We are storytellers, the artist duo Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige says of themselves, and they tell their stories through photography and film, as well as installation and performance. In terms of content, the common thread running through their work is the recent history and contemporary history of Lebanon and Beirut. Both artists were born in Beirut in 1969; they grew up in the city during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), confronted with constant insecurity, violence and frequent relocation, but also images and representations of those moments.
The artistic practice of Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige is in the words of Okwui Enwezor, "a meditation on the status and the nature of the images, the way images travel through the world, the way they infiltrate and embed themselves in our historical consciousness." "We are coming from a minor position where you always have to use a strategy to be able to be seen differently, but also to be able to see again," said Khalil Joreige. The artist couple's strong interest in archive and documentation material is not an isolated case in the Beirut art scene. However, while other Lebanese artists lament the accelerated loss of memory, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige think there are not too few, but rather too many images and memories. Their strategy for dealing with the existing stock of material is the combination of documentary and fiction, and the reactivation of the past in the present.
In the exhibition, the artist duo uses five categories of images or work complexes: First, images affected by violence and war, like those of streetlights in Beirut so deformed by explosions that they resemble strange creatures ("Archeology of our gaze: Bestiaries", 1997); second "latent" images that make the disappeared' visible, like the drawers of undeveloped analog film of fictional photographer Abdallah Farah, and all their other work about the presence of missing persons; thirdly, images trying to shift the gaze and the constructed imagery, as the way they combined a photograph of a replica they produced of a space rocket from the Lebanese Rocket Society in the early 1960s with historical documentation into an installation called "The president's Album"; fourth, virtual relation to images through networks and the Internet, giving a materiality to what is immaterial, as in "The Rumour of the World", "Geometry of space" or even "Dust in the Wind"; and fifth, images that counter the troubled present with the antidote of poetry, as in "Waiting for the Barbarians", "Remembering the light" and "Ismyrna".
Some works relate to a specific event of their own biography, for example, the disappearance of Khalil Joreige's uncle in 1985. He remains one of a total of 17,000 missing persons kidnapped during the Lebanese Civil War. In his archives was a "latent" Super 8 movie that Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige decided to develop nearly 30 years later. Only after intense color correction could anything be seen in the pictures. The video "Lasting Images" (2003) is based on this Super 8 footage, as well as the carpet-like, pale cream composition "180 Seconds of Lasting Images" (2006), composed of 4,500 photograms. Such imagery conveys that the reanimated phantom forms are affirming their refusal to disappear, the hoped-for reconciliation with the past being until now denied.
With "The Rumour of the World" (2014) Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige explore whether fraudulent spam emails (scams) have the potential to become work of fictions in their own right, stories that could be seen as a chronicle of recent events and disasters, a kind of strange history of the contemporary world. Written in the first-person, taking the personality of famous dictators or of members of their families, those texts are recited by amateur actors. Out of the superposition of voices at the center of the work, the viewer breaks away by moving closer to a single story, and listening to it, becoming related to an individual or a subject.
In "Remembering the light" (2016) Hadjithomas and Joreige send colors underwater and observe how the color spectrum narrows with the increasing depth of the sea. The colors vanish one after the other: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and finally darkness remains. But even when the light is off, plankton remembers the light and reveals its luminescence. To find so poetic an image in the deficit, the loss and the wound, however, may simultaneously initiate the first step towards transformation. "We feel poetry could oppose the shrinking of our territory, in this confused time where we have nothing but our desire to counter violence and power."
The most recent work in this exhibition leads to Izmir ("Ismyrna", 2016) and is based on the friendship between Joana Hadjithomas and the painter/poet Etel Adnan (born 1925 in Beirut). Both the grandfather of Joana Hadjithomas and the mother of Etel Adnan were born in Izmir. Both had to leave the city after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the events of the 1920's. Etel Adnan's mother has throughout her life had an impossible wish: return to Izmir. For her father, an Ottoman officer, his entire world went down with the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Etel Adnan has a single picture of her father; Joana Hadjithomas has only lists with names of places and belongings. In the film "Ismyrna", both question the development of boundaries and identities, considering the region's changes, and how one can transform the nostalgia and pain of a previous generation. Etel Adnan speaks of an "eternal present" as a means of liberation.
The exhibition is coproduced by Jeu de Paume, Paris, Sharjah Art Foundation, Haus der Kunst
Munich and Institut Valencià d'Art Modern. Curators: Marta Gili (Jeu de Paume), Hoor Al-Qasimi (Sharjah Art Foundation), Anna Schneider (Haus der Kunst Munich), José Miguel G. Cortés (Institut Valencià d'Art Modern)