LIFT: Laughter
Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) and the Bargehouse, London
June 7-13, 2004

The London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT) extended into the realm of the visual arts this past summer, showcasing a selection of Lebanese contemporary art works that spanned a breadth of mediums from performance to video in an ambitious exhibition entitled ‘Laughter.’

In its third year, Enquiry exists as a laboratory of sorts, exploring the potential for diversity within performance. This year, director Rose Fenton and co-director Lucy Neal chose to focus on art production from Lebanon, collaborating with curator Christine Tohme, who has managed to tie Beirut to the international arts scene through her association, Ashkal Alwan (the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts).

Importantly, the exhibiting artists’ works deal with the Lebanese civil war(s), both in direct and indirect fashion. The show comes at a time when Tohme notes the need to re-evaluate, and finally challenge prevailing perceptions of Lebanon — in the art world and beyond. Here, the notion of Laughter serves as an umbrella for the exhibition, likening the artists’ relationship to war and its aftermath (a debatable concept of finality) as a type of “ambiguous hysteria.” In this neighborhood, the past continues to infiltrate and inform the present.

Veteran videomaker Akram Zaatari’s piece Excavation (a thirty-minute video described by the artist as “a documentary piece on two channels”) maps the geography of fear that the residents of a remote house experience once they become aware that a piece of the past is buried in their garden. Zaatari also showed his latest work, This Day, a feature-length exploration of frontiers, geographical and metaphorical, through the use of photography and video. Zaatari’s point of departure was a series of old photographs from the desert plains of Syria. The impossibilities and ambiguities of representation embedded within those images extend themselves into his own relationship with the visual culture of Lebanon in and after the civil war.

Filmmaker-artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s approach was also a personal one. Their installation Lasting Images, an exploration of latency and loss, was built around the discovery of a seventeen-year-old, 8mm film of Joreige’s uncle Alfred Junior Kettaneh, who was kidnapped in 1985 during the war. The work was accompanied by an official text from the Lebanese government as to what constitutes a missing person. The inclusion of the latter was essential in avoiding a gushing sentimentality, while the project as a whole proved a stunning archaeological endeavor into histories present and hidden in nature.

But it was the Atlas Group’s sell-out lecture/performance My Neck is Thinner than a Hair, presented in collaboration with the Institute of International Visual Arts (inIVA), which was greeted with the greatest enthusiasm by both art critics and audiences alike. The quasi lecture/performance, headed by Atlas Group founder Walid Raad and developed with Lebanese artists and writers Tony Chakar and Bilal Khbeiz, was the result of a yearlong collaboration.

Installation and video artist Lamia Joreige’s video short Replay featured a woman who appeared to be running (or not), along with a man who kept falling as though dying (or not). Ambiguity abounded within this work as only a fine line distinguished dream from reality. In this case, Joreige’s defiance of any narrative structure seemed an extension of the ruptures so inextricably linked to war. Lina Saneh and Rabih Mroue’s fascination with the ambiguity of storytelling and the difficulty of gauging where fiction starts and stops inspired the hilarious one-woman show Biokhraphia, first screened as part of Ashkal Alwan’s Homeworks Forum in Beirut, 2002. The forty-five-minute play tackled issues of sexuality, censorship and beyond as constructions in and of themselves within contemporary Lebanon.

Mroue also presented Looking For a Missing Employee, a play in which he narrates his way visually through the case of a missing employee from Lebanon’s Ministry of Information. Although his innocent and sometimes humorous matter-of-fact narration affected neutrality, Mroue repeatedly manipulated audiences with his particular version of Truth. The latter performances in particular confirmed LIFT’s strong track record in promoting new theater forms, while the show as a whole existed as additional manifestation of a marked momentum — proof that Beirut is indeed in the midst of a novel, exciting arts movement