News Column

Dancing with a lone cow in a field

July 23, 2013


July 23--BEIRUT -- Jessika Khazrik sits in a chair that has a back but no legs. On the wall behind her is a video projection screen, whose images she manipulates via a hand-held tablet.

On her lap alongside is a stack of tablet-sized, paperclip-bound bits of paper. She consults these as she addresses her audience about "The Influence of Prostitution on Tourism."

The subject of Khazrik's ambling 40-minute performance is Georgette Karam -- the pretty (and frequently photographed) young woman whose family album-style snaps are the piece's major visual reference.

In Khazrik's (perhaps fictive) biographical account, Karam is the performer's mother and the author of an MA thesis submitted in 1979, written when she was a student at the Lebanese Institute of Tourism, called "The Influence of Prostitution on Tourism."

A quasi-autobiographical striptease that toys with the video archiving-interrogation of 20th-century Lebanon, the work bristles with possibilities. It alights upon several themes -- time-tested (Did Karam interview any prostitutes when assembling this data, or simply transcribe her fantasies?), media-critical (Why was Karam so obsessive about having her photograph taken everywhere she went?), and playful (maybe Karam's thesis was autobiographical?).

"The Influence of Prostitution on Tourism" is so laden with potential, in fact, it feels at once raw and bloated. Appropriate for a work in progress.

Khazrik's piece was performed three times over this past weekend at Ashkal Alwan's Home Workspace, one of 14 works by as many artists, presented in a casual open studio show to mark the end of ten months of feverish interdisciplinary mentoring, research and project-development among this year's crop of young international artists.

The RP ("resident producer," nee "resident professor") for the 2012-13 Home Workspace program has been Matthias Lilienthal, the German dramaturge credited with redefining the very nature of theater. Lilienthal's last gig before coming to Ashkal Alwan was his stint as artistic director at Berlin's HAU (Hebbel am Ufer), where he oversaw about 1,000 productions over less than a decade.

A determination to liberate theater from theaters saw Lilienthal develop "X-Apartments," in which artists stage works in private homes. "X-Apartments" was the successful opening gesture of this year's Home Works Forum, with performance-installations staged in offices and flats in Burj Hammoud and Khandaq al-Ghamiq.

"In performances and theater," Lilienthal smiles, "I don't want to go on a field where 50 cows are already standing. I prefer much more to be a lone cow on a field.

"At the HAU I called myself a 'booker.' Here I rejected the expression 'professor.' By talking with the students and working with them, I had much more the impression of producing work and seeing my own [role] as being between producing and mentoring.

"Anyway I don't believe in the concept of 'teaching.' ... I learnt all my things by doing practical work and doing projects. That's what I wanted to do here ... Yes, I am a facilitator but sometimes in an agent provocateur kind of way."

Khazrik's piece was not the sole performance work at this year's open studio. Alex Baczynski-Jenkins plans a performance called "A Promenade of the Hearts" -- readings from an anthology devoted to intimate practices, compiled by Ahmad al-Tifashi (1148-1253) performed in inline skates.

The object of Romain Hamard's "JUDITH versions" is a Beirut restaging of the 1954-1960 LA film project "The Savage Eye." At Ashkal Alwan, the work played out as a 30-40-minute dialogue -- separately shot (and simultaneously projected) amid the space's multiply reflecting surfaces with a pair of hand-held cameras.

In this audiovisual game of light, shadow and reflection, the film's original dialogue is the weakest element, leaving you wondering whether this performance may not be more interesting than the film project that inspired it.

"The whole scene of Beirut is very aesthetic," Lilienthal notes. "I'm coming much more from the basic proletarian Berlin, with a clear Leftist opinion ... I think [Beirut] could be more open to other forms of artistic work. I sometimes have the feeling of a slightly limited view.

"If you compare Beirut with Berlin -- which is not really appropriate -- but of course the first thing you have in Berlin [is] 50-80 scenes and nobody has an overview and nobody knows where it goes to. In Berlin it's much more possible that people from different genres are talking to each other. And nobody can be secure about their own position."

Lilienthal says he'd like to see more politically and socially engaged art on the Beirut scene. "It's so much discredited by the Civil War ... there's such a distance to ideologies that [a social-political approach] is sometimes difficult."

"I think the scene here developed in the last 10-15 years in an amazing way. Unlike 10 years ago, you have cultural institutions, you have funds, you have artists who can partly or can live by their work and in the moment I would hope for more discussions between human beings and institutions," he adds.

"If I were to stay longer here, my next project [would be] the foundation of a party," he laughs again. "You know the creation of a party is so discredited here ... that a party as an artistic project would interest me in this part of the world."

Also performance based, Monira al-Qadiri's music video "Abu Athiyya" (Father of Pain) may be the most accomplished finished piece in this open studio. In the exhibition notes, the artist describes the work as a eulogy to the aesthetic of sadness that was once a prominent part of the culture of southern Iraq.

The tune at the center of the video is a mawwal by Iraqi vocalist Yas Khodhor. The choreography, performed by the artist herself, attempts to reproduce the knife dance of the iconic Iraqi dancer Malayeen. Qadiri dresses up as the corpse of a dead man (complete with white body paint redolent of butoh) who literally rises from the dead to sing and dance.

In its execution, Qadiri's video is a hilarious piece of comic incongruity, the cheesy video effects providing a perfect complement to the dance that resembles an energetic, but ineffectual, effort to commit suicide with a couple of daggers.

Maxime Hourani's work-in-progress "Revolving Geographies: Raouche" presents itself as a nascent film project, one that conflates the story of a B-movie director's tour of pre-Civil War Lebanon with two structures -- one in Raouche, the other near Martyrs Square -- built by a common architect. Another project that bursts with thematic potential, Hourani's film remains a tantalizing possibility.

"I loved this moment when [English artist and Turner prize nominee] Phil Collins gave a workshop [at Ashkal Alwan]. He worked with everybody on a choreography. Everybody had to dance. After one hour [Cairo-based painter] Sara Hamdy is laughing, saying, 'This is the first time in my life that I am dancing.'"


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