Culture

Tony Chakar in four dimensions

BEIRUT: The better part of one wall of the Beirut Art Center’s downstairs gallery is these days preoccupied by an imposing installation of recovered steel, its surface festooned with portraits and scored with text. Chakar’s original version of “Of Other Worlds that Are in this One,” 2014-2017, was made for the Sao Paulo Biennial.

The work’s been recast at BAC for “on becoming two,” the artist’s first solo exhibition, curated by BAC director Marie Muracciole.

Chakar is fond of photographing the cities he visits and prefers to keep humans out of the frame when he does. Plugging the mobile into his laptop after one such shoot, he found the software telling him to “tag” people.

“‘What people?’” he recalls with a grin. “When I looked there were 50 people that I’d never met and will never meet. I didn’t aim at them. They just happen to be in my phone and my computer forever. That’s how it started.”

He looked into how the device’s spatial recognition software identifies a face. “Apparently it calculates the distribution of light and shadow on a specific surface to decide whether it’s a face or not. When we look at a face, we know it’s a face because we see things qualitatively. The application sees things quantitatively.”

Discovering the technological limits of augmented reality reminded Chakar of Western mysticism’s efforts to grapple with the flawed nature of reality itself.

“It’s very much like the moment that the mystics call a caesura,” he says, “when they realized that there is another world that isn’t outside but right here and now, in this world.”

Chakar later read thousands of pages of esoteric writing – Muslim and gnostic Christian mysticism and the Kabballah – searching for texts that, he imagined, every image must be seeking.

“I took a photo with this woman in Greece, I think,” he gestures to a shot of a woman carefully navigating an anonymous sidewalk, “and it seemed to me that I’d read the text for this image [in] the Gospel of St. Thomas. ‘Jesus said, I have thrown fire onto the world and look I am watching it until it blazes.’”

“Of Other Worlds” is among the most successful works in an exhibition whose principal motif is the artist’s concern with the relationship between image and text – or, as Muracciole describes her curatorial strategy, “to play with and against a ... specific context, using as a starting point Chakar’s [relationship] to his different practices: architecture, text and language.”

Selected texts play about and upon the work’s accidental portraits as absences cut through the metallic surface. In the work’s Beirut iteration, visitors are invited to enter the space between the back of the work and the gallery wall. Here, each text’s words – laser-cut in the medium – appear as light projected upon the wall, sometimes clearly readable, at others as blurry “double reflections.”

“The shape of the work comes from the gallery itself,” Chakar says, “so I decided to construct another wall. Instead of doing the letters in vinyl, we did them with lasers. When you go behind the wall ... you find letters ... reflected as light on the wall, the floor and the person walking in front of you.”

“On becoming two” isn’t a retrospective show but it resembles one insofar as it includes works first conceived between 1999 and 2014.

The video-floor installation “A Retroactive Monument for a Chimerical City” dates from 1999. “All that Is Solid Melts into Air,” 2000, is a wall-painted reproduction of a 19th-century Beirut map, executed by Balsam Abuzour. “4 Cotton Underwear for Tony,” 2001, is an installation of text with portrait. A collaboration with sound designer Nadim Mechlawi and Nesrine Khodr, “A Window to the World,” 2005, is a text and sound installation. “The Dialogue that Is Us,” a text-sketch installation, and the video installation “Speak Mouthless,” both date from 2013.

There is also a completely new work, the mirrored wall and painting installation “The Discourse of the Last Things Before the First,” 2017.

Chakar is among the so-called “’90s generation” of Beirut artists, who emerged on the international art scene after the civil war.

Diverse as their individual practices were and are, observers have treated them as a discrete group because their practices and preferred media (video, say, and performance) represented such a radical departure from those of Lebanon’s pre-war and wartime modernists.

Though his visual art has been shown in dozens of group shows in the last couple of decades, Chakar decided to refrain from solo exhibitions as a matter of principle. Art market skepticism has made his practice appear more performative – which is one reason that he’s best known for his walking tours of Beirut and lecture performances.

“I refused a lot of things over the years,” he says past his cigarette. “I refused to do solo shows because I thought we should work together as a group in group shows, around specific topics. I say it half-jokingly, but practically all the people I know are now outside Beirut.

“You have to rethink your position,” he pauses. “To not sell you work, because I don’t want to be part of the capitalist production of art, for instance. You may not want to be in the market but the market is one step ahead of you. We have sometimes distributed “4 Cotton Underwear” as a free booklet. Then you learn some people took the booklet and are selling it online for 50 sterling.

“But if you don’t show the work, the work remains in your computer forever and people never see it. So when a museum approached me saying, ‘We want to acquire this work,’ I went to look at their collection. It’s a brilliant collection. The work will be preserved and people will be able to see it. Everyone’s happy.

“It’s not about the money, it’s about being present. It’s about not condemning these works to hard-drive oblivion.”

Chakar says his first solo exhibition is not a compromise between the artist’s ideals and the conventions of contemporary art consumption.

“Most or all these works [are devised on] a very public scale,” he avers. “Two of them are directly on the wall. They’re going to be painted over.

“This is itself no guarantee, because someone else may say, ‘Come, do the work again, in my house.’ Then you decide. There are ways of resisting or making the relationship with the market more complex than simply placing objects in a white cube and saying, ‘Here’s what I do. Why don’t you buy it?’

“You can create more complex relationships. This is what I want. Some other people will say I don’t even want to think about this and I have no problem selling. Others will say I don’t want to create works at all because anything you produce as art will be bought and sold.”

There is a sense, though, in which Chakar’s solo is a compromise.

The choices he’s made in creating these works – the objects’ inconvenient scale and use of gallery walls, floors and ceilings as media – are necessary compromises to materialize ideas that might otherwise only find expression as an essay. The work in “on becoming two” is material but many of them are also ephemeral. Whether or not they are commodified depends on whether he wants to be yanked into the market, or not.

BAC will host “Last day with Tony Chakar’s ‘on becoming two’ and Rana Elnemr’s ‘a chapter of synonyms’” Saturday March 26, 4-6 p.m.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 25, 2017, on page 16.

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