Essay Akram Zaatari, 09/02/2006

Endless Fall / or Love Innocently

The first love that marked my late adolescent years was of a schoolmate, a classic scenario for gay men in general, when a young man desires a classmate who doesn't share his feelings, and who is eager to have his first-time sex with a woman. My beloved friend had a childhood friend who had left Lebanon after high school to study abroad, and whom I used to regard as a rival before I even met him. I had been told so many things about him and felt I knew him fairly well. Among the things my two friends had shared in the past was a dream, literally a dream, which embodied the evidence of their closeness. It was a dream of being in an elevator, freefalling endlessly. Ambiguous as dreams may be, they were both not sure whether they were falling or flying. As much as this dream embodied their friendship, it was my first initiation to jealousy.

It was a funny and awkward situation, and indeed a strong friendship, fortified naturally by the feeling of isolation and closure that one experiences in a situation of war. It is the same war that is sometimes remembered by others in my generation as the years of sexual openness, which-to my surprise now-was not the case in my middle-class protected entourage. 

For me, war experience has strong ties to details, and that is indeed shared by many, who were sheltered inside-relatively safe-domestic spaces. As a child I learned to use my pen and paper to write accounts of the war, accounts of family activity, or else. I learned to use my camera at home, and to use my audio recorder to register all that happened around me. In war times, the sound of the fridge signaling the end of long power cuts used to evoke a feeling of normality, even safety. This is not about nostalgia as much as it is simply about discovering the power of the detail, banality's capacity to speak with emotions. 

There is a ten-year age difference between Ali Cherri and me, yet we share so much of this experience, which I wouldn't necessarily describe as traumatizing. For my generation, talking about war is talking about childhood, adolescence, and innocently about first love experiences. When I watched Un Cercle autour du Soleil I was marked with Ali's imagination of Beirut's cityscape, which enabled him to make a continuous and surprisingly endless tilt-down on an ugly, yet charmingly familiar urban tissue. “I was certain that any confrontation between my weak flabby flesh and death was absurdly inappropriate. I lacked the body suitable for a dramatic death.” Was Beirut saved from destruction by its chaos, or is chaos a result of being through war? Why would one want to know? The tilt becomes further disturbing because it alludes to a mutated body/city, or a surgical intervention on a dead body. Do we inhabit the ruins of our past city? 

Ali Cherri's work bases itself on personal history to communicate something about war. A story of a young boy's desire-collecting pictures of naked bodies and ending up with images of mostly dead people in Give Me a Body Then (performance)-becomes a story about war. The wings printed on a man's back become evidently about war. How can a story of war be told without the desire, the dream, and the life behind it? 

Body's natural desire for flying is betrayed by gravity. I remember this dream, freefalling in an elevator shaft. The truth is that I, too, used to have a similar dream when I was young, a dream that would start with falling, and end with ejaculation in bed. The dream had a pleasurable taste of liberating oneself from gravity. Now I know that flying is everybody's dream. 

Beirut, February 9, 2006

Interview Teté Martinho, 02/2006

In a text about Un Cercle autour du Soleil, you mention “the amnesia that the Beiruti society has deliberately chosen as a path out of the civil war.” Do you consider your work to be an antidote to this amnesia—or an alternative path out of the war trauma?

I do not approach my artwork as a healing process out of a traumatizing experience, whatever the nature of this experience. I think one of the reasons that Lebanese people have chosen amnesia, as a path out of the civil war, is the inability to “properly” communicate this experience. A war situation is not necessarily a unique experience that cannot be represented, but the preexisting image of “war” that we might have from fiction, or from reportage on the news, is remote from the actual experience. I think that we lack the means and the language to talk about the war. I try to find, through my art, a language that can communicate or share elements of this experience, not as an antidote to the amnesiac state we might be living in, but by fictionalizing my war memories. It is not “to remember,” but rather “to invent,” in order to understand. 

How do you think the experience of war affects you as an artist?

During a civil war, especially when it lasts seventeen years, the logic of things is disrupted. But war chaos has logic too. The war is lived in its daily routine, its daily happiness and sadness, and melts in our personal histories. Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that war cannot be approached as a series of events that we are able to recall. But at the same time, it cannot be approached purely as a series of personal stories, since the nature of the trauma affects these stories. Maybe what war does is it exposes the link between personal experience and history.

When did your first experiences with art happen? What were they like? How did recurring themes such as death and the body surface in your early work?

My first degree was Bachelor in Graphic Design from the School of Architecture in Beirut, where I had studied the history of Art and Architecture. My design career has given me the opportunity to work closely with artists but from a designer’s position. I was first drawn in to theater as a performer, then as a stage set designer. I was always intrigued by murder mystery stories. I was fascinated with the detective that goes looking for a missing clue, or a missing body. One of my early projects was a murder mystery interactive game of a murder that took place in a library. There is an opposition between matter and language in classical detective stories; which is why the library is the most appropriate—or because it is the most inappropriate—, the most disturbing location for a body to be found. The project Un Cercle autour du Soleil had started as a story of a detective that roams the streets of Beirut looking for a missing body. I am interested in dealing with this unfinished business in my city after the war. I like to inspect this hazy line between being alive and being dead, between Beirut, the metropolis or the necropolis. I wonder if anyone makes it out of the war alive. 

In As Dead as Ever, you use addresses of deceased people to draw your own map of Amsterdam—a way of appropriating yourself of the new city. While you were growing up, was there a similar process in the way you designed your personal map of Beirut?

While growing up, Beirut was not so much a geographical city. It was torn down to its elements: it was streets, gas stations, shops… All streets had lost their names. It used to be divided and subdivided everyday. I could not see Beirut in an eyeless map. And even today, most of the Beiruties do not know how to read a map of their city. Beirut, the city, was a name, an idea. The streets, the geography did not necessarily correspond to that city. 

What is the history of the Noteboomschool, to which RedRum info refers? Why does it make references to The Shining, by Stanley Kubrick?

In the beginning of the last century, Noteboomschool was a school for children with respiratory problems. The school has an intense history, since many sick children had died in the building. DasArts, the school of performing arts, was the first institution to occupy the building after the closing down of Noteboomschool, in the early 1990s. The building is quite eerie, with long corridors and multiple doors. Through the installation RedRum, we tried to evoke the history of the building, and our relation to this school as newcomers. We wanted to revive the myth of the school, calling the kids to come back, as revenants, to reclaim their space. It was an attempt to think our relation to the new space we wanted to occupy, commenting on the “unheimlich” (unearthly) feeling we were all sensing in this new building. A tricycle was offered to DasArts to be put in its long corridor, as homage to Kubrick’s The Shining

The images you mention in you performance Give Me a Body Then are seductive and, sometimes, deadly. What is the power of the image, for you?

The relation between photography and death has always been evoked. Images bring us back to an objectified state, and are always in tension between the photographed and the photograph. One of the very first photographs ever made is a self-portrait of Bayard as a drowned man, dated 1840. Photography from its birth was flirting with death, and therefore carried the germ of its own end. I find this character of images quite seductive. As a graphic designer, I am a producer of images, but I am aware of the power of the images I produce: a power, even over me. I see the authority of certain images in their availability to be touched, to be looked at and to look back at us; in their availability to be possessed and to be penetrated. 

Was this performance the first time you explored the limits between memory and fiction?

In all my work I do not draw a line between what is fiction and what is memory. In Un Cercle autour du Soleil I narrate a personal relation to my body, and to Beirut. But in what seems to be an intimate account of the war years, I allow fiction to inhabit my story. I do not question these limits and I surely do not try to define them. I feel a need to fictionalize my experience, so I can explore the link between body and public space, personal memory and collective fantasy. I find, through fiction, the unconscious is able to inhabit public space. 

You are preparing an installation in collaboration with Rabih Mroué for Hadith (Conversation), a group exhibition to be shown later this year in Beirut. What is it about?

The title of the installation is I Feel a Great Desire to Meet the Masses Once Again. It uses a reproduction of famous photographs of performances of western body artists. These reproduced photographs are laid on the backdrop of the images of the demonstration of one million Lebanese people on March 14, 2005, after the murder of former prime minister Rafic Hariri. The reproductions are of Bruce Nauman’s Self-Portrait as a Fountain (1966-67), Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void (1960), and Vito Acconci’s Conversions (1971). In our society, the individual has no place; we are always part of a religious group, part of a tribe, a family. The installation tries to think the relation these body artists had to their body, and our relation to our bodies when being part of this massive demonstration in Beirut. As individuals, this demonstration expels us and throws us out. Do we have a face when we are part of one million other faces? 

What are your current projects, apart from Hadith?

Currently I am preparing a video project as a continuation of my research about bodies and cities. I am now in the process of writing a series of small texts as a preparation for this video. 

Comment biography Teté Martinho, 02/2006

The fictionalization of memory, the recurrence of death, and the preponderance of text characterize the work of Ali Cherri (born in Beirut, 1976), a young member of the 1990s generation of Lebanese artists. Cherri's work is rooted in the peculiar type of domestic prison that the lengthy Lebanese civil war (1974-1991) forced Beirut citizens into, in the subsequent encounter with body and fantasy that he described in Un Cercle autour du Soleil (2005), and in the nearness of an absent city, transformed by the conflict into a “nonplace,” a tangled web of nameless streets, a metropolis/necropolis. “War exposes the link between personal experience and history,” says the artist. A need to communicate elements of the war experience is the driving force behind Ali Cherri's personal narratives-which, more than just memories, are about “making things up, in order to understand.” 

The narratives are built upon a fascination for mystery stories-particularly about “the detective that goes looking for a missing clue, or a missing body”-, which were one of Cherri's first encounters with art through literature. Detective stories remain a hidden reference in works such as Un Cercle autour du Soleil and As Dead as Ever (2001), were the theme of one of Cherri's first projects, an interactive game about a murder in a library, and reappeared in his first foray into performance, Nothing New Under the Sun (2000), based on tales of murder by Sartre and Mishima. 

Around the time of that performance, Ali Cherri earned a Graphic Design degree from the American University in Beirut-and, as of today, still works as a professional graphic designer. Prior to that, working as an actor, Cherri became close friends with Lina Saneh, theater actress and director, with whom he did Ovrira in 1997 (in 2003, he returned to acting in Ramad, a film by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige). In 2001, Cherri moved to Amsterdam and entered the Performing Arts graduate course at DasArts (Advanced Research in Theatre and Dance Studies), inaugurating a fundamental period for the maturation of his artistic vision.

Cherri's first work in the Netherlands, As Dead as Ever - Topologies of a Death Circuit (2001-2002), explored the city of Amsterdam by building a private map using addresses of dead people, found in local obituaries. The graphic image of “a bunch of lines, shapes, letters, and numbers”-reminiscent of the mapless city, demarcated by death, where Cherri spent his childhood and adolescence-becomes reality as he walks by a series of closed doors, all the while doing video recordings in “an obsessive attempt to turn absence into presence.” 

During the performance-lecture in which he explains his project, Cherri builds an ironically naturalistic character: a performer who is as cold as a lecturer in order to communicate something that is not only fictional, but also disturbingly subjective. With no props whatsoever, the performance highlights the density of the text and the maturity of the artist's references, features that connect Cherri's work with experiments made by prominent artists of the generation immediately previous to his, such as Jalal Toufic and Walid Raad, founder of the Atlas Group. 

The format grew more mature with the performance Give Me a Body Then (2005), where Cherri projects a random collection of photographs and builds a narrative around them; the narrative starts out in a confessional mood-as he speaks of his obsession with images of naked or dead people-, and then takes a surprising twist, turning into a horror story that adds an ironic twist (although not a dismissive one) to the fatal eroticism of the image. The work, presented at the Diskurs - Festival for Young Performing Arts, Germany, and at the Home Works III Forum, promoted by the Ashkal Alwan - Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, in Beirut (2005), is preceded by a screening, repeated ad nauseam, of the image of a man who tries to fly while wearing a huge pair of wings.

More than just an accessory, video is a part of the experiment that Cherri uses as raw material for his performances. Curiously enough, the two stage sets he designed for Lebanese artists during his sojourn in Amsterdam are closely related to video. In Biokhraphia (2002), a theater show by Rabih Mroué and Lina Saneh that was presented in Europe and Asia, Cherri drew a frame that turned into a screen, sometimes showing the face of an actress who answered questions about the role of artists and other times hiding her behind a smoke screen, or else her own projected image. In 10/20 Irrelevant (2003), by Abla Khoury, presented at the DisORIENTation Festival in the House of World Cultures, in Berlin, Cherri's stage design enabled Khoury to share the stage with the images of New York-based Lebanese people who talked about their own “American dreams.” 

Cherri made his first installation involving video, created in partnership with Guy Amitai at the DasArts, in the same year. Alluding to the classic horror movie The Shining (1980), directed by Stanley Kubrick, and to the history of the building itself-before housing DasArts, it used to be a school for children with respiratory problems-, the work is comprised of interventions and images of huge children marching on but not moving forward, projected onto the windows. RedRum attempts to create a link between the school that exists nowadays, and its memories of death and suffering, making room for the “ghosts of the past” at the present time.

The intention is identical to Cherri's description of his video Un Cercle autour du Soleil (2005): “Nowadays, perhaps only the dead have a home to go back to in Beirut. We citizens of Beirut can only hope to be accepted among them, and thus be able to inhabit our city again.” Despite the ruins that surround the area of Beirut that he depicts, Cherri composes his most articulate war account in video, talking about how he used to feel safe under the blanket during the bombings, and about the discovery of his own body-which he claims is too fragile and ugly to deserve a tragic death during the war-and confides that he felt disappointed upon hearing news of the end of the conflict. “I was fond of the idea of living in a city that was eating itself up, just as gastric juice in excess digests and, gradually, eats away at your stomach,” according to Cherri's text. 

In addition to being awarded the FAAP Digital Arts Prize at the 15th Videobrasil, Un Cercle autour du Soleil was presented at the Home Works III Forum, Beirut-an event for which Cherri has already drawn two publications-, and then went on a tour of festivals through the Netherlands, France, and Germany. Cherri has recently inaugurated, at Galerie Sfeir-Semler, in the capital city of Lebanon, the installation I Feel a Great Desire to Meet the Masses Once Again, done in collaboration with Rabih Mroué, for whom he had already created the ironic photomontages of Limp Bodies (2003). The installation reproduces images of body art performances by artists such as Bruce Nauman, Yves Klein, and Vito Acconci, superimposed onto pictures of a demonstration that gathered one million people in Lebanon, after the murder of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in March 2005. The goal is to study the relationship between the body and the crowd, the cause and the individual. Or as Cherri puts it: “Do we have a face when we are part of a million other faces?”

Bibliographical references

Ashkal Alwan
The image of a flying man, the first one in the Give Me a Body Then performance, by Ali Cherri, is featured on the Website of the Home Works III Forum, promoted in November 2005 by the Ashkal Alwan—Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, Beirut. Directed by Christine Tohme, the event discusses artistic practices in the Arab World.

Limp Bodies
Photomontages created by Cherri for Rabih Mroué’s performance combine images of Sigmund Freud and of Lebanese authorities, in order to discuss the domesticating effect of power on intellectuals.