BY Barbara Casavecchia in Opinion | 20 OCT 17

Postcard from Beirut

A report from ‘Upon a Shifting Plate’, the final off-site project of this year’s Sharjah Biennial

BY Barbara Casavecchia in Opinion | 20 OCT 17

‘I think I’ll need some time to digest all this’, said Christine Tohmé during a pause last Sunday afternoon, during the final sessions of ‘Upon a Shifting Plate’, the last off-site project of this year’s Sharjah Biennial, ‘Tamawuj’, which she has curated. It’s an apropos remark, given the theme of this final episode is the culinary.

Held in Beirut, principally at Tohmé’s own non-profit organization and free school, Ashkal Alwan (the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts), ‘Upon a Shifting Plate’ worked as introduction to ‘Act II’, a satellite programme of performances, dance and film screenings taking place in the Lebanese capital later this week. Together, they mark the end of a year-long programme, that stretched the presence of the 13th Sharjah Biennial – the first 'Act' of which took place in Sharjah in March  – beyond the emirate’s borders, with chapters in Dakar, Istanbul and Ramallah, dedicated respectively to water, crops and earth, developed in collaboration with Kader Attia, Zeynep Öz and Lara Khaldi. The website, edited by Omar Berrada, Amal Issa, Kaelen Wilson-Goldie and Brian Kuan Wood, expanded the flow of the biennial’s primary themes and concerns. In their jointly-authored piece, ‘Notes on the Culinary’, the editors explain how ‘the culinary begins with the idea that a particular part of the world – call it the Middle East, the Near East, the Levant, or simply, here – is held together by how and what its people eat (and why) far more so than by its nationalisms, ideologies, languages, religions, or ethnicities. The culinary proposes, from the start, that food rituals in this region are dramatic and enacted. They are the performative aspects of identity, more telling than country or community.’

Candice Lin, Destroyed Documents, 2017. Courtesy: Ashkal Alwan, Beiurt; photograph: Marwan Tahtah  

As a title, ‘Upon a Shifting Plate’ encompasses pressing Lebanese issues such as the unsustainable management of water and waste, pollution and loss of agricultural land. As well as the safety, distribution and shortage of food, in a country undermined by decades of civil war and the Syrian refugees’ crisis. It also applies to tectonics: Lebanon is part of the Dead Sea Fault System, the point where African, Arabian and Eurasian plates collide, so that the Earth’s crust movements come to symbolize the seismic conflicts and movement of people taking place in the area. With the news that the 2017 Prix Marcel Duchamp has been awarded to Beiruti artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, I was reminded of I Stared at Beauty So Much: Waiting for the Barbarians (2013), their video of their home city exhibited at the Fredericianum for dOCUMENTA (13). A voice is heard saying: ‘In our region, these days, the impression of a breach opening underneath our feet and the fear of being swallowed by the impossible present and the uncertain future.’

Franziska Pierwoss and Sandra Teitge, A trashy tale, 2017. Courtesy: the artists

Yet in her passionate opening speech, Tohmé advocated for resilience and action on a more site-specific scale: ‘As long as the political situation is so tense, art and culture remain very vulnerable. We need to go on working, to protect multiplicity and plurality, but we may also need to think and act smaller, over the next years.’ If ‘Tamawuj’ (hard to translate, but along the lines of a flowing, swelling, surging, fluctuation) was meant to act as a wave, Tohmé used it to ‘irrigate’ as many networks (and cross as many plates) as possible.

Sigil, Electric Resistance — Monument to a Destroyed Windmill, 2017. Part of the exhibition ‘Fruit of Sleep’, Act II, the 13th Sharjah Biennial. Courtesy: Ashkal Alwan, Beirut; photograph: Marwan Tahtah

The epicentre of the Beirut edition was the Jisr El-Wati area, on the eastern edge of the city, where Ashkal Alwan occupies a former furniture factory, a few steps away from the Beirut Art Center – founded in 2009 by artist Lamia Joreige and curator Sandra Dagher, and now directed by writer and curator Marie Muracciole – and the interdisciplinary Station Beirut, founded in 2013 in an ex-wood factory by documentary filmmaker Nabil Canaan and the late photographer Leila Alaoui. Together, the three institutions form a cluster of cultural venues surrounded by construction sites of high-rises and residential condos, in a bout of aggressive gentrification fuelled by a cheap Syrian workforce. Lamia Joreige dedicated to the neighbourhood a new section of her ongoing project Under-Writing Beirut, currently on show at gallery Marfa’ Projects (until 29 December 2017). From 2013 to 2016, Joreige studied and reconstructed the story of Jisr El-Wati and the adjoining Beirut river with drawings and a three-channel video installation, After the River (2016), where a Syrian janitor who works at the Beirut Art Center discusses with the artist the rapid changes occurred in the area. He speaks of its once seedy nightlife, the busy souq across the road, the presence of migrants, while the camera follows the traffic and the dirty channel of the river, flanked by walls of rubbish – in 2015, Beirut was shaken by protests and demonstrations, in response to a waste disposal crisis linked to political scandals and corruption.

Communal Lunch Village by chef Wael Ladkani at the Beirut Art Center on October 14, 2017. Courtesy: Ashkal Alwan, Beirut; photograph: Marwan Tahtah

Another immersion in overlapping pasts and presents was provided by the exhibition ‘Beirut Heterotopia’ by Akira Takayama at Zico House, a dilapidated mansion of the French mandate era on Spears street, used as an independent artist-run space and as base by NGOs since the 1990s. The Japanese theatre director invited five established Lebanese writers (Mirene Arsanios, Fadi Tofeili, Jessika Khazrik, Raafat Majzoub and Maya Zbib) to stage individual installations, one for each room, accompanied by the stories (to be listened on mobile phones by scanning a QR code) of their imaginary Beiruti inhabitants.

Monika Halkort, Reactive Inclinations: The Recipe as Pretext for New Configurations of Power over Life, 2017, performance lecture documentation. Part of Act II Sharjah Biennial 13, ‘Tamawuj’. Courtesy: Ashkal Alwan, Beirut; photograph: Marwan Tahtah

At Ashkal Alwan, the lectures focused on Egyptian cinema and kitchen-based crime stories (Sahar Mandour), populist subtexts in television cooking shows (Iman Mersal), gut feelings and microbacteria (James T. Hong) and leftovers and modernity (Deepa Bhashti). In a fascinating, intellectually-dextrous talk, Monika Halkort mixed together hummus recipes, bioengineering, DNA sequencing, data collection and new materiality. At Beirut Station, two culinary performances involved little to ingest. Eating into Future-Past Cosmologies by the US collective SPURSE consisted of 26 courses recalling the group’s walk from the beaches to the mountains of Beirut; participants were invited to lick and ‘taste’ rocks, sandy stones, glass pebbles, types of mud, wild herbs and fruits, fish bones, fermented drinks and cocktails, all presented with the elegance of Japanese Kaiseki cuisine – kai means bosom, and seki, stone, after all. The following day, Candice Lin offered everyone a simple dish, as well as the possibility to season it with the smoke of a burnt page. Conversations on what we were trying to turn into ash, and why, started to flow, together with those primordially-bonded memories linked to childhood and food. In his talk The Ties that Bind, Tarek El-Ariss used the preparation of Beirut’s iconic dish, mfattqa, made with tahini, sugar, rice and pine nuts and stirred for hours by all family members, as a metaphor for the city’s unconscious and the construction of a social model where differences do not need to be ‘melted’ but rather ‘coagulated’.

Franziska Pierwoss and Sandra Teitge, A Tale of Trash Mountains, Garbage Rivers, and Migratory Birds, 2017, Sursock Museum, Beirut. Courtesy: Ashkal Alwan, Beirut; photograph: Marwan Tahtah

Rubbish and recycling were a recursive reference, both in discourse and in the preparation of dishes. The performance-dinner A Tale of Trash Mountains, Garbage Rivers, and Migratory Birds, staged on the esplanade of Sursock Museum by Franziska Pierwoss and Sandra Teitge, brought together activists, journalists, a local politician, engineers, waste processers and managers, who confronted each other in front of a TV crew and the reporter Foutoun Raad (who had covered the ‘You Stink’ protests), enacting a ‘talk show’ or possibly a ‘reality show’ on how to find solutions to the ongoing waste disposal emergency. In a haunting reading, just a few hours before, writer Lina Mounzer had brought up memories and ‘hallucinations’ from the era of the Great Famine (1915–18), which halved the entire population of Mount Lebanon and Greater Syria during the First World War – when Michel Sursock, the deputy to the Ottoman Parliament, speculated on grain and then sold it for extortionately inflated prices. 

Candice Lin, Destroyed Documents, 2017. Part of ‘Upon A Shifting Plate’, the 13th Sharjah Biennial's fourth and final off-site project in Beirut. Courtesy: Ashkal Alwan, Beirut; photograph: Marwan Tahtah

The Sursock Museum also plays host to ‘Fruit of Sleep’, curated by Reem Fadda (running until 31 December), one of two group exhibitions conceived for the occasion. The states of somnolence after eating a meal, dormancy, and sleep as means to regain strength before new awakenings, are presented as ‘an act not of the singular mind, but of the social body, one that is carefully plotting change and action in the face of desolation and failed attempts’, Fadda writes. The show opens with Beyond the Surface (2017) by Tamara Barrage, an installation of luminous rounded ‘creatures’ in silicone and resin, glowing in the dark, as if awaiting further evolution. Haitham Ennasr’s A New City: On Disciplines and Capitalism (2017) takes viewers on an immersive virtual tour of downtown Beirut: a ‘tabula rasa’ of ‘expensive boutiques and prime real estate’ presented as an oneiric archaeological site. Forensic Architecture’s Ground Truth (2006–ongoing), documents the story, geography, community and ghostly presence of the Bedouin agricultural village of Al-Araqib, in the Negev desert, demolished by Israeli forces ‘over 116 times over the last 60 years.’ The show closes with the subtle Untitled (Fresh Monochrome) (2017) by Claire Fontaine, a couple of large shiny wall paintings, one white, one black, in fluid anti-vandal paint, a tacky material that never dries, in order to stain potential intruders. Here it soils the otherwise sanitized white cube, while echoing the opening line from the poem ‘The History Would Not Dry’ by Quinn Latimer, who read it live at Beirut Art Center: ‘The history would not dry. It was wet – Cream of calcium, dark metabolic sugars.’ 

Jesse Darling, Boundary Boys I, 2016. Courtesy: the artist

‘An unpredictable expression of human potential’, another group show, curated by Hicham Khalidi and Natasha Hoare at BAC (until 19 January), focuses on hunger (and anger) for change ‘in a moment in which a paradigmatic shift can be tasted (…) in cultural production by young people.’ Guarded by Jesse Darling’s hooded silicon sphinxes Boundary Boys (2016), the works point to underground unrest, impatience towards the current social order and ‘disregard for the conventions of art, design, literature, film, fashion, and poetry.’ Mohamed Bourouissa’s installation Si di kubi (2017) documents the creation of a new series of music compilations, based on his collaborations with musicians, artists and photographers in Paris and Beirut, to be released through open-source channels. Films and videos feature prominently: in Le Parc (2015) by Randa Maroufi, an abandoned amusement park in Casablanca becomes the set for a series of tableaux vivants, recreating cliché pictures of local youth’s collective behaviours found online. Eric Baudelaire’s powerful Also Known as Jihadi (2017) retraces the trip of a young Frenchman from Vitry-sur-Seine to Aleppo, where he joined the Al-Nosra Front in 2013, by means of transcripts of judiciary interrogations and silent images of sites and landscapes filmed by the artist along his route. Dala Nasser’s David Adjaye’s Trash (2105), a painting consisting of garbage, latex, brick pigment, charcoal and tarpaulin, overtly points to Adjaye’s most famous building in Beirut, the Aïshti luxury shopping mall and exhibition space owned by uber-collector Tony Salamé, which opened in Jal el-Dib in 2015 to much international fanfare, amidst the open dumping of waste into the nearby sea.

On October 23, Aïshti will inaugurate ‘The Trick Brain’, a new exhibition curated by New Museum’s director Massimiliano Gioni. But that’s another story needing another (large) plate.

Main image: Tamara Barrage, production of Beyond the Surface (detail), 2017. Part of  the exhibition ‘Fruit of Sleep’, Act II Sharjah Biennial 13, ‘Tamawuj’. Courtesy: the artist and Ashkal Alwan, Beirut; photograph: © the artist

Barbara Casavecchia is a contributing editor of frieze and a freelance writer and curator based in Milan, Italy.