One of the main reasons why Beirut’s contemporary art scene exerts a regional and international influence so totally disproportionate to the city’s small size is that a remarkably high number of interesting, innovative artists are reliably living and working here. In terms of the talent necessary to trigger the growth of small institutions, and to sustain the activities of a viable infrastructure, these artists reached critical mass a long time ago.
It remains something of a mystery, then, why so few curators, and so little curatorial thought, have materialized alongside them to support and challenge the work that artists do. Consider some of the most impressive organizations on the scene: Ashkal Alwan, the Beirut Art Center , and the Arab Image Foundation. None of them employ a curatorial staff. Exhibitions and other like-minded programs are assembled in-house, by committee, or through closed-door consensus. Only occasionally are external curators contracted in.
The result, naturally enough – and a key advantage of the current layout of the artistic landscape – is a generation of artists who are more than capable of curating their own work and that of their peers. But a new exhibition at the Running Horse Contemporary Art Space in Karantina outlines how much more could be done, particularly in terms of making unexpected connections and refreshing our interpretations of artists whose works we think we already know.
“A Territory of Resistance,” which opened Monday and runs through Nov. 3, features the work of five young Lebanese artists, four of whom divide their time between Beirut and other cities ranging from Cairo to Paris to Hangzhou in China. Perhaps their part-time status contributes to the richness of subjects and strategies on display here. What unifies the show is a shared emphasis on the body, and so the gallery is a pageant of scars, tattoos, blemishes and bulging male figures tragicomically distorted through long hours at the gym.
According to Lea Sednaoui, the founder and director of Running Horse, “Territory” grew out of a conversation with the artist Sirine Fattouh about two videos she made, titled “Love Talk,” in 2009. Each piece offers a glimpse into the headspace of a man overfond of his physique. In speaking of the attention they pay to their physical forms, the two bodybuilders make a few hopeless observations about the rest of their lives, their perceptions of themselves, and their lovers. Yet out of their obsession, they elicit great sympathy, not unlike the fiercely devoted year-round swimmers in the ongoing series of videos and installations by Mounira al-Solh, titled “The Sea is a Stereo,” which she started in 2007.
“Territory” includes both of Fattouh’s “Love Talk” videos, and the installation “Archeology of the Nose,” from 2012, which consists of nine silicone casts of the artist’s olfactory organ, apparently the only body part, besides the ears, which continues to grow throughout one’s life. Fattouh doesn’t take her own work in the same direction previously pursued by Nadine Touma, in her wondrous installation and performance based around another collection of noses (6,000 of them, cast in marzipan), which was the subtle insult of losing the fine features of the so-called oriental nose to cheap, rampant, neutralizing plastic surgery (a California button here, a Swiss ski slope there).
But taken together, Fattouh’s work lays the foundation for the rest of the exhibition, where photographs, videos and interactive installations by Ali Cherri, George Awde, Randa Mirza and Stephanie Saade explore how politics are inscribed on the body and vice versa.
Ever since he presented an ambitious performance piece titled “Give Me a Body Then” for the Home Works Forum in 2005, Cherri has been using his work to consider the myriad ways in which the body, and specifically his body, registers the occurrence of wars, conflicts, and other social anxieties and cultural tensions. His contribution here is “Triptych: Studies from a Human Body,” 2012, made of three television monitors straight out the 1980s, each screening grainy footage of the artist’s prone form, the inside of his mouth, and the mysterious old wounds carved into his flesh. How did they get there and what stories do they tell about him, about us, and the place and time in which we are living?
George Awde  has likewise spent the past five years or so fine-tuning a ruminative approach to photography, through which he documents the lives of men in precarious circumstances who create new forms of community and approximate the conditions of family, to both moving and mournful effect. Awde’s series “Shifting Grounds” locates itself in Beirut’s interstitial spaces. In part due to the incredible light and detail of his large-format pictures, he returns the city to us as an estranged image of lives suspended.
Cherri and Awde share an obvious interest in constructions of masculinity, and they both have a delicate touch for their respective ideas about form. Fattouh’s stripped down aesthetic and Saade’s more abstract, object-oriented approach to the experiential body nicely compliment those affinities.
This leaves Randa Mirza’s piece, made in collaboration with the Italian researcher Giulia Guadagnoli, something of an orphan. As part of an academic study on perceptions of sexuality and sexual identity, the installation, titled “La Tiza,” 2011, is loud, boisterous, and bombastic. It is also hilarious, including a survey of responses to images of bared backsides. But it threatens to throw the balance of an otherwise even-keeled exhibition.
Yet even accounting for the volatility of Mirza’s piece, “Territory” is rare among Beirut-based shows of contemporary art in that it is modest, clear and driven by ideas that are emanating from the artworks themselves, rather than being vaguely attributed to them or strung together in the twists and turns of a pretentious text.
At a time when there is arguably way too much attention being paid, and hands being wrung with worry, over who will become the next Walid Raad or Akram Zaatari or Rabih Mroué, “Territory” is a fine example of the kinds of shows – simple and searching – that should be mounted much more often. It is these kinds of exhibitions that allow artists to grow and at the same time teach us to see.
“A Territory of Resistance” remains on view at the Running Horse Contemporary Art Space in Karantina through Nov. 3. For more information, please call 01-562-778 or visit www.therunninghorseart.com .