Art In the austere work of Walid Sadek, Kaelen Wilson-Goldie writes, the traumas of Lebanon are a laboratory for new kinds of art.
'What is shared is very little'
In the austere work of Walid Sadek, Kaelen Wilson-Goldie writes, the traumas of Lebanon are a laboratory for new kinds of art. On May 30 1972, three members of the Japanese Red Army, carrying assault rifles in violin cases, opened fire on a crowd of people in the waiting area of Israel's Lod Airport, killing 25 people and wounding 80. One of the attackers was shot dead by soldiers. Another ran onto the tarmac and blew himself up with a grenade. Only Kozo Okamoto survived. When captured, Okamoto reportedly confessed only after his interrogators promised they would allow him to commit suicide. They did not. Okamoto was tried in Israel and sentenced to life. Then, in a prisoner swap orchestrated by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Okamoto was set free in 1985. Versions of the story vary, but most say he travelled to Libya and later to Lebanon. By all accounts, his mental state had deteriorated badly, most likely as a result of the torture he suffered during 13 years of incarceration.
In 1997, Okamoto was arrested in Lebanon with four other Red Army members. All were charged with using forged passports and jailed for three years. Four of the five were deported to Jordan and promptly extradited to Japan in 2000 - but Okamoto stayed behind, the only foreigner ever granted political asylum in Lebanon, where he lives to this day. Now 62, it is said that his health is fragile, that he is schizophrenic and heavily medicated, that he is cared for by a small group of Japanese comrades, Palestinian militants, or Hizbollah.
It is not difficult to imagine how Kozo Okamoto's story would wend its way into the work of a hotshot contemporary artist. He would be found and befriended, made the subject of a documentary film or rendered a fictional character. There would be documents, of course, such as press clippings, court records, old photographs and letters. There would be video footage as well, eyewitness testimony, a stylised mapping of Okamoto's movements, a recreation of his living quarters, anecdotes told by peers and helpers, a collection of personal effects pristinely photographed or displayed in an aggrandising glass box.
In the work of Walid Sadek, however, there is only this: a broken black circle on the concrete floor of an art space, painted in what appears to have been a single stroke around a central column affixed with a Plexiglas wall tag. The text printed on that wall tag is rambunctiously spare: "Kozo Okamoto Resides in Greater Beirut." The exhibition Place at Last, on view at the Beirut Art Center until April 9, features 13 examples of Sadek's work, including the piece on Kozo Okamoto. Although it is his first solo show, it comes late in the career of an artist who has been both active and influential for 15 years.
Sadek is one of a core group of artists who have used Beirut as a laboratory to experiment with new forms and strategies in the field of contemporary art. Their work may be extremely specific to Lebanon, but their approach resonates widely - wherever daily life is coloured by the remnants of a catastrophe, wherever the memory of a past crime threatens to rupture the surface of the present with the prospect of revenge, wherever a history of violence has been buried but insufficiently embalmed.
At a time when contemporary art ranges from the eye candy of Damien Hirst to the immaterial actions of Tino Sehgal (who specialises in "constructed situations" and is currently the subject of a major exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York), Sadek has struck out in a different direction. For him, the purpose of contemporary art is to create the conditions for starting a conversation, forming a community or creating social interaction among people who share very little in terms of values, affinities or ideas.
"There is a lingering assumption," says Sadek, "that the space of art is a space where basic human desires are expressed, and that no matter the complexity of the presentation, there is a commonality upon which we can converse. I don't think this assumption has any relation to art." "My guess right now," he says, "is that if contemporary art means something, it must indicate forcefully that what is shared is very little, and it must be generous enough, even if the language it employs is difficult, to allow a conversation to happen. We have little that is shared but we have a lot at stake. And so we have a conversation, even though it disrupts the process of exhibiting and the reception of the work."
Since the mid 1990s, Sadek has been articulating - and in doing so, defining - the terms of what we might call the Lebanese condition. His work delves into a set of self-posed questions about what it means to live in a place that has been ravaged by wars and whiplashed by rounds of destruction and reconstruction, how it might be possible to resume healthy functioning in a place that has not resolved its issues or confronted its past, and whether or not a society can exist without vengeance or belligerence in a place that demands one live among the ruins and alongside the traces of violence, crime, depravity and devastation.
For the work on Kozo Okamoto, Sadek admits that he has all of the material that might have made for a very different work in another artist's oeuvre. "I have a huge file, like this," he says, indicating a stack that must stand 30cm tall on his desk, "but I don't use them. If you were at my house, I would show them to you. And I would hope they would look less interesting than my work." What is striking about his show at the Beirut Art Center is that it evokes so much with so little. The circle on the floor brings to mind vividly the notion that a man like Okamoto can disappear in a small space despite his infamy. His physical absence is matched by a kind of spectral presence. We know he is there without seeing him. We are aware of his deeds without calling them to account. His story is extraordinary, but at the same time, it is just one among many in a scarred city riddled with rumours and intrigues.
Of course, Sadek expects that visitors will leave his exhibition and seek out Okamoto's story on their own. He does not provide it for them. He considers the real work of art to be that which is synthesised elsewhere, outside of the exhibition venue, as visitors pick up and pursue certain cues. He wants us to do some work, to read and think and respond. While an older generation of artists and intellectuals in Lebanon would (and often do) dismiss Sadek and his ilk for imitating a globalised contemporary art style, it is far more likely that he, in particular, is breaking new ground, and leading contemporary art in a direction that others will follow.
It is worth noting, then, that despite his occasional participation in biennials from Venice to Sharjah, Sadek has largely resisted the lure of the international art world. He describes himself with a modesty neither forced nor false as "the guy who teaches at AUB" - the American University of Beirut, where Sadek is an assistant professor - or "the guy from Hazmieh", the suburb south-east of Beirut where Sadek lives with his wife and two small children. He insists that he does not have an artist's persona "like Walid Raad or Akram Zaatari", two of his more famous colleagues. Even in the press release for Place at Last he states: "It is my sincerest hope that this work be first, even if only, exhibited in Beirut."
In his early work, Sadek specialised in text-based interventions - posters, postcards, tiny little books distributed for free, a few delicate broadsheets tucked between the pages of a daily newspaper. He rarely used images, and his practice hinged on ephemeral gestures. Place at Last, by contrast, has a certain muscular, architectural heft. With the help of local craftsmen, Sadek overhauled the cavernous interior of the Beirut Art Center, building walls, doorways and an angular partition that cuts through the space like a scar.
Yet the works themselves are still radically austere. One piece consists of two trumpet mouthpieces jammed into a wall like eyes glaring back at the viewer. Another is a pencil drawing barely visible on the wall. Tiny silkscreened texts in Arabic scroll across several surfaces. Wall tags appear to indicate paintings that have been removed from view. Throughout the exhibition, Sadek references but declines to show material related to Okamoto, the painter Moustafa Farroukh and the story of Cimon and Pero - a well-known account from Roman history, painted by the likes of Caravaggio, Rubens and Vermeer, in which an elderly senator is sentenced to death by starvation, only to be saved when his lactating daughter offers him sustenance by her breast.
In fact, Okamoto is just one among many damaged or deformed men who figure into Sadek's show, alongside accounts of artworks that have been vandalised or discarded (such as a sculpture by Youssef Howayek, depicting two women resting their hands on a funerary urn, which once held pride of place in Beirut's Martyrs' Square until it was replaced by a more nationalistic monument), and literary references (the biblical Lazarus filtered through Nikos Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ, for example, or Elias Khoury's novel White Masks, about a corpse that turns up mysteriously in Beirut).
These stories feed into a complicated but compelling theory that Sadek has been developing in bits and pieces for years now. The idea is that to live in a place like Lebanon is to live in the presence of corpses that cannot be laid to rest, that rot without proper burial, that prevent the work of mourning, the work of memory and, perhaps most importantly, the work of forgetting. Okamoto is one such corpse. For Sadek, he should have died three times now - in the attack of 1972, the prisoner swap of 1985, and the extradition of his colleagues in 2000. But somehow he remains. In a city the size of a village, he has disappeared, but he has not been allowed to die.
Okamoto, like the sight of a daughter nursing her father, like Howayek's retired sculpture, like a political system made up of men who have waged wars and committed crimes, like the missing never found, bodies never buried - all of these things are somehow in excess. The sum of Sadek's art is an attempt to figure out how to live with that excess, to carry its weight, to bear it. Little wonder then that he keeps his work so light.
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie reports for The National from Beirut.