COLUMBUS, Ohio — In our photo-happy culture, it’s easy to take for granted the power of documentation. People from places where political instability and violent conflict undermine the flow of daily life — from raising families in safety to snapping the occasional vacuous selfie — often find themselves exiled, not only from their physical homelands, but from their communities and historical records. This is perhaps the reason that so much of the work in Action at a Distance, a show at Angela Meleca Gallery featuring five contemporary Lebanese artists, skews heavily towards film and photography. Meleca is of Lebanese descent herself, and the exhibition in part reflects her personal stake in raising awareness of the human cost of Lebanon’s mercurial social and political situation — beginning with the Lebanese Civil War, which besieged the country from 1975 until 1990, and on to the Cedar Revolution and other upheavals that have followed since. From such a violent history emerges a quiet and meditative group show, offering a sense of displaced individuals struggling to reconstruct their histories of a place.
“I am from both cultures, and I relate to both cultures equally,” said Lebanese American photographer Raina Matar in an email interview. “I feel that my two worlds are now more divided than ever, even though at the core, they are not that different.” Matar moved to the United States in 1984, but has long made visits back to Lebanon; in 2014, she began work on her Invisible Children series. These portraits feature young people she encounters in her walks around Beirut, among them Syrian refugees and third-generation Palestinian children in the Bourj el-Barajneh refugee camp. Her beautifully rendered photographs raise questions about belonging and what it means to be a refugee; the latter is typically thought of as a transitional state, but as her pictures document, refugee life can stretch on through generations. Are these newly arrived Syrian children the refugees? Are the Palestinian children who were born in Beirut? Is Matar, a US resident of more than 30 years, still a refugee as well?
This idea of subjective and abstracted history extends through the other works on display, including two stills from a video by the research and filmmaking duo Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige. The prints are time-lapse images that capture a piece of their wider project The Lebanese Rocket Society: Restaged, which investigates the story of the Lebanese space program formed in 1960. Working off of a found commemorative stamp bearing the logo of the society, Hadjithomas and Joreige discovered the obscured record of mathematics professor Manoug Manougian, who formed a group of students at the Armenian Haigazian University in Beirut with the aspiration of making Lebanon the first Arab country to launch a rocket into space. The society launched a series of rockets between 1961–66, but was disbanded following the Arab defeat in the Six-Day War of 1967.
In their film “The Lebanese Rocket Society” (2012), which screened in tandem with the show’s opening at the nearby Wexner Center for the Arts, Hadjithomas and Joreige reconnect with this history not only through the paper trail of the spotty remaining documentation, but also by literally restaging the transport of a symbolic rocket through the streets of Beirut. The undertaking was fraught with diplomatic complications, as Lebanon continues to be a place quite sensitive to anything that could easily be mistaken, by other countries or the general populace, as presaging an act of war. Due to the time-lapse nature of the photographs on display, the rocket on a truck bed (which has subsequently been installed as a commemorative statue) appears only as a blur of motion, visually reinforcing a sense of the ephemeral nature of this surreal bit of Lebanese history.
Youmna Chlala’s light boxes further explore the connection between memory and place, with texts on the nature of Lebanon superimposed on Super 8 stills from walks around Beirut. Over email, Chlala characterized these objects as “a material interrogation of presence and absence. I’m most interested in how architecture and space reveal relationships or create potential exchange.” The light boxes offer diffuse and impressionistic visuals, lit from within and capturing the longing and alienation of exile in a familiar land — like little postcards from the soul. They’re about “how we come to know a space by experiencing it over and over again,” she said. “By superimposing, juxtaposing, and by inserting fictional text, new and invented spaces simultaneously appear and disappear.”
Works by Rhea Karam employ an even more literal and analogue form of layers: the artist takes photographs of trees in her adopted home of Brooklyn and then creates life-size cutouts which she transports back to Lebanon, to paste in various locations and photograph again. This transplant process clearly carries personal significance for an artist grappling with her international identity, but it also opens the door for a sincere reengagement with her native land, where she often has unexpected encounters in places that might easily seem abandoned. Meleca recounted some of Karam’s experiences installing her work, including the discovery that one of her pieces was encroaching on a refugee camp — whose inhabitants eagerly asked for an additional tree to go up at a neighboring camp — and an attempt to mount one of her trees on what turned out to be the wall of a police station (the officers allowed her to take her photograph but made her remove the tree afterwards).
“For this body of work, there was a lot of thought and preparation that went into each image, as I worked on the trees that I was going to integrate into the Lebanese landscape beforehand in my studio in New York,” Karam said over email. “I did not know where they would end up exactly, but prepared them for their destination — similar to how we integrate into a new environment when we move countries, knowing where we are going but having a lot of uncertainty as to where, and if, we will fit in.”
This feeling of an identity adrift between the place one comes from and the place one ends up permeates the whole of Action at a Distance. The subject matter is too serious for the work to be characterized as whimsical, but a wistfulness hangs over the spare environs of the gallery. The quietness and longing of the works on view serve as a reminder that when we are displaced or remove ourselves from our homelands, it’s not just action that we miss — we risk setting our memories, emotions, and senses of self at what can feel like an impassable distance.
Action at a Distance continues at Angela Meleca Gallery (144 East State Street, Columbus, Ohio) through May 27.