The political slant of Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari’s The Uneasy Subject is a good example of MUSAC’s recently acquired trend: after five years of lighter, market-aided discourse, Zaatari’s exhibition is an attempt to define a more political identity for the institution. Here, curator Juan Vicente Aliaga, one of Spain’s foremost specialists on gender issues, uses his unique socio-political perspective to dissect the Middle Eastern artist’s incisive work.
Zaatari’s practice is often located in the context of geopolitical affairs and comprises a smattering of references to the threatening attitude of Lebanon’s southern neighbour. The real political act in this exhibition, however, is the struggle to make the private sphere public, and to overcome Lebanon’s distrustful normative regulations. Zaatari’s is an eminently urban view, with an eye focused on people strolling up and down streets, examining the way they relate to each other, the feelings they share. In many of his works, the artist unpicks public spaces in which secret relationships are forged, and the shadows these covert relationships cast on the country’s moral codes. The video, ‘The Scandal’, 2001, clearly reveals his interest in the public/private dichotomy. Zaatari admits his tendency to expose himself and voice his opinions, an attitude that doesn’t quite match with Lebanon’s tradition, where one is reasonably free to do what he or she wishes in private and yet deterred from doing it in public. The camera focuses on domestic interiors where people are watching television. Every now and then the point of view switches to show what they are viewing on the screen; a sex scene is clearly alluded to, although Zaatari blurs it out in a witty nod to Lebanon’s censure.
A substantial part of this show focuses on his ongoing research into prolific photographer Hashem El Madani’s archive, which was originally commissioned by the Arab Image Foundation. Zaatari deals with images taken by El Madani over the course of a few decades, exposing successive behavioural attitudes, and exercising an understanding of how ones social conditioning can be dispelled in front of a camera. The now aged El Madani assented to feature in Zaatari’s ‘Untitled’, 2010. Filmed outdoors, it captures the elderly man drifting aimlessly from place to place. The work illustrates how a simple shift in perception can expose the indeterminable flux between fiction and reality.
Zaatari found stunning evidence of the Lebanese private habits when he riffled El Madani’s archive. In the mid-20th century, El Madani’s Studio Shehrazade was a secret space of free expression where anyone could be who they wanted and see their dreams fulfilled. The wealth of his representational strategies in capturing these moments is overwhelming. El Madani and his actors examined a wide range of alternative representations. In many photographs, shot documentary style, individuals are shown donning fictional characters, pretending to be who they are not, challenging the strict social codes they conformed to in their everyday.
Zaatari stresses the relevance of temporal translation as a key issue in his work, frequently highlighting the opposition between old and new images and, consequentially, the investigation of old representational trends. He notes the ways these methods are currently portrayed, as well as how the contribution of contemporary devices, such as like iPads and smartphones, add to this discourse through their conceptual and technical singularities. In one such example, Zaatari juxtaposes photographs taken from El Madani’s archive with some edgy YouTube clips of Middle Eastern protesters.
One of the most interesting video works, ‘Tomorrow Everything Will Be Alright’, 2010, reveals Zaatari’s core interests in a concise seven-minute short. Two ex-lovers explore their lost familiarity in a peculiar dialogue that plays out on an old typewriter. Typed in instant messenger format, the metal characters of the typewriter rhythmically tap the ascending paper. Here, the old and the new blend together, a span of ten years is reduced to an instant, as the ex-lovers suggest the possibility of a new encounter, feasible only in the dark corners of town. The meeting is akin to the film noir style of the work it assumes. Zaatari’s web of socio-political interests is tightly drawn in this instance: he condenses complex subject matter by linking Middle Eastern concerns with those of the West, a brave move that highlights prevalent concerns of our time.
Javier Hontoria is a writer based in Madrid