Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, Faces, galerie Leonard & Bina Ellen, 2009.
photo : Paul Litherland, © Joreige/Hadjithomas, permission | courtesy galerie Leonard & Bina Ellen, Montréal

The evocative title of the exhibition I’m There Even If You Don’t See Me1 1 - The exhibition was curated by Michèle Thériault, director of the Leonard & Bina Ellen Gallery, where it was presented from September 1 to October 10, 2009. suggests a multitude of psychological states almost gothic in range: ­sadness, nostalgia, persistence, but also anger, bitterness, even ­resentment. Featuring photographic, video, and installation works by the Lebanese documentary filmmaker and artist duo Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, I’m There Even If You Don’t See Me stems from their ­experiences of Lebanon’s complex history of wars, and the ongoing ramifications on its citizens, landscape, and collective consciousness. And yet, despite this undercurrent of affect running through Hadjithomas’ and Joreige’s art practice, their works do not aim for an emotional catharsis, whether for themselves or viewers. Refusing simplistic renderings of their ­sensitive subject matter, Hadjithomas and Joreige navigate larger surrounding issues to create works that are contemplative rather than sentimental; philosophical instead of prescriptive; engagé but not polemical.

Lasting Images (2003) crystallizes effectively Hadjithomas’ and Joreige’s modus operandi. Itconsists of a projection of film footage (­transferred to video) taken directly from a found home movie that, due to poor storage conditions, resulted in the overexposure of the film stock. The original content has been consequently almost entirely abstracted into dancing spots and scratches on a bleached out background. In the middle of this short sequence, a few faint figures briefly emerge. A jolly party of friends or family: footage shot from a moving boat, bohemian figures in jeans and berets, laughing and gesturing towards the camera. A short text at the end explains that the film belonged to a relative — one Alfred Junior Kettach — who was kidnapped during the Lebanese civil war and missing ever since. Is he one of the youthful group pictured, or is he behind the camera, his presence felt only in its positioning? The lack of sound combined with the erasure of most of the film, leaves only the fleeting apparition of ghostly figures — Barthes’s punctum — highlighting the loss of the family member in question, and others like him. Beyond the clearly elegiac thrust to this work (what could be read as a kind of futile attempt to evoke the dead), Lasting Images underscores how entire lives have been literally razed from a country’s official history, and to the importance of bearing moral witness so that Alfred and others who have suffered the same fate are not forgotten. 

Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, 180 Seconds of Lasting Images, 2006.
photos : Paul Smith, © Joreige/Hadjithomas, permission | courtesy galerie Leonard & Bina Ellen, Montréal

180 Seconds of Lasting Images (2006), a kind of companion piece to Lasting Images, re-articulates this nostalgia for Alfred Junior Kettach, declared officially dead though his body never found. Here, each one of the three-minute-long film’s frames (over 4,000 of them) are printed out and made into a massive mosaic-like mural. The fragile materiality of the footage in its printed, fragmented form moves the viewer to imagine the artists doggedly scouring each of the hundreds of images just one more time for fresh traces of this lost life, an act coloured by the intellectual understanding that this act can never bring back the loved one, in tandem with the overwhelming need to do it all the same. The necessity and achievability of “findingclosure” and “letting go” are ubiquitous beliefs within North American society nourished on self-help books. Hadjithomas and Joreige suggest that some events are so traumatic, so unnatural, so wrong that “moving on” is impossible and, within certain contexts, perhaps immoral. In these two works, the past is never a closed book; to turn the page, not an option. The writing of history is thus revealed here as, necessarily, a process of continuous research, re-examination, and re-actualization.

Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, Circle of Confusion, galerie Leonard & Bina Ellen, 2010.
photo : Paul Smith, © Joreige/Hadjithomas, permission | courtesy galerie Leonard & Bina Ellen, Montréal

The installation Circle of Confusion (1997) displays a wall-sized photograph fragmented into hundreds of small rectangles. Affixed with Velcro to a looming mirrored wall, they picture an aerial view of the city of Beirut. A small wall text invites visitors to select a piece to take with them or to place elsewhere on the map. Each photographic fragment is stamped at the back with the cryptic statement, “Beirut does not exist,” printed in Arabic and English. Chunks are missing from this overhead view of the city, leaving uneven patches of silver mirror reflecting, in fractured glimpses, gallery-goers and their surroundings. With this work, Hadjithomas and Joreige underscore the importance of rebuilding and preserving Beirut (making Beirut exist), an almost mythic city once romantically known as “the Paris of the Middle East,” but whose architectural foundations and façades now have been radically damaged or destroyed by bombings and other acts of warfare. At the same time, the artists pose the question as to what a working history of Beirut could look like given the multitude of individual lived experiences and perspectives brushing up against each other within this city. It is interesting to note that even as Hadjithomas and Joreige reject hegemonic versions of history, calling instead for nuanced, multifaceted ones, there emerges nonetheless a kind of nostalgia for the apparent authority and coherence of the very monolithic representations they critique, suggesting that history-with-an-uppercase-H — a country’s “historic capital” — might be a luxury unavailable to those living in an environment of civil instability. 

The idea of history as something to be continuously reworked is explored again in Faces (2009), a photographic series of posters of men martyred by the war or murdered political figures. The posters are shown as found on city walls in varying states of degradation: peeling, ripped, weather-worn and pollution-covered, unceremoniously veiled by advertisements and announcements. With the aid of professional illustrators, Hadjithomas and Joreige have teased out the unknown individual’s features, the stages of which are shown over two or three photographs. Through a process that is almost archaeological, faces are brought to the fore as if from out of a fog. A few of the postered faces are photographed simply as is: what remained of them was apparently insufficient for the re-imagining and reconstruction of their faces. The viewer becomes aware that what is presented in this series is but a potential version of each subject’s identity; after all, another illustrator might have created something different. In addition to highlighting the impossibilities of writing definitive histories, Faces offers up an open-ended reflection on what may be the ultimate futility of these men’s respective deaths: will these individuals be remembered by future generations within a culture of war that has already bred a long chain of martyrs and murders?

In one of the exhibition’s most forceful works Khiam 2000-2007 (1999-2007), two documentary videos are presented side by side on a pair of television screens. They feature talking-head interviews with six former detainees of the Israeli Khiam prison camp2 2 - The prison was closed down in 2000 when Israel withdrew from Lebanon, and ­subsequently remade into a museum about the prison until the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 2006, when it was completely destroyed. in Southern Lebanon. As the title indicates, the videos were made seven years apart with the same interviewees. In the first video, they speak of various aspects of their daily lives with a kind of nostalgia, not for the confinement or the brutally harsh conditions of prison life, but for the psychological intensity of existence it engendered, and the sense of solidarity experienced with their fellow detainees. Listening to them speak, one realizes with shock that paradoxically these former prisoners perhaps had never lived with as much heightened awareness as when they were in confinement — theirs was not the “unexamined life.”

Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, Khiam 2000-2007 (image fixe | still image), 1999-2007.
photo : © Joreige/Hadjithomas

The prisoners’ ingenuity in these dire conditions is astonishing. The results are an arte povera of sorts: pencils made from a piece of cheese’s foil encasing, jewellery whittled from fruit pips, and so on. They also learn texts by heart, teach each other French, embark on exercise regimes. Their objects and efforts impress us because they manifest their ­respective desires to maintain, at least by approximation, a sense of day-to-day stability, normalcy, and order, but also to grow and better themselves as human beings. Their imaginations explode under these circumstances. One man speaks ruefully of the relationship he imagined with a certain woman on the outside, and his very real surprise to subsequently ­discover she had married another. Dreams take on new importance and are avidly discussed between the inmates. A woman recalls wistfully how, “We’d look at a crack in the walls and dream.” Time is marked differently: for one prisoner, watching a fig tree grow through a small gap in the prison wall becomes no less than a major existential narrative. Their ­creativity, their need for self-expression and communication with others, and their yearning to keep living fully even while imprisoned, function as acts of resistance, but also reveal the very essence of what it means
to be human.

In the latter video, the speakers discuss how and whether to preserve this history of the camp. Should a museum be rebuilt in its place? Would the camp be re-created? What would be presented within? While one man proposes a site that presents photo documentation of the camp with didactic texts, a woman declares with conviction, “The camp is here in me. It hasn’t been pulled out,” suggesting that her experiences are too personal ever to be satisfactorily represented in any kind of museum ­setting. Another insists that visuals are not always the best aide-mémoire. “Memories, imagination are stronger than the image,” she ruminates, admitting however that because there is no memorial that pays witness to this camp and its history, discussion about it is like “speaking in a vacuum.” Others simply want to forget. Khiam 2000-2007 powerfully reveals the many dilemmas surrounding the construction of memorializing institutions and the preservation of sites of trauma whose aims might be concomitantly to honour these prisoners and their survival, but also to document the prison as a historical fact. The work locates the difficulties of responding to the infinitely complex emotional and psychological personal needs of the survivors, while fulfilling the responsibilities that exist on a more public scale — the archival, the commemorative, the educational.

Hadjithomas and Joreige are confronted with a profound predicament, namely: how does one represent collective trauma? Is it an essentially impossible task? Faced with the devastating understanding that the people, places, or the past that make up their subject matter are often irretrievable except through personal memory or public memorializing (bringing what might be lost or forgotten to the fore), Hadjithomas and Joreige are equally aware that these acts, though important and necessary, may feel nonetheless frustratingly inadequate or incomplete for all those directly or indirectly implicated. In this way, they do not aim to provide easy answers or promote black-and-white perspectives on the political questions at hand, choosing to talk through and aroundand across (as opposed to merely about) their subject matter. If post-modernist thought has notoriously engendered artworks that are predictably decentred and deconstructed, the overarching sense of fragmentation present in the works of I’m There Even If You Don’t See Me is anything but routine. Rather, it is symptomatic of the fact that the political conflict, civil unrest, and the traumatic effects of war with which they engage in their work are not a fact of the past but still very much playing out in media res. Hadjithomas and Joreige opt thus to tease out the many complex issues surrounding the preservation, commemoration, and writing of a nation’s history — literally a work-in-progress within such a context — while ­highlighting the importance of including a diversity of individual experiences in such a project. The hauntingly mysterious first-person subject of I’m There Even If You Don’t See Me is thus multiplied to include all those whose voices and stories are as yet unheard — though still very much present — in Beirut or beyond.

This article also appears in the issue 70 - Miniature

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