JOANA HADJITHOMAS and KHALIL JOREIGE, Any recognition will be purely fortuitous (detail), 2005 – 2011, print, 150 × 260 cm. Courtesy the artists and CRG Gallery, New York.

Installation view of “Due to Unforeseen Events…” showing in the forefront KIRSTEN SCHEID’s The Mysterious Sculpture and its Missing Fixity, 2011. Courtesy New Museum, New York.

Due to unforeseen events…

New Museum
USA Lebanon

Beirut Art Center (BAC), Lebanon’s first non-profit space dedicated to contemporary art, recently took over the fifth floor of New York’s New Museum, for the “Museum as Hub” exhibition series. Continuing their mission to “produce, present and promote local and international contemporary art,” for “Due to unforeseen events…” BAC created a satellite space, which functioned much like their center in Beirut, by incorporating their very own digital archive of resources about artists from West Asia, called “Mediatheque,” and a display of specially commissioned artworks from Lebanese artists. The exhibition reexamined five artworks produced between 1983 and 2005, which were dramatically altered after their release to the public. This includes a public sculpture that disappeared, a play that was censored by the Lebanese government, and a film whose screening was cancelled and the work subsequently altered due to public outrage. Guest curators Sandra Dagher and Lamia Joreige invited artists Ziad Abillama, Tony Chakar, Rabih Mroué, the duo Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, and anthropology professor Kirsten Scheid, to describe the circumstances and compromises experienced by the artists through detailed accounts of past reckonings with public space and opinion, as well as new artworks by these artists, exploring their experiences.

At the entrance of the exhibition, a six-foot-tall white sculpture made from interconnected foam blocks, titled The Mysterious Sculpture and its Missing Fixity (2011), was accompanied by relevant newspaper articles and a video documentary. This was Kirsten Scheid’s reconstruction of a 1983 public sculpture by Saloua Raouda Choucair, which was first vandalized, then mysteriously disappeared, only months after a jubilant state ceremony unveiled the sculpture as a symbol of unification and solidarity between two previously warring factions in Beiruti politics. Scheid’s reconstruction reclaims the importance of Choucair’s first public sculpture for Lebanon and comments on the disjuncture between artistic intent and public reception.

In addition to government-sanctioned art that fails to express the public mood, the desire of the government to control information distributed within the country furthers the detachment between artists and the public. Rabih Mroué’s new video installation Un-Spread Your Legs (2011), shows a split screen of a woman dictating the long list of changes—on the right of the screen—mandated by government’s censorship department (General Security) for his play Who’s Afraid of Representation (2005), which contrasts radical performance art of the 1960s with violent events from Lebanon’s recent history. The list of edits included removing any mention of the president, army and politics, along with replacing anything deemed indecent—for example replacing expressions such as “tits” with “breasts.” The accompanying vinyl text mentions the small victory by Mroué of keeping the English version unedited, but also his feeling of “intimate failure” of having succumbed to censorship.

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige examine the changing meaning of images in a spatial and historical context. In 2005, they quite unknowingly ran into restrictions of a more public and local kind. Their work Any Recognition Will Be Purely Fortuitous (2011), exhibited here, is an enlarged photographic print of a missing persons notice, taken from their earlier short video about a missing man, titled A Perfect Day in Beirut (2005). During A Perfect Day’s premiere in Lebanon, the film caused distress to an audience member, who recognized the ostensibly fictional “missing” character as her deceased husband. Initially demanding that the image be removed from the film, the widow finally agreed that only the version to be shown in Lebanon would omit the photograph, since he would be recognized in Beirut, but to the rest of the world he would only be a character.

So, “Due to unforeseen events…” also illustrated the ways in which international distribution can be used to maintain the integrity of art works, allowing their original intention to be communicated. The obstacles that Lebanese artists face navigating official and community restrictions highlights the importance of an internationally-connected organization such as the BAC. Rather than succumbing, artists such as Mroué, Hadjithomas and Joreige, have identified these hurdles within their works, defiantly harnessing such challenges toward furthering their creative production.