Akram Zaatari's excavations of Lebanon's past explore its forgotten relics and contested zones - and trace an untold history of violence and resistance, writes Kaelen Wilson-Goldie. Nobody lives in Shebaa Farms these days. This tiny slice of mountainous terrain, wedged between Lebanon and Syria and occupied by Israel since 1967, has been emptied of inhabitants for more than 40 years. Israel contends that the area is part of the Golan Heights and belongs, therefore, to Syria. But Lebanon also claims ownership over Shebaa Farms, and Hizbollah uses it as a pretext for retaining its weapons, maintaining that Israel's withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000 is incomplete, which gives the resistance a reason for being. But for now nobody except for Israeli soldiers can get into Shebaa Farms. The territory, drained of human dramas and the details of everyday life, is a blank space, something to be imagined and conjured rather than experienced firsthand. And yet Shebaa Farms is bandied about all the time in Lebanon, in the local press, on television chat shows and in mundane corner-shop conversations. For some, it is a linchpin, the key that will ensure a certain future and allow the last great dream of liberation to be realised. For others, it is a lousy, insignificant scrap of land that has been turned into a grand conceit, a fabrication and a fiction that only serves to distract and delay the resolution of conflicts that could be dealt with today. In either case, Shebaa Farms has come to suggest an almost mythical terrain, absent and present at once - so far, yet so close. Shebaa Farms is nowhere to be seen in the Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari's latest exhibition, "Earth of Endless Secrets", a major mid-career survey on view at Galerie Sfeir-Semler and the Beirut Art Center. But it is everywhere hinted at and alluded to. Lush, large-format photographs depict the landscape that leads to - but does not enter - the territory. One image features a huge blue sign reading "Welcome to Shebaa", marking the entrance to the village of that name, which is located a few kilometres north-east of the farms.
The video Tabiaah Samitah (Nature Morte) lingers on the edge of Hubbariyeh, another village situated a stone's throw from Shebaa Farms. The piece is gorgeously shot and visually austere. It traces only the skeletal outline of a story. But it creates an atmosphere full of mystery and foreboding, ending with an ominous suggestion of violence in the contested territory that lies just beyond our line of sight. For the past two years, Zaatari has been conducting interviews with people who were born in Shebaa Farms but left the area in the 1960s. He has been collecting their stories and gathering their photographs, records, keepsakes and mementoes. Some of the material is personal, shedding light on the lives that farmers and shepherds led half a century ago. Some of it is more political, delving into the secret history of Shebaa Farms as a site where the resistance began, and where it may end.
For Zaatari, Shebaa Farms is only the latest in a long line of other research projects on territorial conflicts: about spaces and eras that elude representation and produce meaning from mnemonic material. But given the political currency of the topic, and the aesthetic form Zaatari has found to engage it, the images and videos perfectly encapsulate how he works, why his art matters and what it says - or how it explores what can be said - about living through times of invasion, occupation, resistance and withdrawal.
"Earth of Endless Secrets", which first opened at a museum in Munich before travelling to Beirut, is a meticulous and exhaustive re-ordering of almost everything Zaatari has done in the last 15 years. It divides more than 150 works into five chapters, each organised around a single video and supported by a slew of photographs, texts and other printed matter. Accompanied by a month-long series of video screenings and a string of related events at the French Cultural Center and the art-house cinema Metropolis, it is the largest exhibition for a living artist to take place in Beirut in the last 20 years. It is also the only exhibition staged for the benefit of a local audience to present the work of an artist from Lebanon's so-called post-war generation in such a comprehensive way. Zaatari is one of the most prodigious talents of that generation, and he is one of the most active participants in Beirut's contemporary art scene. His work has been so present in pivotal exhibitions, forums and festivals, and he has been involved in so many independent organisations and initiatives and projects, that it is difficult to imagine Lebanon's current artistic landscape without him.
The five chapters of the show illuminate the stories of several men whom Zaatari has known, interviewed and befriended over the course of many years. These men joined the Lebanese resistance movement against Israel when they were teenagers - when the reigning ideologies of the day leaned to the left. The works on view trace the experiences of these men through occupation, displacement and incarceration, to the uneasy junctures in their lives where they must change affiliation, find another career or retire. As poetic as they are political, Zaatari's works dig far below the usual rhetoric of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the hard shell of newspeak and propaganda on both sides, to consider the most intimate ramifications of devoting one's life to a cause.
One evening in September, I ran into Zaatari at the Beirut Art Center, before a screening he had arranged for Johan Grimonprez's uproarious film Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, an experimental documentary about the rise and fall of hijacking spliced with disco and Don DeLillo's novel Mao II. Zaatari had taken the summer off, and as I arrived, he was explaining to a fellow artist that he was still nominally on vacation "except for meeting with these guys," he said, meaning me, and a handful of other journalists in the room. Zaatari has an exceptionally strong rapport with the local press corps, in part because journalists often appear as characters in his videos, and he has a long-standing interest in the kind of work that reporters do - conducting interviews, collecting documents, structuring narratives from a wealth of factual materials. By my count, I have interviewed Zaatari 12 times in six years. He is that prolific, and his work is both broad and deep enough that each conversation has delved into a dramatically different aspect of his art. In the vernacular of contemporary art, Zaatari is a post-studio artist, meaning that his tools are largely digital, and he doesn't need a grand space in which to stride, like Jackson Pollock, over enormous paint-spattered canvases.
But unlike some other "post-studio" artists, Zaatari stockpiles great quantities of research material, and that research material needs to be kept somewhere. Once, Zaatari described his current apartment as unfinished, with a lot of work-related matter jammed into a room set aside for storage, awaiting a shelving system he wanted to design. More recently, he said his studio was really just a spot on the sofa in his living room with a laptop by his side. Most of his work occurs elsewhere, and much of it involves meeting people - interview subjects, writers and intellectuals, fellow artists and filmmakers - on their own turf.
Occasionally, I have gone to the offices of the Arab Image Foundation, which Zaatari co-founded in 1997, to watch his older videos and rifle through his library of hard-to-find books on photography. There, Zaatari's work gains physical heft. The transient nature of digital computer files gives way to the bulkiness of battered VHS cassettes, rolls of film wrapped in paper, boxes of glass-plate negatives, ribbon-tied archive folios, contact prints, transparencies, light boxes, magnifying glasses and the floppy white cotton gloves used to handle vintage photographic material.
The Arab Image Foundation locates, collects and preserves examples of the region's photographic heritage, but it also doubles as a kind of creative laboratory for its member artists; Zaatari is the most active among them. A good chunk of his individual artwork draws on the archive housed by the foundation, including the collection of Studio Shehrazade, which consists of some 500,000 negatives by Hashem El Madani. Known as the hardest working commercial photographer in Saida, Madani is the subject of a long-term project that Zaatari began 10 years ago. To date, he has published two books of Madani's photographs, and he plans to do six more. Zaatari is careful to preserve the conditions that informed both the production and the consumption of Madani's work. He doesn't simply turn a commercial product into art. The art in question is the more complex manner in which Zaatari moulds Madani's material. "In this project Madani is clearly the photographer, and I am clearly the artist," Zaatari says. "I am interested in collecting all of the data around him and his work, and I am looking for photographic phenomena that we - contemporary artists or the public in general - can learn from." Zaatari's collaboration with Madani and the Arab Image Foundation lends his work a certain tactility, a sensitivity to the material texture of images that is evident even in the way he photographs landscapes and still-lifes. It also explains his affinity not only with journalists but also with commercial photographers, camera technicians and other tradesmen - working-class image-makers, if you will - who are engaged in many of the same activities as Zaatari but are not considered artists themselves. At 43, Zaatari is tall and lean with close-cropped, white-flecked hair. He says he was always the last kid on the playground to be picked for sports teams at school, but he is now an avid, athletic swimmer (his coach and several members of his swim team attended the opening of his exhibition in Beirut). He can speak at length and with great enthusiasm on a range of topics, from intellectual property law to the visual codes of Egyptian cinema, Lebanon's down-and-dirty politics, the metaphors at play in Arabic curses, and the regional differences in Levantine cuisine. In an art scene that is known to be both claustrophobically small and catty, he has a rare gift for getting along with everyone. Because he has taught courses at several universities in Lebanon and instigated numerous formal and informal workshops, many young, up-and-coming artists regard him as an invaluable mentor and confidant - which is interesting, because at their age he didn't really want to be an artist at all.
As a teenager, Zaatari always wanted to be a filmmaker. At 16, he began taking photographs and making sound recordings, an adolescent's amateur approximation of a professional filmmaker's work. His first camera was a clunky, Ukrainian-made Kiev 5 that belonged to his father: he put it to good use, taking pictures of friends, family members and potted plants, along with tanks, fighter jets and explosions. In the summer of 1982, photographing the world beyond the balcony of his parents' apartment in Saida, the port city in South Lebanon where Zaatari was born, meant photographing the Israeli invasion. Whenever he heard the whistling sounds of fighter jets, he would grab his camera and run to photograph bombs ripping into distant hillsides. The most spectacular image he caught on film was the sky-high collision of an Israeli missile and a Syrian warplane. The invasion got worse, though, and for a brief period Zaatari and his family had to leave home. When they returned, Zaatari discovered that his father's camera had been stolen. After a yearlong stint in civil engineering, Zaatari studied architecture at the American University of Beirut. "I knew there was no school in Lebanon that would teach me film," he says. Even today, he adds, "film programs in Lebanon don't help you to love film. They help you to love your equipment, and to really use your equipment to serve the different markets that exist, such as the television or advertising industries, but they don't help you to love film as a form or as an art. And they don't help you see more and more." After graduation, Zaatari worked for an architecture firm in Beirut for two years. He also taught photography at his alma mater. Then he decided to do a graduate degree and applied to film schools in the United States. He didn't get in, and settled for media studies at the New School in New York instead. When Zaatari returned to Beirut in 1995, he still wanted to make films but couldn't find any employment prospects. So he took a job as an executive producer on a morning television program, Aalam al Sabah, for Future TV. A contemporary art scene was just beginning to emerge in Beirut, and the television industry turned out to be a remarkable incubator for young talent. When the civil war came to an end in Lebanon, the country's media landscape was a mess. Every political party worth its salt had a television station of its own: most of them broadcast only slip-shod news programs, all highly skewed toward the positions of their respective parties. But as the 1990s got underway, the government began regulating the industry and cut more than 50 stations down to around 10. Future TV, established as part of the billionaire former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's burgeoning media empire, was one of the newer and more professional stations, which aggressively recruited young creative types and gave them unfettered access to equipment, along with relative freedom to produce experimental work. This situation did not last long. Soon enough, the commercial imperatives of the television industry took over - but several contemporary artists in Beirut got their start, like Zaatari, making what must have seemed to casual viewers at the time like some pretty weird TV shows. All of Zaatari's works from this period - such as the video Reflection, from 1995, in which young boy uses a mirror to manipulate sunlight and introduces image-making to the daily rituals of children in the old city of Saida - were originally screened on his morning show. "It didn't fit," he says. "I would just do [these works] and instead of hiding them, I would show them, just as filler or whatever." By 1997, the year he left Future TV (and also the year he co-founded the Arab Image Foundation), Zaatari was making videos on his own and showing them in venues that fell outside of existing art spaces and the local gallery system, which didn't take to video at all. For example, All Is Well on the Border, from 1997, was screened at Théâtre de Beyrouth. The 43-minute work - which delves into the experiences of Lebanese prisoners in Israeli detention centres and explores notions of heroism and suffering against a backdrop of ideological indoctrination - was spliced between lectures by sociologists and anthropologists as part of a programme of events organised to kick-start a then-stagnating debate about the resistance and the band of villages in South Lebanon that remained under Israeli occupation until 2000. By 2001, Zaatari's work was travelling regularly, and earning international prominence. Soon after, the onslaught of international exhibitions about Beirut, Lebanon, the Middle East and the Arab world began. From Catherine David's "Contemporary Arab Representations" to Suzanne Cotter's "Out of Beirut" and Lebanon's first (and only) national pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Zaatari's work has been included in almost all of them. Zaatari's migration to the art world, however, was in retrospect gradual and slow. Just six years ago, he characterised his work as unclassifiable, unsellable and out of circulation. "One day they will become meaningful," he said of his videos. But at the time, he felt they were unavailable to viewers, except for those who were able to catch the occasional screenings. "You do work that is not born on the channel of reaching out to an audience," he said. "It is born on the sea, waiting for someone to fish for it." "I always wanted to be a filmmaker, not an artist," says Zaatari, "but it ended up this way for many reasons. I think you just decide where you want to be and this decision has implications. I think it's healthy to be in between, neither this nor that. I can't remember how I became an artist, but I also can't say that I was resistant to the idea. There were a few points where my work was slipping into the territory of art. Anyway, I was lucky because in Beirut in the 1990s, there were absolutely no limits between film and art, so you could easily navigate between different disciplines without having to cross borders."
These days, Zaatari belongs to a group of artists - including Walid Raad, Rabih Mroué and Walid Sadek, among others - who have fundamentally shifted the terms of contemporary art in Lebanon from a discipline born of fine art traditions to a field that draws on media studies, visual culture and critical theory. Lebanon's protracted history of violence figures into all of the work that this group has done. More often that not, however, the point is not to make work explicitly "about", say, the civil war, but rather to scrutinise phenomena that have arisen from conflicts, and to address through art issues that have become difficult to discuss in more conventional public formats such as the local press. Zaatari's work in particular challenges what the curator Rasha Salti terms the "uncritical consensus" characterizing Lebanon's post-war political discourse. But this is not to everyone's taste. There are plenty of art aficionados in Beirut, young and old alike, who find Zaatari's work intellectually admirable but emotionally flat. Zaatari's standing as an important artist in the prime of his career is more clearly seen and acknowledged abroad than at home. In general, the value of documentary-style practices is more intensely contested than celebrated in Beirut. Like many of his critical and conceptual peers, Zaatari also disavows much of the art that has been (and is being) made in Lebanon. He doesn't see himself as part of a local artistic lineage. Of the older generation of painters and sculptors, he says: "They speak a different language. I don't necessarily look down on [them or their work] but I look with absolute indifference." Zaatari's oeuvre to date includes more than 30 single-channel videos and multimedia installations, six authored or co-edited publications, one major urban intervention in the old city of Saida and two comprehensive film programmes. His work involves a highly sophisticated, multifaceted process of amassing huge quantities of stuff, such as archival photographs, ephemeral objects, personal affects, interview transcripts, eyewitness testimonies, old letters, diaries, journals, press clippings, anecdotal snapshots, home movies, cassette tapes and seemingly random knickknacks. These materials are then sorted and filtered and distilled into concrete bodies of work. Many of those works transcend their local context because Zaatari shapes them subtly, sometimes using the narrative structures of crime fiction or detective stories, in which something or someone is being actively searched for and pursued. A given line of inquiry could yield a wealth of works in video, photography, installation and text, which means that Zaatari's projects tend to grow, change, expand and thicken over time. Each of the five sections in "Earth of Endless Secrets" corresponds to a video, a subject of Zaatari's research (usually a geographic territory that has been subjected to invasion) and a character (usually a former fighter who works with images in some way). In the video In This House, from 2005, Zaatari meets a photojournalist named Ali Hashisho, who tells him about his days as a leftist militant. When the Israelis withdrew from Saida in 1985, Hashisho and his colleagues took over a house in the nearby village of Ain al Mir. They stayed for six years. The owners of the house had fled, but Hashisho assumed they would return, so before he left, he buried a letter for them in the garden behind their house, explaining himself and apologising for not doing more to protect their property from theft and plunder. Zaatari tells Hashisho's story using the pages of his diary, his ID and business cards and the souvenirs he collected from "the front", including bits of rock, acorns and dried leaves. Zaatari also travels to Ain al Mir and unearths the letter, preserved in a spent mortar casing for 15 years. In All Is Well on the Border, he meets Mohammad Abu Hammane, a former fighter displaced from South Lebanon to the suburbs of Beirut, where he is working, temporarily, as a cameraman (in one key scene, he teaches Zaatari how to manipulate images by adjusting the aperture and the zoom on his lens, an example of the camera's capacity to distort rather than represent reality). Layered onto the video is the story of another former fighter, Nabih Awada, aka Neruda, who joined the resistance as a member of the Communist Party, was captured by Israel in 1986, kept for two years until he turned 18 and sentenced (he was released 10 years later, in 1998). Zaatari tells Neruda's story through the letters he sent home to his mother (Neruda's mother shared those letters with the artist during the making of the film). In Tabiaah Samitah, from 2008, Zaatari ventures toward Shebaa Farms and catches up with Mohammad Abu Hammane, now living in the nearby village of Hubbariyeh. An enigmatic work, entirely devoid of dialogue, Tabiaah Samitah glances in on the labours of two men - one old (played by Abu Hammane), one young. The former is wrapping explosives in cardboard and packing tape, the latter is delicately mending the frayed cuff of an army-issue jacket with needle and thread. The video's long opening shot shows the two men working in a drab room at dawn. The power supply clicks on and off. Daylight seeps in slowly. The morning call to prayer sounds from a nearby mosque. The scene breaks and we see shot and counter-shot of the old man's face, the young man's face, the two men facing each other in profile. Then, suddenly, we are outside looking at the landscape of Hubbariyeh, all tall green trees framing a low, serpentine stonewall that winds into the distance alongside a narrow footpath. The video ends with the older man trudging along that path - with a rifle and a rucksack, his jacket repaired, his lunch tied up in a plastic bag - until he disappears. Though his purpose and destination remain known, the work holds out the ominous possibility that this old man, a resistance fighter long past retirement age, is heading to Shebaa Farms with a homemade bomb.
All of the works in "Earth of Endless Secrets" grapple with geographies that have been subject to invasion and occupation, and Zaatari explores how such places may be known through the material he gathers. He considers how the rhythms of occupation and withdrawal give rise to ideologies of resistance and, in turn, he questions what the ideologies of resistance have produced. Zaatari often speaks of his work in archaeological terms, and he characterises it as a kind of excavation, digging for relics in territories as they become available (the southern border zone has been done; Shebaa Farms awaits). Works like All Is Well on the Border, In This House, and Tabiaah Samitah may be part of a larger effort to examine the wreckage of the left in Lebanon, which became so enamoured with the romance of revolution that it lost its way, fell apart and forfeited its role in the resistance to a right-wing religious party. But Zaatari insists that he does not side with one strain (communist) over the other (Hizbullah). "Both resistances are the same," he says. "But if the communist resistance had not been broken, I could not have done this research. For those fighters, the idea of retiring was not clear; the social support was not there. In a way I am unmaking the notion of resistance fighters. They are my age and of my generation. They may have been from a different class, but it was an attractive class. They were not at home while I was at home and bored. They were independent from their families. They were all together. They were out in nature. There's definitely something there about male friendship. But not all resistance fighters would be interesting to me. They would have to open up in a non-heroic way, in a human way." Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a staff writer at The Review. She lives in Beirut.