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French Version

Exploring the many meanings of hadith

Latest exhibition at Galerie Sfeir-Semler tackles the art of conversation

A South African industrialist stands on a beach to confront a vision of himself as a young boy. A series of 16 photographs serve as the sole traces left behind by a young photographer who disappears the night her apartment is consumed by fire. A young woman in a contemporary Cairene coffee shop repeats a monologue filmed over 30 years ago by Youssef Chahine.

A lone male hustler in San Fernando, California, lies in bed facing an illuminated poster of a hunky pin-up boy. The relationship between a mother and daughter unfolds in an exchange of letters tethered to the documents of a disruptive conversation.

Each of the works installed for the latest exhibition at Galerie Sfeir-Semler in Karantina involves an element of exchange, whether of words, images, artworks or ideas. Each of the nine artists on view engages in a kind of dialogue, whether with viewers, collaborators, predecessors or themselves.

Galerie Sfeir-Semler opened in Beirut almost a year ago. After 20 years running a top-notch blue-chip contemporary gallery for minimal and conceptual art in Hamburg, owner Andree Sfeir-Semler decided she wanted to expand her business and return to the city she left behind in 1975.

She took over a 1,000-square-meter postindustrial space and opened with an auspicious group show called "Flight 405: The Beirut Project," including photographs by Walid Raad and the Atlas Group, a video by Akram Zaatari, an installation with videos and drawings by Amal Kenawy and more.

After that first show, which had all the attitude of a strong arrival, Sfeir-Semler set out to organize an exhibition of paintings. Because her gallery relishes a daring blend of east and west, and because painting has been prominent in regional cultural production since the 19th century (most commercial art galleries in Beirut, Cairo and Amman, for example, subsist on paintings alone), Sfeir-Semler thought she'd have an easy time of it.

But putting together a lineup of regional painters strong and contemporary enough to match the works of her gallery artists in Europe proved to be tough. "Rainbow," as the exhibition was called, succeeded best in its ability to stretch definitions of paintings so wide as to include wall works by Sol LeWitt, digital images by Setareh Shahbazi and animations by Laleh Khorramian and Shahzia Sikander.

So for her third outing, Sfeir-Semler decided not to impose a structure first and find the works second but rather to let an idea percolate up and form from the works themselves.

"The idea for this show," she says, "is inspired by a specific cultural tradition in the Arab world, where art [has been] based [for] centuries on words, on storytelling and not on pictorial figurative images."

That idea developed into "Hadith," on view through April 22. The exhibition takes its name from the word in Arabic used to refer not only to the sayings of the Prophet Mohammad but also to suggest conversation, the act of speaking, narrative, idle chatter and rumor. The root of the same word is used to indicate that which is new, novel and innovative as well.

Appropriately enough, "Hadith" includes recent works by an impressive roster of internationally acclaimed artists, such as American photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia, South African animation artist William Kentridge (the subject of about one major museum retrospective a year and the winner of the Carnegie International Prize, among others), French photographer and performance artist Sophie Calle (who averages about three solo shows a year) and Beirut-born, London-based video artist and sculptor Mona Hatoum (who has clocked in nearly 50 solo exhibitions worldwide since the mid-1980s and won the George Maciunas and Sonning Prizes, among others).

Perhaps the one work that nails the theme head-on is Moataz Nasr's double-barreled video from 2003, "The Echo." The piece revisits footage from Youssef Chahine's 1969 film "Al-Ard," based on Abdel Rahman al-Sharkawi's novel of the same name, in which the character Abou Swelam berates an audience of male colleagues for their complacency in the face of British occupation and economic depression circa 1933.

Paired with this scene is contemporary footage of Egyptian storyteller Chirine al-Ansary restaging Swelam's speech in a Cairo coffee shop populated mostly by glum looking men. As Ansary slams her audience for slapping their faces like women, the entire gender dynamic of the original scene is reversed. Present is in dialogue with past, women with men, yet the words remain the same.

Less concerned with words than with actions, Sophie Calle has a selection of works on view that illustrate various elements of her unusual and highly performative art practice.

Calle has become well-known for works that involve following people, tailing them and investigating their lives like a detective, spy, stalker and voyeur. Her presentation here - text and photographs from "Une Jeune Femme Disparait," the tiny installations "Le De" and "The Dice" and the artist's book "Los Angeles" - doesn't quite do justice to her work, but offers a few hints of her brilliance.

Taking the notion of conversation in another direction entirely, Beirut-based artist Rabih Mroue has created a striking installation of multi-layered light boxes, photographs and videos. Appropriating pieces by Yves Klein, Bruce Nauman, Walid Raad and even himself (from an older video piece called "With Soul With Blood" which he has cut down from nine minutes to three), Mroue is engaged in a dialogue with his predecessors, paying homage to his influences as well as embracing the history of Western performance art as his own. Insisting on a certain degree of interactivity (get up on that step stool), Mroue's installation is intellectually probing and the most fun of all the works on view.

Also deeply engaging and worth multiple viewings is Mona Hatoum's groundbreaking 15-minute video, "Measures of Distance," from 1988. The visual mesh of Hatoum's work consists of old color photographs taken of her mother in the shower in Beirut in 1981. Laid over those pictures, which are washed in their own warm glow of blue and pink, is the handwritten text of letters that Hatoum's mother sent her from Beirut to London.

The sound of the film is similarly meshed. Hatoum narrates her mother's letters, translated in English. Beneath that, one can hear the original conversation in Arabic that took place while Hatoum was taking pictures of her mom. The primary narration and secondary conversation fade in and out, occasionally intersecting when the letters refer directly back to that day.

Hauntingly strange and strangely beautiful, "Measures of Distance" is the kind of work that creeps up on viewers. The meaning of the title multiplies with each epistolary missive. Watching the entire piece loop a few times twists every word with new meaning. And there is a lot going on - femininity, masculinity, sexuality, exile, dislocation, Lebanon, Palestine, London, the politics of losing one's land while holding tight to one's identity, maternal intimacy and the competition and camaraderie that arises among women, relations between mothers and daughters, between fathers and daughters and the complex triangulation that lurks in between them.

William Kentridge's "Tide Table" is another creeper. Although he was virtually unknown outside South Africa until the mid-1990s, Kentridge has since become one of the most important contemporary artists working today. Often compared to Goya and Max Beckmann, he works primarily in what he calls "stone-age animation." He draws with charcoal on paper, rendering each movement in a given sequence by repeatedly smudging, erasing and blending his lines. He records each change with an old Bolex camera. Each of his films involves between 20 and 40 separate drawings.

Kentridge's best-known films are from the series "Drawings for Projection," an episodic saga featuring four main characters - Soho Eckstein, a white South African industrialist in a pinstripe suit; his wife, Mrs. Eckstein, who leaves him for an affair with his alter ego, Felix Tietlebaum; Tietlebaum, an artist and dreamer who is always naked and, like Eckstein, bears a strong resemblance to the artist; and Nandi, a black South African woman who enters the narrative in later films as a cartographer who has come to survey the physical and psychological wreckage left on the country's landscape by the apartheid era.

"Tide Table" reprises the character of Soho Eckstein, who is seen sitting on a beach, reading the business pages of a newspaper. As in all Kentridge's films, one scene dissolves into another as if in a dream, which makes for mesmerizing viewing. The pages of Eckstein's newspaper blow away and become the stones on which a woman walks. The balcony of a nearby hotel morphs into an authoritarian structure replete with decorated military officers monitoring activity along the coastline. A herd of cattle washes up in the surf and decomposes into bones. A group of black women hold a full immersion baptism ritual and disappear. "Tide Table" touches on the politics of race, apartheid, and the devastation of the AIDS epidemic in South Africa. But Kentridge leaves those subjects as suggestions only. It is up to viewers to fill in the gaps and make the connections. That is perhaps the best definition of conversation at work in this show overall.

"Hadith" is on view at Galerie Sfeir-Semler inKarantina through April 22. For information, call +961 1 556550

Beirut 01-02-2006
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie
The Daily Star

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