In the Middle of What Exactly?

Wafa Hourani, Qalandia

Wafa Hourani, "Qalandia 2047"

Exhibition titles are always interesting indicators to assess a show.  Ideally they express or capture the curatorial gesture, and give a hint of the show’s flavour. Titles are in that respect bearers of expectation: soft signifiers of what there is to come. What then to make of as opaque a title as “In the Middle of the Middle”? And how to position the show within its temporal and geo-political coordinates:

  1. a show of artists from the Middle East region
  2. in a commercial German-Lebanese white cube gallery
  3. located in Beirut’s Karantina area, the site of multiple massacres during Lebanon’s 15-year long civil war (1975-1990)
  4. seizing the moment when all things Mid-East or Arab are en vogue within the international art world

Obviously pinpointing any kind of “middle” is a locative act. It presupposes that there is a delineation of a terrain, either material or not, where a centre can be located.  By corollary, emphasising the middle of something that is unspecified, i.e. an abstract middle, any positioning or position statement becomes nullified and specificity is eradicated. Indeed, does this “middle” relate to the centre, as in the Middle East being a centre of sorts and not – at least culturally speaking – a periphery.  Or is it the “middle” of a political conflict and war zone? Perhaps – conform to hype and trend – this middle is in the middle of refreshing a blasé and saturated global art market?  Less generously, the” middle” might in some way or other allude to compromise, mediocrity, and the failure to really make a choice and therefore opt for a “middle way”. Or shall I just play devil’s advocate and wonder whether this all calls for a rather self-conscious self-referential reading, namely that these artists and this show are simply in the midst of what is currently important art-wise, by the mere grace of its title (“In the Middle of the Middle”), its curator (Catherine David) and its gallery (Sfeir-Semler, Beirut).

exhibition view, Sfeir-Semler Gallery Beirut

exhibition view, Sfeir-Semler Gallery Beirut

Though, it is characteristic of white cube spaces to ignore their contextual surroundings, the reek of the adjacent slaughterhouse and the garbage dump in Karantina, make it difficult to fully evacuate the notion of place.  The same goes for the complicated ride to actually get to the gallery.  Tucked away within what is now a rundown industrial area, it really is for many Beiruti cab drivers off the map: in the middle of nowhere, rather than in the middle of somewhere or something.  Without even having discussed a single work, somehow all of the above beautifully brings together the cocktail of discourses related to issues of representation, location, context, and last but not least commerce, this exhibition – as many others riding on the same wave of “regional Mid-East exhibitions” – struggle with.

Announced as the first show in the Middle East of renowned French curator Catherine David – whose previous projects include a.o. Contemporary Arab Representations (1998-) and Documenta X – Sfeir-Semler Gallery proudly introduced the project the following way:

Catherine David has invited for this exhibition 12 artists coming from multi-national and cultural backgrounds in the Middle East. The artists use different media, ranging from painting, photography and video to installation, to portray and confront in many different ways the realities of their environment. They are also referring to heterogeneous formal paradigms according to the different cultural and formal genealogies they went through.

Arguably it is fashionable amongst curators to claim to “let the work speak for itself”; Documenta 12 was an apt and failed example of that approach. Its effect is that more often than not it amplifies curatorial authority, without necessarily justifying it. Whether intentional or not, how can one within that context insist on the importance of location and specificity, and how these tie into certain artistic practices, whilst at the same time completely erasing the latter by means of turning it into a mere trope? If we abide by the preposition that cultural specificity is not a trope, but a very material reality, which conditions production and perception, then the rationale and the make-up of David’s exhibition becomes very confusing.

Moreover, the eclectic vagueness in choice and presentation of works remind more of the display at an art fair – which like Art Dubai and Art Paris-Abu Dhabi have recently hit the shores of the Gulf – than a curated exhibition. Many of the artists included in the show are indeed excellent, but why they were selected together, and why with these particular works, remains a question.  The main purpose then becomes the superficial act of showing an object presence. Not unlike art fairs there’s an exaggerated gesture of display at work here, which focuses on the presentation of art first and foremost as a product, albeit with an intellectual, aesthetic and – let us not forget – commercial value.

***

Nevertheless, what does not work on an exhibition-level, might work aptly on an individual project-level. The disconnect between mediation, context and display which plagues the whole show, is at the core of Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari’s excellent new video installation “L´Enlèvement” (2008). This piece is part of Zaatari’s ongoing Madani project, wherein he takes the archive of the Saida-based photographer Hashem El Madani’ and his studio Shehrazade (opened in the 1950s) as study material to understand the complex relationship which ties a studio photographer to his working space, his equipment and tools, economy and aesthetics, and further explore his ties to his clients, society and the city in general. The Madani Project takes shape as a series of thematic exhibitions, publications, interventions and videos centered on Hashem El Madani and his archive.  The installation shows us a video beamer placed conspicuously on a white plinth projecting a looped image of an super 8 film projector sitting beside the super 8 film jacket of the British TV action thriller series “The Protectors” (1972-1974). In the background there’s an indiscernable soundtrack – most likely of the series episode.

Akram Zaatari , L´Enlèvement, 2008 video

Akram Zaatari , "L´Enlèvement", 2008 video

As many Lebanese artists, Zaatari’s practice is one that excavates narratives and histories of the Lebanese socio-political condition. So Madani’s studio becomes like an archaeological site where meaning is retrieved not only from the photographic archives, but from all the objects found in the studio.  By exhibiting the super8 projector, found in Madani’s studio, along with one of the 3 super 8 films, also found in the studio, Zaatari isolates them and invests them with an object property with historical value, devoid of context. By doing this they attain a certain monumentality or hermeticism The suggested image and tools of image production become iconographic. In addition, the projector and the film become witness to the mechanisms of technology and mediation.  Zaatari does not show us the real machine and film, but a mediation of it through new technology: that’s why the beamer is so prominent.  In that sense the piece is very much about the system of image production. The only image we as spectators see is the representation of the image’s machination, and a dissection – which is almost simultaneously a re-assembling – of the product as a whole: audio, moving image, still image, the projectors and the film.

It is telling Zaatari has chosen an episode called “L´Enlèvement” (The Kidnapping) in a time when our sensory perception is being kidnapped by visual overload. Yet what this choice most importantly does, is emphasise once again that in his installation the image proper has been literally kidnapped by means of providing us an image of image production, instead of the image proper or the imaginary.

Walid Sadek, "Death and the Sun (What my father sees, most probably.)", 2008

Walid Sadek plays a similar game of expectation, representation and presence in his piece “”Death and the Sun (What my father sees, most probably.)”(2008). We are greeted by a pristine white space, which at a first glance seems empty. Upon closer inspection one can identify – in the middle of the central wall – 2 small knobs.  Ironically, the exhibition title takes a very literal turn here: the knobs are in “the middle of the middle” of the installation. Moreover, it is this locatable centrality that defines the installation as an installation, and not an empty space. The two knobs could be anything from bathroom fittings, to car parts.  It turns out – after consultation with a befriended curator – that the knobs are trumpet mouth pieces. An assistant professor at the Department of Architecture and Design, Sadek is also a trumpet player, and former member of the legendary Beiruti underground band Soapkills. So how do we read this piece?  As a silenced trumpet tone, monumentalized in the institutionalized space of the white cube, which commands our respect solely because it exercises (an incomprehensible and illogical) presence. Or as a humourous nod to the art world where things are literally blown out of proportion? Indeed, it is the scale of things that make this piece so poignant, and the bewilderment that ensues.

Wafa Hourani, Qalandia 2047, 2008, an installation in 5 parts

Wafa Hourani, "Qalandia 2047", 2008, an installation in 5 parts

Very different is the work of Palestinian artist Waha Hourani. In “Qalandia 2047”, previously shown by Catherine David at the Thessaloniki Biennial (2007), Hourani offers us a detailed scale model of how he envisions the Qalandia refugee camp, a century from 1947 when the inhabitants were evicted from their homes, following the creation of the State of Israel. Situated on the road from Jerusalem to Ramallah, Qalandia camp and the Qalandia checkpoint encapsulate literally where Palestine has been divided and cut from its roots, territorially and historically.  Scarring the area around Qalandia is the separation wall, which Hourani in his maquette has dressed with mirrors on the Palestinian side. This partly suggests frivolity, but also implies that when the rest of the world is sealed off, one is forced to indulge in narcissism and gaze at oneself. On the other side of the wall, a menacing airstrip with fighter jets reminds us that 100 years onwards, little has changed. Hourani’s Qalandia is strewn with minute and playful details, such as sports cars, TV antennas sculpted into decorative forms and figures, colourful rooftops, flowerpots, photographs, graffiti, and even a real goldfish swimming in a fishbowl. Yet it remains a ghost town, a dollhouse of the occupation, beautified by ornament and mirrors, seeped in inertia. The artist has mapped out a vision as architect, archaeologist, chronicler of a past, and future forecaster. Nevertheless, similar to the goldfish, he remains trapped in a space too confined, in a history and a present too dictating. And of course – a representational format that can never convey that what he intends to do, namely the re-creation of an imaginary place, that is in effect a real place. This is perhaps the flaw of Hourani’s project: aesthetically and politically: he is still too much attached to the “real”.

 Yasser Alwan, Mounira - Cairo, 1999-2001

Yasser Alwan, "Mounira - Cairo", 1999-2001

Hourani, Zaatari and Sadek’s works are probably the most conceptual and evocative works in the show. But what – for example – was the purpose of including the straightforward black and white documentary and portrait photography of Yasser Alwan?  Alwan’s prints of people in the Cairene streets seemed completely out of place next to Lebanese painter Ayman Baalbaki’s triptych “Ya Abati”, which show a series of masked, hooded, and helmeted male heads in a gilded frame. Baalbaki has been concerned with painting these male figures since 2001. Both Alwan and Baalbaki retain the sensibility of the fetish: Alwan’s almost (self-)orientalising urban ethnographies probably unintentionally, and Baalbaki’s anonymous heroes, martyrs, agitators and perpetrators quite intentionally. While Alwan’s work merely registers, and sanitises his photographic subjects without any real rapport to them, Baalbaki draws on Greek iconography and translates it to modern-time icons: the keffiyeh-clad freedom fighter, the pilot with gasmask, the hooded terrorist. Similarly to Alwan, 23-year old Syrian painter Simon Kabboush offers an urban photorealism in his canvases of Damascene streets; this is again an eye that registers rather than engages. Alwan as well as Kabboush have a tendency to undo their subjects of the specific, though locality supposedly features prime in their work. Yet the reading of the painting and the photos becomes serial and generic. Perhaps the reason that these three artists were grouped together is that their work is commercially quite viable (read sellable). Let us not forget that we are seeing this exhibition in a commercial gallery.

Anna Boghiguian, Untitled - Cavafy, 2007, pencil, ink + gouach on paper

Anna Boghiguian, Untitled - Cavafy, 2007, pencil, ink + gouach on paper

In come the 2 painting series of Anna Boghiguian, which were presented separate from each other. Visual artist Hassan Khan has written the following about this Cairo-born Armenian artist: “it is sometimes unclear whether the work is a documentation of the personal, or a comment on the public”.[i] Bordering on the expressionistic, and literally scatological, her series “City of no exit” (2002) depicts crudely “The City of the Dead”, i.e. the cemeteries under the Muqattam Hills, which 5 million of Cairo’s poor have turned into their home. Plagued by a chronic housing shortage and poverty “The City of the Dead” is an oxymoron: a living urban organism housed between tombs and corpses.  In Boghiguian’s iterations, a lone naked female figure crouches amongst the tombs and defecates. Those who have met Anna Boghiguian might wonder whether the painter herself features in her own work, as a witness insisting on the base-level of humanity. There is a strong element of participatory, yet painful observation in her work; something you would rather turn your eye away from, than towards. The other series of paintings exhibited, are simply titled “Cavafy”, and take the Alexandrine Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy (1863 – 1933) as their cue. Boghiguian has worked extensively on the work of this poet since 1980, and overlays text with image and image with text, yet it remains very difficult – if not impossible – to grasp what we are exactly looking at, without the tiniest hint of explanation on the part of the gallery/curator. The Cavafy series (cross-)reference, interpret and visualize Cavafy’s poetry, but without any further information we are left with a very sparse interpretational framework; hardly enough to decode Boghiguian complex poetics.

Hani Rashed

Hani Rashed

Like Kabbous, Alwan, and Boghiguian, also Egyptian artist’s Hany Rashed’s work is presented in series. Granted, Rashed’s work and his signature style are all about seriality, and the reproducibility of a certain imagery, more often than not a generic human type. Yet, showing 3 of Rashed’s unrelated series next to each other, actually undo the impact one strong series would have had. Meticulous replication, so defining for Rashed’s work, runs the risk to turn into a mere accumulation of stuff. Showing only the Untitled collages (2007-08), consisting out of 35 collages, stuck to cardboard, 45 x 45 cm in size, would have been preferable and a firmer statement. The latter series resemble a mosaic, including popular Egyptian iconography and references. The feel is trashy, colourful and humourous, as if the artist were showing us a kaleidoscopic glimpse of Cairene human characters. Consumption, religious or materialist, feature heavily though playfully, as thematic. In that respect the 2003 series of facial mono-prints, and 2007 black and white untitled series, seem superfluous.  Here again, one wonders about which role this insistence on quantity and the almost aggressive display of oeuvre yields.

Equally superfluous was the screening room, showing video work by Wael Nouredinne, Joude Gorani and Rami Farah.  All these 3 works were programmed one after the other, and considering their length it was next to impossible to watch them all. Unfortunately, since the work of these three artists is strong.  This cannot be said of the videos of the Palestinian artist Jawad Al Malhi.  Presented in an installation-like fashion in a black cube with different size projections on the wall, 3 looped videos – all produced in 2008 – showed us respectively a man painting a house wall, a barbecue smoking, and an urban shot of dusk falling over what seems to be Jerusalem. Neither aesthetically, nor conceptually, did this work manage to engage. Moreover, it only emphasized the indecisiveness and clutter of how “In the Middle of the Middle” came across. And how ultimately this forceful move of placing the curatorial and institutional voice in the middle, without accountability and contextualisation, yields a middle that is void, rather than a rich.


[i] Khan, Hassan. “Towards a poetics of dispersal: an encounter with Anna Boghiguian”. [http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_hb6554/is_21/ai_n28892654/pg_1?tag=artBody;col1]