Imitation, someone once claimed, is the sincerest [form] of flattery. If that’s so, what can be said of theft?
In 1985, it seems Alfred Junior Kettaneh (born 1937) went missing and was never heard from again, a victim of the kidnaps that were not unusual in Beirut in those days. One trace of Kettaneh that remains is a 3-minute Super-8mm film he made.
A loop of the film, entitled “Lasting Images” (2003), is nowadays playing on a television monitor at the Beirut Exhibition Center. As the film had been neglected, the clarity of the images had degraded, so the first minute of the film is an indistinct haze.
After a spell, discernable images momentarily emerge – a flash of mountainside, a crane mounted on a barge, sea waves. The picture fades again, to resolve upon two young couples, arrayed in mod outfits, hanging out on Beirut’s seaside Corniche. They seem oblivious at first, until one young fellow theatrically removes his jacket and tam-o’-shanter for the camera. Then the images again grow indistinct.
“Lasting Images” is part of “How Soon is Now?” – the solo exhibition of the Lebanese artist-filmmaking team Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, their first in their hometown. Though not a retrospective show, it still gives Beirut residents an opportunity to catch up with the artists’ formally restless, intellectually challenging oeuvre.
Much of the show consists of visual media ranging from c-print photographs and video to audio-visual installation. There are objects of an impressive girth.
Elevated atop a dais, the 555x295 cm handmade rug, “A Carpet” (2013), is the latest work to emerge from Joreige and Hadjithomas’ ongoing project “Lebanese Rocket Society: Elements for a Monument,” which has so far generated a bouquet of works in various media – several of them included in this show – and, later this year, a feature film.
“A Carpet” recreates on a monumental scale the commemorative 10-piastre stamp designed to honor the work of the Lebanese Rocket Society – a scientific organization active in the ’60s.
Nearby, the hall’s south wall is dominated by “The President’s Album” (2011), an installation comprised of 32 digital prints, 800x120 cm each, folded and mounted on wood. If unfurled, each of these 32 components would reproduce Al-Arz 4, the most sophisticated device that the LRS built and launched. Each discrete piece reveals a different stage of the rocket, so that to look at them from an oblique angle is to create the illusion of reassembling the thing.
The BEC’s space is expansive enough for an exhibition of these pieces, one that allows individual works to breathe while also allowing them to communicate with each other. Seen from a distance, “180 Seconds of Lasting Images” (2006), a 408x268 cm work comprised of 4,500 4x6 cm photograms, doesn’t look like much of anything. But as it is arrayed alongside “A Carpet,” it takes on rug-like motifs.
Individual exhibits also invite observers to interact with them. The limited-edition artist book “Latent Images/Diary of a Photographer” (2010) is the latest work to have grown from the artists’ collaboration with photographer Abdallah Farah – who at one point in the Civil War began to write descriptions of the things he’s shot on his rolls of film rather than actually develop the film into photos.
This 1,312-page tome is inconspicuously displayed alongside prints of some of his undeveloped film rolls (complete with descriptions). Sitting on a table, the book is flanked by a postcard exchange between Hadjithomas-Joreige and Farah explaining the origins of his photographic practice and a gilt letter-opener. Many of the book’s leaves have yet to be separated; the letter-opener stands as an invitation to do so, and participate in uncovering Abdallah’s work.
It appears one visitor took the generosity of the photographer’s diary too literally, when she stole two pieces of Alfred Junior Kettaneh’s film legacy.
The fact that the degraded medium of Kettaneh’s film is at times more present than its content makes “Lasting Images” a moving contemplation of the ephemeral nature of the recorded image, one whose beauty resides in the brevity of the recollection and the mundane nature of the recorded incident.
The piece is redolent with the tentative nature of memory itself, the fragility of the filmed image being a pervasive metaphor for memory, and – thanks to the sliver of biographical information the artists share about the original author of this seaside recollection – human frailty.
Mounted on the wall alongside “Lasting Images,” the 4,500 components of “180 Seconds of Lasting Images” represent hard copies of every individual frame of Kettaneh’s film.
The photos are arranged chronologically to form a large rectangle, with the frames from the visually indistinct start of the film providing a sort of frame for the work, while the visually vague final moments of the movie occupy the center. Between the edge and center of the rectangle, Kettaneh’s figures emerge ephemeral from the past.
This is an art of mimesis and – since the 2006 work abuts the 2004 film (which is itself both a rendering of an incident and the document that inspired the later work) – a transparent one.
This can be seen as a motif of “How Soon is Now?” Just as the two works derived from Kettaneh’s film sit alongside one another, so too is “A Carpet” enclosed by a series of photos and documents from the 1920s that recount the history of Lebanon’s one-and-only handmade carpet factory.
The factory was the off-shoot of an orphanage that housed 1,400 girls (refugees of the Armenian genocide), founded by a Swiss missionary and supported by an American aid agency. As an expression of thanks, the girls made 6x4-meter carpet for then-President Calvin Coolidge, which is said to still reside somewhere in the White House.
Among other things, the works in “How Soon is Now?” elaborate upon an interrogation of the image that has been evident in much of the artists’ previous work (most obviously their 2008 feature film “Je Veux Voir”) – both its strengths and shortcomings as a means of conveying information as well as its possibilities in making art.
Among the videos looping in the hall, for instance, is “Barmeh/Rounds” (2001) in which the artists’ sometime collaborator Rabih Mroue is captured from various angles as he drives about Beirut complaining about all the things he dislikes about what he sees. Naturally, the image has been toyed with in such a way that rather than scenes from Beirut, the viewer sees only a hostile glare.
Inadvertently “How Soon is Now?” may have also become a workshop for future work. The afternoon before the artists met to discuss the exhibition with this hack, it seems a young woman approached “180 Seconds of Lasting Images,” removed two of the 4x6 cm photos and took them home with her.
It may be interesting (if not surprising) to note that she purloined photos that bore relatively distinct images of the two seaside couples, rather than taking photos of film damage.
Though they don’t yet know the identity of the woman who so loved their work that she felt compelled to take pieces of it home with her, the artists say they know she’s a woman because her theft was digitally recorded. This raises the intriguing possibilities.
“The young lady ... can come at night and give back the pieces and it’ll be OK,” Hadjithomas smiled. “If not, she’ll be the victim of the next art work.”
Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s “How Soon is Now?” is up at the BEC until April 20.