Wednesday, April 22, 2009

New crop of artists get "Exposure"

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(c) Jennifer Maghzal, Karine Wehbe, and Raed Yassin On the second outing of the Beirut Art Center, "Exposure", which is an exhibition designed to encourage emerging artists, the organizers managed to produce a small gem, which - honestly - by far outbeats its earlier much-more drummed and hyped "Closer" opening exhibition. A jury chose seven up and coming artists and financed the production of their work to produce the final result which in terms of scenography showed the people behind the Beirut Art Center now much more in command of the inner geography and feel of their space. This year’s chosing committee was: Jacques Aswad (writer), Joana Hadjithomas (visual artist and filmmaker), Christine Tohme (director of Ashkal Alwan), and Kaelen Wilson-Goldie (journalist). The chosen artists are Tamara Al Samerraei (Before Dark, animation), Nadim Asfar (Innenleben, photography), Sirine Fattouh (Lost and won, video and photography installation), John Jurayj (Untitled (I'll be your mirror), oil on colored mirrored plexi-glass), Jennifer Maghzal (Terminus (I can't tell where I end and you begin, installation), Karine Wehbe (Tabarja beach 1, photography), and Raed Yassin (The best of Sammy Clark, installation). To be honest, all exhibited works deserved to be there and get their ligitimate "exposure." Actually, the Arabic title of the exhibition is "Atabat" which means "stepping stones" which seems even more moving and adequate than its English counterpart. Yassin's installation is a coup of collective memory of Lebanon in the 80s through the evocation of Sammy Clark Lebanon's pop star par excellence back then (Whose major credits probably include singing the Arabic version of the title track of Japanese-Anime Grendizer, but that's a different story). Sirine Fattouh simply asked women "What have you won?" and "What have you lost?" and went on to record the answer in a rather deceptively simplistic way, which in effect is very deep and leaves much to the imagination. Asfar took pictures of webcam transmission for three years trying to locate his pictures somewhere between public and private, erotic and morbid, real and fictional. Which only fits with what he says about photography: "Beyond seeing, it is about imagining, moving, assembling and transporting. It is about folding and unfolding images… Images contain what one shows, and what one hides. Statements and secrets. Fictions." Jennifer Maghzal takes the name of the Roman god of boundaries (Terminus) and creates a self-contained enclave of 16 second-hand doors embodying thus the concept of binary vision of the world we all function through "you/me", "inside/outside" or "open/shut." But the one artist who manages to hijack the exhibition is Karine Wehbe... Long confined in the realm of her graphic design (She graduated from the very prestigious Ecole Supérieure des Arts Graphiques (ESAG) Penninghen, Paris) Wehbe limited herself to graphics, illustration and painting earlier in her career. Her much-welcomed conceptual development started to emerge with her exhibition "Young Women" at Espace SD but it was her work on cinema as a colletive memory in 2006 (Also at Espace SD)that saw her emerged from her self-imposed cocoon. Wehbe once told me that she "didn't like working with concepts," thankfully this stage of her thinking is now far gone. Her video with Philippe Azoury "Suspendue" was shown at the 6th edition of the Né à Beyrouth Festival and at the Jeu de Paume for the 36th edition of the Festival d’Automne à Paris. Her tipping point came when she has participated in the workshops as long as I’m walking led by Francys Alys and The ruin in the city by Lara Almarcegui and Cecilia Andersson, both of which were part of the project 98 weeks. "I learned how to function in groups, how to work with others, how to communicate with media I have not known before and was afraid of before," confided Wehbe. The photos that Karine Wehbe exhibits in "Exposure" are about the beach resorts which cluttered the seaside of Lebanon and mushroomed illegally during the war creating a haven of safety and cosmopolitanism for the riche and nouveau-riche and became the words to drop to indicate status (Tabarja beach, Acqua Marina, Rimal, Portemilio, Les residences de la mer....). "Today, these happy-go-lucky resorts have faded away to become nothing but ghostly blocks of reinforced concrete and pools of Chlorine. In the summertime, few subscribers or owners still venture there," continues Wehbe. In the Tabarja beach 1 series sees Wehbe staging herself near the Jet Set discotheque, now nothing but a delabrated space, shooting the now empty bungalows "by the turf" (Which were the most expensive), and meeting someone at the cafeteria - again, now very empty and hollow. But the photo that is most haunting is that of her (And her cousin Ansoula who co-models in all photos except that of the bungalows) sunning in their 80s bathing suits (Wehbe is a major 80s revival in terms of fashion) near the totally empty pool filled with small debris with rusting metallic parasols in the background as witnesses to fading glories of the past. "In those empty spaces," comments Wehbe, "I try to live out, one more time, even if for a few seconds, m first night club experience or a long chat I had by the swimming pool on dreams that were still possible. In a country where places from our memory are vanishing, I hold on to my adolescence.... or it is maybe holding on to me?" Beirut/NTSC prays for Wehbe never to find the answer, as the questionning is leading to an artist blossoming at her fullest potential.
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