Saturday, May 20, 2017

Charbel Al Khoury's "Pathogen 1990" - a deconstructed Beirut, literally.

Artwork credit: Charbel Al Khoury
Few things enrage me as much as the way the new generation looks at Beirut. Nostalgia filled to the brim, with pink-sunglasses to view the romanticized past (pre-war and even during the war), with a sense of perfection of times which most likely never existed. Bonus question: If Beirut was so perfect, how come the convergence of socio-economic inequality, political and geographical unrest eventually produced such an atrocious war?
Which is why, it is with great pleasure that I saw Charbel Al Khoury's work which will be exhibited at Haven House in Mar Mekhayel. The maturity Al Khoury shows - he is a multimedia graduate from NDU - lies in the Gothic, dark, decomposed, and skewed version of Beirut. The buildings, lives of people behind the curtains, balconies and whatnot, are real, but not quite so. They seem to be broadcast by a satellite right before the "no signal" banner - pixelated, blurred, yet in their own way expressive of the schizophrenia that envelops Beirut, the disparity of the socio-economic classes, the dichotomy of the religious sects, the duality of the political affiliations, the on-off traffic jams. The skyscrapers are there, but they seem to be built for a ghost town, for tenants or owners who live in Dubai and who are just investing here.
The buildings are unfinished, uninhabited, melancholic and yet brave in the sense of bereavement they show. The city shows in some post-apocalyptic light, or after one of its half a dozen storms which usually hit it in winter. There is an element of depth in the photos, but also one of sadness - as if the artist was listening to "The Homecoming" by Lake of Tears while composing his slightly tilted works.
In his press release, Al Khoury argues that: "When asked about the now ghost city Beirut, my mom always made it clear that during the post war reconstruction period, symptoms of a virus dispersed in construction sites. She even recalls reading in “Alharb” newspaper a study suspecting the creation of a virus, due to numerous chemical reactions, stimulated when war victims’ blood and Israeli artillery toxins (since the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982 ) react together."
So the "Pathogen 1990" (do note that 1990 was the year the war eventually ended, and peace did not begin) is a real case of propagation of a "virus" which infiltrated the city. As someone who works heavily on the collective memory of the Lebanese through my own artwork, I find it refreshing someone as young as Al Khoury is able to look at Beirut without the "rizkallah" (a common Lebanese expression which dwells on how the past was good) factor, and looks at the city straight-faced, specifically that Millennials his age tend to look at the past with a look which does not even remotely resemble the way things were at the time.
Oddly for all its digital artwork, there is something a little "analog" about Al Khoury's work. Or perhaps something reminiscent of the 90s internet, when images would barely load and leave us to our imagination to continue the visuals we just saw.
Charbel Al Khoury is certainly an emerging talent, his works, even though they have this edge to them speak to regular people who experienced the city daily and to art collectors alike. The fact that he does not produce "art that matches the sofa", that his works stand out is only a very encouraging sign for a career to come.