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Issue 144

Remains of the Day

What a show in New York says about artistic freedom in Lebanon

BY Kaelen Wilson-Goldie in Opinion | 01 JAN 12

Rabih Mroué Cover, 2011

In December, a tiny, intriguing exhibition organized by the Beirut Art Center opened in New York as part of the New Museum’s ongoing ‘Museum as Hub’ project. Titled ‘Due to Unforeseen Events …’ the show revisits five incidents in which art works produced in Lebanon at various points over the last 30 years were altered, censored, damaged or destroyed after they were first exhibited.

The artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, for example, agreed to cut a scene from their 2005 feature film, A Perfect Day, after a woman who attended the Beirut premiere complained that an image representing one of the film’s fictional characters was in fact a photograph of her late husband. (She was the man’s second wife; Hadjithomas and Joreige had gained permission to use the image from his first wife, not knowing he had remarried.) The artist Rabih Mroué likewise agreed to drop a few lines of dialogue from his 2005 performance piece, Who’s Afraid of Representation, after a state censor demanded to see the script and insisted that any material deemed capable of offending public taste or provoking sectarian strife be removed.

In these cases, the changes were relatively cosmetic. Hadjithomas and Joreige only had to cut their film for subsequent screenings in Lebanon, as the woman was fine with her husband’s face appearing in the rest of the world. Mroué skipped over the problematic lines during his next performance on stage, but they remained in the trans­lations from Arabic to English, which were projected onto a screen behind him. Not for nothing has Beirut’s contemporary art scene become known for its players’ keen sense of adaptation and improvisation.

In other cases, however, the artists had less room to manoeuvre. A monumental public sculpture by Saloua Raouda Choucair disappeared in 1983. A dead body was discovered on the site of Ziad Abillama’s San Balech installation in 1992. A gimmicky, deliberately gaudy statue by Tony Chakar was destroyed on the final night of a public space project in 1995. ‘Due to Unforeseen Events …’ unpacks each of these stories in two parts – firstly, as documentation and description of each of the original art works; secondly, as the production of new works for which the artists reflect back on everything that happened to them. Kirsten Scheid, who teaches art history and anthro­pology at the American University of Beirut, is presenting the work of Raouda Choucair, who is now 95 years old and no longer making art.

The Beirut Art Center opened three years ago in a former furniture factory on the eastern edge of the city. The New Museum project is its first exhibition abroad. For a young institution that has absolutely no curatorial staff, the show is surprisingly complex. It may look like a quick study of censorship, but it is richer than that, delving into tricky issues of artistic autonomy and intellectual sovereignty, exploring the mechanisms by which a state and a society accepts an object or an event as a work of art or not, and peeling back the layers of distrust, rumour, suspicion and myth that are endemic to Lebanon’s cultural and political life.

The show also mirrors a public mood. Outside of a few heartfelt but miniscule protests against the entire edifice of the sectarian system – a wobbly and indistinct target from the start – Lebanon has seen none of the mass demonstrations that have toppled or weakened regimes elsewhere in the region. Some may argue that the country had its revolutionary moment back in 2005, when street protests preceded the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanese soil after almost 30 years of de facto occupation. But the truth is that Lebanon is stuck in a debilitating kind of limbo, and in the last year the contemporary art scene has gone through a strange, corresponding lull, characterized on the one hand by the wholesale export of interesting projects to venues outside of the Arab world, and on the other by serious bouts of retrospection.

‘Due to Unforeseen Events …’ is a curious, compact exercise in historicizing the development of Beirut’s contemporary art scene over three tumultuous decades. A foreign audience may find this instructive but, at a certain point, it will be necessary for a local audience, as volatile or disdainful or indifferent as it may be, to confront these stories, and for members of the public to consider their role in the unmaking of these and other art works. The more globalized the art world gets, the more tempting it is for artists to leave their most intimate audiences behind. But the toughest crowd is still a local one. It will be interesting to see what happens if the Beirut Art Center ever brings this exhibition back home, and begins to make good on the notion of art as a public trust, as something that can be questioned and challenged, but never demolished or denied.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a writer based between Beirut, Lebanon, and New York, USA.