A forensic art of sweat and spittle

BEIRUT: Visitors to the Marfa’ Projects space these days are met with a good deal of work inspired by the published word. “Of All That Is Seen and Unseen,” Vartan Avakian’s second solo at Marfa’, also includes a small series of works formed from copper alloy piping, whose forms are evocative of brass instruments.

These are most recent works in Avakian’s “Composition with a Recurring Sound,” first shown here in 2016, during “Esma” (Listen), the Beirut Art Center’s sound-referencing group expo.

Resembling a segment of a cornet or trumpet, that original piece was a portal to the music of the Beirut River, which at that time of year resembled a forgotten ditch less than it sometimes does. By opening a valve in the work, the artist proposed, a listener could hear the movement of distant water, captured by discreetly placed microphones at various points along its length.

The four exhibited works, all from 2018, also evoke brass instruments but the thought behind the series has evolved a bit.

“I see these sculptures as sound fossils,” Avakian told The Daily Star while awaiting a bowl of pork noodle soup. “The other pieces in this show are fossils of a different kind.”

For each “Composition,” “the understanding is that the reverberations [looping within the tubing] leave scratches. You need friction to make sound, and if there’s friction you have traces. They may be now unrecognizable. You may not be able to decode them but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”

Were the mechanism conveying the river sound to each “Composition” to fail, he said, “the echo of the sound will reverberate until the sound waves decay. ... These scratches will remain behind for future archaeological study.”

Avakian isn’t the first Lebanese-born artist to ponder intangible forces like sound and their impression on media. It has been a conceptual plank in the past work of Lawrence Abu Hamdan, for instance, though the artists’ discursive overlap has informed quite dissimilar bodies of work.

Most of the work in “Seen and Unseen” is interested not in sound traces upon fabricated objects but scratches and stains we imprint upon books while using them, following from his 2015 solo debut at Marfa’, “Collapsing Clouds of Gas and Dust.” The media are different but the show’s two species of work are unified by a common narrative.

Like many good stories, this one begins with a flood. The only precious objects the water endangered were books. “I wasn’t happy about having a commodity fetish,” Avakian laughed. “I like my fetishes to be different.”

He divided the water-damaged books into two piles - ruined objects and salvageable ones.

It later occurred to him that a book’s sentimental value doesn’t reside in its contents, which may be replaced and so are hardly unique.

“These books carry things other than text - symbols of the story of the book itself. It’s usually the story of how the book came to my library, which is completely different from the story in the book.

“When I narrated why the books are special to me, I noticed how stupid and banal the stories were - a book given by a lover, another by a friend, a totally outdated and unnecessary encyclopedia, gifted by your grandfather. This is a common experience, I think.”

He rearranged the flood survivors into two alternative stacks one for the books whose value could easily be replaced, another for those that couldn’t.

The origin of his scratches and stains project, Avakian said, lay in determining how the generic, reproducible features of a book can be separated from what’s unique about it.

Most of the works in “Seen and Unseen” are concerned with showing that layer of incidental inscription that makes individual books unique alongside other copies of the same book. Like some recent treatments of archival photography, the works in “Seen and Unseen” are interested in the materiality of cultural artifacts.

Marfa’s first gallery has been turned over to the 2018 series “All That Is Seen and Unseen: Iconography,” whose standalone works reproduce individual pages from an amusing array of books.

These “icons” sample titles like “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Petit Dictionnaire Francais-Arabe,” “Das Kapital: A Novel of Love and Money Markets,” “The Essential Frankfurt School Reader” and “Armenians in Lebanon: Volume V,” among others.

The icons aren’t simple photos or Xerox copies. The creativity lies in the details.

To make each icon, Avakian “used very simple early photography techniques. A surface was treated with silver solution and salts, which interact to different shades of light to create black-and-white images.”

Before photography perfected chemical fixers to stabilize prints, he noted, images might persist for a couple of minutes, maybe a couple of hours, then disappear.

“I’m interested in this moment,” Avakian said, “because, though photographs have been used as documents, they’re actually very ephemeral. If early photos stayed for 30 seconds, photos today remain for 100-150 years before darkening.

“Very early photos that held your impression briefly before going black, they still hold your presence,” he said, “but in a different way. An overexposed photo may have lost representational value, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have proof of presence.

“Some of these images directly taken from books [for ‘Seen and Unseen’] have changed. Some will darken totally, others will remain stable. Even when all representation value disappears from it, they will remain icons of these presences.”

While the pieces in “Iconography” are affected by the silver solution applied to them, the human traces - palm prints and fingerprints, left by the salty sweat and oil on our hands, and sneeze patterns - are most evident in the 2018 video “Your Skin Shall Bear Witness Against You,” which films individual pages beneath ultraviolet light.

“Every time I watch one of these forensic investigation stories, it occurs to me that in the 1980s we didn’t know about DNA in blood, let alone skin.

“If you told someone then that, by swabbing the inside of his mouth, you now know everything about him his disease history, what he’d been eating, everything - they’d burn you at the stake.

“Now we realize that a microscopic piece of skin has so much data we can only decode 5 per cent of it. Imagine what’s on the 90-95 percent we can’t decode. This isn’t the future. This is now.

“I don’t know what kind of data can be retrieved,” Avakian added.

“That’s not my point.”

“Of All that is Seen and Unseen” is up at Marfa’ though March 30. For more, see

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 05, 2019, on page 12.




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