History of the Last Things Before the Last: Art as Writing History

Proposed by Clément Chéroux and Akram Zaatari
Home Workspace, Ashkal Alwan, Beirut, Lebanon
2012/11/30  -  2013/12/01

On the 30th of November and 1st December 2012, a two-day symposium was held at Ashkal Alwan in Beirut, gathering artists, historians and intellectuals from Lebanon and France to discuss the writing of history, the role of the archive and the development of historical narratives. Taking as a starting point Siegfried Kracauer’s analogy between the work of the historian and that of the photographer in his 1969 book, History: The Last Things Before the Last, the symposium’s participants reflected on artistic practices that developed in Lebanon during the 1990s and 2000s, and invited practitioners from outside the region to open a wider debate on the aforementioned issues.

The symposium, which featured a varied series of interventions, ranging from longer presentations, to shorter podium talks, conversations and video screenings, included the following participants: Marwa Arsanios, Stefanie Baumann, Tony Chakar, Ali Cherri, Georges Didi-Huberman, Arno Gisinger, Catherine Grenier, Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas, Lamia Joreige, Jean-Luc Moulène, Walid Raad, Marwan Rechmaoui, Walid Sadek, Ghassan Salhab, Paola Yacoub  and Akram Zaatari. 

Introducing the symposium, Clément Chéroux observed how the notion and perception of both photography and the writing of history have changed and become less naïve over time. He highlighted that as their subject matter is necessarily ‘reality’, the work of the historian and the photographer is distinct from that of the novelist or painter. Walid Sadek followed with a discussion of a state of protracted civil war in Lebanon: the impossibility of witnessing, and the obtaining of a knowledge that cannot be easily divulged. Ghassan Salhab and Lamia Joreige’s talks considered different methods of witnessing and the role of the artist in recording testimonies, with Joreige emphasizing that people can at once play all roles in the writing of this history: witness, victim or perpetrator. Tony Chakar reflected on the ambiguity of the term ‘Arab Spring’ and discussed his work on the subject, which involves isolating specific moments from the recent series of events across the region. The symposium was also opened up to work from further afield: Catherine Grenier discussed the work of Christian Boltanski and Sophie Ristelhueber, and Georges Didi-Huberman and Arno Gisinger introduced their recent exhibition "Histoires de fantômes pour grandes personnes" at the Fresnoy. In presenting his work related to the Murr Tower, Marwan Rechmaoui described a building that was without purpose during peacetime, in contrast to Walid Sadek’s discussion of the role of the survivor, as a figure absent during hostility. Walid Raad discussed his research on the history of art in the Arab world in the context of geo-political, economic, social and military conflicts. 

As the symposium progressed, some key subjects for discussion emerged. Through the talks of Marwa Arsanios and Marwan Rechmaoui, the importance of architecture in examining history for this ‘generation’ of artists was highlighted. A general discussion developed where participants debated the artist’s preoccupation, or otherwise, with memory of the Lebanese civil war. Through Ali Cherri’s talk, the appearance of new types of archives, such as Youtube, was examined, leading to discussion as to whether an archive only truly exists when it is used. In presenting his 2010 film, On Photography, People and Modern Times, Akram Zaatari steered the discussion towards the ethics behind archival practices, a theme he also broached in conversation with Jean-Luc Moulène, who like Lamia Joreige also presented works which reflected on the significance of found objects in documenting history. Khalil Joreige discussed his work in collaboration with Joana Hadjithomas on the Lebanese Rocket Society. Initiated on the discovery of an image from the Arab Image Foundation’s archive suggesting the existence of a space program in Lebanon, the project considers possibilities for rewriting forgotten histories through the use of archives. Paola Yacoub introduced to the symposium the idea of ‘lieux communs’, which extended into a larger debate on collective memory, clichés and nostalgia.  The existence or otherwise of a coherent ‘generation’ of artists, and their dialogue with the next generation was also discussed. 

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