A last cartographer and other stories

BEIRUT: “There Is No Right or Wrong Here.” It might be the motto chiseled above the door of Enron’s Wall Street offices or – as corks are popped to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the subprime mortgage crisis – some other malignant hedge fund shill. In fact, it’s the title of Ahmad Ghossein’s debut solo, presently up at Marfa’. Since contemporary art exhibitions aren’t meant to be chained to a locality, but rather to cling like an oil slick to the churning surface of late capitalism, there’s an impish elasticity in the final word of the title.

“And where is ‘here,’ exactly?”

Ghossein’s show comprises a smattering of disparate images, objects and videos, with mapping and landscape photography outweighing photos of cabinets stuffed with VHS tapes.

Once you eyeball Rasha Salti’s breezily insightful exhibition essay, “Of Deeds and Acquittals,” the seeming disparity of the works made for this show cluster around a specific Lebanese delinquency – a matter of turf.

The title’s ethical ambiguity reflects the country’s land regime, particularly that of its southern precincts, with which the artist/filmmaker has some connection.

Let’s be brief.

Southern Lebanon has undergone a long-term state of contention – from the feudal rule of early independence, the post-1975 status quo, the 1978-2000 Israeli occupation, to the military, political and economic contingencies of the post-2006 period – that has helped fuel long-term emigration and repatriation. As a result, the official land registry is a uniquely patchy affair.

As Salti distills the matter, the state has a cultivated innocence of great swaths of its territory – not knowing what land is publicly owned and what’s private.

The matter is complicated somewhat by the fact that (while Lebanon’s southern neighbor obsessively probes and documents Lebanese assets, both on the ground and underground) the Lebanese state hasn’t conducted an aerial survey of South Lebanon since 1975.

Ghossein is a filmmaker and artist, not a professor of Lebanese history or Middle East geopolitics. That said, the sculptural objects and images that congeal in the imaginations of contemporary artists can fall quite close to the narrative tree, and at times communicate little meaning without knowing that narrative.

Ghossein’s is the land story, one that remains timely. A glance at the news will remind you that humans regularly kill for politically inflected real estate transactions. More are killed and displaced by them. More still are unsettled by the prospect of them, whether in war or peacetime – witness Europe’s migrant crisis and Trump’s plans to transplant Israel’s separation barrier to the U.S.-Mexican border. It may be useful to recall that it’s land that unifies today’s headlines with those of a decade ago – when the lives of millions were ruined by the collapse of a Wall Street Ponzi scheme.

This show isn’t “about” late capital’s epic sweep across the land, of course, but a few quiet, Lebanese-accented anecdotes from that epic.

Among the intriguing objects on show is “Seven Movements.” This inkjet-on-glass sculpture is composed of seven panes that capture the movement of a figure (derived from footage of the artist’s father) working a plot of land with a hoe.

Scattered about one corner of the gallery is a jumble of concrete cubes with metal spheres embedded in, like the residue of some giants’ abandoned game of dice – a rigged one, since each die is identical.

Closer inspection of “The Point or One of the Government’s Secrets: Elevation,” as this installation is called, reveals the pip – the dots on dice and dominos are called “pips,” by the way – to be a metal dimple with a small hole in its center. About the edge of each sphere has been stamped an Arabic phrase, translated as “The secret of state secrets.”

These giant, dodgy dice are the artist’s reproduction of the detritus of the French mandate administration’s efforts to measure the elevations of their new property, starting at Beirut Port and working their way up at 500-meter increments.

“The story goes,” Ghossein writes, “that the Lebanese government has not measured the elevation above sea level since that time.”

Ghossein is best known as a filmmaker and the centerpiece of the show is his 16-minute video “The Last Cartographer in the Republic.”

The short is an interview with Mohammad Adeeb Khaled, who worked at the Directorate for Geographical Affairs from 1963 to 2006. He is the last cartographer to be employed by the one state department you’d imagine would be all about cartography.

Khaled’s voice-over describes the directorate’s workings, how – after collating aerial photos and terrestrial surveys – various types of maps had been etched by hand, a practice eventually abandoned when satellite imaging made more precise mapping possible. The shoot’s location is the Directorate for Geographical Affairs archive and the voice-over is accompanied by transparencies of aerial photos, placed in counterpoint to a set of seasoned hands using now-obsolete engraving tools to carve lines of elevation and shadow upon bright orange scribe coats – the extinct mapmaking media – depicting South Lebanon.

The film language reflects the location. Footage of hands at work or Khaled blinking at the lens through transparencies are interspersed with others of dimly lit, abandoned-looking rooms. Black-and-white photos are superimposed upon images bathed in orange, before the color fades out.

Given how contentious landholding matters are in this region, you’d expect a show like this would echo anger and injustice. “The Last Cartographer” casts a lovely patina of nostalgia over the whole.

Ahmad Ghossein’s “There is No Right or Wrong Here” is up at Marfa’ through Sept. 24. For more, see

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 10, 2017, on page 16.




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