, the political shades range from the conservative to the down-right reactionary, and all radical ideas have been discarded. Hezbollah long ago tore up its founding document, and with it its social radicalism. (See: http://www.culturewars.org.uk/2007-08/norton.htm ) The sole purpose of Hezbollah today is to keep the Shiite masses under control and contain their explosive potential. To that end it will pacify them with small 'gains' at the expense of the integrity of the Lebanese state.
Equally, the Tayyar has lost any radical potential it ever possessed. There was a moment in the late 90s when the Tayyar could have become a genuinely radical political movement, but the youth leadership chickened out and left it to Aoun to play the role of demi-god, a role currently performed at a cinema near you to devastating effect. What promised to be a genuine change in political consciousness among Christian youths (and a few Muslims) has been hijacked by the clan leaders.
Both Hezbollah and the Tayyar have departments for the environment, incidentally, so do several of the other parties. I am not singling out Hezbollah and the Tayyar, but it is important to understand that the parties with the most radical potential have become establishment parties, so we shouldn't expect much more from the proper bourgeois parties. And today both of those parties have developed a conservative outlook, and primarily one that has no political and economic vision for the country.
So, back to Cedars Island. In the absence of any real development in the country, why should a private project like this be opposed? So it might appear hideous to some people, is that enough to prevent a major economic development? In fact, I think there's even something subversive about the scheme, it's saying nothing is sacred anymore, even your blessed Cedar! Learning from Las Vegas, anyone? Should we give the arbiters of middle class taste the right to control the fate of such developments?
Living in such a small country, we have no option but make the most of what we have. I hope this will be the beginning of an ambitious project of sea reclamation that will stop when we hit Cyprus!