Now in its fourth year, the Beirut Art Center’s  annual exhibition of emerging artists has come to define itself by what it is not. It is not representative of contemporary art in or from Lebanon. It is not a curated show.
It is not responsive to preset ideas and it is not interested in any one medium over another. It is not thematic or generational or chronological. It not a sampler and it is not a survey, either.
It is neither young nor old nor local nor foreign but any or all of those things. It is an open book, a blank slate, an empty art space – and this year, the cold, cavernous, white-walled, concrete-floored factory building that houses the Beirut Art Center  in Jisr al-Wati is very quiet.
“Exposure 2012,” which opened last week and remains on view through Jan. 23, features nine bodies of work, including a series of photographs, a suite of drawings, a wall fresco, documentation of a performance that took place on the exhibition’s opening night and a stone-age motion-picture machine, replete with a hand crank, which broke over the weekend but was back in service by Tuesday.
If a viewer were to pick through the show for a common thread, he or she might find something to tug on in the sense that all of the participating artists seem to share an interest in fragility, precariousness and texture. There is also an undercurrent of concern here for things that have burned, smoldered or been transformed by fire, both literally and metaphorically.
Chafa Ghaddar’s “Spectrum” (2009-2012), a series of diminutive photographs paired with a huge wall fresco, for example, traces out the story of the house where the artist grew up. A fire nearly destroyed it in 1985, and since then mold and humidity have taken their toll.
Yet the house is still inhabited, and the artist has since built her work around notions of fixing materials that have been rendered unstable. Her grainy, nearly abstract photographs arrest the rapid disintegration of a domestic interior. Her fresco holds pigments in place.
In a similar vein, Joumana Anjali Itani makes paintings from the ashes and debris that remain after eruptions of violence settle down – meaning, after the men and boys who take any occasion to burn tires on the streets of Beirut get back on their scooters and go home.
Since January 2012, Itani has been driving to these scenes of unrest after the Army cleared the protesters away. There, she has gathered the charred bits of rubber and returned to her studio, where she grinds it down, runs it through a sieve, adds a binding agent and makes monochromatic paintings from the remnants of social unrest.
The resulting series is a record of disturbance that doubles as a kind of shadow history. For every eruption of violence in reaction to vicious political events – the killing of clerics, the kidnapping of alleged pilgrims – another occurs in response to electricity rationing, power cuts, and labor disputes in the energy sector.
Itani’s paintings generally reflect the mood of the exhibition. Unlike last year’s “Exposure,” which was bold, playful and ambitious, the 2012 edition is subdued, reflective, and prone to melancholy.
Even the color palette is dimmed down – except for the bursts of yellow flowers in a gorgeous but no less ruminative photograph by George Awde, part of his series titled “Shifting Grounds” (2011-2012). The most daring work in the show was a performance for which the artist Ilaria Lupe dangled from a construction crane – and slept.
In the back gallery to the right, Mohamad Hafeda’s video installation “The Chosen Two” (2012) sets up a conversation between a real and fictional mukhtar, or local mayor, in Beirut. On an intellectual level, it sifts through the residue of Ottoman, French and Lebanese law. On an emotional level, it asks throwaway, questions such as “Mukhtar, why do we fear fear when there is no fear?” On an aesthetic level, it reads like dry academic research.
In the back gallery to the left, Graziella Rizkallah Toufic’s four-minute video, with its supporting materials by the artist and theorist Jalal Toufic, reads like Pygmalion.
In between those two works, Kinda Hassan’s installation “The Tone So Prolonged” (2012), asks viewers to climb a few steps, impale themselves on a viewfinder, and crank through a complex arrangement of film strips. The payoff is a vague painterly image of various possibilities: A young woman in a cafe? A young woman on a train with a landscape whirling by? The device is charming, the labor to make it work minimal, but it’s hard to know what more the piece offers than that.
What does an exhibition do if it has nothing to tell us about the world – past, present or future? What does it mean for a young art center to claim so little for itself? Does a public exhibition program not offer any enticement to take a position about a group of young artists working in a particular time and place? Is there nothing at stake here? Is there anybody there? Is the center running on autopilot after four short years?
Since 2009, the number of artists submitting proposals for “Exposure” in response to an open call has been on the rise. This year, a jury chose nine from an applicant pool of 90. Forgiving the fact that Beirut is an unbearably small city, that still seems like a painfully low number, almost inconsequential.
Maybe it’s the most we can hope for. And maybe it’s to the benefit of the artists, in that there are no filters between their work and the public, as thin as that public may be. In her landmark essay “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag wrote: “None of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory when art knew no need to justify itself, when one did not ask of a work of art what is said because one knew (or thought one knew) what it did. From now to the end of consciousness, we are stuck with the task of defending art.”
In the 1960s, that was pure provocation. In Beirut now, the work in “Exposure 2012” is so tremulous and tentative, not without beauty but still far from bold, that it’s hard to know who would be moved to defend it, or how much anyone cares. If this edition is anemic, then perhaps the art doesn’t need defending but some serious convalescence and care.
“Exposure 2012” is on view at the Beirut Art Center through Jan. 23. For more information, please see
www.beirutartcenter.org  or call 01-397-018.