Art in America, Reviews

by david markus



NEW YORK As giddy museumgoers continued to flock to Carsten Höller’s exhibition-cum-fun fair, “Experience,” an opportunity at the same museum for art viewing sans release waiver was quietly on offer in the fifth-floor space reserved for the ongoing “Museum as Hub” initiative. “Due to unforeseen events . . . ” was assembled by curators from the Beirut Art Center, an institution coming of age at a time when the relative political stability that allowed its founding is once again being threatened.

Each of the five works exhibited was a visitation of an earlier artwork that had been previously censored, vandalized or—in a practice also all too frequently enacted upon human beings during Lebanon’s brutal 15-year-long civil war—outright disappeared. In conformity with the speculative-revisionist esthetic pioneered by the Atlas Group and other artists of the postwar generation, the exhibition placed primary emphasis on the productive possibilities of historical contingency.

This was true even where such an approach might have appeared anachronistic. Anthropologist Kirsten Scheid’s 2011 mixed-medium installation focused on a lost public sculpture by Saloua Raouda Choucair (b. 1916), an artist whose work long predates the theoretical dictates and archive fever of contemporary practice. A Styrofoam reconstruction of Choucair’s sculpture and a grainy war-period video of the artist were accompanied by a brief essay by Scheid adducing the work’s physical and discursive displacement as evidence that “war may be productive of art.” The effect was a recasting of the sculpture—itself
a decidedly modernist work—within the continuum of contemporary discourse.

While the exhibition’s remaining art-works dated from after the war, each reflects in its own way upon the legacy of conflict in Lebanon. Rabih Mroué’s video, Unspread Your Legs (2011), takes an earlier performance work’s expurgation as the occasion for a cheeky send-up of state censorship. Tony Chakar’s digital slideshow, Revisiting a Retroactive Monument for a Chimerical City (2011), offers a Benjaminian meditation on the history of Beirut’s famous Corniche. The photographic image of a slab of raw meat studded with an eyeball contributed by Ziad Abillama was rendered all the more cryptic by his accompanying text, which wove the blight of imperialism, the collapse of communism and the eruption of more recent revolutions into a web of verbiage as confounding as the hotly contested history of the ravaged land to which it related. Finally, a modified production still by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, titledAny Recognition Will Be Purely Fortuitous (2011), paid homage to their paranoia-inducing Aida, Save Me, a work performed at MoMA in 2010 that re-created the remarkable circumstances precipitated by a film viewing at which an audience member was stunned to recognize a photograph of her deceased husband on screen.

Though modest in scale, “Due to unforeseen events . . . ” effectively highlighted the manner in which responding creatively to catastrophes big and small has become inextricable from the discourse surrounding contemporary Lebanese art. Toward the end of my visit, the hushed atmosphere of the gallery was momentarily broken by a chatty group of visitors brandishing pairs of Höller’s signature goggles, which optically invert their wearer’s surroundings: an ironic reminder of the starkly contrasting ways in which life and art can turn one’s world upside down.

Photo: View of the exhibition “Due to Unforeseen Events . . . ,” organized by Beirut Art Center, 2011-12; at the New Museum.