At the Edge of the World Lies the Ebb and Flow of Promise is an exhibition that features works curated by Laure d’Hauteville and Clémence Cottard Hachem that express the explorations of artists regarding the situation of their country since the explosion of August 4th – the trauma, the uncertainties, the paradoxes, and the claims of past and present… all are viewed through the lively lens of creative process, and revealed through these photographic images. This photographic oeuvre questions the concepts of the real, often through the use of illusions, which results in a mise en abyme of the medium. We are led through their process in the exhibition along the path of Fluid Geographies, over Temporal Bridges, to Songlines of Vision. Here we will have a chance to come together to see the world through the eyes of these artists, and cement the friendship and support our country and our department feel for the people of Lebanon.
The MMXX series came into being over the course of the confinements of 2020. Confronted with the need to quietly reappropriate a land to which he belonged, Paul Gorra wandered Mount Lebanon to question for himself the experience of the outdoors. On a quest to observe spaces and the luminous phenomena that traverse them, he captures “space-times” imbued with mythical presences and telluric manifestations. His shots bring reality and fantasy together into a square frame, opening portals onto other dimensions of space and perception, parallel worlds in which the timescales of non-human living creatures become visible. Sensitive to animist resonances, Gorra awakens the genies of these places. His images reinvent sleeping legends and question their future.
The continuous presence of water creates a common thread that is both geographical and poetic. It accentuates the geological characteristics of landscapes, the environmental problematics and the mythological echoes that lend their name to things. There, from a point from which everything is announced from the axis of a vertiginous height, Gorra witnesses the world as if it had emerged for the first time. His sensitive approach reminds us that, within the intimacy of a glance laid upon her, the Earth is also watching us.
Rami el Sabbagh
“This catastrophe that inevitably repeats itself each day is a reminder of all the catastrophes that have come to us from the sea, as well as those which we throw back into it.” — Rami el Sabbagh
Once the catastrophic nature of a daily event is revealed, what repercussions unfold on the plane of the real? How does a recorded event, torn from the outside continuum, incite the formulation of new narrative territories? Astrological phenomena and their composite elements are presented each day in a series of luminous manifestations that follow an inevitable cyclical rhythm. The obverse of an esthetic contemplation appealing to a sense of plenitude, here the sunset is filmed as if it were a disaster unfolding. The use of film as a medium, and the revelation it engenders, open up new territories in terms of perception and emotional impulses. Facing west, from the rocks that outline the limits between land and sea, the fixed camera peers beyond the sea at this state of the world, at the precise moment when this luminous event lights the city on fire. El Sabbagh seeks to confront what is imperceptible to the naked eye – a shock of fear and the unspeakable sense of a violence that constantly returns.
Thus, the sunset is depicted as the catastrophic sequence of events that it is, one which penetrates and marks the very depths of one’s gaze. A perceptible reversal takes place. The real – out of control and disjointed – is crystallised and crackles with a radiation made up of a thousand folds, a thousand ravaged skins, one that translates the reverse of superimposed realities, and where the surface of the visible flows.
Laetitia Hakim & Tarek Haddad
Without a doubt, migration and emigration is the greatest constant in Lebanon, and it is an integral part of Lebanon’s history and identity. It is experienced as a latent violence, it has a major impact on the country’s economy, diversity and social and cultural resources. It touches each family’s hopes, aspirations and tragedies. A Stretch of Water by young photographers Laetitia Hakim and Tarek Haddad consists of a view of the horizon of the Mediterranean Sea. This image is printed on a fabric which is mounted and stretched to its breaking point; a point of rupture, transparency, and disappearance. This minimal and meditative piece makes use of a photographic and sculptural writing in order to poetically evoke, on the one part, the physical distance imposed by the pandemic, and, on the other, the key events and tensions that fuel the crisis experienced by the Lebanese population. The water is simultaneously perceived as a possible starting point and as a limit that constrains. Despite its contemplative allusion to the serenity of the horizon, in its material state, the work is undergoing constant tension and one wonders if, once it is released, it can return to its original state. In that sense, A Stretch of Water explores the breaking point of a society, as well as its point of no return. Faced with the extent of the tragedies that we continue to experience; we are left with one question: just how far can we stretch the sea?
Lara Tabet’s work The River examines the bed of the Beirut River on a microscopic level. It is the only water that flows through Beirut and runs east to west, delineating the contours of the city. In 1968, its bed was entirely walled up and cemented over four kilometers. Over the course of the years it has become a open sewer, attesting to the critical situation of water management in the country. The river also symbolises the failings and corruption of the Lebanese government in terms of waste management, which even led to a civic uprising, the “Garbage Crisis,” in 2015. Here, Tabet uses colour photography film (120 mm format) as a medium and incubator where microorganisms collected in the water from the river bed are cultivated. The water samples have been isolated on a growing medium for bacteria, then reintroduced into the layers of gelatin silver and cellulose that make up the film. The result is an alteration of the photosensitive emulsions that react with the chemical and bacteriological composites present in the water. The photographic film becomes both an oneiric chemigram and a bacteriological sample that measures and marks the level and scale of contamination of the river.
Joanna Andraos is a psychoanalyst and photographer who explores the spheres of the intimate and the collective, the narration of affects and their representations. A Review of Grief is a series that examines the mechanisms of speech, listening and communal emotions that are expressed during sessions of psychoanalysis. This exploration takes the form of a journal that is simultaneously that of a photographer and an analyst. Andraos transposes and retraces the emotional dynamics of the psyche against the backdrop of a non-chronological flow. She recomposes page after page of narratives, weaving links, weighing words, gathering threads and forms of suffering. Through a chain of free associations, she questions the ways in which memories, perceptions and emotions take shape. The cycles of water appear as an implicit metaphor for psychic, conscious and unconscious movements.
At the same time, Andraos collects, preserves, embeds and photographs the tear-soaked tissues of her patients. As a result, they become depositaries of emotions, a medium that retains sensory inscriptions and recordings etched in salty fluids. Their enlargement engenders a perceptive destabilisation from which a game of visual and tactical ambivalences is enacted. From that point on, the eye perceives chimerical anatomies, shrouds, baroque draperies or clouds. The artistic and photographic processes at work here bring to mind how lives fit together and the limitations of words.
Beirut, Recurring Dream is constructed around different temporalities as an homage to the city of Beirut, a city of eternal wounds, whose destructions and reconstructions seem to define its very identity. Using images from a family archive paired with shots taken after the explosion of August 4, 2020 in the city’s port, Tanya Traboulsi constructs a series of narrative loops. These real and imaginary recurring cycles that fill personal dreams and collective memories recount moments of joy in a time of war, daily life amidst destruction. The breaches opened through recordings of films and photographs suspend and envelop us in a world where one must see, listen, taste, sense and love differently. In Beirut, beauty and suffering, joy and chaos exist side by side. For many of its inhabitants, this city is akin to someone you loved, then hated, then fell in love with all over again. She gives as much as she takes, continuously coming and going, over and over again.
Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige
Since 2016, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige explore archaeological and geological core samples taken from under cities like Beirut, Athens or Paris. They reveal the constant cycles of construction and destruction, disasters and regeneration throughout eras and civilisations. The Unconformities project is a geological term, referring to the temporal ruptures, discontinuities, and hiatuses that question the possible narratives and erratic representations of history. The three pieces that constitute A State are a new stage in this research. The work focuses on very specific core samples from an enormous landfill in Tripoli, the second largest city in Lebanon. This landfill, located on the shores of the sea, exposed to the elements, has been a place where waste has been dumped over a period of twenty-five years, an entire generation. This sedimentation has radically changed the local landscape. Today it forms hills as high as forty-five meters above sea level. The photographic compositions are made up of the superposition of hundreds of images, creating a hyperrealistic effect. These pictorial still-lives become increasingly defined as the organic materials disintegrate and slowly disappear, giving way to abstraction. All that remains are the techno-fossils, all we ultimately leave behind.
Valérie Cachard & Gregory Buchakjian
From 2012 to 2015, Valérie Cachard and Gregory Buchakjian assembled a collection of documents and objects discovered in the abandoned buildings of Beirut. In Lot 335, they discovered a datebook from 1979. Like a schoolboy’s notebook, it included notes on the handling of explosives. This “notebook of military engineering” was written by a soldier who had done a tour in the Soviet Union to learn his craft. The agenda is an archaeological vestige linked to a period of upheaval in the history of Lebanon. The artists describe it as a “latent object of war.” Currently inactive, it can be “reactivated” at any moment, much like the mines and munitions that have remained buried in past and present areas of conflict. Apart from its military content, page after page combines to create a truly strange temporal telescoping effect. It is as if one might find all the past and present histories of Lebanon within these pages. Through the lens of this one year, we glimpse forty-five years of violent events that mingle and are superimposed within a series of chronological, graphic and visual correlations and resonances. The Agenda has now become one of those strange objects, a disturbing repository and living manual, imbued with a sort of clairvoyance, in which one can perceive occult presages of violence and terror.
In the minutes that followed the explosion on August 4, 2020, before he understood the magnitude of the disaster, Roger Moukarzel took to the streets. Faced with the immensity of the tragedy, this former war photographer was unable to take any pictures – nothing around him was comparable to what he had experienced and witnessed before that point. In a few seconds, an entire city and its inhabitants were hit with a blast of such violence that it surpassed anything they had suffered in fifteen years of civil war. Pieces is a series produced several weeks after the explosion. Moved by the desire to pay tribute to the victims, Moukarzel gathered debris made of objects and bits of shattered buildings found on the ground or amongst the wreckage. Perhaps these relics express more than any image possibly could. Shards of glass embedded in bodies wounded and killed, yet, at night, they could glitter like a million stars. Even today, there remain several little vestiges of that event that continually appear in homes. Documenting them in systematic, clinical ways removes them from all context, and upends our perspective. These objects from the ruins are transformed into pebbles of dreams, image-objects from which emerge curious pareidolia. As if called forth from these artifacts, a variety of chimeras take shape – landscapes and their horizons, a map of Beirut, or the silhouette of a ship.
Songlines of Vision
Through an intimate consciousness of the passage of time, the series Inner Lives – Previous Lives explores the constant metamorphosis of a landscape, its visible and invisible aspects. This landscape offers the view from a window looking out over the Gemmayzeh quarter of Beirut, where Caroline Tabet lived from 2017 to 2020. These views of an uncertain, floating world open up spaces of possible representations where the last signs of the real merge then disappear. Photography records the imprint of the visible then plumbs into the depths of the image and its reverse. Moments of poetry or agony are revealed, along with fantastical landscapes, and sensitive experiences. They are the reflections of questionings on collapse and the dynamics of a psyche faced with the difficulty of capturing an outdoors that one knows is under constant threat. The act of the transferal and alteration of the photosensitive layer appears as the deep intuition of a drama that would happen and would devastate the city of Beirut. What is incarnated here is the call of the substance of lived realities, similar to fragile skins. In a return upon oneself, one that reinvents a past in order to better heal the future, these images become places in which to wander, where memories and hopes mingle amidst a suggestive magic that carries along life and, ultimately, saves it.
Paysages Exquis – Choses Vues (“Exquisite Landscapes – Seen Things”) is a work begun in 2016 that constructs a portrait of incompleteness. These studies, compiled into what the artist calls a “Catalogue-Atlas”, explore the notion of landscape, the mechanisms of chronicling, and with them, the experience of perception itself. Possessed of a frenetic obsession and a firmly intuitive approach, Nasri Sayegh collects images and objects which he takes apart and reassembles to create talismans. These primary entities, transmuted into fetishes, emanate aspects of landscapes, of visions that are never tranquil, and to which the searchings of souls are confided. The chinks and fractures in which the discrepancies of the representation are lodged become the echoes of lives lived: joy, anger, sadness, all come together to constitute an autobiographical counter-relief. In these orchestrated views, everything intermingles or is torn apart. Sky and earth infect each other, and are wrecked at the heart of these photomontages in which the artist appends, displaces and plays with formal and artistic values. From the depths of his wondrous atlas, Sayegh forges a topography of pain and desire, crystallising phenomena and elemental forces, dissecting the events of history, reinventing myths, fantasies and territories. In a search for the grain of the photo, those tender and luminous deposits that constitute the flesh and bone of a photographic image, Sayegh opens up the scale of the real to gather the undertow and the manifestations that create the stories of the seas, the mountains and the valleys. Here and there, liminal presences and enigmatic stelae appear to trouble the spectacle of the visible. These “Exquisite Landscapes” perceive the line of the horizon as a breaking point, a suture as an expanse. A geography in which the theatre of dizzying prospects is at play emerges from the cauterized image of the embroidery. It constitutes a “vision-landscape” that listens and can stand the test of the songs and silences of the world.
The series Toufican Zombies? and The Earth Is Like a Child That Knows Poems by Heart should be read like two parts of the same reflection on human and social conditions in Lebanon. It requires a bit of time and study to fully understand the macabre and charred figures of Gilbert Hage’s zombies. Blind faces that appear and disappear, these clay masks whose appearance is halfway between that of a human face and the decay of the material are portraits of a nightmarish condition. Here, on the threshold of the utterable and the visible, the photographer composes a chilling vision of the sufferings of mute shadows. The zombie is not dead – soulless, he wanders at the heart of darkness into which our gaze plunges. Hage asks questions: What do we see? What does the photographer provide for us to see? Through a language that sublimates a disturbing strangeness, the artist reveals silent and solemn presences. In that regard, the wild tulips form a lyrical phrase that translates both the fragility and strength of beauty. Nature seems to be posing in all its nakedness, in apparent serenity. These flowers that emerge from bulbs pressed into the earth grow with endurance, making their way between rocks, blooming along steep slopes. Despite the harshness of the terrain, each year they appear as harbingers of renewal and spring, a ballet of wistful flowers on slender stems, evoking a sense of tenderness tinged with sadness. In the face of the ghostly colours and poetry of this land, the artist reminds us that, “we did not die this winter, we continue to emerge from an enforced slumber.”
The Death of the Cedar is part of the Sentinels series Jack Dabaghian has been working on since 2018. Created in a darkroom according to the wet collodion technique, which dates back to the end of the 19th century, this series documents the last of these remarkable trees, the cedars of Lebanon, and the lands in which they grow. Centennial cedars, oaks, and juniper trees are the last witnesses of a time when the Lebanese mountain ranges and their mythological echoes possessed a power of fascination based on both Romanticism and fear. This project is an environmental plea to raise awareness about the fragility and imminent disappearance of these ecosystems. It also explores photography’s infinite capacity to vary perspectives, and the poetic force inspired by the serendipity of physical and chemical reactions. The cedar of Lebanon, associated with strength and eternity, is also the symbol of the country. Here it portrays the fragility of a society, and its slow death. This dead cedar, which is still standing at the entrance of the nature reserve at Maasser El Chouf, watches over the place whose memory it carries. The triptych portraying this tree presents it on its side, lending it the aspect of a floating entity. The wet collodion coating reveals the deepest substance of the photographic medium, and with it, the last echoes of life. Playing off of the pictorial tradition of the still life and memento mori, Dabaghian offers us a Dante-esque vision of the country’s future.
The exhibition is on view until the 6th of November, 2022.