Ushering in the autumn art season with aplomb, a brave new exhibition in Dubai examines war and conflict.
The road less travelled
Thirty years ago, when Lebanon was regarded by many as the Middle East's premier party destination, the photographer Abdallah Farah was commissioned by the government to produce a series of images, destined for postcards, promulgating this concept. In his shots of the Lebanese at play amid glamorous hotels, the old Central District and playing on the beaches, a sunny, Technicolor evocation of a loose, easy-going exuberant city was duly stamped onto mass-market postcards and spread around the world.
But by the mid-1970s, with the ugliness of encroaching civil unrest and war on the horizon, a depressed Abdallah began damaging the negatives of his era-defining prints, in a simple act of dejection and resignation to the truth. Burnt, torn or scratched through, the spoilt negatives present the grimly assured shift from up to down, within a matter of years. His story is one of the many presented at The Third Line this month, through Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, young artists for whom the pendulum swing between stability and panic in their home city of Beirut has shaped their lives, and artistic practise.
Roads Were Open/Roads Were Closed is the name of this event, and starting with that half-remembered, anecdotal feel of the title, the show begins to assay through a grand, multimedia sensory assault, a multifaceted and ambitious overview of artistic response to conflict and trauma in general. Curated by Haig Aivazian, the long-time exhibitions manager at Dubai's The Third Line gallery, it ushers in the autumn/winter art season with an explosion of activity, a multimedia extravaganza that pushes Aivazian's concepts to the forefront, clearly demanding active involvement from the audience. Through a blend of gallery-based installation, film screenings and panel discussions, Aivazian hopes to engage with an audience on a level hitherto unexplored by a local gallery.
"I feel like this show perhaps requires a bit more attention and patience than what the general art public in Dubai might be used to," admits Aivazian in the run-up to the opening. "But I also think it's the kind of show that would reward that patience, it's not hermetic work." Planning this, his third full-scale exhibition at The Third Line, has presented the 28-year-old artist and curator with one of the most challenging projects in his career so far. Acknowledging that the concept of conflict isn't perhaps a ground-breaking one, he nevertheless feels that by removing the work from the shackles of specific locations and events, instead taking a holistic, multi-angled look at varying human responses, a rich and emotionally resonant seam of material can be found.
"I didn't want this show to be about conflict, which is quite a hot topic, but rather about the way that representations of conflict are negotiated," he says. "How is information about conflict accumulated, circulated and received? How do we remember trauma? And how do we depict it?" In reaching for answers, Aivazian has enlisted a broad mix of participants, from Lebanon, Palestine and the UAE, to offer their perceptions and theoretical strategies in assimilating and working with the threat of the unknown, and dealing with the uncertain, arbitrary nature of war. Some, such as Fouad Elkhoury, the Lebanese photographer, focus on intensely emotional and personal issues, through which a view of wider circumstances is refracted. Others, such as Laila Shawa, take an almost satirical look at the business of fighting, with a multicoloured model of a slingshot. Aivazian was born in Lebanon and his family relocated to Sharjah in the mid-1980s, where they remained, thwarted from returning by the Lebanese civil war and latterly, the first Gulf war. In 1999, he enrolled in a Bachelor of Fine Art programme in Montreal, Canada, where he stayed for five years, developing not only his own artistic practise, but also engaging with the city's intelligentsia, soaking up a variety of influences. "It was," he says, "a very enriching experience." Since returning to the Middle East in 2005, Aivazian has been a regular fixture on the local arts scene, as exhibitions director at The Third Line, a position that has seen him facilitate and shape the artistic direction of the progressive Dubai gallery. Here, he's curated two well-received shows, 2006's Figure/Ground: 4 Women, and last year's two-man video show with Remi Arora and Abbas Akhavan, Long Distance: Between Emotion and Location. But with its multi-pronged approach, Aivazian's 2008 effort raises the bar considerably, not only for himself and The Third Line, but for exhibitions in general in the UAE. "I wanted the show to be interdisciplinary from the very beginning, to be more like a programme of events and discussions, films and so on. I wanted to try - as much as possible within a context of a commercial gallery - to move away from simply looking at works on a wall. Instead, I wanted to work towards a discourse-orientated approach to art. Some of the works touch on quite emotional issues, and I wanted to try and create an intellectual, passionate exchange about these touchy topics." One such example is a deeply moving and affecting set of images by the Lebanese photographer Fouad Elkhoury, who is exhibiting 29 of his acclaimed 33-part On War and Love series. Elkhoury, who was unavailable for an interview, has crafted a remarkable work, intertwining the deeply intimate - the breakdown of a romantic relationship - against the backdrop of the 2006 Israeli invasion Lebanon. Through the narrative that runs throughout the images, he manages to draw parallels between his incomprehension and heart-break at being rejected, and the cruelly ambiguous and obscure reasons given him, against the wide-scale tragedy taking place in Beirut during the same time. It presents his grief, incomprehension and loss as undeniable and absolute, yet there comes an uplifting conclusion that leaves the viewer unsure and wrong-footed - but with a strange sense of relief. In the film season, running during the show, Aivazian has pulled in a number of old friends and acquaintances, to add colour, motion and light to his project. The series is co-ordinated by Mishaal al Gergawi, and features post-screening discussions, at Cinestar at Mall of the Emirates and The Third Line. Here we have a sense of broadening out of the basic remit, through varied narratives and imaginative, frequently surprising storylines. Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige's Yawmun Akhar (A Perfect Day) echoes Elkhoury's technique of blending the personal with the political, as their solipsistic protagonist obsesses over a departed lover, while his mother frets over the loss of her husband in the civil war. Another powerful narrative is found in Mohamed al Daridji's Ahlaam (The Dream), set amid the ruins of an Iraqi psychiatric hospital during the American invasion of 2003. There's also a screening of Ghassan Salhab's Ashbaah Beirut, (Beyrouth Fantome) blending in a story of identity and deception amid a background of civil war. Aivazian feels that with this show, he's reached a new level of engagement with issues that resonate deeply within himself and his contemporaries. "I've been following art in Lebanon very closely, since 2002, but also, these ideas arise from personal relations to the topics at hand. I was devastated during the war in Lebanon in 2006, I'm bothered by what's happening in Iraq and Palestine. I was young during the war in Lebanon, but I lived it, and I remember it. So, you know, it's all these sentiments, these concerns that are always there, that are combined in various ways and make for various questions. This exhibition is to hear other people speak of things that I have thought about in ways that are complex, articulate and conceptually sound and tight."
Roads Were Open/Roads Were Closed runs from Sept 6 to Oct 2 at The Third Line in Dubai (04 341 1367). For full details on events and the Film Series, visit @email:www.thethirdline.com.