Beirut’s first art bi­en­nial – in Alita

In­au­gu­ral event fea­tures range of pro­duc­tion, lo­gis­ti­cal teething is­sues

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - ARTS & CULTURE - RE­VIEW By Jim Quilty BLICA,

ALITA, Le­banon: Be­lieve it or not, peo­ple have joked about “The Bat­tle of Hast­ings” – the event used to mark the Norman con­quest of Bri­tain in 1066. Imp­ish his­tory teach­ers have been known to point out that this busi­ness prob­a­bly didn’t take place in 1066. Nei­ther did it hap­pen in Hast­ings. It wasn’t much of a bat­tle ei­ther.

Beirut’s first Bi­en­nale of Con­tem­po­rary Art is presently re­sid­ing in the hills above Jbeil, in Alita (34° 5’ 0” north, 35° 41’ 0” east). Run­ning through Dec. 30, the event is hosted by MACAM – the Mod­ern and Con­tem­po­rary Art Mu­seum co­founded in 2013 by art critic Ce­sar Nam­mour and Gabriela Schaub.

BLICA (Bi­en­nale Libanaise In­ter­na­tionale du Cinema et les Arts), as it’s called, is or­ga­nized by Cul­tural Re­sis­tance, an NGO whose pub­lic face has been film­maker and photographer Jo­ce­lyne Saab. Founded in 2013, CR launched a short-lived in­ter­na­tional film fes­ti­val that pro­grammed crit­i­cally lauded cinema from the MENA and Asia.

BLICA takes the form of an ex­hi­bi­tion cu­rated by a team com­posed of Saab, Mathilde Rouxel, Mick­ael Robert-Gon­calves, Ali­ette and Daniel Guib­ert, Andres Claro and Miriam Heard.

The se­lected work is meant to have been de­rived from CR’s Niemeyer Art Com­pe­ti­tion. Launched in 2015, this con­test’s touch­stone is Tripoli’s In­ter­na­tional Fair, the Maarad – an is­land of (un­fin­ished) 20th-cen­tury mod­ernism, de­signed by Os­car Niemeyer (1907-2012).

Com­pet­ing artists are en­cour­aged to make Maarad-in­spired art in any me­dia. Con­se­quently, the two gal­leries hous­ing BLICA are stocked with a di­verse range of work – crit­i­cal writ­ing, sculp­ture, in­stal­la­tion, paint­ing, pho­tog­ra­phy, mul­ti­me­dia pieces, video and video in­stal­la­tion and well as film.

BLICA boasts work by 45 artists, hail­ing from 24 coun­tries, in­clud­ing Le­banon. Lovers of Niemeyer’s oeu­vre are ad­vised to pack re­serves of imag­i­na­tion as they pre­pare their trek to Alita. Though some of the pieces on show di­rectly ref­er­ence the Maarad or the Brazil­ian ar­chi­tect’s work, most do not.

Two of Saab’s ex­hib­ited works pro­vide a case in point. One com­po­nent ex­cerpts a photo se­ries shown ear­lier this year dur­ing the film­maker’s In­sti­tut Fran­cais ex­hi­bi­tion “One Dol­lar a Day.” Two photos, cap­tur­ing Syr­ian refugee chil­dren, printed in mon­u­men­tal scale on vinyl sheet­ing and painted, echo that show’s premise – the in­con­gruity of des­o­late refugees forced to shel­ter them­selves be­neath plas­tic sheet­ing sal­vaged from Le­banon’s ad­ver­tis­ing sec­tor.

The other work is “Imag­i­nary Post­cards,” a six-minute film ad­dressed to Turk­ish nov­el­ist Orhan Pa­muk and his city, Is­tan­bul, which since 2011 has hosted a grow­ing com­mu­nity of Syr­ian ex­iles.

Only in­ci­den­tally con­nected to BLICA’s theme is Gi­nane Makki Ba­cho’s “Burj al-Murr,” an iron sculp­ture rep­re­sent­ing one of the more no­table, and no­to­ri­ous, aban­doned ar­chi­tec­tural pieces in the Beirut quar­ter of Zo­qaq al-Blat.

Less fa­mil­iar, and more in­trigu­ing, is Julie Ny­mann’s eight-minute video “Riverbed Press,” 2016. The cam­era sim­ply fol­lows the artist as she en­acts the repet­i­tive rit­ual of load­ing and op­er­at­ing a print­mak­ing press.

Ny­mann’s ma­nip­u­la­tion of the ma­chine is the per­for­ma­tive ba­sis for the artist’s au­dio­vi­sual ma­nip­u­la­tion of the mov­ing im­age. Here, the press bed isn’t a me­tal plate but ap­pears to be a rec­tan­gu­lar por­tal to a river.

The artist re­peat­edly adds hand­fuls of reeds and tree branches to the bed and runs them all be­neath the drum of the press. The sound of plant mat­ter be­ing crushed is ac­com­pa­nied by that of run­ning wa­ter and wood­land birdsong.

In­con­gruity is also a com­po­nent of Yasmin Hage-Meany’s 11-minute video “You, a Film by Her,” 2017. Shot from a car driv­ing past the Maarad, the footage plays against a score that sam­ples di­verse sources – a CIA-spawned sound ex­per­i­ment de­signed to fo­ment the over­throw of the then-Gu­atemalan gov­ern­ment; a love let­ter com­posed by Mex­i­can artist Frida Kahlo; sound­tracks from such fea­ture films as Al­fred Hitch­cock’s “The Birds” and Alain Res­nais’ “Hiroshima Mon Amour.”

Marta Bog­dan­ska’s 10-minute video “Next Sun­day” also ref­er­ences the Maarad. Shot in Oc­to­berNovem­ber 2014, the work takes a doc­u­men­tary ap­proach to Niemeyer’s legacy and its re­la­tion­ship to con­tem­po­rary Tripoli. Here the fair­ground’s con­crete lines and curves pro­vide a re­treat for a troupe of Traboulsi teens who use it to prac­tice tricks on their BMX bikes. The Maarad’s pre-empted, ne­glected mod­ernism is a fit­ting lo­ca­tion for the con­flu­ence of young adult per­for­mance – whether on their bikes or in their ex­pres­sions of in­di­vid­u­al­ity and as­pi­ra­tions for the fu­ture.

A nat­u­ral (if self-pro­mot­ing) com­ple­ment to Bog­dan­ska’s work is “Epicly Pales­tine’d: The Birth of Skate­board­ing in the West Bank.” Pub­lished on YouTube in 2015, this 26-minute doc by Theo Kr­ish and Philip Joa fol­lows a pair of London skaters (Kr­ish and Joa) as they drive around Pales­tine do­nat­ing skate­boards to teens in sev­eral West Bank towns and doc­u­ment­ing oc­cu­pied Pales­tine’s nascent skater sub­cul­ture.

There is, in short, some en­gag­ing work at MACAM, whether it or­bits Niemeyer’s Le­banese legacy or not.

That said, it’s dif­fi­cult to en­gage with BLICA. For any­one who has at­tended an in­ter­na­tional con­tem­po­rary art bi­en­nale, there is a lot miss­ing from this event.

In cur­rent us­age, a “bi­en­nial” is dis­tinct from an “ex­hi­bi­tion.” Since con­tem­po­rary art is such a mul­ti­headed beast, dis­crete dis­plays of vis­ual art are usu­ally sup­ple­mented by per­for­mance pro­grams and fo­rums that give artists an op­por­tu­nity to dis­cuss their prac­tices with their peers and the in­ter­ested pub­lic. Both are ab­sent from BLICA’s first edi­tion. The more ba­sic prob­lem with this event, how­ever, is one of ex­hi­bi­tion. This bi­en­nale is show­ing 24 “film” or “video” works – in­clud­ing mul­ti­me­dia pieces with elec­tronic com­po­nents – that in­clude fea­ture-length (over-60minute-long) works as well as mi­dlength and short films.

Given the role Saab and her or­ga­ni­za­tion have played in cre­at­ing and pro­gram­ming this event, the num­ber of au­dio­vi­sual works on show seems ap­pro­pri­ate but, ar­guably, more thought has gone into se­lect­ing the work than stag­ing it.

The de­ci­sion to project nar­ra­tive­based fea­ture-length films in the sort of con­fined (un­com­fort­ably seated) spa­ces that usu­ally house rel­a­tively brief loops of elec­tronic art sug­gests a fun­da­men­tal dis­con­nect be­tween the cu­ra­to­rial and ex­hi­bi­tion sides of this show.

Poor ex­hi­bi­tion lo­gis­tics are ac­cen­tu­ated by the fact that Beirut’s first Bi­en­nale of Con­tem­po­rary Art is be­ing staged at such an in­ac­ces­si­ble (al­beit lovely) re­move from the city that names it. Hav­ing made the trip to Alita, film lovers may feel a bit put upon.

If BLICA lives up to the prom­ise of its name and is staged again in 2019, or­ga­niz­ers would do well to find a more bal­anced use of avail­able ex­hi­bi­tion space, whether at MACAM or an­other venue – maybe in Beirut.

the first Bi­en­nale of Con­tem­po­rary Art in Le­banon is up at MACAM, Alita, through Dec. 30. For more, see: http://www.macam­le­banon.org.

A se­lec­tion of works from Jo­ce­lyne Saab’s photo se­ries “One Dol­lar a Day.”

A mo­ment from Marta Bog­dan­ska’s “Next Sun­day.”

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