Leaving Dia:Chelsea’s fifth floor space on West 22nd Street, after a talk given by Akram Zaatari on Jean-Luc Moulène, as part of their “Artists on Artists” lecture series, I felt a sense of calmness. It could have been the mildly damp air and grayish blue sky, or the stillness of Chelsea on a Monday, or possibly still the purity and sterility of the room in which the lecture took place. Unlike the warmly decorated auditoriums of the Met and the Frick, with their wood podiums, velvety seats, and red curtains, (or in the case of the Frick, pinkish-taupe wallpaper with flecks of gold), the space at Dia:Chelsea, adjoining the Electronic Arts Intermix space (which, on a side note is a fantastic place to sit and watch any number of films by Gordon Matta-Clark, Vito Acconci, and others) has the same minimalist feeling as a Mac store. It was well suited for the lecture that followed, which had its basis in photography and ideas, which is really a clean art form when compared to painting. Akram, dressed in black, delivered an eloquent talk on his own work and Jean-Luc’s direct influence on him. He began with showing three Youtube videos: how to fold a tee shirt, how to make a paper that flies, and how to get a cork out of a bottle. I actually was able to find the exact one he showed for the last one:
His point was that there are so many of these videos out there showing how to do this or that; many of them useless or arbitrary. What the videos have in common are their attention to detail and use of gestures that involve geometry. They are simple and calculated, much like his and Jean-Luc’s projects. When he says simple, I don’t think he means that they lack depth and meaning, but rather that they are organized and neat, and are not elaborate in their final form.
Born in Lebanon, Akram intended on becoming a filmmaker, but upon finishing high school in 1983, because of the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, his parents didn’t want him and his brother to leave the country, and since Lebanon didn’t have any film schools, he ended up going studying architecture. With no interest in becoming an architect for the Lebanese state, he returned to his interest in making films. (This background was not the crux of the lecture, but rather an answer to a question at the end.) The talk focused instead on the themes of “paths,” paths described as “taking from and giving back” in photography. Akram is especially interested in switching up the paths we take from one thing to another, and testing out the reverse. For example, in Jean-Luc’s current exhibition at Dia:Beacon, Opus + One he has reversed the path of photography by presenting us with the object that would be photographed rather than the photograph of the object. This idea certainly echoes Duchamp’s Readymades, 1914-20, Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, 1928-29, and Kosuth’s One in Three Chairs, 1965.
His interest in paths carries through to a project he did that was based on an idea he had while in France. He noticed that during strikes, which are a part of French culture, the workers oftentimes do not stop working altogether but instead shift their work to creating subversive or not useful objects. Some of these objects speak directly as propaganda through their use of symbols, while others are silent. Similarly, he explained, that with the globalization of the economy, the items exported from Palestine, since it is not recognized as a country, are often not allowed to be imported/exported (because of Certificate of Origin regulations) unless they use a different name. So often times a bottle of olive oil would say from Gaza or some other city rather than “from Palestine.” The bottles become “tellers of a complex situation” and “charged silence.”
In another project, Akram has put his own former photographs into a “time capsule,” an idea he based on the Lebanese National Museum’s concealing and pouring concrete over their ancient sculpture during the bombing in Beirut. He and Jean-Luc are both interested in dismantling photography, or rather reversing the paths. Akram talked about trying to escape being dogmatic in his process, and ended his lecture by showing one of his works in progress. It was a film choreographed for two parts played by three different men. Titled “Adulthood to Childhood,” it began showing two men embracing, and gradually we saw their motions as being childlike, as one became vulnerable or demanding. It began with Act II and then went on to Act I, in true path-reversal form.
Perhaps my feeling of serenity upon leaving the lecture was based on this very notion; that we have the option to see things differently, and in switching up the paths there is a certain expansion that happens. In that expansion there is a freedom that occurs, opening up the mind and the eye.