published by La Halle centre d’art contemporain, Pont-en-Royans and Espace arts plastiques Madeleine-Lambert, Vénissieux, July 2018
It was by putting together two artists and two curators in two places1 that the project PANEM ET CIRCENCES ripened to maturity, warmed by the sun of exchanges. The two elements that make up this first major exhibition of the work of Maha Yammine and Marwan Moujaes –at la Halle in Pont-en-Royans and at the Espace arts plastiques Madeleine-Lambert in Vénissieux–interact through thirty works, several of which are entirely new and have been co-produced for this event. And while the work of each of the artists bears witness to two separate sensibilities and two different approaches, their joint exhibition PANEM ET CIRCENCES 2 demonstrates clearly the harmonious complementarity of their work.
Brought together by their shared history of the Levant and of the villages of Lebanon–their native country–and Beirut, they display their research and their artistic endeavours with a critical eye, in mises en scène sometimes caustic and amusing, often intimate and even childlike, meditative, or linked to mourning.
Maha Yammine is an archeologist of memory: she collects and reactivates the stories lived by anonymous people during the war years. As the conflicts went on, normality was dislocated and each person took on other forms of stability in the midst of the chaos, thus creating particular types of everyday life, which the artist reveals. In implicating preceding generations, she sometimes involves her relations and their acquaintances. In her videos and in her installations, a sedimentation of Lebanese history is reconstituted, through the prism of the everyday lives of its inhabitants. She reveals fragments of the past, often intimate, seeming deceptively insignificant or family-based, whilst finding for herself this “missing memory”. It is through the modesty of these micro-narratives that History can be imagined differently: as being plural and stripped of authority.
Marwan Moujaes studies and stages a genealogy of the tensions at play on frontiers, whether administrative or symbolic; what they reveal of political, strategic, or religious delimitations. The dichotomy between the apparent quietness of the places and the intensity of the adjacent local issues, contradicts in his work the stereotypical and spectacular representations of violence and of war. The contemplative temporality of his videos causes our attention to tip into a depth of reflection. Religious tradition, literature, dissidence, and politics intermingle in his work, revealing a sort of consubstantiality of the sources of dissensions and the polysemous richness of the relationship to “Lebanon the place”. Thus, the sites and the objects that make up the territory of exploration of the artists, involved and aware, are crystalisers of memory. Both show works where itineraries and situations (rather than a course of action) are reflected with displacement and humanism, making it possible for them to enter with intelligence and empathy into our own visual and emotional memories.
Throughout the two exhibitions in Pont-en-Royans and Vénissieux, several of the works of Marwan Moujaes are linked to food: Panem forms the contents of a box distributed to the populace by certain candidates at elections, in exchange for promises of votes. A strange chocolate mountain3 is set on a marble slab: it represents the summit of Mount Hermon (Jabal a-sheikh in Arabic). This place constitutes a natural frontier between Lebanon and Syria and an area partly annexed by Israel, but it is also the legendary summit of the Old Testament where the fallen angels fell from the sky, and then devoured the mountain. At the Espace arts plastiques, his video installation I brought you candies because flowers are perishable consists of sweets made by the artist with the honey from the Jewish cemetery–a place abandoned to the luxuriance of the vegetation in the middle of a concrete, vertical Beirut. In these last two works, a curious relationship, filled with melancholy, is born between the inaccessible, the forbidden, and the offer of sweet things to be shared.
In several sculptures, Maha Yammine makes deflected use of certain games loved by children in peacetime. In Vénissieux, her 7 Stones (a game with building blocks, that paradoxically can’t be piled up) or the Phone (made of a soft material which transmits no sound) become ironically un-playable-with: a metaphor for the deprivation of insouciance in wartime. In the gallery of la Halle, her work Wall is made up of three cymas, but these monumental pillars are veryprecariously erected on a slippery carpet of glass marbles. This game of equilibrium defuses the threat that walls and frontiers represent, endowing them with a laughable mobility and also evokes the fragility of an idle childhood in wartime.
The Shell displayed at Pont-en-Royans derives from the same bitter symbolism and the memory of childhood. Lined up closely on the ground, these little sandcastles in the form of bombs crumble easily, without actually breaking up. As a parable of the decades of violence in the Middle East, these sculptures also play on an ambivalence–they are delicate and terrifying at the same time. In the video Fanfare, a couple of around fifty play drums together for the first time in thirty years, facing the camera. During the war, they met as adolescents, when they were learning to play with the musicians of the military band, who, being unemployed, amused and entertained the young people of their village. Similarly, in 14, Maha Yammine created a strange situation: she invited five regular card players to a game of cards with neither card suits nor numbers. In giving literally “cartes blanches” to her players, the artist makes from a minimal gesture a libertarian potential, on a tightrope between seriousness and frivolity. She abolishes the rules and the chance of the deal, keeping only the superficiality of the game: exchanges, glances, peripheral chatting and joking; that’s to say–on the contrary–a whole human and social depth.
Games are also present in the mise en scène of the artists as bride and bridegroom: two wedding photos, commissioned from a portrait photographer and entitled Circenses hang above both exhibitions, Maha in her mother’s wedding gown, Marwan in his father’s wedding suit, barefoot on a carpet, anachronistic and overwhelmed. These portraits, artificial and official as they are, mischievously evoke the presidential effigies that hang in town halls. The artists watch over the visitors and the works, oscillating between solemnity and burlesque. Another wedding is also shown at Vénissieux, that of Jamilé, in an 8mm film unearthed by Maha Yammine. A few days before the wedding, the camera shows us the preparations, the fabrics and the objects made and put together by the bride-to-be.
Fighting to unstitch the past
Like a phantom escaped from the film, a tablecloth from Jamilé’s trousseau occupies the floor space in the centre of the Espace arts plastiques. This meticulous piece of work has been patiently “unembroidered” by the artist, like Penelope who, in order to pass the time until the return of Ulysses, undid her weaving in order to do it over again. This reverse embroidery is suggestive of a rewinding of time, a theme dear to the artist because it is Backwards that she journeys back into the memories of preceding generations.
The little Blue dress hung on the wall close by also derives from the presence of a ghost of the past: a memory of several years of his childhood spent working on a knitting machine, Moussa made it at the request of the artist, now that he is an adult and a father. Childhood long gone, the relationships between the generations, and the fragility of memory are revealed in this little garment, and its vivid colour seems to float beyond time. Alongside the dress, can be seen and heard a fan, the air of which attaches to the wall a message in Arabic. This flyer carries the information that the area will soon be bombed, that all vehicles will be considered suspicious and will be targeted. This work by Marwan Moujaes, entitled Breathe, takes up a menacing warning launched from an aeroplane over civilians in thousands of examples. “Breathe”, the latter as an injunction to stay calm. While the confrontations with Israel have made their mark on recent history, Marwan Moujaes reaches out to appeasement with Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth. If you move up to a radio, you can hear his voice reciting very quietly the Song of Songs. These verses from the Old Testament are surprising for their high colour and their theme: the love that exists between two lovers. The thing is though that the poem in Hebrew is recited by the artist, who does not speak Hebrew. His hesitations and his approximate accent express the difficulty of communicating without deforming, even for a message of love.
Ballad of the centuries, between contemplation and subversion
In equally poetic fashion, the landscape is take over by the artist as a silent witness of events of destruction; calmly and peacefully, he brings to life a continuity that unites the eras, bearing the mournings, the traces of History the myths and the conflicts. Stream is a paradigm of this duality of landscape, between the dramatic tension of an event and the banal tranquility of the surroundings.
The artist commissioned a painter and decorator to reproduce a static shot from television archives: we see a border village designated at the time for an exchange of Lebanese hostages held by ISIS. This landscape, which was broadcast non-stop on all channels was viewed by audiences, only to fall rapidly into oblivion. By subverting it into an academic and mediocre painting (like other, often pretentious “historical paintings”), hung at La Halle by articulated arm, the artist reactivates the facts and puts them back into the collective memory, at the same time challenging the vacuity of the image in the media. In the adjoining room, the River Litani is represented as a haven of peace (an Arcadia) in the video Counting sheeps. The calm of this landscape and the lullaby that we hear accentuate the cruelty of the local living conditions: this river situated on Lebanese territory, is a coveted resource and is considered a military frontier by Israel. Crossing it is impossible, the war is still latent, and the indolent heat that we sense is an illusion.
In a video shown in the screening room of la Halle and entitled Do not stare at me because I am darkened by the sun, we are present at a wedding. But the men and women in the foreground are unrecognisable and blurred, while the surrounding woods and mountains are, on the contrary, clear and luminous. The title is again taken from the Song of Songs of Solomon, which is rich in botanical and bucolic images. Here the relationship is reversed: the love story becomes a pretext for focusing our attention on the surrounding landscape. From the village of the married couple in South Lebanon, we can see the Israeli colonies: the contrast between the ancient stones of the Lebanese church and the modern houses of the kibboutz on the horizon is riveting. The tension is palpable, even on this day of celebration, since the region is still under strict military control. In order to be able to film the scene, the artist had to resort to ruse by passing himself off as a wedding photographer. In contrast to the contemplative mood of these videos, I keep it under my tongue is an invitation to action, with a possible electoral boycott. In the face of political corruption, the ultimate way of making one’s voice heard would be to modify the ballot paper by adding to it a microchip from a musical greetings card playing a well-known tune at the count. This grating sound commentary underlines the vanity of a system that leaves no room for renewal.
At la Halle visitors are invited to open and listen to a facsimile of this musical ballot paper in a genuine polling booth. Finally, like a form of punctuation in both places –Vénissieux and Pont-en-Royans–timid blades of grass emerge from the ground through the cracks in a traditionally patterned tile This is the materialisation of a memory recounted by Fady, a child conscripted to the army at the age of during the civil war. Maha Yammine met him and he told her the story of his canary, who dropped seeds onto the balcony which had been cracked by the bombings. The artist reconstitutes this tender memory: young blades of grass spring up throughout the exhibition. A sense of duration is established and the life cycle of the plants recall the days counted waiting for peace. This vital spark is a sort of tension towards a lightness and a naivety to be found again and grasped. By reactivating situations lived or by inserting themselves into sensitive places, the artists–in the image of this unexpected vegetation on Fady’s balcony– in a multitude of ways resist and enter into the fertile chinks History has left by chance.
Xavier Jullien & Giulia Turati
Videos and short films
2017, video, 5min16sec
In 1976, towards the beginning of the Lebanese civil war, a group of young people found themselves without activity. These teenagers had neither the means nor the will to fight. They called on the musicians of the Lebanese Army, who had no function during the fights to teach them music. They formed a fanfare and played music in the festive occasions of the village and neighboring villages. This band was the meeting place for several couples. In 1984 a musician from the village disappeared, and this incident broke up the band.
33 years later, in 2017, I asked a married couple, who met each other in the fanfare, to re-play a piece of music for the first time since the interruption of their musical activity, in front of the camera, without any training or rehearsal, on the same drums they were keeping in the attic.
The mastery of the situation that can be seen in the first seconds or minutes of the video is soon replaced by errors, omissions and dissonances.
Excerpt from: 14
2017, video, 1h10min
I invited 5 people who meet very often for a card game 14 (or Rummy), to play the same game but with white cards. Despite their hesitation at first, and without any indication from me about the course and duration of the shooting, the players adapted to the situation and the game lasted more than an hour.
Excerpt from: Moussa
2017, video, 1h20min
Moussa spent six years of his childhood making little girls' dresses, as a part of the family work. More than forty years passed after he stopped this activity. In September 2017, I asked him to face this machine one more time and make a dress without any training or rehearsal.
On September 9th, in Filignano, Italy, the village devoted one afternoon for the blessing of it’s animals. In a space devoted for animals, a garden facing the altar and the priest, Maria-Elena and her dog Ledi were waiting. Prayer, Blessing and Fanfares succeed before the departure of Ledi ... blessed and lame
2018, found footage, 8mm, loop.
A bride's trousseau is displayed for the public, in her parents' house, few days before the wedding.
2018, found footage, 8mm, 2-channel video, loop
The bride to be is showing items of her trousseau. On the left, she shows the jewellry, some are offered by her family, and others by the groom's. On the right, she shows the new nightdresses.
Excerpt from: The war started in the city of... (la guerre a éclaté dans la ville de...)
2016, video, 12 min
"The war started in the city of... " is a popular game in Lebanon and it is transmitted from father to son. This country has endured several wars. The children playing this game have not seen nor experienced any kind of violence. They know the rules of the game that is not violent in itself. The offensive is made by speech, by the simple act of declaring war randomly against a city. The attack consists of counting one's steps towards the opponent.
Excerpt from: Kids game (jeu de gamins)
2015, video, 31min
I invited a group of adults to play marbles, a game they used to play during their childhood. They are playing in a small space drawn on the ground as a reminder of the surface of the basement they used to hide in during the war.
2015, video, 2min8sec
I contacted via Skype a group of people from the same village, who shared the same underground shelter during the Lebanese war. Those people met occasionally in the 20 square meters shelter for the duration of 15 years. They described their memories of this period - stories from a peaceful everyday life.
I invited visitors to play cards with me. The cards are all white.
popular games are transformed to become impossible to play
La'ouch / 5 pebbles 2017, 5 natural stones, net, ink drawings, variable dimensions This harmless game is supposed to be played with small pebbles is presented here as dangerous and impossible. The aim of the game: - throw a pebble into the air while picking up another
- Repeat until you have all the pebbles in your hand
Finish / 7 stones 2017, 7 plaster balls, ink drawings, variable dimensions The traditional game of 7 stones meets an additional constraint. The aim of the game: - Mount a tower with the 7 stones
- The tower must stand up
The phone game is supposed to be made with two plastic cups connected by a woolen thread. Here the whole toy is crocheted out of wool.
The sticks in this game must be natural wooden sticks. Here they are replaced with ceramic copies of natural sticks.
2017, animation, loop
Notice of the game "baton étalon"
2017, installation, plaster powder, variable dimensions,Cité Internationale des Arts de Paris
A plaster powder line divides a neutral space into two distinct territories.
Fady had a canary
2017. Bird food grains are growing in a fractured tile.
2015, photo credit Mathieu Harel-Vivier
One of the exhibition walls stands on marbles.
Nathalie Mamane-Cohen, 61st Salon de Montrouge 2016
Maha Yammine’s work is like that of an artistic Lebanon which is nowadays in full ferment. As a child of war, the artist tells us about her innocent and distant childhood, marked by the terrible events of a country smitten by nearly 15 years of civil war. In this way, she confronts her past memories in the Beirut of today, which has become a modern city being forever rebuilt.
Like in a memory game, she draws from her past daily life to construct spaces and territories. Although occupied by her memories, all these places have become “abstract”. From now on, she gives them a new form. Re-interpreting, making reference, re-enacting, all so many words which are part of the artist’s formal vocabulary.
Whether it is a matter of recreating spaces or, more simply, forms, in each instance Yammine invokes a vocabulary which is only childlike in appearance, because beneath this appearance is revealed the very specific heavy weight of a history marked by violence.
Wall (2015): a wall and some marbles, associated to give us the impression of a precarious balance. This simple architectural element, the wall, in presented as if in levitation or in equilibrium on a pile of colorful marbles. If it is obvious that what is involved is a reference to games played by children all over the world for centuries, this playful pastime is here buried by an archi- tectural element which covers, re-covers, separates and divides.
Further on she makes artillery shells of sand: Obus, (2015), using two on the face of it antagonist entities: weapons and beach games. Yammine creates blocks of sand, but this naïve architecture reveals the violence of a world that is prey to conflict, where childhood no longer exists.
The artist thus plunges us into the dark gloom of history. Her own game is to make us aware of it. By shifting forms and contents to make them collide she invites the child in each one of us to reconsider the world we live in.
exhibition view, Salon de Montrouge, Paris, 2016
20115 photo credit Mathieu Harel-Vivier
exhibition views, Salon de Montrouge, Paris, 2016
20 square meters
2016, raw clay, woolen thread
photo credit Mathieu Harel-Vivier
Wendy Gers , reasercher, curator, 2016
A black thread draws on the ground a surface of 20m2 which corresponds to the surface of the shelter. Small clay sculptures are displayed in this surface. They are copies according to the drawings of "Objects". The sculptures are made in a way to preserve the imperfections of the objects drawn.
Yammine’s installation consists of three elements, 20 square meters, Objects and Lies. The video, Lies, presents a series of individuals that discuss their memories of communal life in a cellar during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). The video is accompanied by drawings and miniature clay sculptures. At first glance, the ensemble produces an uncanny emptiness. Upon closer inspection, the drawings and raw clay miniature sculptures are naive reproductions of a various banal every- day domestic objects.
The sketches were originally made by a group of about 20 members of the artist’s extended family, who shared a cellar of about 20 square meters for 15 years during the Lebanese civil war. In 2016, 26 years after the end of the war, Yammine asked her relatives to recall this period, and record their memories of those past times in a series of drawings of the objects they shared in the cellar.
The artist has preserved the imperfections of the original drawings of objects. She views this as a sign of the alteration of the memory, that may be caused by time or by trauma. The insubstantial form and scale of her raw clay sculptures makes them fragile and precarious. Even though the installation doesn’t speak directly about war; it’s constituent elements suggest an insecure atmosphere, and vestiges of a distant war that still haunts Lebanon today.
Objects are not just a part of our everyday life, they are here with every gesture, at all times. The continual use of objects or the fact that we are accustomed to see them in the same place at all times, makes us forget about their existence when they are not being used. But they are still there. In times of conflict and trouble, the same objects acquire new roles and new significations. We think and remember them in new ways. And they hold stories and histories within them. In this installation, objects and stories of the simple life of a community, hold within them the bigger history of a country.
Objects is a series of 64 ink drawings, copied from original drawings made by those who participated in the video "Mensonges".
photo credit Mathieu Harel-Vivier
2016, installation, plastic bags, variable dimensions Plastic bags build a wall and make a part of the exhibition inaccessible.