Walid Sadek and Literary Power of Absence

As an Iranian couple in their honeymoon one with blood red hair the other without any, looking for an art center in an industrial zone we must have appeared bizarre to the locals of Eastern Beirut at Jisr-el-Wati next to Beirut River.

Yet, we were the ones who were astonished: it seemed that nobody knew the address of the ‘essential cultural venue in

Lebanon and the region with local and international recognition.’[1] Of course, they were the locals of a strange area where you need to ask a Ferrari automobile dealer, as we did, for the address of a contemporary art centre: this is a place populated with car industries. For anybody who has come to know Beirut through TV news as a war-stricken city in flames, it is refreshing to see it as a city of brands, plurality, cultural diversity and wealth. As such, it was about time such a mixture found a professional contemporary art center with a modernist interior space such as that of Beirut Art Center. The building (1500 square meters of space divided across two floors designed by architect Raed Abillama) has a silent presence within the urban fabric which can be accounted for by its short history: it is only one year that Beirut Art Center has opened its doors to the public with the purpose of ‘serving as a catalyst for the realization of contemporary art projects and for the interaction of local and international cultural players’[2] and the result matches the claim: If BAC solo exhibitions in 2009 featured productions by a Lebanese artist such as Akram Zaatari and an architect such as Bernard Khoury (who visited Iran in 2006), the programme for the second year is even more ambitious: in 2010 BAC presented the first solo exhibitions in Lebanon by artists Walid Sadek (interviewed in this issue), Emily Jacir (winner of Golden Lion at the 52nd Venice Biennale) and Mona Hatoum (currently on display). BAC was inaugurated in January 2009 with Closer and ended its first year with America, both thematic exhibitions gathering works by Lebanese and international artists. The future programmes encourages emerging artists in Exposure, and the 2010 calendar ends with a solo exhibition with the major French artist and filmmaker Chris Marker.

The exhibition we visited perfectly succeeded in generating the bewilderment typical of contemporary art museums: the viewer’s bafflement in search of Walid Sadek’s artworks did not end once she was inside the building. I took courage to ask whether we had arrived too early or an empty space was actually put on display. Of course, the exhibition space was anything but empty: it was overflowing with ghosts provoked by carefully arranged texts. The exhibition was more than a text installation: Walid Sadek specializes in staging absence: absence of painting, absence of woman, absence of image, absence of man and all these with the least means possible. It is as if the exhibition is cruelly reduced by an evil spirit to few bits of debris. Despite the apparent verbal nature of the exhibition, Sadek’s training as a painter shows through this extremely visual show: space is very sensibly divided providing the viewer with much space to fill in with his visual imagination provoked by slight touches of extremely minimalist artworks: one can hardly be shocked more by looking straight into the eyes of an absent woman whose left eye is now made of glass than confronting Sadek’s work on the subject. There is a pile of papers stacked in the middle of the space, a pair of circles printed on the recto of each sheet and beneath them two sentences in Arabic, ‘Close your left eye and look at my right eye,’ the translation reads. ‘When near my left eye you will disappear.’

On one wall, titles of classical paintings with a single subject, that of Cimon and Pero, are written. The paintings themselves are of course missing. Each title is accompanied by a sentence which Walid Sadek assumes to be written on the back of each painting. Sentences such as, ‘only a prophet can feed his chosen young with discolored milk from the tip of his finger. Caked with sleep, my face bites her cast shadow. May she bare her bosom to the moon not me.’ Apart from a visual artist, Sadek is also a gifted writer. It is rewarding enough to read the texts of the exhibition as exquisite examples of good (but high) literature. No matter how general the topics brought into the exhibition might be, this is definitely an exhibition for the elite as Sadek himself, a university professor by profession, cannot contend himself with an exploration on the surface, which is not always superficial. This is more evident when compared to Emily Jasir’s exhibition in the other room populated with works and easier, if not too easy, to relate to.

Not only you have to spend time to read all texts carefully and probably do a Google search for images of the historical paintings once you are back home to get a full idea of the exhibition, Sadek assumes the visitor might be of a type who read books such as De Factis Dictisque Memorabilibus Libri IX by ancient Roman historian Valerius Maximus in their spare time so as to learn about the story of ‘Roman Charity’ or Carità Romana, that of Cimon and Pero. Pero was the daughter of Cimon who was incarcerated and sentenced to death by starvation. Pero breastfed her father during her visits till finally found out by a jailer. Her act of selflessness, as considered by the ancient historian, impressed the officials and won her father’s release. Sadek’s clever choice of the painting imbues the exhibition with a subtle feminist touch, turning the mythical narrative inside out.

In the other hall a solo exhibition by Palestinian artist, Emily Jacir, is put on display. The exhibition includes four artworks (the artist calls them ‘interventions’) created between 2000 and 2009: Where We Come From, SEXY SEMITE, Untitled (servees), and stazione.

In Where We Come From (2001-2003), Jacir asked fellow Palestinians if she could do anything for them, anywhere in Palestine, from paying a phone bill at a post office in Jerusalem to placing flowers on a mother’s grave. She then used her American passport to carry out each request. The ‘intervention’ is too safe for an intervention and touches only the surface, in my view, in a superficial way.

In SEXY SEMITE (2000-2002), the most intriguing piece in the exhibition, Jacir asked Palestinians to place personal ads in the Village Voice seeking Jewish mates as a way to return home utilizing Israel’s ‘Law of Return’. In a sarcastic and subtle way, the work underlines how Palestinians who are indigenous to the land do not have the right to return to their own country while any Jew on earth has the right to ‘return’. However, the work remains more of an ‘artwork tailored for presentation in a gallery’ and those who played a role in the ‘intervention’ have played a safe game on a remote playground.

Stazione (2009), the most insipid of all, was to happen at the 53rd Venice Biennale: it was to have been situated on each of the 24 stops of a water bus route. Jacir translated the names of each station into Arabic and planned to place the Arabic translations on all the stops next to their Italian counterparts. The Arabic inscriptions were meant to link each floating platform with various elements of Venice’s shared heritage with the Arab world. The project was abruptly cancelled by Venetian municipal authorities, a fact the artist mentions as a sign of the performative potential of the idea; but one wonders if the authorities have not been more concerned with the quality of her artwork than the artist herself.

Whether you are interested to surf Beirut’s contemporary art scene or take a plunge into depths under the surface, Beirut Art Centre might be the place, a space for both. However, one might not always be so lucky as to experience a space as that emptied by Walid Sadek.

[1] Beirut Art Center Catalogue, March 2010.

[2] Ibid.