Beirut Art Centre holds solo exhibition by Lebanese artist Tony Chakar.
Lebanese artist Tony Chakar’s solo exhibition “On Becoming Two” on display at the Beirut Art Centre is a site-specific installation exploring the notion of critique and suspicion with regards to the commodified art object as well as the media-saturated readings of the unresolved Lebanese civil war.
On Becoming Two
Tony Chakar (b. 1968, Beirut) is an architect, writer and artist who lives and works in Beirut. Since his first interventions in public space in 1999, his writings and public speeches have explored the ways in which political, mythological and popular imaginaries cross and overlap at the surface of a building, text and image. “On Becoming Two” reveals the artists particularly transdisciplinary practice that spans philosophy, architecture and text based work. The exhibition, running at Beirut Art Center until 26 March 2017, has involved the reworking and updating of a number of Chakar’s early works.
Commissioned and curated by Beirut Art Center’s Marie Muracciole, “On Becoming Two” is the result of an invitation to take over Beirut Art Center’s ground floor and devise a complex and sprawling installation of his works in the gallery space. The aim of the exhibition is to play with and against the architecture of a specific context of Beirut and the museum itself.
The commodified art object: archaeology and the image
Tony Chakar is unnerved by the transformation of vital questions into commodifiable art objects. In his 2014 essay entitled “Speak to Shadow”, published in Afterall magazine, he raises a question about whether art can play a role as “witness” in a context of political turmoil, war and violence only accelerated and maintained by the circulation of images in the media. He writes:
In these circumstances and conditions, making art objects to be put in the international art market seems whimsical — irresponsible even. With all images still on the same level, prior to the distinction and elevation of some images as art while the rest remain in the domain of the mundane, what does it mean for an artist to show the world the pictures of his or her body, when we’ve seen the body-internal (the Syrian rebel eating the heart of his dead enemy) or the body-lifeless (the images of dozens of dead children due to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons)? Or, less dramatically and in reverse, what does it mean when the Museum of Modern Art in New York acquires the Occupy Wall Street print portfolio? So, again: In these circumstances and conditions, what kind of witnessing is still possible?
For Tony Chakar every image is an archive, layered with multiple layers of meaning reaching across various time periods. His response is to develop an archaeological approach: Tony Chakar sees in any given image the traces of century old religious ideologies, the footprint of liberal thought, the outline of mythological narrative and popular culture references which are revealed in his installations. “On Becoming Two” is a means of extending a question about the necessary conditions for the emergence of a critical image to the field of language and architecture. What are the conditions necessary for a critical language and space to emerge?
“On Becoming Two”: mapping Beirut in chaos and intimacy
Many of the works in the exhibition call for a localised critique from Beirut, a place where – marred by the unresolved civil war – the relationships between architecture, memory and popular representation is specific with specific consequences for contemporary art practices. The exhibition is organised around a series of gestures through which a particular object “mutates” into something else. In The Dialogue That is Us (2013-2017) the pages of a book open out and “grow” to the size of a wall. In All That is Solid Melts into Air (2017) a map is shown to overflow its limits as a representation.
Architecture and living conditions in different districts of Beirut are Chakar’s core interests as an architect turned artist. His artistic work, however, involves ways of thinking that go beyond the traditional architectural focus by incorporating literature, philosophy and theory. This can be seen in the work All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (2000-2017), which has been developed from another work of the same title produced by Chakar in the early 2000s.
A text, made from quoted fragments by Walter Benjamin, Karl Marx, Roland Barthes and Jean Baudrillard accompanied the original display in 2000:
I shudder over a catastrophe, which has already occurred. Whether or not the subject/territory is already dead, every photograph/map is this catastrophe. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory. It is the map that engenders the territory and if we were to revive the fable of the cartographers today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map. It is the real, not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself.
The work was originally made in and about Hamra Street, Beirut, which has been a main economic hub street in Beirut since the early 1980s. In “On Becoming Two” the work sprawls across an entire room.
In the work A Window to the World (2005), Chakar represents the traditional apartments of Beirut not by means of drawings and architectural plans but through texts, images and personal anecdotes, offering an auto-ethnographical or experiential reading of the relationship between architecture and subjectivity. Here the intimate observations of personal experience of the city of Beirut assume the conventions of architectural display.
Tony Chakar belongs to a generation of Lebanese artists and thinkers whose primordial themes are war and the post-war. Unlike many artists of his generation, Tony Chakar has a particular alliance to working from and within Beirut itself. In 2006, just after the Israeli attack on Beirut, Chakar was invited to give a talk in Hong Kong but refused on account of the situation at home. He decided to send a paper to represent him, which he described in the essay as “a message in a bottle, coming to you from across the seas, from a lost island”.
In the essay, Chakar quotes a text that he had originally written to accompany his 2005 installation A Window to the World, produced before the attack. Quoting himself, Chakar writes:
Given the right circumstances, the appropriate standpoint (preferably with one’s back against the sea) and the correct angle of vision (preferably looking obliquely), one would have the distinct feeling that all the buildings in Beirut are packed-up and ready to leave; most of them stand on slender columns that would aid them in their journey; their antennas and dish receptors look like fancy hats one might wear on such a voyage. Their balconies are empty suitcases and boxes waiting to be filled by the small histories that unfold in every apartment: long hours of anguish and fleeting moments of excitement. At those times Beirut resembles a large horde of escape boats aimlessly fleeing a sinking ship, and it would be the best time to sip a cup of coffee by the sea.
I want to return to this text to say that I am tired. I am tired of living for the sole purpose of accompanying friends to the airport (or lately to ports for evacuation) in order to bid them goodbye and wish them safe journeys. Frankly, I cannot imagine my life far from this place; true, this is the only country I have, but mostly it is here that I learned the meaning of the words ‘here’ and ‘there’.
“On Becoming Two”: critique and distance
In the aforementioned text, entitled …To the Ends of the Earth, Tony Chakar offers a quiet critique of the divisions between the “local” and exiled artist (the “Beirut-based” artist from the international traveller), further reaffirming Chakar’s suspicion of the art world – responsible for offering support across borders but also of displacing practices and decontextualising them at the risk of uprooting meaning.
In response to this situation, Chakar has developed a conversation around presence and forgetfulness that borrows from different disciplines and fields. In “On Becoming Two” Chakar questions notions of “here” and “there”, “map” and “territory”, “word” and “object”, “building” and “home”. As the press release states, “On Becoming Two is a defense of dissociation, doubt and critical distance.” Chakar’s complex installation is a harmony seeking endeavour and reflects the will to locate a safe (critical) space in intimacy among the chaos.
- Preview: 5 highlights from the 7th Beirut Art Fair – September 2016 – prior to the opening of the Beirut Art Fair, Art Radar selects a few highlights not to be missed
- The West Kowloon Cultural District Authority celebrates completion of M+ Pavilion in Hong Kong – July 2016 – WKCDA held ceremony for first permanent structure of Hong Kong’s future museum M+
- A beacon for Palestine’s culture and identity: The Palestinian Museum – June 2016 – Palestine’s recently inaugurated museum is dedicated to supporting and strengthening Palestinian culture and identity
- In between truth and fiction: the art of Lebanon’s Walid Raad at MoMA New York – January 2016 – New York’s MoMA holds the first major American survey show of the influential Lebanese artist Walid Raad
- Beirut at a turning point: 5 new museums and art centres on the horizon – July 2015 – 5 exciting new institutions are slated to open in the Lebanese capital within the next 5 years
Subscribe to Art Radar for more on Beirut Contemporary Art events