That painting was the first thing that captured my attention at the exhibition, right near the end of the L-shaped hall at Le Grey, one of the new landmark hotels of Beirut. Could it have been the work of a young painter? It seemed unlikely. The smooth white surface had been carefully crafted through many layers of dripping, cleaning, dripping, wiping, and painting; a thoroughly patient work. There wasn’t anything narrative about it, a story wasn’t being told but it captured a moment of art, in the mature language of the artist: “Through its long history, the work of art remains far from perfect, like all other human productions, it is inseparable from the progression of its producer. “
The middle-aged man I would meet two days later in a corner of Mar Mikhail, was rather serene. Husain Tarabie, who had decided to attend art school in Damascus much later in life, hung around much younger colleagues with whom he shares a studio in the Syrian capital, and to which he returned with them, to continue living and painting. There was no pathos or cynicism here, and while a body of work is inextricably linked with the politics of territories, his questions were of a different order: “Starting from an analytical way of thinking has deep roots in the history of art, ranging from demolishing the shape and reversing it to its primal origins. My main theme is the line.”
Kandinsky is what first came to mind: The explosion of the dot through a centrifugal force that begets a line, onto a pictorial plane composed entirely out of concepts. There are no subjects. In Helene Cixous’ analysis of Monet: “There’s no subject. There are only mysteries. There are only questions.” The night before seeing the painting for a second time I sat with Yamen Yousef, the sculptor and his friend, on a sidewalk: “We work together in a studio in Damascus, and earlier in the year we made a linocut prints workshop, Husain, Alaa, and me.” Unlike Yamen, Alaa Hamameh was also present at the exhibition with paintings of Syrian generals, wearing masks that reveal unspeakable suffering. Something that seems yet so distant.
The masks behind authority and the grammar of power are inverted, to show what Simon Critchley elaborates in his discussion of Nihilism: “The representation of death is always a mask – a memento mori – behind which nothing stands.” As the disfigured faces give testimony to, the history of human suffering is universal and stands as one of the building blocks of visual culture. But unless you were told that those were Syrian generals and that a certain scene came from the Zaatari refugee camp, or from the field hospitals, or from this or that massacre, there is no way you would know. The message delivered is perfectly encoded.
Who would know better about the encoding than Mashaael Basheer? The Kuwaiti journalist had been in Beirut a month before to attend the opening of a Beirut exhibition curated by a Damascene gallery, offering the perspective of fifty-six Syrian artists on the “Last Supper.” You could have probably not found a stronger metaphor for the Syrian conflict at the intersection of religion, politics and culture. Mashaael said it best, “Yet the details of such conflicts will always remain discreet, only time reveals it with stories…” It was the sculptor Alice AlKhatib and Yamen Yousef himself who would transform DaVinci’s “Last Supper” not only into artworks but also into cultural objects imbued with meaning.
Alice’s bronze sculpture is a coffin engraved with victory signs. Whose is this victory? Perhaps there are no winners. But through her irredentism shines a light of doubt, and a system of signals that while incomprehensible, remains at the edges of history in a two-fold manner: Both object and witness. Yamen’s fish and head, in the same light of Alice’s, appears as an archaeological artifact containing a multiplicity of messages and readings, some of which point towards melancholy and loss, and others pointing towards hope and friendship. It is not only in the hands of the viewer to actualize the message but also depends on the possibility of human language. How can language be spoken after tragedy at all?
During the May exhibition, with his usual warmth, Yamen explains a different sculpture of Alice, to Catalina Gomez, the Colombian war correspondent experienced in Iran and Syria, and who takes delight in the piece. A bull that is both full and empty, or a shallow and fragile surface under which lurks sometimes nothing but empty space, and at other times, the whole weight of reality. Later on that day, at a dinner, Catalina, who plans to cover the Syrian elections, speaks fondly about their works, and maybe they will meet each other again. We invite Yamen to joins us for a drink, but he needs to help his friends pack their belonging, their objects, in order to continue their journey.
“He almost cried out that he couldn’t attend because he was in Hell!” runs a line from Mrs. Dalloway, the novel of Virginia Woolf, and it came to mind when I met Mazen AlFeel, another young Syrian painter from Hama, who came to live in Beirut with his wife. Mazen’s paintings were chosen by Sune Haugbolle, a rather well known scholar of everything Lebanon that Lebanon experts have read at one point or another, for a permanent exhibition at the University of Roskilde in Denmark. The exhibition was supposed to be held at some point in the end of 2013, but since Mazen didn’t receive a visa to attend his own exhibition, eventually the paintings were sent and the exhibit will open next week.
It will open next week without the artist, because Europeans are afraid that if they let Syrians come, they will not leave. Where would they go to anyway? In his apartment and studio, in the Armenian neighborhood of Bourj Hammoud, bathed in graffiti remembering the Armenian genocide and the occupation of Western Armenia by Turkey, he is adamant about receiving guests and drinking coffee, talking about art until the early hours of the morning and telling us about his Arabic-language master’s dissertation, dealing with the history of Syrian painting that he couldn’t submit because war stood on the way. Of course Syrians know that Beirut is not a place to stay, the Lebanese remind them of this in more than one way, but when asked where to he would go, the answer comes sharp: “I don’t know.”
Also Alina Ameer and Fadi Al Hamwi live in Beirut, in the neighborhood down from Bourj Hammoud, a ten minutes walk from Mazen’s. There’s no future in Lebanon, says Alina in the morning as we drink coffee before I jump out to meet Mashaael and all the others at Mazen’s. A young architect working with art and performance, her work deals with the intricacy of closed systems, using pipes and water as a metaphor. Once a structure – whether political, religious or cultural – becomes accepted by the body politic, the history of its origin as a system of power or dominance is quickly forgotten, and the ideological debris falls back upon us, an industrial circle that subjects the body to similar control mechanisms than machines:
“The pipes carrying dirty water are not released into the sewers but are pumped back through the bathtub, creating an infected cycle, questioning how the preconditions of our societies affect the way we function both practically and psychologically.” Fadi’s work (mainly painting) deals also with the notion of debris; his installation “To Whom It May Concern” presented at the Syrian Art Fair in Beirut, confronts the viewer with the question of what it is to live with and among ruins: A poorly lit room is furnished only with damaged bricks that the spectator needs to walk through in order to reach a TV screen in the middle of the room. At the moment of his arrival, the viewer sees nothing but himself walking among ruins.
Their work, collectively and as individuals, begets the question of what is an object and what is a ruin and how do they overlap? A cultural object is something that holds timeless meaning for a culture, or at least for a group of individuals, as there’s no history or culture without memory; the way an object is remembered shapes the possibility of its transformation into a discourse, which is what was effected by Leonardo’s "Last Supper" and a number of classical and neo-classical European works. Ruin, on the other hand, is not only topography of loss or transition but also an interstice pregnant with allegory. How do you negotiate between extended meaning and permanence?
It is often the case that for the active spectators of war – and by this I mean those not actively engaged, namely victims, bystanders, and war reporters – we might have lost the sufficient context to exist outside wars. Therefore, the added expectation held against cultural production to be the loudspeaker of society, and indeed it is (think about the Lebanese Film Festival or Homeworks at Ashkal Alwan) but this process is neither uniform nor strictly documentary. The fallacy that war is only about survival is easily debunked when you look at the works of these Syrian artists; there’s a lot more than survival. Life, as in the dynamic arrangement of human life rather than mere biological reproduction, is larger than the sum of its parts. The Lebanese know this well.
When Catalina came to the exhibition, the first thing that captured her attention was not Husain’s painting, but the neighbor, Lama Hajjar, another sculptor coming from Damascus as well. The man behind a cell and yet in front and above it. How to produce an object, which is also an emotion? There’s in her work the kind of aesthetics of power that we once associated with neo-classical art: Human stature is infinitely reduced by the impossibility of redemption, opening the gates towards a phenomenology of life, for, again, with Critchley, “There can be no phenomenology of death because it’s a state of affairs about which I can find neither an adequate intention nor intuitive fulfillment”.
But my favorite work of Yamen is the terracotta sculpture. The traditional earthenware, used in Mesopotamia since the second millennium BCE, and on which the famous Burney Relief was sculpted (one of the most precious artifacts from the antiquity of what is now Syria, looted by an art dealer in 1924 and sold to the British Museum), is not only a figurative reminder of antiquity, but a strong metaphor for the present: The war that has ransacked the history of Syria together with its past, but this past is not only a narrative; it is countless terracotta sculptures looted, monuments destroyed, statues beheaded, and heritage lost. Those are not only objects; they are the signposts of the human mind.
It’s not that the fight for Syria is lost, whatever that means, but that, as Yamen and me agreed on, whatever it is that they’re fighting for is not Syria, and whomever it is that is fighting for it, is not Syrian. A war of others, like many times before in the Middle East. And by many times before, you can go back all the way to Sumer and Akkad; no news here. But certainly it is not their fight, not Yamen’s and not Alice’s. And they stand upright. Once upon a time a curator approached me asking whether I knew Syrian artists that I could recommend for an exhibition; a fifteen minutes conversation revealed that what he wanted wasn’t Syrian artists, but Syrian blood.
I wasn’t too willing. Maybe a bit of an Orientalist humiliation. And such an exhibition was held once in London, with a painting featuring that young man I saw on TV whose entire face was blown off by a shell, while he remained alive screaming in pain. But there’s another pain, another fear, much larger than the direct confrontation with the frontline of war: What war destroys is not only buildings and bodies, but also the ability to articulate the catastrophe, to speak of the ineffable. As in the work of Alina, the structure becomes a closed system out of which not only are we unable to escape, but also unwilling.
Mashaael and I couldn’t prevent ourselves from discussing it all the time: Why this art and why now? Precisely because of art now. How to be absolutely in the present tense without losing yourself between event and authorship? Very seldom you see reality reflected in art, without transgressing art’s own grammar. Much as we were aware of the catastrophe, it wasn’t our main concern. While most of the conversations went around the topic of the Syrian war, and the difficulties of living in Lebanon, an orphan country and an island in an ocean of wolves, there were precious moments of laughter, moments that remind how human art can be. It is the visa to enter back the realm of dignity.
Of course their work is riddled with the bullets of war, but like Susan Sontag wrote once about Sarajevo, “Culture, serious culture from anywhere, is an expression of human dignity – which is what people in Sarajevo feel they have lost, even when they know themselves to be brave, or stoical or angry. For they also know themselves to be terminally weak: waiting, hoping, not wanting to hope, knowing that they aren’t going to be saved.” These are weak intensities, to borrow a term from philosophy; it’s the last light in the pitch dark, titillating, about to faint, but still titillating, until the last breath.
On a certain night, after having dinner with Catalina, we all found each other in one of those moments that Beirut produces best: delaying Death. There couldn’t have been a happier moment in a lifetime perhaps, and everything that mattered in the world was concentrated right there, in one tiny street in a derelict quarter of Beirut. Maybe we can live together, right here, after all. I think now of Mrs. Dalloway, but it wasn’t her, rather the novelist Michael Cunningham in his reading of Woolf: “There is still that singular perfection, and it’s perfect in part because it seemed, at the time, so clearly to promise more. Now she knows: That was the moment, right then. There has been no other.”
Follow Arie on Twitter @Dilmunite
If you like this piece, you might also enjoy The Fabric of Uncertainty.
Lebanon, Middle East, Syria