Culture

Finding gestures in artistic practice

BEIRUT: On the far side of a foam mat, a pair of videos run. One documents an excerpt from the artist’s nonprofessional life, the other a fictional performance.

On the floor, a color TV shows a loop of Rania Stephan, kitted out in boxing gloves, sparring with her trainer. As she assails him with a flurry of punches, the larger, athletic-looking fellow takes the blows, cracking the artist’s gloves from time to time.

The exchange persists until the panting Stephan pauses, hands on her hips, and the loop returns the start of the exchange. On the wall nearby, a screen has a black-and-white loop, this one showing the artist, eyes closed, her limp form falling repeatedly to the mat.

Conflating pugilistic and electronic arts, Stephan’s “Direct, differe” could be read any number of ways.

On one screen the artist is shown building strength and sharpening reflexes through boxing. On the other, she approximates the loss of physical control of one utterly bested.

It all smacks of metaphor. Surrounded by works by two dozen other artists in this exhibition, “Direct, differe” might reflect the struggle to make art itself - to make anything, for that matter - to have it seen and appreciated.

The culture of cultural production seldom depicts creativity in adversarial terms - putting aside those amusing ad-style photos of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat in boxing kit - so it’s satisfying to see Stephan’s piece as gesturing to the art market as competition for recognition.

Co-curated by Marie Muracciole and Christophe Wavelet, “Touche! Gesture, Movement, Action” marks an end and a beginning.

It’s the inaugural exhibition of the Beirut Art Center’s new digs - a short stroll from its original Jisr al-Wati location. “Touche!” is also Muracciole’s final show at BAC. Her tenure as director ended in the spring and she will herself relocate to another country.

Rana Nasser-Eddin, formerly a fixture at Beirut’s Galerie Sfeir-Semler, has joined the team as administrative director.

Mounted across the hall in the second of BAC’s two ground-floor galleries, Nesrine Khodr’s “Extended Sea,” 2017, makes an affable companion to “Direct, differe.” The two works are entirely dissimilar, apart from the physical demands they make of each artist.

A Sharjah Biennial 13 commission, “Extended Sea” was shot in a single 12-hour take. Onlookers may assume they’re looking at a single portrait-shaped projection when in fact there are two - one capturing the sky above the horizon line, the other the land and water below.

In the lower projection, the artist repeatedly enters and exits the frame as she laps a pool. Khodr reportedly swam over 9 kilometers that day (if not for 12 hours straight) and the installation faithfully reports her progress, from predawn darkness through sunset.

When The Daily Star revisited the exhibition near the end of its run, Khodr’s piece was disabled, thanks to a technical problem.

“Touche!” has assembled these recent and commissioned pieces with historic works of contemporary art from Lebanon, the region and elsewhere and (since April) a lively public program of performances and projections.

The curators’ collaboration is rooted in common elements in their practices - witness “Scenes du geste,” an exhibition and performance program Wavelet curated in Paris in 2015, and “The Weight of Vision,” a seminar Muracciole presented in Beirut the same year.

“The seminar was about gravity as the principal tool in art,” she told The Daily Star, “whether sculpture or dance.”

“There is practice as gesture,” Muracciole said, reflecting upon the show’s unifying theme, “which is a way to step out of very well-known modalities and try to go further. This is what we asked of Rania Stephan, to step out of her usual practice and to deal with her boxing practice in the art. There’s also the manual aspect of gesture, thus the appearance of hands throughout the show and manual activities - thus the exhibition’s embroideries and other fabric pieces.”

The marine aspect of “Extended Sea” finds an echo of sorts in Ghida Hachicho’s “Studies in Movement,” 2019, though, again, the two artists’ concerns are far removed from one another.

A mixed-media piece comprising two videos (one projected, the other on a computer monitor) and 20 wall-mounted ink-on-paper works, “Studies” interrogates the timely matter of “how [to] construct fixed points at sea.” On one hand, the pragmatic demands of maritime cartography and navigation require such fixed points. On the other hand the sea is, by its nature, constantly moving.

Hachicho’s paper works operate like a multiply bisected nautical chart, with some pages bearing markings while others are blank. Drawing upon a conversation with a seaman, the monitor muses upon how onshore references, gut instinct and movement can be used to know where they are while at sea. The wall projection ponders how minute changes in elevation, like standing on your toes, can affect the calculation of sea distances from land.

In its intentions, Muracciole reflected, “Touche!” is not unlike previous BAC shows, before and during her term.

“It’s a very experimental project,” she said. “You’re putting things together and they produce their relationship, or not. I think most of it is working - some less, some more. ... Supporting young artists has always been BAC’s role and it must continue to do so, though this show’s artists range in age from 24 to 80. Roman Signer is the oldest. Ana Jotta is much younger, only 72.”

For more information on “Touche!”

see www.beirutartcenter.org

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 20, 2019, on page 12.

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