Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige on Lasting Image


On the fifth floor of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, in a small gallery off the beaten spiraling path of the museum’s rotunda, a small exhibition of the museum’s newly acquired contemporary works is currently on view. The show presents works never before exhibited in the United States that, though not explicitly linked by any vocabulary, medium or practice, share an intimate and haunting quality of quiet memories and lost moments rendered visible.

It is appropriate then that the exhibition takes its title, Lasting Images, from a video installation of the same name by Lebanese artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige,  whose works address notions of latency, ambiguity and the conditions of visibility.

Last Monday evening, Hadjithomas and Joreige joined Reem Fadda, Associate Curator of Middle Eastern Art with the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Project, to discuss the role of these themes within their practice.

The evening began with the resolute declaration by Joreige that he and Hadjithomas avoid definitions in their artistic practice. Citing the 1997 Circle of Confusion in which he and Hadjithomas appropriate the Lacanian phrase, “woman does not exist,” declaring instead that “Beirut does not exist,” Joreige launched the conversation into a reflection on the complexity of construction and fiction, ruins and reconstruction.

Hadjithomas and Joreige grew up in Lebanon at a time when change, both psychological and physical, occurred frequently, rapidly and often violently. For them, creating images and documentation of this complex and ineffable reality meant moving beyond the succinct clarity and static parameters of definitions. In Beirut, they recalled, it was never an issue of not enough images, but rather of giving power to the images that already exist.

For their project Postcards of War Hadjithomas and Joreige collected postcards of Beirut made with images of the untarnished city taken in the 1960s. Rephotographing these postcards, burning them according to the destruction of the physical places the images depict, and redistributing them, Hadjithomas and Joreige dismantle the fiction of a “wonderful Beirut” and assert an alternative history – one in which the effects and residue of war are apparent.

This act of destruction and reconstruction is further complicated by an additional layer of fiction within the work. Postcards of War exists as a part of the project Wonder Beirut (1997-2006) which revolves around an imaginary character: a Lebanese photographer named Abdallah Farrah. In this version of the story, it is Farrah who took the original photographs for the postcards and, in the years that followed, systematically altered them as the city around him changed. By creating their own character, with his own psychology and his own story, Hadjithomas and Joreige enhance the ambiguity surrounding true and false histories and, in doing so, destabilize the definitions of both past and current conditions.

For the final installment of Wonder Beirut Abdallah Farrah explores Lebanon, taking photographs which he never develops. These “Latent Images,” as the piece is called, are displayed as contact sheets accompanied by textual descriptions and large scale photographs of the drawers in which the film rolls are kept. Here, only the unstable condition between the subject and its representation is made visible.


From Latent Images by Hadjithomas and Joreige. The work is shown as images face mounted (100×70 cm), light boxes presenting the burned original negatives (70x50x8 cm) and the processes (various dimensions around 30x1m80cm

For Hadjithomas and Joreige, within the latent there lies the possibility of presenting absence – of seeing “ghosts,” as Joreige calls them.

In 2001, while riffling through his family archives Joreige came across an undeveloped film that had belonged to an uncle who had been kidnapped during the Lebanese civil war. There followed much conversation and debate about whether or not the film should be developed – it could reveal the final images of a lost family member, but what if it revealed nothing at all? Eventually it was decided, and Joreige and Hadjithomas sent the film to the lab. When it came back, it was entirely white. However, by color correcting and breaking the film down into frames, figures – ghostly figures once latent both within the undeveloped film and within its developed whiteness – began to appear. Projected on the wall at the Guggenheim today, the figures that fight their way through the anesthetizing whiteness, are a haunting testimony to a reality that refuses to disappear.image

Lasting Images, Video installation, Super 8 mm film transfered on DVD, Sound Dolby 5.1, 2003, Hadjithomas and Joreige.

Hadjithomas and Joreige’s work is a work of problems, not progress; of contradiction, not clarification. They search out the latent secrets, stories, fictions and histories that linger beneath the anesthetizing whiteness, but only to blend them and oppose them, to emphasize the contradictions and impossibilities. It cannot be simplified to orderly and palatable definitions, and so must remain ambiguous, complex, and ghostly.

by Alexa Lawrence for ArteEast