Saturday, July 22, 2006


my colleague and flatmate Kaelen Wilson Goldie, Arts and Culture Editor of The Daily Star, left Beirut on holiday just hours before they started bombing. She is the states now going as mad as all of us here for lack of being able to do much in a place when criticism of Israel immediately brands you as anti-Semitic. She wrote this copy for the DS. We are all living it wherever we are.

Saturday, July 22, 2006
Exhibition looks back on Beirut's violent past, now made cruelly present
'Fossils' drew on memories of transitory existence
By Kaelen Wilson-Goldie
Daily Star staff

Fifth Columnist

SCITUATE, Massachusetts: Rayanne Tabet's installation "Fossils" should
have been the last of its kind.

An arrangement of vintage suitcases covered in concrete, Tabet's piece
carries the immediacy of Mona Hatoum's "Traffic" (a 2002 sculpture of
two suitcases with human hair spilling out) and the solemnity of
Rachel Whiteread's "Untitled (Pair)" (a 1999 installation of 18 cast
bronze mortuary slabs).

On July 6, "Fossils" served as the threshold through which one entered
the exhibition "Moving Home(s)" at Karantina's Galerie Sfeir-Semler.
Tabet placed his different-sized, concrete-covered suitcases on the
gallery floor in pairs and trios throughout the foyer. A few suitcases
stood alone.

Tabet was born in the mountain village of Ashqout. He should have no
memory of Israeli invasion. He was sevenwhen Lebanon's Civil War ended
in 1990. He should belong entirely to the post-war generation.

"Fossils" reaches into what should be the very limit of his childhood
memory - going to sleep every night with a bag packed with bare
necessities at the foot of his bed.

As the gallery's owner, Andree Sfeir-Semler, described it, Tabet's
piece explores the paradoxical relationship between heaviness and
lightness, the pain of living through war and the need to be nimble
and able to move.

The placement of each suitcase suggests at once an arrangement of
cemetery graves, a broken grid of urban buildings, and the division of
families thrust into exile. The material references the building stock
of Beirut itself.

"Fossils," writes Tabet in his artist's statement, "is a reflection on
erratic war scenarios as they become normalized. Our infatuation with
the idea of having to leave our homes at any given moment during the
civil war - and the fact that we had to have our bags packed
beforehand in case of emergencies - grew to become [habit] ... In a
way, the concrete transforms the suitcases into fossils or monuments
that bear within them the tragedy of a given instant."

How cruel that this glance back at history, this reflection on
reliquaries from the past, has become the horrific, anxious present.

Those Beirutis not displaced already, their homes not yet reduced to
rubble, are now quaking in fear - gauging the possibility that the
Israeli military offensive that began nine days ago will crush what is
left of Beirut, and them with it.

Trapped between two extremes and held hostage by a war not of their
making, their bags are again packed and ready to go.

Since Lebanon's Civil War ended in 1990, Beirut artists have probed
and kneaded its history and experience to create works that are, by
turns, critical, provocative, and poignant. Overall, the point has not
been to make meaning of war, but rather to recover the faculty of
meaning after its complete foreclosure.

Tabet's piece should have been the last mournful sigh of the post-war
project. It will not be. But neither must it be lost. Now, it must be
a link.

One of the most frustrating, fascinating aspects of Beirut's
cosmopolitan post-war cultural life has been how ephemeral it is -
fueled on projects, festivals, and one-off events as opposed to actual
institutions or concrete venues. Because it is ephemeral, in times of
crisis, it seems the first thing to go. Seems.

In Tony Hanania's 1999 novel "Unreal City," set in the late, ugly days
of the Civil War, the narrator - an exile from Beirut - ruminates:
"The city had become a dark star into which those blindly falling
could send back no return signals, their final images suspended as if
in some immortal relief against the void horizon."

Today, the signals are returning. Blogging, texting, emailing and the
like ensures there is as yet no threat of falling blindly into that
dark star.

"The amount of text, photos and videos that are escaping the bombing
curtain and getting out is a quantum leap over what was possible in
1982," emailed the Visible Collective's Naeem Mohaieman on July 20.
"It's up to us to act on it. Do not let this be the beginning of
another decade-long occupation. Demand an immediate ceasefire and

I write this somewhat stranded in the small town near Boston where I
grew up, having traveled four hours before Israeli warplanes began
pummeling Rafik Hariri International Airport.

I have no idea whether Rayanne Tabet is safe, or Andree Sfeir-Semler,
or any of the other artists who live in or traveled to Lebanon for the
opening of "Moving Home(s)."

I have no idea how I will get back to Beirut with my own packed bag.

With a humanitarian crisis looming in Lebanon, a critical reading of
Tabet's work seems crass. But, though this may sound foolishly
optimistic, I am sure "Fossils" matters.

Holding on to Tabet's work, placing it next to Mazen Kerbaj's trumpet
improvisation of a few nights ago entitled "Starry Night (Mazen Kerbaj
& the Israel Air Force," maintaining these links, I am sure this means

Thousands of kilometers away, blinking at indifference all around, I
want to say I am sure Beirut's cultural life hasn't been destroyed;
it's just been urgently rerouted. Still ephemeral yes, but still there

For now, Galerie Sfeir-Semler's Web site says the Beirut gallery is
temporarily closed. This announcement follows the appropriately
blustering alarm line, in all caps, "IT IS WAR IN LEBANON!"

"Moving Home(s)" was meant to run through late November. Perhaps the
gallery will reopen and the show will go back up, though radically
changed circumstances will have shifted its meaning. If that happens,
Tabet's piece will no longer be the last of one era but the first of


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