Beirut Art Center at the New Museum in New York

All those people waiting in line to try Carsten Höller’s slide at the New Museum — an exhilarating experience I wrote about here — are missing something: on the fifth floor there is a small and intriguing exhibit of work from Lebanon that considers how art is changed or destroyed by its display, either because of official censorship or acts of violence.  This is a big curatorial idea, in fact, and it deserves more space (and, one suspects, resources) than it gets at the New Museum.  Still, the exhibit brings together some of the most accomplished Lebanese artists, filmmakers and documentarians, including Rabih Mroué, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, and Tony Chakar — the last an insightful philosophe and teacher I met a couple years ago with whom I discussed the invisible ethnic mapping of Beirut I have written about previously.

Rabih Mroué’s Un-Spread Your Legs is a video showing the deletions and changes demanded by the censor to the Arabic text (though not the English translation) of a play called Who’s Afraid of Representation?.  A large fraction of the offending text is sexual — sometimes quite graphic in its detail — which is surprising because, at least according to the artists and gallerists I met with in Beirut, there is relatively little official censorship of this kind.  More representative are the many small amendments to eliminate any trace of confessional divisions:

Remove “A Christian” from the sentence “Samer, a Christian who was implicitly on Raymond’s side”.

Remove “The clashes between Amal and Hizbullah” and replace it with “The clashes”.

Remove “Christian” from the sentence “And never had to kill my Christian colleagues at work”.

Remove “Terrified of Hizbullah”.

Remove every mention of the President of the Republic and the Prime Minister.



The wall-sized newsprint portrait by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige called Any Recognition Will Be Purely Fortuitous references an earlier film of theirs called A Perfect Day and reveals something about how the outsize politics of Lebanon have the intimacy of a family squabble.  A woman had given the artists permission to use the portrait of her (ex-, as it would turn out) husband to depict a character who was kidnapped in the civil war but, at the film’s premiere, another woman, Aida, saw it and objected because she was now married to him.  Negotiations followed.  The resolution reflected a kind of small-town dignity: the portrait would be cut when the film was shown in Lebanon but retained when shown abroad.

The wall text for this work, as for the others, is more extensive than at most exhibits but because what is being addressed is the response of a distant city to unfamiliar art I overheard many confused visitors longing for more context; indeed, a fair number of them weren’t entirely certain which wall text went with which work.  The exhibit was done in conjunction with the Beirut Art Center, a terrific art space in a semi-industrial district near the Beirut river, as part of the New Museum’s ongoing “Museum as Hub” series that attempts to show museums as part of a global network.  This problem of context is one that gets at the core of this series: the mission is a worthy one but when art is displaced from the culture or society in which it was made and to which it references, isn’t the result a kind of destruction?


Click here to read my article in Travel + Leisure about contemporary art in Cairo.  Or here for my savaging of art critic Peter Schjeldahl for his review of the new Islamic art wing at the Met.  Or here for my photographs of Lebanon.  Or here to learn how my journey to Beirut ended up on an art gallery wall.





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