Xavier Jullien & Giulia Turati
For Panem et Circences, 2018
It was by putting together two artists and two curators in two places1 that the project PANEM ET CIRCENCES ripened to maturity, warmed by the sun of exchanges. The two elements that make up this first major exhibition of the work of Maha Yammine and Marwan Moujaes –at la Halle in Pont-en-Royans and at the Espace arts plastiques Madeleine-Lambert in Vénissieux–interact through thirty works, several of which are entirely new and have been co-produced for this event. And while the work of each of the artists bears witness to two separate sensibilities and two different approaches, their joint exhibition PANEM ET CIRCENCES 2 demonstrates clearly the harmonious complementarity of their work.
Brought together by their shared history of the Levant and of the villages of Lebanon–their native country–and Beirut, they display their research and their artistic endeavours with a critical eye, in mises en scène sometimes caustic and amusing, often intimate and even childlike, meditative, or linked to mourning.
Maha Yammine is an archeologist of memory: she collects and reactivates the stories lived by anonymous people during the war years. As the conflicts went on, normality was dislocated and each person took on other forms of stability in the midst of the chaos, thus creating particular types of everyday life, which the artist reveals. In implicating preceding generations, she sometimes involves her relations and their acquaintances. In her videos and in her installations, a sedimentation of Lebanese history is reconstituted, through the prism of the everyday lives of its inhabitants. She reveals fragments of the past, often intimate, seeming deceptively insignificant or family-based, whilst finding for herself this “missing memory”. It is through the modesty of these micro-narratives that History can be imagined differently: as being plural and stripped of authority.
Marwan Moujaes studies and stages a genealogy of the tensions at play on frontiers, whether administrative or symbolic; what they reveal of political, strategic, or religious delimitations. The dichotomy between the apparent quietness of the places and the intensity of the adjacent local issues, contradicts in his work the stereotypical and spectacular representations of violence and of war. The contemplative temporality of his videos causes our attention to tip into a depth of reflection. Religious tradition, literature, dissidence, and politics intermingle in his work, revealing a sort of consubstantiality of the sources of dissensions and the polysemous richness of the relationship to “Lebanon the place”. Thus, the sites and the objects that make up the territory of exploration of the artists, involved and aware, are crystalisers of memory. Both show works where itineraries and situations (rather than a course of action) are reflected with displacement and humanism, making it possible for them to enter with intelligence and empathy into our own visual and emotional memories.
Throughout the two exhibitions in Pont-en-Royans and Vénissieux, several of the works of Marwan Moujaes are linked to food: Panem forms the contents of a box distributed to the populace by certain candidates at elections, in exchange for promises of votes. A strange chocolate mountain3 is set on a marble slab: it represents the summit of Mount Hermon (Jabal a-sheikh in Arabic). This place constitutes a natural frontier between Lebanon and Syria and an area partly annexed by Israel, but it is also the legendary summit of the Old Testament where the fallen angels fell from the sky, and then devoured the mountain. At the Espace arts plastiques, his video installation I brought you candies because flowers are perishable consists of sweets made by the artist with the honey from the Jewish cemetery–a place abandoned to the luxuriance of the vegetation in the middle of a concrete, vertical Beirut. In these last two works, a curious relationship, filled with melancholy, is born between the inaccessible, the forbidden, and the offer of sweet things to be shared.
In several sculptures, Maha Yammine makes deflected use of certain games loved by children in peacetime. In Vénissieux, her 7 Stones (a game with building blocks, that paradoxically can’t be piled up) or the Phone (made of a soft material which transmits no sound) become ironically un-playable-with: a metaphor for the deprivation of insouciance in wartime. In the gallery of la Halle, her work Wall is made up of three cymas, but these monumental pillars are veryprecariously erected on a slippery carpet of glass marbles. This game of equilibrium defuses the threat that walls and frontiers represent, endowing them with a laughable mobility and also evokes the fragility of an idle childhood in wartime.
The Shell displayed at Pont-en-Royans derives from the same bitter symbolism and the memory of childhood. Lined up closely on the ground, these little sandcastles in the form of bombs crumble easily, without actually breaking up. As a parable of the decades of violence in the Middle East, these sculptures also play on an ambivalence–they are delicate and terrifying at the same time. In the video Fanfare, a couple of around fifty play drums together for the first time in thirty years, facing the camera. During the war, they met as adolescents, when they were learning to play with the musicians of the military band, who, being unemployed, amused and entertained the young people of their village. Similarly, in 14, Maha Yammine created a strange situation: she invited five regular card players to a game of cards with neither card suits nor numbers. In giving literally “cartes blanches” to her players, the artist makes from a minimal gesture a libertarian potential, on a tightrope between seriousness and frivolity. She abolishes the rules and the chance of the deal, keeping only the superficiality of the game: exchanges, glances, peripheral chatting and joking; that’s to say–on the contrary–a whole human and social depth.
Games are also present in the mise en scène of the artists as bride and bridegroom: two wedding photos, commissioned from a portrait photographer and entitled Circenses hang above both exhibitions, Maha in her mother’s wedding gown, Marwan in his father’s wedding suit, barefoot on a carpet, anachronistic and overwhelmed. These portraits, artificial and official as they are, mischievously evoke the presidential effigies that hang in town halls. The artists watch over the visitors and the works, oscillating between solemnity and burlesque. Another wedding is also shown at Vénissieux, that of Jamilé, in an 8mm film unearthed by Maha Yammine. A few days before the wedding, the camera shows us the preparations, the fabrics and the objects made and put together by the bride-to-be.
Fighting to unstitch the past
Like a phantom escaped from the film, a tablecloth from Jamilé’s trousseau occupies the floor space in the centre of the Espace arts plastiques. This meticulous piece of work has been patiently “unembroidered” by the artist, like Penelope who, in order to pass the time until the return of Ulysses, undid her weaving in order to do it over again. This reverse embroidery is suggestive of a rewinding of time, a theme dear to the artist because it is Backwards that she journeys back into the memories of preceding generations.
The little Blue dress hung on the wall close by also derives from the presence of a ghost of the past: a memory of several years of his childhood spent working on a knitting machine, Moussa made it at the request of the artist, now that he is an adult and a father. Childhood long gone, the relationships between the generations, and the fragility of memory are revealed in this little garment, and its vivid colour seems to float beyond time. Alongside the dress, can be seen and heard a fan, the air of which attaches to the wall a message in Arabic. This flyer carries the information that the area will soon be bombed, that all vehicles will be considered suspicious and will be targeted. This work by Marwan Moujaes, entitled Breathe, takes up a menacing warning launched from an aeroplane over civilians in thousands of examples. “Breathe”, the latter as an injunction to stay calm. While the confrontations with Israel have made their mark on recent history, Marwan Moujaes reaches out to appeasement with Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth. If you move up to a radio, you can hear his voice reciting very quietly the Song of Songs. These verses from the Old Testament are surprising for their high colour and their theme: the love that exists between two lovers. The thing is though that the poem in Hebrew is recited by the artist, who does not speak Hebrew. His hesitations and his approximate accent express the difficulty of communicating without deforming, even for a message of love.
Ballad of the centuries, between contemplation and subversion
In equally poetic fashion, the landscape is take over by the artist as a silent witness of events of destruction; calmly and peacefully, he brings to life a continuity that unites the eras, bearing the mournings, the traces of History the myths and the conflicts. Stream is a paradigm of this duality of landscape, between the dramatic tension of an event and the banal tranquility of the surroundings.
The artist commissioned a painter and decorator to reproduce a static shot from television archives: we see a border village designated at the time for an exchange of Lebanese hostages held by ISIS. This landscape, which was broadcast non-stop on all channels was viewed by audiences, only to fall rapidly into oblivion. By subverting it into an academic and mediocre painting (like other, often pretentious “historical paintings”), hung at La Halle by articulated arm, the artist reactivates the facts and puts them back into the collective memory, at the same time challenging the vacuity of the image in the media. In the adjoining room, the River Litani is represented as a haven of peace (an Arcadia) in the video Counting sheeps. The calm of this landscape and the lullaby that we hear accentuate the cruelty of the local living conditions: this river situated on Lebanese territory, is a coveted resource and is considered a military frontier by Israel. Crossing it is impossible, the war is still latent, and the indolent heat that we sense is an illusion.
In a video shown in the screening room of la Halle and entitled Do not stare at me because I am darkened by the sun, we are present at a wedding. But the men and women in the foreground are unrecognisable and blurred, while the surrounding woods and mountains are, on the contrary, clear and luminous. The title is again taken from the Song of Songs of Solomon, which is rich in botanical and bucolic images. Here the relationship is reversed: the love story becomes a pretext for focusing our attention on the surrounding landscape. From the village of the married couple in South Lebanon, we can see the Israeli colonies: the contrast between the ancient stones of the Lebanese church and the modern houses of the kibboutz on the horizon is riveting. The tension is palpable, even on this day of celebration, since the region is still under strict military control. In order to be able to film the scene, the artist had to resort to ruse by passing himself off as a wedding photographer. In contrast to the contemplative mood of these videos, I keep it under my tongue is an invitation to action, with a possible electoral boycott. In the face of political corruption, the ultimate way of making one’s voice heard would be to modify the ballot paper by adding to it a microchip from a musical greetings card playing a well-known tune at the count. This grating sound commentary underlines the vanity of a system that leaves no room for renewal.
At la Halle visitors are invited to open and listen to a facsimile of this musical ballot paper in a genuine polling booth. Finally, like a form of punctuation in both places –Vénissieux and Pont-en-Royans–timid blades of grass emerge from the ground through the cracks in a traditionally patterned tile This is the materialisation of a memory recounted by Fady, a child conscripted to the army at the age of during the civil war. Maha Yammine met him and he told her the story of his canary, who dropped seeds onto the balcony which had been cracked by the bombings. The artist reconstitutes this tender memory: young blades of grass spring up throughout the exhibition. A sense of duration is established and the life cycle of the plants recall the days counted waiting for peace. This vital spark is a sort of tension towards a lightness and a naivety to be found again and grasped. By reactivating situations lived or by inserting themselves into sensitive places, the artists–in the image of this unexpected vegetation on Fady’s balcony– in a multitude of ways resist and enter into the fertile chinks History has left by chance.