The Daily Star (Lebanon)
Of hula-hoops and spear-fishing
Ashkal Alwan’s Video Works presents stunning visuals, and a few stories
BEIRUT: Have you ever noticed how the edge of a massive explosion looks like it has the texture of fabric? It’s something you might notice while monitoring a high-definition video from an aircraft deployed to study the detonation of a hydrogen bomb. You could also create the effect using computer animation.
The concussion is made visible by the dust particles it heaves skyward, creating the mushroom-shaped cloud that – for television audiences of a certain age in some parts of the world – signified the end of days.
Today’s mass media consumers are less likely to be transfixed by this image. Annihilation now comes on a smaller scale. The online depredations of Daesh Productions, now becoming passe, have been usurped on some computers by the preconscious expectorations of Donald Trump.
So there’s something sweetly nostalgic about “Lime Song.”
Devised by Lebanese-Canadian artist Lea Lahoud, this not-quite-four-minute-long piece commences as a CG exercise, repackaging images of H-bomb apocalypse as music video.
At one point Lahoud abandons her study of mushroom cloud aesthetics in favour of another 20th-century relic – the hula-hoop. The plastic ring is animated by Lebanese hula-hoop virtuoso Krystelle Harb, attired in a black outfit that (depending on your points of cultural reference) might be ninja garb or stylish niqab ensemble.
No doubt there are some who might read the niqab as a small-scale annihilation of Western what-have-you. In Lahoud’s hands, footage of a plastic hoop orbiting the gyrating hips of a woman in full hijab – as accompanied by Omar Aloulou’s electronic dance score – amounts to an amusing juxtaposition of visual tropes.
“Lime Song” was among the latest crop of new work unveiled at Beirut Art Center as part of Video Works, a yearly cycle of video art commissioned by Ashkal Alwan, the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts – this year adjudicated by a panel of artists and filmmakers comprised of Ghassan Salhab, Rania Stephan, Ahmad Ghossein and Mounira El Solh.
In the 10 years of its existence Video Works has incubated a wide range of work – both in terms of quality and the audiovisual languages its young artists have taken up. This variety perseveres. None of the other five pieces in this year’s program in the least resembles “Lime Song.”
Video Works has fostered a number of “video art” pieces, as that diverse form is defined in Europe and the Americas.
Mohamad Kanaan’s nine-minute “We Died and Here We Are,” for instance. Set upon a bleak landscape bereft of greenery, the camera looks on while a young man hurriedly assaults the clay underfoot with a pickax and a shovel. His frantic efforts make little progress and the scene eventually cuts to a backhoe, clawing a hole from the same patch of dirt.
Later the same young man strains against a harness, as if trying to pull something into the crater.
After a moment the heavy machinery can be seen performing the labor – yanking the husk of an automobile into the hole.
In the program notes, the artist describes his work as an expression of grief for a deceased relative. That probably explains Kanaan’s decision to stage a performance of burial, but the work is made intriguing by his deflating juxtaposition of fictive pretense with, well, backhoe.
Video Works continues to embrace lyrical short- and medium-form documentaries.
Panos Aprahamian’s “Yabandjo” is a video essay sampling daily life in Anjar, a small town near the Syrian border founded for, and still largely populated by, Armenians. Without commentary, the camera looks in on groups of Anjar residents as they chat about the pressing issues of the day. It gazes back upon a long-distance runner and gazes upon clusters of kids standing idle before quiet buildings – often bearing stenciled declarations of Turkey’s genocidal guilt. It visits a room where TV monitors show the feed of CCTV cameras placed all over town.
The more chatty “Death Street and Other Stories,” by Karam Ghoussein, commences on the floor of the Mediterranean, where an anonymous diver uses a spear gun to skewer an unsuspecting fish. The balance of the work is located on dry land, though, specifically the stories of young Lebanese men.
These vignettes are often amusing – whether looking in on a bunch of guys singing and dancing in a nightclub or wedding, or narrating brief sketches of legendary figures like Amer (who killed Zaatar), Abu Zannuba and “Butterfly Bob” or Marka, who married a Russian woman, migrated and changed his name to Vladimir.
Video Works also generates short fictions that wouldn’t be out of place in a festival of art house films.
Take Hiba Farhat’s “The Tree.” The lone fiction in this year’s selection has a super true-to-life premise. One year the Israeli military decided a tree on the Lebanese side of the Blue Line was a security risk and so deployed an engineering unit to cut it down.
Farhat starts her work with an excerpt from the news coverage of this low key violation of Lebanese sovereignty. A glitch in the video resets the frame to a different tree. Just as the Israeli army sets to cutting down one tree, a man falls from the other.
He pulls himself up and wanders toward a modest house where he’s greeted by a little boy. Stepping into the kitchen, he chats with a woman as she and her knife prepare a carcass for cooking.
“You’re too late,” she tells him. “I’ve sold the house.”
Farhat seems interested in working with narrative, but she hasn’t quite found a story (or non-story) that quite lives up to her premise.
Perhaps she will.
For more information on Video Works, see ashkalalwan.org/events/video-works-2016.