Some might say that only the future remains in Beirut. That the past is like walking through memories that never happened, entire rows of buildings now gone and the time in which they were built as distant as ever; a landscape forever changed yet constantly trying to rebuild itself.
Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, known widely by their work in film and documentary, offer their first New York exhibition of photographic and video works focused primarily on the war torn history of Lebanon and its present state.
Often when one tries to gain an understanding of what has occurred in Lebanon over the past fifty years they are met with a condensed string of successive key political dates or significant cultural events; parliamentary strife, assassinations, reprisal killings, a long chain of reprisal killings after, and then it only seems to give a glimpse of something ever more complex and confused that goes on between those dates and events. What appears a closely knit version of history on the surface, though rippled by tensions on the international, national, factional and inter-factional level, remains a desperate piecemeal semblance of causality that has resulted in the present. Perhaps here the individual and their own history exist in regions that lack an adequate means of translation.
Hadjithomas and Joreige speak about the notion of latency throughout their work, the latent being a kind of absence but with the dormant potential for an image and meaning. Much like an exposed film that has never been developed, that latency offers a means of understanding or evoking that which escapes the margins of an official history through its potential alone. The need to appropriate an alternate history arises when there is an untold version of the past, a subversive or secret history or in the case of most of us one that merely eludes the headlines.
Circle of Confusion, also the title of the show, is among the more prominent works in the exhibition. A massive mirror stands nearly 10 feet tall and upon it is collaged a tessellated view of Beirut shown from above, though at an austere angle as to suggest the incoming trajectory of a war plane or missile, or were it another context, merely the harmless helicopter flyby that it really is. The viewer is urged to take a section of the photograph with them as a souvenir revealing the reflective surface below.
In the video installation titled Distracted Bullets Beirut is seen at night on a number of different occasions marked by significant political and religious events. As the sun sets the city below bursts into a roar of fireworks and celebratory machinegun fire. At times the celebration seems homogenous throughout the city and at others isolated to a few districts alone making visible from afar the lines that divide this place. On one of the nights documented in the video 3 people are accidentally killed and 7 wounded amid the celebrations by stray gunfire, nothing here is as it seems.
Other works in the exhibition include images related to a project titled Wonder Beirut based on the work of a Lebanese photographer named Abdallah Farah who published a series of postcards in 1968 highlighting notable tourist destinations and the once extravagant hotels along the Lebanese Riviera. Seven years later in 1975 when many of the landmarks he photographed had been destroyed by shelling and explosions he began burning the old negatives so that the images would correspond to the current version of the scenes that they once depicted.
Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige are husband and wife and live and work in Beirut, both teaching film and video at St Joseph University.