Fillip 17 — Fall 2012

Tranquility Is Made in Pictures
Walid Sadek and Mayssa Fattouh

In choosing to interview Walid Sadek, I sought out the complexities of his work that open up again the codified ways in which questions that frame societies living prolonged crises have come to be handled. In his questioning of the rather hasty application of trauma theory, I found in Sadek’s work a voice engraved in reflection rather than reaction that I, and others, have been longing for—a layered voice that calls for close listening and that offers a subtle reading of the possibilities of rethinking a future through “discarded pasts.” —Mayssa Fattouh

Mayssa Fattouh – One can read in your oeuvre a testimony to the limits of visual art, mainly in Love Is Blind (2006), a text-based installation consisting of ten wall labels for absent paintings made by Moustafa Farroukh, a prominent Lebanese painter of the mid twentieth century, and On the Labour of Missing (2011) where you turn the catastrophic moment captured in Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Das Eismeer (1823–24) into an allegory for the failure of painting in recent history. You have mentioned that these two works are very important. Could you explain why they are of such significance to you?

Walid Sadek – The installation Love Is Blind1 is skeptical of the dominant paradigm of trauma theory repeatedly employed to frame much of post-civil-war art in Lebanon.2 Under such a paradigm, the paintings of Moustafa Farroukh,3 as indexed by the wall labels, would be understood as necessarily absent and the labels as symptoms of living past a historical rupture. This is the dominant paradigm under which much of the art made in Lebanon since the official end of the civil war is placed. Yet I would like to argue that my work, along with the work of others, most prominently some of the films and videos of Ghassan Salhab,4 walks a different conceptual course toward another understanding of ethics and politics in societies undergoing protracted civil war. To remain with the abovementioned installation, I argue that the apparent absence of Farroukh’s painting is due to an excess rather than a lack. In reading the aphorisms, silkscreened just above the wall labels, it is possible to gather that when the painter Farroukh represented Beirut through the genre of academic landscape painting, he was in fact occupying the privileged position from which he could posit a future for the Lebanese nation and its capital. In the ten aphorisms that accompany the wall labels and converse with Farroukh’s landscape paintings of Beirut and its vicinity, the visible city at a distance is repositioned at a near-blinding proximity. Consider the following two: “Here, none will stand on a hilltop and draw the land into a landscape. For a landscape is time arranged; calendar. It is a future made visual approaching the moment of the beholder. Landscape is landless, duly flowing towards the eye of the beholder.” And: “Here, most people are blind. The city in their eyes is lime like aureoles on suckling lips. Here, most know the city well, for knowledge is always in the now, yet live uneasily for tranquility is made in pictures.”In these two aphorisms one can already note that the apparent absence of paintings is not generated by a traumatic rupture and inevitable withdrawal of what was once available and known. Rather, the excessive living in a city without a future nearly blinds and yet generates an altered knowledge from which it is impossible to see the future that those paintings represented. In other words, the apparent absence of the paintings results from two non-convergent points of view and not from the gaping hole left by a traumatic event that interrupted the historical narrative of a nation and severed the present from its past. Consequently, this work is concerned with what is possible, both ethically and politically, from this position of near-blindness rather than in registering or in acting out the symptoms born of a traumatic sense of lack. And this is precisely what the recent work On the Labour of Missing/The Wreck of Hope (2011)5 grapples with as it gives form and substance to the negative, which is generally seen as merely the notional absence of presence: to make of the negative an experience in itself that is not lamentingly compared with a lost substantive positive is what this recent work tries to do. To begin this interview, at your behest, with a brief introduction to these two works, Love Is Blind and On the Labour of Missing/The Wreck of Hope, is to argue first that my work is concerned not with the limits of visual art, nor the failure of painting, but rather with the constrictive application of trauma as a theory of history for civil war. To propose that living in protracted civil war generates an excessive knowledge born of dwelling with a substantive negative is to open unto a necessary reconceptualization of the figure of the survivor that can no longer fit within the temporality of the posthumous, namely that of the traumatized witness who over-lives his death.

Fattouh – Although your process appears to follow a rigorous suppression of images it is necessary to apprehend that you diligently avoid falling into erasure. Does this process link to a concept of forgetting? What is your view of forgetting?

Sadek – In Lebanon, forgetting is prohibited. This prohibition takes on the form of various exhortations to remember, archive, and commemorate: be it the general Law 84 promulgated on August 26, 1991, granting complete amnesty for political crimes including homicide, kidnapping, and torture committed before March 28, 1991; the neoliberal repackaging of Beirut as an ancient city for the future; or leftist and humanitarian calls to commemorate various emblematic events such as that of the start of the civil war, the question is always one of narrativizing a selective and inevitably exclusionary memory. As for forgetting—or in other words, the political right to forget—it is much too dangerous and costly for all contending politico-sectarian discourses to allow. The exhortations to commemorate and the edicts of official amnesty all seek to fix what is considered necessary to remember rather than open history into a field where forgetting—or in other words, a non-vengeful remembrance­­—can actively develop. The relation between forgetting and what I call a non-vengeful remembrance lies in the possibility of a memory liberated from monuments, a memory that can forget because it is no longer tied and determined by a series of edicts on what ought to be remembered and what must, if such a thing is possible, be forgotten. Of course, the task is not to allow this conception of memory to be collapsed into a simple recapitulation on seeking political justice.

This difficulty is at the centre of Simon El Habre’s excellent film The One Man Village6 in which Semaan, the main character, seems intent on resisting a mere remembering of the violent past as if in such an act there is unavoidable obscenity. In my work I try to release the possibilities of a dynamic and critical forgetting from behind the contending discourses of amnesia and commemoration. This is elaborated in letters silkscreened on the walls of the exhibition Place at Last.7 In one letter addressed to a friend, forcibly exiled, forgetting is given form through an act of a necessary rearrangement, which does not generate a commemoration: “I will now go home and on the way hold my face with both hands and to my head keep it close. There, I will hang Titian’s painting of the flaying of Marsyas upside down.” In a second letter, addressed to another friend who has chosen self-exile, forgetting is marked by a fidelity to the violent past that does not result in a repetitive acting out of symptoms: “But forget not to insist that such overstuffed eyes can see; do see in near blindness, in flirting with the formless, in perception delayed. Tell them again and again until they hire you; until you read and write as you once read and wrote when here in Beirut. Or how else will you be able to read this letter?” The task ahead is therefore to expand forgetting and through it challenge the binary of amnesia and commemoration.

I have tried to further elaborate on such a conception of forgetting in more recent works, which revisit the story of the Trojan prince Aeneas fleeing his burning city and bearing his elderly father Anchises on his shoulders. The figure of Aeneas is emblematic of a forgetting that cannot begin until the weight of the past is borne on one’s shoulders and indefinitely. Aeneas does not simply carry his father; he rather decides to know his father and safeguard that knowledge by bearing his weight—a knowledge that cannot be gathered except at the cost of living under it. Consider the following two unique excerpts culled from the all too few testimonies written by Lebanese ex-civil-war combatants:...arriving in Bisrine he happened upon a corpse lying on the side of the road. He turned it to see if it had life but went on his way as it had none. In Deir Al Kamar “Al Hanoun” asked about his son and was met with doleful silence. His son Chamoun died in Bisrine and his corpse was that which the father had crossed but did not recognize.8 And: Imagine how stupid I was, my little Elie. I held a photograph of your mutilated body but did not recognize you.9 If the father is no longer capable of recognizing the consequences of his deeds then it is the sons who must learn to carry the father and in doing so carry the complexity of a civil war without which they may not be able to forget: a forgetting which knows but deems the mere naming of things, the haughty recognition of events, to be almost obscene.

Fattouh – Can one then speak of commemoration as an expansion of the impossibility of mourning, which you address in your work Mourning in the presence of a corpse (2007)?

Sadek – To speak of mourning in Lebanon is to engage with the critical potential of a disinclination to resume normative living and so to think of how one can build a possible future by choosing to carry the weight of a past as a necessary access to a knowledge that is neither pathological nor transcendent. Accordingly, mourning must not be thought of as a process that necessarily leads us forward to a renewed livelihood. Mourning in protracted civil war cannot begin to form a sociality if without a necessary lingering and dwelling with the object of violence, namely the corpse. In a recent work from 2010, a pencil drawing of a stereoscope on two walls of a corner at the Beirut Art Center, I try to give voice to the corpse in order to complicate the conventional structure of mourning as that between an egotistical mourner fearing a fate similar to the lost object/person and a corpse about to be inhumed and covered over with the narratives of mourners. Silkscreened on the wall just below the drawn stereoscopes is: “Look into my eyes Youssef Howayyek, I am speaking through the urn.” The work refers to Howayyek,10 the Lebanese sculptor of the first monument to the nation’s martyrs inaugurated in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square in 1930 and removed, after a long debacle, in 1951. An impossible monument in more ways than one, Howayyek’s denigrated work is nevertheless a reminder that mourning, especially when it is given an aesthetic of interminability, can constitute a threat to a nation’s dream of a self-sufficient and autogenetic foundational moment. In my work on mourning—perhaps no more than a long meditation on Howwayek’s—the corpse, understood as an object of after-death, resists inhumation. Again this is not a matter of an inability to move ahead, of a pathological repetitive acting out. Rather, what the presence of the corpse does is provide a condition for stripping the protracted now of civil war of its wishful discourse and exposes it as the time in which a flagrant abuse of political representation and economic resources takes place by a ruling coterie of powerful beneficiaries. The presence of the corpse is a situation, possibly critical, that exacerbates the protracted temporality of this structure; it posits a resistance to a mere inhumation when disagreement over naming the corpse and over the value of death that the corpse so overwhelmingly marks arises. Put differently, the presence of the corpse marks a refusal to part with what, in certain situations, constitutes the only remaining evidence of violence, a refusal to allow for indifference or feigned amnesia that may hold sway when the body is surrendered to oblivion, or the exclusionary dictated burial customs of warring politico-sectarian factions. The presence of the corpse posits an aporetic situation within the structure of this Lebanese civil war in which the transition from death to martyrdom or to oblivion, with or without the customary trappings of mourning, stumbles on an object in excess: a corpse that cannot be named, claimed, and interred, nor abandoned as carrion.

Fattouh – If one wants to understand the relation of public spaces in Lebanon to the civil war and yourself being one of the postwar artists who intervened in such settings in the early ’90s, how do you see public space operating in the art context of Beirut today?

Sadek – To think of public spaces in Lebanon, or Beirut more specifically, one must shed the habitual tropes associated with humanist and democratic cultural assumptions. To say it bluntly, public spaces do not exist in Beirut because they are inimical to the politico-sectarian division of the city into exclusive and exclusionary districts where the notion and practice of “public” is primarily occupied by a public of loyalists subject to the governing edicts of one particular elite. Accordingly, a public space, which is primarily an act of horizontal intervention, namely one that seeks to open clearings within the sectarian spatial density, is necessarily an act of intervention that cannot but be viewed as belligerent by the powers that claim and control a particular district. During the early ’90s and later through the initiative of the nascent art association Ashkal Alwan, and later still through the annual Ayloul Arts Festival, a few artists approached the monopolized spatial subdivisions of Beirut through a vertical understanding of intervention. Ziad Abillama’s work, titled Where Are We?11 and installed amid an informal rubbish dump neighbouring a popular beach strip north of Beirut, and my own work in Beirut’s Sanayeh Garden, entitled Half-Man,12 to give but two examples, propose an engagement with post-civil-war urbanity through a vertical axis of excavation rather than a deployment of horizontal clearings. Both works posit firstly that spaces in Lebanon are in fact places delimited, surveilled, but, more importantly, prone to destabilization by a depth of well-known and yet disavowed violent events. Secondly, that the excavation of these places leads not to their resurrection, but to the waking up of corpses, who come to inhabit our present and may be essential in the construction of a politically just society. The possibility of excavation was resisted and gradually marginalized by highly mediatized, counter-excavationist works such as those of Nadim Karam13 in whose many public installations a heightened aestheticism complicit with financial backers and powerful policymakers provides a public spectacle that glorifies the putative stability of a present into a readiness to welcome an allegedly long-awaited, prosperous, multicultural future. His major installation in the Beirut city centre, otherwise renamed Solidère,14 during the summer months of 1998 was a strong indication that excavation-as-critique is much too costly. Instead, Karam deploys over the terrain vague of the city centre, recently levelled for reconstruction, giant steel structures of childlike figures and fantastical animals in a celebration of horizontal surfaces as open clearings for a ludic, multicultural, and multi-civilizational communion.

To think of these issues today is to re-emphasize, in different terms, the critical and persistent necessity of the vertical. In a recent essay titled “Peddling Time while Standing Still; Art Remains in Lebanon and the Globalization that Was,”15 I extend my earlier interest in excavation and propose a theoretical framework for what I call “witnesses who know too much.” During the early days of the attempted Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006, it became obvious that the primary target was Hezbollah and its Shia constituency living in south Lebanon and in the densely populated southern suburbs of Beirut. Although other districts were hit, one could, for instance, remain in the predominantly Christian town of Hazmieh and be relatively safe even if no more than five hundred metres away from the targeted and predominantly Shia locality of Chayyah. Many gladly made that choice and many others succumbed to an executional decision taken by the Israelis to ethnically cleanse Lebanon of all of what it disdainfully marked as Shiatic Hezbollah. In the case of those who succumbed, an ethical difficulty arose that lingers still. Those residing in neighbouring Hazmieh, for instance, may not have stood on their balconies superciliously watching buildings collapse in Chayyah or Haret Hreik. Yet they knew through the reverberating blows they heard, that a discriminating and criminal line of fire granted them a respite they neither earned nor could openly claim. Not seeing, in their case, does not warrant lack of knowledge for hearing was already clear and plentiful. Their ears, our ears, saw all there was to be seen.

The line drawn by the Israelis was not the first to be drawn across Lebanese territory. We, the Lebanese, have done similarly many times before; we have drawn lines that allowed blocs and factions to look upon the destruction of others and claim victory, but also lines which turn everyone into witnesses or more precisely into witnesses who know too much. I therefore consider that the issue is not about installing public spaces but rather about learning how to live with these carved lines that crisscross our cities. Consider the short video work by Rania Stephan titled Bint Jbeil,16 named after a village in south Lebanon annihilated by the Israeli air force during the war of 2006: it presents an elderly male survivor who, puzzlingly unable to speak, tells his story in expressive gesticulations. From behind her camera, we hear the video-maker’s voice attempting to translate the man’s animated gestures into words before the soundtrack is abruptly muted. We then witness fifteen seconds of a man alone navigating in a language formed by catastrophe. During the final few seconds, sound is restored and the director’s voice attempts a second translation that seems to draw from the man a faint smile of satisfaction. To close the video and the encounter, she, the director, extends her hand and shakes his. From the relative safety of her position behind the camera, she reaches out to acknowledge a survivor who speaks in another tongue. What they share is the depth of the criminal line they do not cross but over which they attempt to reach one another through inarticulate translations and a handshake. On her side she lives and on his side he lives, even if not as well. What separates them is equal to what they share.

Fattouh – In another film that you write about in your text “Collecting the Uncanny and the Labor of Missing,”17 you describe an anticlimatic moment in which a note—acting here as a protagonist of the film In This House, by Akram Zaatari—was revealed. Could you speak to the importance of silence in your work and how you address it?

Sadek – My critique of Zaatari’s short film is part of an attempt at conversing with absence. In that essay, I begin to develop what I call the labour of missing, which proposes an investment in the remaking, namely the objectification, of the forcibly disappeared as interred rather than occulted. This distinction is increasingly made urgent as the political elite in Lebanon continues, more than two decades after the Taif Accord,18 to avoid the question of the forcibly disappeared, paying lip service only when pressed by electoral machinations. If the labour of missing calls for interring the disappeared rather than requisitioning their reappearance, it does so in an attempt to ground them within the political geography of postwar Lebanon—a geography from which they are peremptorily shunned by the dominant inter-sectarian power relations. It is in producing the disappeared as an object of excess in absentia, as here rather than elsewhere, that “awaiters,” namely those coerced to wither while waiting for the return of the disappeared, step out from the margins and begin the labour of conversing with the absence of the disappeared, a conversation that charges absence with uncanniness. Said differently, in collecting the uncanny, the labour of missing attempts to locate an absence rather than await a ghostly visit. And, it is by interring absence that a substantive conversation with the disappeared can begin. The labour of missing lies therefore in structuring and maintaining a conversation with an absence made uncannily present when tangibly unavailable.

Yet your question regarding silence is more pressing when considering my work on the presence of the corpse introduced earlier in this discussion.19 In positing a situation wherein we are invited to linger around a corpse that resists inhumation, we begin to ask what sort of sociality is possible around the corpse. What conversation passes through the space of the corpse, and is silence inevitable? I have come to propose that when in such a situation it is unquiet silence or soliloquy that tends to occupy those who congregate; a generative and necessary soliloquy that nevertheless must be made explicit and vocalized for a sociality to be made possible. This is a particularly difficult proposition to elaborate on: How is one to go from soliloquy to dialogue? To think this further, consider a myth that tells of a king who set out on an adventure and was instructed to traverse a dreadful burial ground in search of a corpse dangling from a tree, cut it down, and carry it back across.20 Upon finding the tree, the king climbed the branches, cut the rope, and let the corpse fall. It gave a moan. The king, thinking there must still be life in it, began to grope over the rigid form. A shrill laugh broke from its throat and the king realized that the body was inhabited by a ghost. “What are you laughing at?” he demanded. The instant he spoke, the corpse flew back to the limb of the tree. Resolute, the king ascended again, and cut the body down. He lifted it without a word, placed it on his shoulder and began to walk. Along the way, the voice in the corpse posed a riddle to the king in the form of a tale and bid him: “If you know the answer and do not reply, your head will burst into a hundred pieces.” The king, fearing for his head, gave the answer he thought correct upon which the corpse, “groaning in mock agony,” vanished from his back and flew to the limb of the tree from which it hung once again. The king returned, cut the body down, and carried it again across that morbid ground. The voice in the corpse posed another riddle to which the king gave an answer. The corpse vanished only to be cut down yet again from that fateful tree. It was not until the twenty-fifth run that the king found himself nonplussed by the riddle posed by the speaking corpse. Carrying his burden, the king was unable to find an unequivocal answer. He was finally struck dumb by the enigma. The king walked in silence “with a remarkably buoyant stride, bemusing the problem in silence.” The voice spoke again. “Sir,” it said, “you may have this corpse....Take it with you. I am about to quit it.” And yet, this king, and we with him, must still begin a labour that goes from soliloquy towards gathering a voice, and send words to those others tarrying on the other shore of the corpse.

Fattouh – In thinking about In This House, as well as your story of the myth of the king, the corpse, and the fateful tree, can one conclude that your work also touches upon the ethical and political processes involved in witnessing?

Sadek – Rather than the witness, I think that my work, partially informed by the concept of “the witness who knows too much,” is moving towards a rethinking of survivors as key figures in protracted civil wars and as potential makers, or poets, of another horizon of possibilities to explode such protractedness. Survivors do not witness as much as carry the load of a knowledge that cannot be simply made into testimony. Survivors are poets, makers of ruins, and for that reason they are shunned and pathologized. To consider the active role of survivors we must first ask what knowledge they are carrying and how this knowledge is made noticeable and readable to others. I would argue that survivors are the dream-work of a civil war officially over. In them, we may encounter a radically altered appearance of what can no longer be spoken or revealed. Displaced and condensed, they tell nothing specific and make nothing simply available. Yet, they are unavoidable screens, on which flicker what is still operative but severely prohibited. Before and behind these screens survivors gather to look at their time to come, a next that is theirs alone.

  1. Walid Sadek, Love Is Blind, in Out of Beirut, curated by Suzanne Cotter, Modern Art Oxford, March 13–July 16, 2006.
  2. See for instance Sarah Rogers, “Forging History, Performing Memory: Walid Ra’ad’s the Atlas Group” in Parachute 108 (2002), 68–79, and Jalal Toufic, Distracted, 2nd ed. (Willits, CA: Tuumba Press, 2003), 82–92.
  3. Moustafa Farroukh (1901–1957), a Lebanese painter and essayist, graduated from the Royal College of Fine Arts in Rome in 1927. He returned to Lebanon in 1932 and led a successful career primarily as a portraitist. Next to his autobiography titled Tariki Ilal Fen (My path to art) (Beirut: Institute Nawfal, 1986), his most significant essays are published in Al fen Wal Hayat (Art and life) (Beirut: Dar El Ilm Lilmalayin, 1967) and Rihla Ila Bilad Al Majd Al Mafkoud (Journey to the land of lost glory) (first published in 1932 by Dar Al Kashaf, Beirut, and then in a second edition in 1982 by Dar Al Moufid, Beirut).
  4. See for instance La Rose de Personne, video, 10 minutes, 2000, and the feature film Le dernier homme (The last man), 100 minutes, 2006.
  5. Walid Sadek, On the Labour of Missing/The Wreck of Hope, in Seeing Is Believing, curated by Susanne Pfeffer, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, September 11–November 13, 2011.
  6. Simon El Habre, The One Man Village, 86 minutes, 2008.
  7. Walid Sadek, Place at Last, solo exhibition, Beirut Art Center, January 28–April 9, 2010.
  8. Paul Indari, Al Jabal: haqiqa la tarham (The mountain: an unmerciful truth), 6th ed. (2008), 144.
  9. Joseph Saadeh, Ana al dahiyya wal jallad ana (I am the victim and the executioner am I) (Beirut: Dar Al Jadid, 2005), 96.
  10. Youssef El Howayyek (1883–1962) was a Lebanese sculptor and, most notably, the author of the first martyrs’ monument inaugurated in Beirut on September 2, 1930, and removed in May 1951.
  11. Ziad Abillama, Where Are We?, installation on the Antelias seashore, north of Beirut, 1992.
  12. Walid Sadek, Half-Man, in First Sanayeh Garden Art Meeting, Ashkal Alwan, Beirut, summer 1995.
  13. See my “Al Taraf al Thaleth” in the cultural supplement of the Beiruti daily Annahar, November 14, 1998, 6–8.
  14. It is named this in reference to the private company Solidère delegated by the government of the late prime minister Rafic Hariri for the reconstruction of the Beirut city centre and its coastal extensions.
  15. Walid Sadek, “Peddling Time while Standing Still; Art Remains in Lebanon and the Globalization that Was,” in Globalization and Contemporary Art, ed. Jonathan Harris (London: Blackwell, 2011), 43–55.
  16. Rania Stephan, Bint Jbeil, video, 2 minutes, 2006.
  17. Walid Sadek, “Collecting the Uncanny and the Labor of Missing,” in Archives, Museums and Collecting Practices in the Modern Arab World, eds. Sonja Mejcher-Atassi and John Pedro Schwartz (Ashgate, forthcoming, 2012).
  18. The Taif Accord is the name given to the Charter of National Concord signed by Lebanese parl­iamentarians at Taif, Saudi Arabia, on October 22, 1989, and later approved on November 5 by the Lebanese parliament at a general meeting held at Qulayat military base in Lebanon. It allegedly signalled the end of the Lebanese civil war.
  19. See Walid Sadek, “In the Presence of the Corpse,” in a special issue of Third Text, entitled “Not, Not Arab,” edited by Walid Sadek (July 2012).
  20. Heinrich Zimmer, The King and the Corpse: Tales of the Soul’s Conquest of Evil, 2nd ed., Bollingen Series 11, ed. Joseph Campbell (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1956), 202–35.
About the Authors

Walid Sadek is an artist and writer based in Beirut. By investigating the violent legacies of the Lebanese civil war, his work endeavours to structure a theory for a postwar society disinclined to resume normative living. Sadek’s art installations propose a poetics for a social experience governed by uneasy contiguity with the remnants and consequences of violence. He is Associate Professor at the Department of Architecture and Design at the American University of Beirut.

Mayssa Fattouh is a writer and curator currently based in Doha, where she is artistic director of the Katara Art Center. Her writing has appeared in platforms and magazines such as Art Territories, Universes in Universe, M-est, Ibraaz, and Canvas Magazine. Fattouh is an MA candidate at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland.

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