No Longer and Not Yet

The Arts Photography War and Peace

 

It all begins with the syntax of an image: The knowledge that the moment can be repeated, altered and remembered; an illusion of permanence that is fundamentally an optic operation. Yet, the absoluteness of the image-moment, altogether suspended presence, stands on the way of this syntax. The photograph is always ghostly and immediate, everything has been already seen. There are no units within the image—as there are in paintings—and any attempt at formal analysis, will inevitably lead to the dissolution of the visual field. Unlike the material on the canvas, subject to the morphology of change, developed photographs do not respond to stimuli. They are construed as blocks of reality and simultaneous interpretation thereof, but the interpretation has been already closed off by the limits of the event.

 

Rolf Tiedmann writes on Walter Benjamin’s theory of perception and the photographic stand-still: “That is, to assemble large-scale constructions out of the smallest and most precisely cut components. Indeed, to discover in the analysis of the small individual moment the crystal of the total event.” Photography as an analytical operation effected on the thin boundaries of the moment, opens up as the trigger of an accidental creative force begot by the event. In the words of Alain Badiou, “An event is the creation of a new possibility. An event changes not only the real, but also the possible.” Hence, once the image has faded from immediate contact with the eye, the possible unfolds as a horizon for the re-configuration of the real into the boundless project of history.

 

Images, however, can exist without an adequate referent in reality or in the absence of such referents. The correspondence theory of truth, anchored in classical metaphysics and the Thomistic “Veritas est adaequatio rei et intellectus” (truth is the equation of thing and intellect), postulates a perfect agreement between thought, truth and reality. While this is still the prevalent idea insofar as perception is concerned, the rise of visual literacy and the stand-alone qualities of the modern painting object—from Manet through Magritte—has produced a new apparatus of consciousness beset by internal contradiction. Images seemly operate on the same principle of Hegel’s logic: “Everything is inherently contradictory.” Contradictions are the only way in which we can understand life.

 

At the heart of photography’s problematic relationship to the real and the possible, lies also its ability to generate singularity: A point at which an object cannot be defined, distinguished or limited. In science, space-time singularity is a location where measurements have become boundless and the coordinate system is shattered. Similarly, in photography, the decentering of the traditional painting subject towards the margin and the introduction of motion has made images unstable and fragile by expanding the consciousness of the eye into an expanse which is no longer visual: Here lies the realm of the possible. What is the power and authority of the image if it is an unreliable container for memory which can be manipulated? Images articulate not objects but realities that convene on the Zeitgeist.

 

The question of the fragmentation and dissolution of images and the intrinsic relationship to memory was at the heart of Pellicula, a group exhibition across different formats, at Galerie Janine Rubeiz in Beirut. Photography here—in the works of Gregory Buchakjian and Francois Sargologo—confronts us with the abetted ruins of photographic memory. In the preface to the exhibition, Buchakjian takes us on a brief exploration of the topography of ruins in photography: In 1920, Man Ray composed the enigmatic Dust Breeding photographing from above, a work of Duchamp, “The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even,” at a time when it was unfinished and laid horizontally untouched for a year. Ray’s expose captures the accumulation of waste and dust as tiny particles and pellicles.

 

The contemporary ruin was born in photography. In their artistic practice, Buchakjian and Sargologo show us not only that photographs—and images in general, or the visual repertory that makes the world understandable—are subject to ruin but that the initial image is a ruin already. Both of them, dealing with their hometown Beirut, choose to acquire a lens that permits to see right through the terrifying breath of the Lebanese wars of the 20th century, precisely by means of bypassing the aesthetic code of war photography and turning towards more intimate spaces where the decomposing body of Beirut—as an extended organic whole—becomes blurry, incomprehensible and contradictory. Their predilect trope is an out-of-focus, where the epicenter is emotional and the field of vision limited.

 

A photographic ruin is not the attempt to capture a fleeting moment of decay or disintegration, but rather, as Benjamin put it, an allegorical and critical vehicle. The ruin, for him, is not an object but a process, a means of cleaning the symbolic order of the ruin, and approach history through minimal reduction: “The beauty of the ruin dissolves when the light of the divine knowledge sheds its light. Ruins are above all intelligent meta-images.” Stripping away the symbolism—political, religious and historical—of a freeze-frame, Buchakjian and Sargologo return to fundamental painting objects existing independently of their background noise. These objects are not narrative and stand outside the semantic order; they present themselves as archetypes, containing the basic units of experience—the moment.  

 

Gregory Buchakjian’s Leningrad is at the same time a photographic installation and excavation.  Found in the rubble of an apartment in Beirut, the postcards and stereo slides revolve around the story of two men who dwelled in the same building: Adnan, a Palestinian accountant who left for the United States at an unknown date, and “Abu Awd” (a pseudonym, but a real persona), a member of the General Command of “Al Assifa” forces within the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The story is textually reconstructed “in-situ”, with archaeological precision, based on found objects and without any narrative elements other than the ruin status of the dilapidated building. The ownerless objects—touristic images of Leningrad, postcards from the USSR—are muted signs from a shadow world.

 

This type of archaeology is a common place in Buchakjian’s work, whose photographic project turns from a documentary enterprise into an exploration of latency – raw images become obscured by literality. Photographing abandoned buildings in Beirut, chasing after the movable traces of history in a city pierced by the melancholy of destruction. The constant re-making of the city under neo-liberal corporatist administrations bent on re-making the present in order to configure the past as a vacuous gap, relocates the ghosts of war into imaginary spaces and his photography appears sometimes as a simulation. This most recent project remains unfinished and intangible as physical ruins fade into oblivion, but re-appear anew in the form of more violence, more bombings, more and more death.

 

The artist commented on the project during a visit to Istanbul, on how a certain day a trip was scheduled to photograph a house that happened to not exist anymore on that day. There were no traces of a lived history. An empty plot of land, not public and not private, devoid of markers. His previous project, Nighthawks (tribute to Edward Hopper), documented the decadent night life of Beirut, with dark and gloomy images, depicting the escapism of Lebanese society, fraught with instability and turmoil. His project was an affirmative statement that glamour cannot emerge without melancholy. His practice on the found images relocates the past as a suspended state in which there are no entrances or exits. The event is closed-off as an allegory on the leap of time; the void.  

 

Francois Sargologo’s “Au-delà de la Mer” (Beyond the Sea) is a lyric lamentation on the visual syntax of a city that he does not attempt to recreate, but simply to highlight its more essential qualities. It is not the nostalgia of mourning but of something circulating, vivid and present. The photographs, taken in Beirut in the 1980s, were lost and then many years later found and torn apart from their memory environment, then re-staged not as continuity, but in a voyeuristic manner: Mere glimpses accompanied by texts written thirty years later. The oscillating images do not strike us as pop art or an archive. They are a casual monument to happiness and do not indulge in the distance of the physical ruin. They are close and warm. Yet they’re very far away. Their power lies in the impossibility to become real now.

 

Something familiar emerges in Sargologo’s work. The coffee tables behind which missing relatives were awaited. The family photos of those who never returned. A pristine Levantine garden abandoned when entire families left Lebanon to never return, but the fruits are still on the table, the trees are still blossoming. His places are more real and tangible than the battlefields. These places still exist in the debris out of which a collective is re-mapped and made understandable. The emotional distance from the images attests to the fact they were excavated and presented as autonomous objects with muted meanings. The texts are poetic but candid, almost invisible, from a ghost-world. But they are crystal clear as the site of happiness.

 

Both Buchakjian and Sargologo toy with the apocalyptic imaginary in the traditional sense – a symbolic universe that codifies an interpretation of reality leading towards another world; the images are not left alone to speak by themselves. In this parallel world, heaven descends upon earth and in turn, the earth ascends into an inferno. The project of history is intercepted by the crude logic of the present, in which the trail of contradictions implodes into a heterogeneous viscous substance. In the words of Benjamin: “History is the object of a construct whose site is not homogeneous, empty time, but time filled by now-time.” Being faced with the binary choice between history and freedom, the artists choose the latter and permit history to collapse under its own roof, at the expense of unleashing the critical powers of truth.

 

Unlike photography of war, the two Lebanese photographers are not in search of moral images that can elicit explicit reactions—fear, dread, disgust, pain, horror—but rather singularities; undefined, loose, smothered. Irredentism is a commonplace in their work, and by negating the possibility of redemptive and redeemed images, they place themselves at the edges of laughter. A laughter that is neither comic nor sinister, but a crystalline affirmation of the necessity to live without illusions, at the edge of a volcano, turning this into something marvelous and heart-breaking, while at the same time frightening and mysterious. Or, as Jacques Derrida put it, when talking about his friend, the late Sarah Kofman: “This ray of living light concerns the absence of salvation, through an art and a laughter that, while promising neither resurrection nor redemption, nonetheless remain necessary.”

 

Walid Sadek wrote recently about the “labor of missing,” discussing a number of contemporary Lebanese artworks, exploring the inexorability of the act of waiting for the return of those (persons, images, moments) missing from the war. Sadek postulates that it is only by giving up on the illusion and requisite of their re-appearance that waiting and the labor of missing can truly take place. Buchakjian and Sargologo recognize this interstice, and while it is not an empty space, they are not attempting to replace an unfillable presence with a ghostly visit. In their work, the labor of missing is an environment of memory and not of mourning; not a wasting away or a Messianic bravado. It is about living without illusions but at the threshold of hope, a hope whose inner contradictions remain unresolved.

 

 

 

"Pellicula" was on show at Galerie Janine Rubeiz in Beirut in April 2013, the exhibition also included works by Bassam Geitani and Hanibal Srouji.

 

 

Follow Arie on Twitter @Dilmunite

 

 

Beirut, Lebanon, Middle East