Rear Windows and Rockets from Lebanon - Josef Sudek vs. Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige at JdP
(Paris.) Not far from the river, set high on a hill overlooking Tuileries Garden, the Jeu de Paume was not forced to flee the Seine floods when we visited Paris in June. Even if the Tuileries were drowning, JdP and vis-a-vis the Orangerie with Monet’s Sea Lilies inside would still be standing, a sea of art divided for the deluge to pass through (too much hyperbole, you think?). Jeu de Paume focuses on photography and video with a little installation here and there, and this year’s summer exhibitions are no exception.
In collaboration with the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa where the show will be continued next winter, Jeu de Paume holds a retrospective of Czech photographer Josef Sudek (1896-1976). Having extensively experimented with Pictorialism and other Modernisms of the day, Sudek found his own style in the 1940s. In a Prague under German occupation, he either photographed the world outside his rear window – decidedly disinterested in his neighbours’ doings but focusing the inanimate parts of the yard - and risked at least his liberty if not more by ignoring the curfew and sneaking through the city’s streets at night, hunting for images. The The World from My Window series mostly features monochrome blurred nature in a sort of photographic impressionism, and it rains a lot. Water in its different aggregates from snow to river held a particular fascination for Josef Sudek. Industrial sites, land- and cityscapes, lots of trees at night, Sudek hardly ever shot humans, and if he did, they seem merely a part of the scene, and not a specifically important, or only interesting, one. Faced with the invasion, Sudek who had lost an arm in World War I, chose aesthetic escapism, an emigration into art. On the background of history, it is difficult not to discover in his works the meta-temporal continuance of nature, a counter draft to tell about the futility of what is neither shown nor relevant. Or maybe this is all nonsense, and Sudek did what he would have done anyways. After the war, he continued the Window series all through the 1950s, and used the regained peace to roam the banks of the river Elbe in search for The Spirit of the Place.
Josef Sudek’s photos approach the aesthetics of painting. Nature is not simply documented as what it is; razor sharp or blurred, the world gets distorted, and a different (un)reality is born. This is art to please, and it does. With The Life of Objects, Jeu de Paume finally presents one more facet of his work and personality. Josef Sudek was a collector, or to do away with the euphemisms: a hoarder. He doubly preserved everything, in photo and “in fact”, a habit he shared with many contemporaries of the war generation. A handful of colour prints that significantly differ from his style date from 1976; developed after his death, it seems dubious he authorized them in this form.
Linked to Sudek by the martial background, Jeu de Paume also shows contemporary Lebanese artists Joanna Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige. Lebanon is one of those places, you never know is there open war or another ceasefire (that’s cynical, and very ignorant, we know); it also has a long history of cultural fusion. Hadjithomas only needs to cite her name to prove this - St. Thomas going on a Hadj, who would have thought!
Everybody knows Beirut’s byname “Paris of the Middle East”, pointing back to a colonial past. Contemplating the grey ghetto blocks and concrete ant hills of Beirut Doesn’t Exist, a monumental jigsaw puzzle with 3.000 pieces and that very phrase written on each, you might be tempted to comment, “from an architectonic POV, it better don’t”. Postcards that in colour and composition remind of Munch paintings likewise focus the city’s scarred beauties. The artists allege them to be taken shortly before the outbreak of civil war by a certain Abdallah Farrah; they were still sold today despite the views they offer have long vanished. The colour effects of bomb smoke and explosion lights would result from the photographer intentionally burning parts of the negatives. This is a fiction, the photographer an invention, and the images photoshopped. Patrons are invited to take away postcards and pieces of the puzzle, in the latter case gradually uncovering a mirror. The story continues, “Abdalah Farrah” at some point of the war ceased to develop “his” photographs, and again Hadjithomas and Joreige appropriate “his” works like a readymade and show the rolls of film; it connects to another work, a Super8 film recorded by Khalil Joreige’s uncle before his being disappeared in 1985. These images have actually been developed by the artists, and their banality is darkened by the fact. The overall topic seems to be the image-building of a nation, the uncertainty and insecurity of a war situation.
The Lebanese space programme that existed from 1960 to 1967 is another special interest of Hadjithomas&Joreige. Established on the initiative of students at Beirut University, it actually succeeded in a couple of rocket launches, and today is symbolic of an alternative path the country could have taken, a parallel world focused on pacific glory. (From Afronauts to Gerald Bull, Canadian-American rocket scientist with the dream to shoot shuttles into space – being hired by Iraq in the 1970s and murdered by some agency twenty years later -, Non-Western space programmes of the 20th Century abound of magnificently absurd episodes.) Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige created an almost life-size folding picture of a rocket and several much smaller bas reliefs, three-dimensional images that transcend the paper. Back in the days, official documenters got the shot wrong, only ever capturing the smoke but never the launch. Today, the smoke gets sculptured on an image, to manifest the reality of a failure.
Hadjithomas and Joreige also do installation, spam mails of the Nigerian kind are printed out and bound in a book, but also embodied in lines (almost emoticons) on a wall and wires in a sculpture/object. Spam also lies at the bottom of The Rumour of the World, an installation with TV screens telling falsehoods (sounds familiar, right?). It must be great to be deaf, alternatively use ear plugs or your fingers when confronted with people reading mails aloud. The experience comes close to visiting an exhibition in the presence of guided groups (or children!), only less annoying as you still may see some of the art. The subtitles seem counterintuitive.
Other sounds are no less meaningless, when considered from the right angle: The Golden Record visualizes human noise opposite a giant turntable. Razorblade like sound graphs projected on a wall signify speeches, songs, radio programmes and more. White noise accompanies the recordings, that have originally been broadcast inflight from those Lebanese rockets, not to tell those aliens “Move along, nothing to see here” as Voyager did some years later, but to help ground control in localising them (rockets, not aliens). Listening out of the window?
Photos of the Bestiary series could actually haven been taken by Josef Sudek some decades earlier.
This is a huge show with several videos also, some of them free-floating in the space with refugees rowing, monochrome plankton and a city from above. In an improvised cinema with the most comfortable sofas we’ve ever found in an art show, we finally watched Joana Hadjithomas’ encounter with old school artist Etel Adnan, then followed a Chinese guy in camouflage carrying a baby through the show (The Hangover style) right into the basement. Down there, you’ll find Chinese Guan Xiao's Weather Forecast, a three channel video experience to nice music. “Mysterious”, “hypnotizing”, “rhythmic”, “snakes” and “explosions”, do we need to say more?
Josef Sudek, Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas, Guan Xiao,
all 07 June-25 September, Jeu de Paume, Paris
World of Arts Magazine - Contemporary Art Criticism