War, art and the Lebanese space race: Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige – Guggenheim talk

Lebanese artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige discuss documenting history in conjunction with the Guggenheim Museum’s exhibition “Lasting Images” in New York.

On 2 December 2013, filmmakers and artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige discussed their works in relation to the history of Lebanon and the impact of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) at the Guggenheim, New York. Art Radar was at the event to learn more about the artists’ projects and the ideas behind their works.

The Elaine Terner Cooper Education Fund Conversations with Contemporary Artists: Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige with Reem Fadda, December 2, 2013. Photo: Chad Heird © SRGF

The Elaine Terner Cooper Education Fund Conversations with Contemporary Artists: Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige with Reem Fadda, 2 December 2013. Photo: Chad Heird. © SRGF. Image courtesy Guggenheim New York.

The talk was moderated by Reem Fadda, Associate Curator of Middle Eastern Art at Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Project, and concluded with a question and answer session.

Capturing moments of transition and reconstruction after the war

Artists Hadjithomas and Joreige were both born in 1969 in Beirut, Lebanon, and their collaborative works span two decades. Together they have created films, photography, reenactments, installations, art videos, and directed documentaries such as Khiam 2000-2007 (2008) and feature films such as Je Veux Voir (I Want to See) (2008), which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Many of their works focus on images, questioning the representation of history during and after the Lebanese civil war.

“We don’t show images of war,” the artists explain. “We show what war does to the images.”

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige Circle of Confusion, 1997. Installation, 3000 photo pieces glued to mirror 4 meters by 3 © Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, ‘Circle of Confusion’, 1997, installation, 3000 photo pieces glued to mirror,  4 x  3 m. Image courtesy the artists.

Art after Lebanon’s war

Fadda began the talk by introducing their work, Circle of Confusion (1997), a photographic installation which was Hadjithomas and Joreige’s reaction to the end of the civil war. The installation was made of 3000 images of Beirut. During the exhibition, visitors were asked to participate in the performance by taking away a fragment of the city.

Hadjithomas explains that this work shows “moments of transition, traces that were disappearing little by little due to reconstruction in the area. [We were] asking a lot of questions: “How do we reconstruct a place after a war? What do we do with the ruins? What is to keep the memory of the place?” She added, “participation is always important to us, so there is no resolution (…) people have to do the resolution with us.”

The artists went on to talk about “creating a distance between themselves and the project, and working with images by questioning the images, questioning their position” and avoiding the aesthetic component, as well as asking “how the places were changing? And how we are changing.”

Latent images as art politics

In Hadjithomas and Joreige’s works, latent images play an important role and have become a powerful metaphor for political statements. Hadjithomas stated that “latency is very present in Beirut… Latency is a political attitude. We are here even if you don’t see us.”

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige Lasting Images, 2003 Color video, transferred from Super 8mm film, silent, 3 min., edition 3/5 Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Purchased with funds contributed by The Guild Art Gallery 2010.30 © Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, ‘Lasting Images’, 2003, colour video, transferred from Super 8mm film, silent, 3 min., edition 3/5. Image courtesy the artists.

On view at the Guggenheim Museum, Lasting Images (2003) is a Super 8 film that was developed fifteen years after it was shot by Joreige’s maternal uncle, Alfred Kettaneh Jr. Joreige explained that the project was conceived after discovering photographs and videos by his  uncle who was among the 17,000 Lebanese abducted during the war and is still missing today. He spoke about the latent ghostly images that reappeared during post-production despite the damaged film stock, revealing faint images of everyday life.

On Guggenheim’s blog, Fadda elaborates on this concept of latency.

Joana and Khalil have long interrogated the concept of ‘latency’ inherent in the image. This latency or lasting effect stands to represent memory, loss, and even the missing. The image seems to be constantly in a state of search for the material element that it was once linked to. It resembles memory, which was once a living act or thing.

The lasting effect of images, its pervasiveness and the yearning it evokes has figured as a central theme in many of the duo’s works. Lasting Images (…) tells an intimate story of loss and takes us through a maze of political and social references set in Beirut; but most importantly, it is a threshold that implicates how we translate and experience images and memories. This underlying theme in Lasting Images recurs in their other works, which have taken a variety of forms, from documentary, to feature films, to photographic series and installations.

Lasting Images led the artists to make a feature film, A Perfect Day (2005), that tells a story about a wife who refuses to accept her husband’s disappearance after fifteen years, and about their son who wants to live in the present.

Je Veux Voir Film 2008, 75 minutes, 35mm 2.35 Dolby SR. Actors, Catherine Deneuve and Rabih Mroué, Directors, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige. © Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige

‘Je Veux Voir’, 2008, 75 min., 35mm 2.35 Dolby SR. Actors: Catherine Deneuve and Rabih Mroué. Directors: Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige. Image courtesy the artists.

Element of surprise

In their feature film, Je Veux Voir (I Want to See) (2008), the artists use the power of cinema to bring to a wider audience the images and stories behind the regions in Lebanon devastated by war. With the images of destruction in the background, Hadjithomas and Joreige directed this film starring Catherine Deneuve. During the talk, Hadjithomas spoke about their decision to work with the iconic star and to show her in an unexpected place. She noted that the film was a combination of “fiction and documentary (…) we don’t know what is real and what is fiction.” There is a segment in the film in which “Catherine goes down this road, and there are bombs so we had to stop [filming]. Joreige elaborated that,

(we) try to find something that [will] surprise you. Finding something that you are not expecting (…) Years writing a script that we don’t give to actors. Same for our films, we are creating something that surprises us, something we call symptomatic. Reactivating the past in the present.

The Lebanese Rocket Society 2013. Film DCP 16/9, Dolby Digital. © Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, ‘The Lebanese Rocket Society’, 2013, film DCP 16/9, Dolby Digital. Image courtesy the artists.

Reconstituting and reactivating history

Both projects, The Lebanese Rocket Society and The Golden Record are works that reactivate the past and bring it into the present, which is often put into practice through performances in many of their works. Hadjithomas explains that The Lebanese Rocket Society was a space project that,

… was completely forgotten, and we wanted to make a film about it. We built a rocket… [which] played a big role in the film [and] we tried to invoke the past and bring the past into the present, and gave the rocket back to the university where this project began (…) It was part of the project that the rocket travels as a whole.

The artists spoke about the projects in the context of reconstituting and reactivating history, through re-enactment in The Lebanese Rocket Society, and through reconstituting the sounds of Beirut in the sixties in The Golden Record.

Hadjithomas and Joreige’s works have been exhibited in museums, biennials and art centres around the world, including Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Guggenheim Museum, New York, Le Centre Pompidou, Paris, V&A, London and Sharjah Art Foundation. They are the recipients of the 2012 Abraaj Capital Art Prize.

Christine Lee

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Related Topics: Lebanese artistsvideo art, film, photography, performance art, lectures and talks, museum shows, events in New York

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