Organised by Ashkal Alwan, Home Works 7 provided a glimpse into the state of contemporary cultural practices across the region
A few minutes into Ode to Joy, Manal Khader promised the audience, packed into the sold-out auditorium of the Sunflower Theatre, that by the end of the production they would see a bed explode on stage. It wasn’t a lie. Neither was her statement quite truthful. In that respect it ressembled the tangled subject matter of the performance, which focused on the 1972 kidnapping of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics by a small group of Palestinians — revolutionaries or terrorists depending on who you ask.
Directed by veteran Lebanese artist and playwright Rabih Mroué, who co-wrote and starred in the performance with Khader, Ode to Joy blended pre-recorded video footage with live film and performance. Also starring Lina Majdalanie, the production began with a surreal fairy tale, told in voice over, and went on to explore the at first seemingly unrelated topics of exploding beds — and explosions more generally — and the effect the Munich attack had on perceptions of the Palestinian revolution.
Humourous and poignant, Ode to Joy was one of the highlights of Home Works 7, which ran from November 11 to 24 at multiple venues. The irregularly staged forum on cultural practices, organised by Ashkal Alwan, transforms Beirut into the region’s premier art hub for two weeks every two to three years.
Home Works 7 was curated by Ashkal Alwan’s director, Christine Tohme, along with guest curators Frie Leysen and Bassem El Baroni. Their extensive program of talks, exhibitions, performances, book signings and film screenings made it a peerless means of discovering some of the concepts and questions currently occupying the thoughts and practices of contemporary regional artists.
Leysen’s program of performances included 11 distinct productions, among them a quirky dance-theatrical hybrid by Japan’s chelfitsch Theatre Company. The hilarious Super Premium Soft Double Vanilla Rich is set in a convenience store called Smile Factory, where staff and customers alike conduct surreal monologues while dancing spasmodically and seemingly uncontrollably to the 48 preludes and fugues of J. S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. Laila Soliman and Ruud Gielens’ La Grande Maison fused lecture, performance and video to open a window onto the lives of prostitutes living and working in Tunisia, while the opening night show, #3 Bonanza, by Belgian company Berlin, used film and live performance to create a complex portrait of five inhabitants in a forsaken mining town in Colorado.
Two major exhibitions were staged at Ashkal Alwan and the neighbouring Beirut Art Center.
Curated by Tohme, On Water, Rosemary and Mercury occupied the ground floor of the BAC, featuring work by 10 artists from Turkey, Iran and the Arab world. Particularly striking pieces included Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s A Convention of Tiny Movements, part of a series exploring the future of mass surveillance, in which a box of facial tissues is wracked by minuscule tremors as the artist uses it to convey recent evidence that everyday objects, including tissue boxes, can be used as microphones. An inspired pairing saw Stephanie Saadé’s personally-inflected reflection on Lebanon, A Map of Good Memories — a thin layer of 24-carat gold leaf laid on the concrete floor like a tea stain — installed beside Abbas Akhavan’s Variations on a Garden. Akhavan’s large mixed-media installation, partially enclosed by hanging fabric, consisted of a pool of dark water, evoking the reservoirs built in traditional Iranian courtyards, into which regular drips plummet from a pipe on the ceiling.
At Ashkal Alwan, What Hope Looks Like After Hope, curated by El Baroni, was an elaborate and wide-ranging exhibition featuring work by 13 international artists, mostly consisting of sound and video installations, exploring topics from cinema and thought, to neoliberal capitalist ideals, to human-computer relationships.
Rich, diverse and unconventional, Home Works 7 was as illuminating as it was confounding, answering questions only to raise as many more. Perhaps some of them will be addressed in Home Works 8, whenever that might be.
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Interventions Issue #34, on page 18.