x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Here and now

The artist Gilbert Hage has been documenting contemporary Lebanon with quiet beauty and conceptual rigour.

Hage is a follower of the german school of photography, particularly the archives of August Sander.
Hage is a follower of the german school of photography, particularly the archives of August Sander.

The artist Gilbert Hage has been documenting contemporary Lebanon with quiet beauty and conceptual rigour. Kaelen Wilson-Goldie considers the emotional resonance of his photographs.

The Lebanese photographer Gilbert Hage has a fondness for the French verb récupérer. He often coaxes it into conversation, curving the final syllable toward a rhetorical question. Récupérer? For Hage, recuperation doesn't necessarily mean recovery or salvage. It means resigning himself to the risk that his photographs could be misunderstood, misinterpreted or misplaced in strange curatorial contexts.

As an artist who produces formally precise and conceptually-driven artworks, Hage is fairly certain he will never be recuperated in the same manner as Seydou Keita, the late studio portraitist from Mali whose commercial work from the 1950s was embraced - some say exploited - by galleries, museums and curators in the 1990s. As a photographer who lays out long-term projects exploring sociopolitical themes that are relevant in, but not limited to, life in Lebanon, Hage is quite sure his work will always resist being reduced to propaganda by one local interest or another. Still, he drops the word often enough to suggest an anxiety. One senses that Hage's reticence about recuperation is a way for him to check his success, or to temper his ego. For every benchmark he has hit in his career, he considers carefully, and perhaps rather pessimistically, whether his work has been recognised as powerful, or acknowledged as useful.

After twenty years of taking pictures and presenting them to audiences, Hage has a nice pile of successes to think about. Five years ago, curators Christine Tohme and Akram Zaatari incorporated a series of Hage's images into their exhibition Possible Narratives for the São Paulo arts festival Videobrasil, and he has been loosely associated with Beirut's inner circle of critically minded artists ever since. If the Arab Image Foundation, which is based in Beirut and ranks Zaatari along with artists Walid Raad and Yto Barrada among its members, still exists in fifty years, Hage's archive will likely represent a logical acquisition choice - his contemporaries in the field of fine art photography in the Arab world are few and far between. Just last month, Hage became the first photographer ever to win the jury prize from the Musée Sursock's Salon d'Automne, the august exhibition that is held every year in the Lebanese capital. It was a shamelessly belated nod for photography, but notable nonetheless in the context of an unabashedly conservative event that was established 47 years ago yet still insists on the primacy of painting today.

"The prize is not a big deal, but making photography acceptable as a medium is," says Hage, who is 42 and has been submitting his work to the Salon d'Automne since 2000, the first year the museum widened its scope from paintings and sculptures to include photographs, videos and installations in a city whose contemporary art scene has become far better known for the latter. "I don't like to be recuperated," Hage says, poker-faced. "The nice part is that they accepted to give the prize to photography. It's too late," he adds, breaking into a mischievous grin. "But it's a nice beginning."

Hage's award-winning picture, titled Olga, isn't exactly a heart-stopping image. It is a shot of a pillow stuffed into a floral-patterned pillowcase, set against a grey background and moodily lit. In terms of compositional sophistication, it is one rectangle inside of another. But like all of Hage's photographs, it belongs to a series that accrues meaning and nuance over time. Pillows, as the series is called, is a work in progress that currently consists of 40 photographs, all shot in the same manner as Olga. The assistants who work in Hage's studio - many of them are his students from the Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts in Beirut, the Université Saint-Esprit de Kaslik and the University of Balamand - organised a "casting" of pillows they collected from friends and strangers.

Like a palimpsest, pillows collect the impressions of dreams and unconscious thoughts, the creases of fitful anxiety or the deep-slumber stains of sweat and drool. They record the routines of private lives, whether they document solitary desires, or fantasies that are literally and metaphorically shared. Taking the lump on which one rests his or her head each night as a site of extreme intimacy, Hage made selections based on what he could imagine of the pillow owners' lives. Then he shot them and named them - Olga, Emanuelle, Myriam, and so forth.

Hage delights in the fictitious construction of these predominantly feminine personas, which came full circle at the public showing of Olga. When the Salon d'Automne opened on March 3 (this year's exhibition, which ran through March 31, was staged in a temporary venue in downtown Beirut while the museum carries out much-needed renovations), Hage discovered that Olga's pillow belongs, in fact, to a boy.

Hage is an ardent follower of what he calls the German school, the work of the photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher and their students, including Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth and Candida Höfer, from the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. The idea is to take a subject, devise a set-up and repeat. The Bechers are famous for their meticulously composed, head-on, black-and-white photographs of blast furnaces and other industrial relics on the verge of obsolescence. Their style is formally cold, but their serialisation evokes emotional warmth, be it mourning or melancholy.

Hage has applied the approach to dried roses, plumes of cigarette smoke, apartment interiors and landscapes shot at such close range that rock and soil appear like stars in a night sky. He has done two series on fashion, focusing on Lebanese women's collective penchant for exposing cleavage and coccyx. He usually works with medium- or large-format cameras using slide film, which require time, patience and ample equipment in his studio. But he has also shot peripatetic series with digital cameras, including the one on his mobile phone. Another serial effort is Homeland, from 2006, which takes an indexical approach to the destruction of Beirut's southern suburbs during the Israeli bombardment that summer, and positions itself against war experienced as media spectacle.

Hage instils a similar worth ethic in his students. Several of them, including Yves Atallah and Joanne Issa, unveiled masterful serial works of their own for the exhibition Be-Sides, held in Lebanon last fall. Another former student and rising star, Randa Mirza, recalls: "I had a very good teacher who, for a full year, his course was for us to take pictures and for him to tell us that they weren't good, or that they were okay, or that fine they were getting better, for a full year without anything about technique. That teacher was Gilbert Hage."

Hage traces the roots of the German school to August Sander, and his ambition, between two world wars, to create a photographic index called People of the Twentieth Century. By the end of his life, Sander had roughly 1,800 portraits organised by trade and social type. His collection, painful in its historical prescience, is, alongside Gerhard Richter's Atlas, one of the most influential photographic archives of the last century.

Sander's project is the inspiration behind Ici et Maintenant - Hage's ongoing attempt to amass 1,000 portraits of young people in Lebanon who lock eyes with the photographer's lens in elusive expressions of motivation, defiance and resilience - along with Portraits de Peintres, from 1988; Masques d'Acteurs, from 1991; and his most recent portrait series about smokers, as yet untitled, featuring men and women, many of them artists, musicians and actors, set against the yellowed back wall of Torino Express, a café in the hipster enclave of Gemmayzeh that serves as the local dive bar for Beirut's creative types.

Hage exhibited eight images from Ici et Maintenant in Beirut and Berlin in 2004 and 2005, respectively. "[The series] is at the intersection of culture and politics," says Layla al-Zubaidi, of the Heinrich Böll Foundation's Beirut office, which sponsored both shows. "It deconstructs stereotypes about what Arabs look like, both men and women … It shows that people are reflecting on the contemporary state of the Arab world, not heritage, not nostalgia."

Hage, for his part, insists that Ici et Maintenant is a wholesale assault on representational tactics, that "the human face … is neither determined nor real … It is receptive, flexible and subjected to changes. It oscillates between realities and illusions." His portraits are at once a celebration of youthful vitality and a warning - extinguish this and Lebanon will likely self-implode. Like every archive, it fights historical erasure on one side and imminent catastrophe on the other. (Or to borrow art critic Hal Foster's formulation: "Any archive is founded on disaster (or its threat), pledged against a ruin that it cannot forestall.")

The Salon d'Automne is the only event of its kind in Beirut, an annual invitational for which artists trot their works to the museum and submit them in person for consideration. An odd-numbered jury convenes to accept or reject the works, and, after that initial selection is made, to name the prizewinners. The salon is loosely modelled on its French namesake, itself something of an organisational compromise that was initiated some 100 years ago to mitigate the distance between the Salon de Paris, a rigidly academic relic of seventeenth-century thinking, and the rebellious Salon des Refusés, which, among other notable accomplishments, unleashed Édouard Manet's Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe on the world.

Beirut's salon, however, has proven less capable of bridging the gap between the old, academic and staid and the young, rambunctious and ruthlessly new. The British artist Mona Hatoum, who was born in Beirut to Palestinian refugees, was rather famously rebuffed by a lowly Sursock staffer for calling to inquire about exhibition possibilities rather than showing up for face-time like everyone else. In 2004, the sculptor Rudy Rahme was told his work had been rejected from the salon and that if he didn't retrieve it, the museum would destroy it. A media storm ensued, pitting local cultural activists against Sursock's aristocratic steeliness.

None of the core group of Beirut's maverick conceptualists - including Raad, Zaatari, Jalal Toufic and Rabih Mroué - have ever participated in the salon. Lamia Joreige, a painter-turned-video artist, used to submit her work but says she gave up on Sursock years ago. Walid Sadek, arguably the most intellectually astringent among Lebanon's artists, sat on the jury in 2006. But otherwise, only Hage seems at ease in what are ultimately two very different worlds, the glibly bourgeois on one hand and the bracingly critical on the other. Cast in the most optimistic light, Hage's award could convince Beirut's own refusés to come around and consider the salon anew. If that happens, Hage could soon be uttering récupérer not as a defensive reflex but as a good-natured joust.