BEIRUT — As the Sunday evening sun set on the 13th edition of the Sharjah Biennial, Tamawuj, elbow room became scarce on the third floor of a well-worn stately home in Beirut’s Sanayeh neighbourhood. A large number of visitors navigated around a jumble of personal effects piled high and wide in the center of the room — all the furniture of a 1970s parlor condensed into a singular mass, draped with dusty plastic sheets. It seemed as though the room had been prepped for a paint job about four decades ago, and the residents simply forgot to move back in.
Mostly, the crowding on the third floor could be attributed to the time crunch — there were only a couple of hours left to see “Beirut Heterotopia,” (2017) Akira Takayama’s voyeuristic, audio-guided contribution to Act II, the final component of SB13. A middle-aged man peered at a copy of Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem, balanced carefully on the couch back; a young couple looming over an elementary school globe studied the wooden birds peeking out from under the plastic wrap. I was more taken with a bold ‘70s typeface poking out from behind a couple of chair legs, displaying an Arabic/French language version of the board game Risk: le jeu mondial de la strategie!
There were five rooms to explore in “Beirut Heterotopia.” After finding the doorframe’s QR code and aligning it with an online platform via my smartphone, five family stories played — each one equipped with its own cast of characters who staged intimate dramas illuminating the effects of conflict on members of the family unit. It was crowded, but quiet, each visitor fully engaged in the stories, both dramatic and mundane, unfolding in their headphones.
After a jam-packed week of Act II —which consisted of lectures, performances, film screenings, and informally charming, thought-provoking discussions throughout Beirut — the quiet of this exhibition at Zico House made it a good place to wander and choose your own adventure, a useful metaphor for the many narratives considering “otherness” illuminated in the work displayed throughout the city.
The main event of chief curator Christine Tohmé’s ambitious, border-crossing SB13 was Act I, hosted in Sharjah back in May, which had included a yearlong program of four off-site projects (in Dakar, Istanbul, Ramallah, and Beirut) organized around the themes of water, crops, earth, and the culinary. Act II, the week-long, concluding chapter began in Beirut on October 16th, in contrast, is something of a homecoming for Tohmé, since it was organized in conjunction with Ashkal Alwan, the non-profit she founded in 1993. A good number of the readings, discussions, and performances have taken place in the organization’s expansive warehouse space smack in the middle of an industrial park in the Jisr El Wati neighborhood. Tohmé’s well-established presence in Beirut’s contemporary art scene (and that of the wider region) meant that this last chapter of the Biennial is able to utilize the city’s cinemas, theatres, galleries, and museum spaces to great effect. Act II has the feeling of a magnifying glass being held up to the continuing, wide-ranging dialogues she seeks out with curators, artists, performers, writers, and researchers.
Perhaps this idea of dialogic exchange was nowhere better displayed than during “History Ate Everything,” Céline Condorelli’s discussion at Ashkal Alwan with Zeynep Öz. Condorelli, interested in going beyond a traditional conversation encouraged Öz to respond to four different stories of legacy informing her current practice. Describing in the detail the friendship of Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin, and the defacement of Eileen Gray’s Cap Martin home by Le Corbusier, Condorelli reached deep into familiar art historical stories and punctured them. By the conclusion of the discussion, the audience was responding, as Öz was, to the idea that artistic legacies are generated and mutated by art historical power structures, opportunistic narrators, and even social relationships between those involved in things like the Sharjah Biennial.
At the Beryte Theatre, Madison Bycroft engaged a packed house in “Mollusk Theory: Soft Bodies” (2017), a performance inspired by the sea creature, which, when separated from its shell, is simply a wet, lolling body. Mimicking the rubbery physicality of the mollusk, the performance began with the extension of limbs, tongues, and eyes appearing and disappearing through holes — first on a video screen, and then on-stage, providing the backdrop for Bycroft’s impressive sequence of changing costumes and roles. Describing in rapid-fire prose and poetry her personal engagement with one particular intelligent invertebrate (the cuttlefish), she visually morphed herself into one, prancing around stage in a specially produced, pink mollusc costume. Funny and factual, “Mollusk Theory” struck an absurd balance: it’s not every day that a tale of love, dance, and spineless species can give David Attenborough a run for his money in educational value.
Some of these events were presented as lectures: Ho Rui An’s “DASH” (2016) began with ruminations on the dissemination of (and obsession with) serious car accident footage via dashcams, which expanded to scan the Singapore government’s crisis-prediction apparatus. Others, like Rayyane Tabet’s “Dear Victoria” (2016–ongoing) were part-reading, part-performance, in which a family history is intertwined with that of Max von Oppenheim and his early 20th-century excavation of Tell Halaf, a Syrian archaeological site. As Tabet describes the individual fates of the area’s reliefs (some back and forth across a divided Berlin, some in the Met, others unknown), we also learn about his great-grandfather, who was enlisted as a translator/spy by the French to report on von Oppenheim’s operations. As Tell Halaf’s cultural heritage is dissected and destroyed, the backdrop chosen by Tabet takes on special significance: sections of a family rug, an heirloom divided into smaller pieces and passed down to successive generations.
So many narratives, so little time — for those who were tired out by the week of performance-hopping, two exhibitions commissioned by SB13 will continue through the end of the year: “Fruit of Sleep”, curated by Reem Fadda at the Sursock Museum, and at the Beirut Art Centre, “An Unpredictable Expression of Human Potential”, curated by Hicham Khalidi and Natasha Hoare. The Tamawuj online publishing platform will continue to house the many texts that resulted from SB13’s emphasis on exchange of ideas. Over the course of the year, Tohmé succeeded in abandoning the pretense that can so often overshadow international art biennials, and brought together an incredible range of voices, stories, and artworks across (and taking into account) borders. In Beirut, the diverse exchanges encouraged by Tamawuj fully realised the biennial’s myriad aims and goals — an open-ended conclusion that will hopefully serve to inform those faced with mammoth curatorial tasks in the future.
Fruit of Sleep will be on view at the Sursock Museum through 31 December, 2017. An Unpredictable Expression of Human Potential will be on view at the Beirut Art Center through 19 January, 2018.
Special Edition: 🖌️Artists’ Signatures ✍️
In this special edition, we investigate what artists’ signatures actually mean, and the fascinating results reveal the multifaceted history of this curious phenomenon.
What Is a Signature in the Internet Age?
As a cryptographic unit for record-keeping, an NFT can be seen as analogous to a signature or an autograph.
The Public Theater Explores the Hurricane Katrina Diaspora in shadow/land
Written by Erika Dickerson-Despenza and directed by Candis C. Jones, this lyrical meditation on legacy, erotic fugitivity, and self-determination is on view in NYC.
The Meaning of Ancient Greek and Roman Artisan Signatures
What did a signature mean in the ancient world, and how much can we trust what they seem to tell us?
Michelangelo’s Signature and the Myth of Genius
Michelangelo served as a stellar example for future artists who sought status and economic independence.
The Rubin Museum Presents Death Is Not the End
Tibetan Buddhist and Christian works of art made across 12 centuries explore death, the afterlife, and the desire to continue to exist. On view in NYC.
Uncovering the Photographer Behind Arshile Gorky’s Most Famous Painting
As we pursue photographer Hovhannes Avedaghayan a fascinating picture begins to emerge of him and the world of which he was part.
100 Years of Artist Signatures in a Detroit Club
The beams in Detroit’s Scarab Club act as a guest book of sorts, carrying a wealth of stories and history, including signatures by Diego Rivera, Marcel Duchamp, Margaret Bourke-White, Isamu Noguchi, and others.
When I Am Empty Please Dispose of Me Properly
Ayanna Dozier, Ilana Harris-Babou, Meena Hasan, Lucia Hierro, Catherine Opie, Chuck Ramirez, and Pacifico Silano explore the myths of the American Dream at Brooklyn’s BRIC House.
The Myth of Agency Around Artists’ Signatures
In an art world built on shifting sands, artists’ signatures become symbols of agency for some, and relics of the past for others.
The Women Artists Commemorated on an NYC Sidewalk
The signatures of Rosa Bonheur, Mary Cassatt, and six other historical women artists are engraved on a small stretch of sidewalk on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Pratt’s 2023 Fine Arts MFA Thesis Exhibition Is On View in Brooklyn
The two-part exhibition features the work of 41 graduating artists across disciplines, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, and integrated practices.
Met Museum Repatriates 15 Objects to India
The sculptures were all at one point sold by the disgraced art dealer Subhash Kapoor.
Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova Placed on Russian “Wanted” List
Tolokonnikova has long been a thorn in the side of Vladimir Putin’s regime.