Culture

Destroy it, then run for your life

BEIRUT: Sursock Museum’s Twin Galleries is nowadays staging a two-piece exhibition of recent work by Damascus-born Hrair Sarkissian. “Homesick” is an exercise in counterpoint, with each of the two halves of the gallery devoted to a single two-channel video piece. Exhibition signage suggests visitors enter the show through the well-lit Twin Gallery II, where Sarkissian’s 2014 installation “Homesick” has been hung on adjacent walls of the white cube. It’s comprised of a silent video working in tandem with a “talkie.”

Facing the gallery entrance, the silent video shows a highly detailed concrete model of a four-storey walk-up. Anyone who’s lived in this region for a spell will recognize the design – evidence of a staircase ascending from the entrance at the centre of the building, with a family-sized flat on either side of each floor, some retaining their wide, metal-railed balcony, others expanded to enclose all or part of the balcony.

Like stop-motion animation, the video hops forward through time to reveal the property’s degradation. At first it looks as though it’s been neglected. Then different parts of the structure are shown to have collapsed. It’s as though a stationary still camera were fixed before the structure, taking a photo after every bombing or shelling. Over the course of the video’s 11 minutes, most of the block is reduced to rubble. Then the process begins again.

As Murtaza Vali points out in his curatorial essay accompanying this show (Nora Razian, Sursock’s former head of programs and exhibitions, and curator Omar Kholeif also contributed essays), the model is a 1:30-scale replica of the Damascus building where the artist grew up, and where his parents still live. Working from blueprints and photos of the original structure, Sarkissian erected his detailed facsimile at Amman’s Darat al-Funun.

Running in counterpoint to the silent stop-motion destruction is a performance-based video. It captures the artist assaulting some off-frame surface with a sledgehammer. He swings, makes contact and the sound of falling concrete can be heard. He squints as the hammer finds its mark. He soon starts to sweat and pant and after a spell he staggers a bit from the effort.

Most of the video frames his head and chest, keeping the object of his exertions invisible. Then toward the end the camera is stepped back to reveal the jagged edge of a smashed cinderblock wall.

Sarkissian’s work inverts conventional readings of the title – not an expatriate’s yearning for home but an unease at being forced to watch the destruction of “home” from a distance, a malaise strong enough to compel the artist to recreate it, so he can destroy it himself.

“Homesick” is an effective and relatively transparent exercise in counterpoint. Knowing the background narrative – the artist’s relationship to Syria, to which he hasn’t been able to return since 2008 – adds depth to the work but the formal pairing of the two videos, with the strangely complementary dialects of precise modeling and wobbly physicality, allows it to speak for itself.

Across the hall, Twin Gallery I has been left dark for Sarkissian’s 2016 video installation “Horizon.” It too consists of two video monitors – one wall-mounted, the other on the floor a meter or so in front of it.

The wall monitor documents a drone flight across a narrow strait that looks very much like it could be in the eastern Mediterranean – boulder-strewn coastlines separating the sea from arid, scrub-dotted landscape. At one point a large speedboat bisects the frame, moving right to left, but otherwise the approach is uneventful.

The floor monitor documents the same (or a very similar) flight, but with the lens oriented downward – so that it frames scrubland, beach, sea, beach, scrub. It’s a vastly less effective exercise in counterpoint.

The wall video recreates an establishing shot used in untold numbers of feature films since someone figured out how to fix a camera to an airplane wing or, as here, a drone. The perspective of the floor video adds visual depth to the piece but – other than piquing curiosity about whether the speedboat’s wake will appear on the floor monitor at the same time as the wall monitor – it adds little.

Omar Kholeif’s essay shoulders the responsibility of reading “Horizon.” “This work maps out the route over the sea on one of the shortest and most popular refugee trails from Kas on the southwestern Turkish shore, across the Mycale Strait, to the island of Megisti on the edge of southeastern Greece.”

The work’s meaning resides in the human tragedy of Europe’s refugee crisis. While it tastefully avoids evocations of rubber rafts, life jackets and drowned infants (a-la Ai Weiwei), the absence of humanity in “Horizon” makes it hard to know what the artist is getting at.

It leaves you with the feeling that this work is actually a document of the artist’s first smack at using a drone to shoot. Sarkissian is a much better artist than this.

Hrair Sarkissian’s “Homesick” is up at

Sursock Museum’s Twin Galleries through Oct. 2. For more, see https://sursock.museum/content/hrair-sarkissian

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 19, 2017, on page 16.

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