Culture

Lebanon's first art biennial, in Alita

ALITA, Lebanon: Believe it or not, people have joked about “The Battle of Hastings” – the event used to mark the Norman conquest of Britain in 1066. Impish history teachers have been known to point out that this business probably didn’t take place in 1066. Neither did it happen in Hastings. It wasn’t much of a battle either.

Lebanon’s first self-designated biennale of contemporary art is presently residing in the hills above Jbeil, in Alita (34° 5’ 0” north, 35° 41’ 0” east). Running through Dec. 30, the event is hosted by MACAM – the Modern and Contemporary Art Museum co-founded in 2013 by art critic Cesar Nammour and Gabriela Schaub.

BLICA (Biennale Libanaise Internationale du Cinema et les Arts), as it’s called, is organized by Cultural Resistance, an NGO whose public face has been filmmaker and photographer Jocelyne Saab. Founded in 2013, CR launched a short-lived international film festival that programmed critically lauded cinema from the MENA and Asia.

BLICA takes the form of an exhibition curated by a team composed of Saab, Mathilde Rouxel, Mickael Robert-Goncalves, Aliette and Daniel Guibert, Andres Claro and Miriam Heard.

The selected work is meant to have been derived from CR’s Niemeyer Art Competition. Launched in 2015, this contest’s touchstone is Tripoli’s International Fair, the Maarad – an island of (unfinished) 20th-century modernism, designed by Oscar Niemeyer (1907-2012).

Competing artists are encouraged to make Maarad-inspired art in any media. Consequently, the two galleries housing BLICA are stocked with a diverse range of work – critical writing, sculpture, installation, painting, photography, multimedia pieces, video and video installation and well as film.

BLICA boasts work by 45 artists, hailing from 24 countries, including Lebanon. Lovers of Niemeyer’s oeuvre are advised to pack reserves of imagination as they prepare their trek to Alita. Though some of the pieces on show directly reference the Maarad or the Brazilian architect’s work, most do not.

Two of Saab’s exhibited works provide a case in point. One component excerpts a photo series shown earlier this year during the filmmaker’s Institut Francais exhibition “One Dollar a Day.” Two photos, capturing Syrian refugee children, printed in monumental scale on vinyl sheeting and painted, echo that show’s premise – the incongruity of desolate refugees forced to shelter themselves beneath plastic sheeting salvaged from Lebanon’s advertising sector.

The other work is “Imaginary Postcards,” a six-minute film addressed to Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk and his city, Istanbul, which since 2011 has hosted a growing community of Syrian exiles.

Only incidentally connected to BLICA’s theme is Ginane Makki Bacho’s “Burj al-Murr,” an iron sculpture representing one of the more notable, and notorious, abandoned architectural pieces in the Beirut quarter of Zuqaq al-Blat.

Less familiar, and more intriguing, is Julie Nymann’s eight-minute video “Riverbed Press,” 2016. The camera simply follows the artist as she enacts the repetitive ritual of loading and operating a printmaking press.

Nymann’s manipulation of the machine is the performative basis for the artist’s audiovisual manipulation of the moving image. Here, the press bed isn’t a metal plate but appears to be a rectangular portal to a river.

The artist repeatedly adds handfuls of reeds and tree branches to the bed and runs them all beneath the drum of the press. The sound of plant matter being crushed is accompanied by that of running water and woodland birdsong.

Incongruity is also a component of Yasmin Hage-Meany’s 11-minute video “You, a Film by Her,” 2017. Shot from a car driving past the Maarad, the footage plays against a score that samples diverse sources – a CIA-spawned sound experiment designed to foment the overthrow of the then-Guatemalan government; a love letter composed by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo; soundtracks from such feature films as Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and Alain Resnais’ “Hiroshima Mon Amour.”

Marta Bogdanska’s 10-minute video “Next Sunday” also references the Maarad. Shot in October-November 2014, the work takes a documentary approach to Niemeyer’s legacy and its relationship to contemporary Tripoli. Here the fairground’s concrete lines and curves provide a retreat for a troupe of Traboulsi teens who use it to practice tricks on their BMX bikes. The Maarad’s pre-empted, neglected modernism is a fitting location for the confluence of young adult performance – whether on their bikes or in their expressions of individuality and aspirations for the future.

A natural (if self-promoting) complement to Bogdanska’s work is “Epicly Palestine’d: The Birth of Skateboarding in the West Bank.” Published on YouTube in 2015, this 26-minute doc by Theo Krish and Philip Joa follows a pair of London skaters (Krish and Joa) as they drive around Palestine donating skateboards to teens in several West Bank towns and documenting occupied Palestine’s nascent skater subculture.

There is, in short, some engaging work at MACAM, whether it orbits Niemeyer’s Lebanese legacy or not.

That said, it’s difficult to engage with BLICA. For anyone who has attended an international contemporary art biennale, there is a lot missing from this event.

In current usage, a “biennial” is distinct from an “exhibition.” Since contemporary art is such a multiheaded beast, discrete displays of visual art are usually supplemented by performance programs and forums that give artists an opportunity to discuss their practices with their peers and the interested public. Both are absent from BLICA’s first edition. The more basic problem with this event, however, is one of exhibition. This biennale is showing 24 “film” or “video” works – including multimedia pieces with electronic components – that include feature-length (over-60-minute-long) works as well as midlength and short films.

Given the role Saab and her organization have played in creating and programming this event, the number of audiovisual works on show seems appropriate but, arguably, more thought has gone into selecting the work than staging it.

The decision to project narrative-based feature-length films in the sort of confined (uncomfortably seated) spaces that usually house relatively brief loops of electronic art suggests a fundamental disconnect between the curatorial and exhibition sides of this show.

Poor exhibition logistics are accentuated by the fact that Lebanon’s first biennale of contemporary art is being staged at such an inaccessible (albeit lovely) remove from Beirut. Having made the trip to Alita, film lovers from the capital may feel a bit put upon.

If BLICA lives up to the promise of its name and is staged again in 2019, organizers would do well to find a more balanced use of available exhibition space, whether at MACAM or another venue.

BLICA, the biennale of contemporary art in Lebanon is up at MACAM, Alita, through Dec. 30. For more, see: http://www.macamlebanon.org.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 15, 2017, on page 16.

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