Laughter in the dark

Beirut has been rebuilt after the horrors of Lebanon's 16-year conflict, but the country's artists refuse to gloss over the past. Now the dramatic fruits are coming to London
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Beirut now boasts a vast Virgin megastore with a rooftop bar where the waiters will provide you with perfectly mixed cocktails to sip and nargilehs (water pipes) to puff on. The view from this vantage point is awesome, especially at night; a pulsating carpet of lights as far as the eye can see. Directly below, the downtown area of the Lebanese capital throbs with regenerated energy. These broad, new pedestrianised streets, each a parade of super-smart cafés, restaurants, aggressively hip nightclubs and designer-label emporia, feel like some strange synthesis of Disneyland and Las Vegas. That sensation comes partly from the simultaneous sense of pervasive unreality and suspect money.

Beirut now boasts a vast Virgin megastore with a rooftop bar where the waiters will provide you with perfectly mixed cocktails to sip and nargilehs (water pipes) to puff on. The view from this vantage point is awesome, especially at night; a pulsating carpet of lights as far as the eye can see. Directly below, the downtown area of the Lebanese capital throbs with regenerated energy. These broad, new pedestrianised streets, each a parade of super-smart cafés, restaurants, aggressively hip nightclubs and designer-label emporia, feel like some strange synthesis of Disneyland and Las Vegas. That sensation comes partly from the simultaneous sense of pervasive unreality and suspect money.

Downtown is the area that was razed to the ground during the country's harrowing civil war (from 1975 to 1991), which was prolonged and exacerbated by Israel's invasion in 1978. With its vicious factional bloodshed, its kidnappings, its hostage-taking (Terry Waite, John McCarthy, Brian Keenan and others) and the Israeli-condoned massacres at Sabra and Chatila, that conflict created a profound trauma that will take rather more than a few multinational retail outlets to cure. But there is widespread, officially fostered denial of this.

That's why some Beirutis, even while conceding that we are all tourists now in our own globalised backyards and had better make the best of it, regard the downtown boom as an emblem of psychic and sponsored amnesia. Solidere, the property firm responsible for the reconstruction, was founded and granted a monopoly by the current Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, who is, not coincidentally, one of the 24 billionaires in the Middle East.

During my visit, there were local government elections. It's revealing that not one of the artists and intellectuals I met could be bothered to vote in them. Bribery and corruption were so obviously going to return Hariri-backed candidates.

"My 16-year-old daughter is studying history from the same textbook I was taught from," says Christine Tohme, who runs Ashkal Alwan, the Lebanese Association of Plastic Arts. A redoubtable figure in Beirut culture, she is the curator of an excellent season for Lift (the London International Festival of Theatre), sardonically entitled Laughter, which in London this month showcases a variety of incisive, eye-opening and conceptually shrewd works by Lebanese artists. These include three multimedia theatre pieces at the ICA, in The Mall, and a medley of video installations, visual art and film at the Bargehouse, a gallery behind the Oxo Tower on the south bank of the Thames.

"For me, the war has not yet stopped," Tohme says. "It has just taken a different economic form." How to deal with the uncertainty and lack of closure is the problem addressed by most pieces in the season, but its curator is anxious that they should not be perceived lazily as offering images of victimhood or endorsing the stock response to the capital as "war-torn Beirut".

Having met quite a few of the artists on their home ground and seen a number of the pieces, I think it's clear that while the work is defined by its momentous local circumstances, it is not limited by them. Rather, the extremity of the conditions from which it derives gives the art an especially eloquent capacity for creating metaphors expressive of a world, by no means confined to Lebanon, where the fighting seems to be over and yet eerily isn't, and where the evidence for past atrocities is frustratingly partial and treacherous and where, therefore, justice feels like an illusory prospect.

For example, the figure of the man who "disappeared" recurs hauntingly through the season. He's there in Rabih Mroue's one-man show Looking for a Missing Employee, a tangled real-life tale of almost surreal corruption in high places. Based on a scrapbook of newspaper reports beginning in 1996, the piece is designed, says the author, "to tease the audience with an objectivity that cannot be reached".

The figure crops up again in Lasting Images, an installation by Joanna Hadji-thomas and Khalil Joreige. Joreige says that 17,000 people disappeared during the war. One of these was his uncle, who was kidnapped and is still missing. Among his effects, they found an undeveloped 8mm film. This charged object is a potent example of what the two artists call "latency" - a term from psychoanalysis referring to the lapse of time between stimulus and response and a pregnant way of symbolising the suspension and paralysis caused by the war. To develop the film - or not - was a vertiginous decision. What they found and did not find can be experienced, artfully framed, at the Bargehouse.

The same man is the dedicatee of a film made by Lamia Joreige, an artist represented in the season by an installation entitled Replay. In her 2002 film Here and Perhaps Elsewhere, she made a journey down the whole length of the Green Line that separated Muslim West Beirut from the Christian East. In each district, she stopped people and asked: "Do you know anyone who was kidnapped from this area?"

The result was a set of conflicting responses, ranging from tight-lipped paranoia to open grief, and a clash of attitudes to the idea of being questioned that included (I paraphrase): "The government won't talk, so how can you expect us to?" and: "In dredging this up, you give families false hope. There are con men who will charge them $15,000 for false sightings of their sons." The film presents a bewildering situation that is almost impossible to clarify, let alone resolve. It makes you appreciate why Beirut's artists are so mistrustful of overviews of their city that purport to be objective, and of a too-confident separation of fact and fiction.

These considerations - the need to gather documentation, and the corresponding need to remain wary of accepting documented evidence at face value - are what drive Walid Raad's Atlas Group, an outfit that is both a repository of archives and what has been described as a "sort of fictional investigation bureau". The group is known for creating pieces that mischievously smuggle imaginary figures into the non-fictional record and for fielding invented evidence as fact. The object is to expose the assumptions that mould what we accept as a neutral view of reality.

For example, in Hostage: the Bachar Tapes, the intense focus on the Western hostages during the civil war and the media neglect of the thousands of Arab detainees are implicitly questioned by the video "testimony" of a Lebanese airport official who, it now appears, spent three months of a 10-year imprisonment in the same cell as five Americans. He proceeds to fill us in on material that was left out of their autobiographies.

The Atlas piece that will visit London - unveiled while I was in Beirut in an old silk factory, with invitations by e-mail only to circumvent a visit from the censor - is My Neck is Thinner than a Hair: a history of the car bomb in the 1975-1991 Lebanese wars, Volume 1: January 21, 1986. It's the first of a projected multi-volume work about car bombs (there were 3,614 of them) during the civil war.

Like many of the works in the season, it is acutely self-probing about its own procedures. For instance, in the solo show, Biokhraphia, by the actress Lina Saneh and Rabih Mroue, the former literally interrogates herself via her recorded voice on a tape that stops and reruns and provokes discrepant answers, in a savage exercise where theatre is used to call into question the fundamental roles of theatre and performer, and of taboos and censorship in present-day Beirut.

Concentrating on the context and implications of just one explosion, on 21 January 1986 in the Furn al-Chubbak district, the Atlas piece is presented as a lecture with intricate computer graphics and video footage. It sets out to challenge the notion, Walid Raad says, that "history can be reduced to what really happened, as though it is out there in the world". Informed by Freud's notion of the "hysterical symptom", which needs have no likeness or proximity to its cause, their research is into unconscious history - an attempt to collect the traces of the stories people profoundly believed and which (though these may have had little basis in what actually happened) created perceptions of time and space that the dismantling of checkpoints and roadblocks cannot alter.

That tactic is typical of the imaginative world of the Laughter season: intellectually spry, sceptical, scrupulous not to make false claims, astringent - and offering lessons that are of value beyond Lebanon.

The Laughter season runs at the ICA, London SW1 (020-7930 3647; www.ica.org.uk), 7 to 12 June, and at the Bargehouse, London SE1 (020-7928 1255), 11 to 21 June

Comments