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.
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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.