with Vartan Avakian, Steven Baldi, Walead Beshty, Haris Epaminonda
Media Farzin, Marwan, Yoshua Okon, Babak Radboy, Bassam Ramlawi, Mounira Al Solh
Andree Sfeir, Rayyane Tabet, Lawrence Weiner, Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck


BEIRUT - From the din of cultural initiatives, exhibitions, symposia, biennials, group shows, and surveys mounted to confront, mediate, meditate, cross-pollinate, advocate, decry, valorize, deny, expose, represent, reconsider, reappraise, reify, or, better yet, to re-unveil what it means to make, show, and sell art in the Middle East, Bidoun magazine responds with NOISE, an exhibition opening December 9 at the Sfeir-Semler Gallery in Beirut.

Between the first generation of post-9/11 cultural survey shows and the reflexive gymnastics of the next generation—which aimed to problematize the legitimacy of yet another regional survey while managing, miraculously, inevitably, to deliver one—Bidoun attempts to close its eyes and tune its ears to the white noise of the white cube, wondering how much it matters which city, region, country, or peoples surround it.

As it happens, it does matter, but perhaps not in ways expected. Rather than curating works to illustrate problems plucked from a readymade critical lexicon, NOISE attempts to let these problems arise from, and give rise to, the works themselves, opening the door to the unexpected, and even to the uninvited. The exhibition’s point of departure is the space itself. Its location in Beirut gives it its critical acoustics, but it retains the conceited platonic generality of any clean post-industrial art space, anywhere in the world.



Vartan Avakian


Gallery Walk-

Vartan Avakian has installed a red neon sign on the roof the previously unmarked gallery building spelling SFEIR-SEMLER in the Devangari script. Visible for miles it faces the Armenian neighborhood of Buorj Hammoud, where the newly emigrated south Asian community has taken root. Inside the first room of the gallery hang two more signs by Avakian, one in Armenian and one in Arabic, one turned on and one turned off— both simply spelling out the name of the gallery, subtly demonstrating identification is always divisive, common ground displaced by property and languages neither neutral nor equivalent.

Also in the first room of the gallery, Babak Radboy has installed a wall text which runs from the ceiling all the way to the floor of the gallery. While reading like a legitimate if not over-long and perplexing description of the show, the text is in fact a programmatic collage composed entirely out of sentences from the press releases of every preceding show at Sfeir-Semler. Four headphones hang from the same wall playing looped recordings from the New York Museum of Modern Art's audio-guide for the blind. The recordings have been edited to omit all titles of works, names of artists, historical and contextual information- leaving only surreal and vivid descriptions of figures, forms, materials and measurements.




Harris Epaminoda


Appearing in each room of the gallery are polaroids taken by Haris Epaminonda of printed images from the insides of obscure and antiquated books and magazines along with a small looped video of a somewhat avuncular marabou. The images of images are scattered throughout the gallery appearing alongside the works of the other artists, their presence like the process that made them undermining the authority of authorship and the propriety of intellectual (and here spacial) property.



Walead Beshty


Walead Beshty has installed a new series of photographs and sculptures whose content and form are the effect of their shipment to the gallery. His series of vibrant, minimal photographic abstractions were made by developing unopened boxes of film passed through the X-rays of airport security in route to Beirut. Similarly, Beshty shipped eight brand-new, exposed copper boxes to Sfeir-Semler via FedEx, which arrived (late) dented, scratched and covered in fingerprints along with the requisite FedEx-Brand labels and customs stamps. While implicating the traces of minimalism, conceptualism and even pop-art, it is the traces of the banal apparatuses of security, national borders and international transport that Beshty deftly implicates in the production of his work.

Storage Room

In an adjacent nook hangs the contents of Sfeir-Semler's storage room, hung indiscriminately in the salon style in a room in which an eight foot tall cube has been built leaving only a two foot wide passageway in which to view the works. The room stands as an object lesson in which the brief and illusory unity of curration is collapsed by the business of running a commercial gallery.




Yoshua Okon


On view in the screening room is “Canned Laughter,” a video by Yoshua Okon speculating an industrial production of laughter, the limits of it's musicality and cultural production in general in his native Mexico.



Rayyane Tabet


In the back passageway of the gallery, a cartographic ping-pong table by Rayyane Tabet traces the strange contours of cultural exchange between one of Lebanon's most famous explosions and the development of a popular American drinking game— superimposing multiple events and narratives in a adjacent video piece which mixes instructions for playing the game with press feeds, journalist's diaries, interviews with fraternity boys, statements from statesmen and historical documentation.
HOW TO PLAY BEIRUT - VIDEO TRANSCRIPT - 16:21 - Rayyane Tabet - 2009

- Fill 20 cups 1/3 full with beer.
- Mr. Kosten, can you please tell us where the game got its name from?
- The first distant tremor wakes me up.
It is a bright morning and the sea outside my balcony is splashing in a friendly way against the promenade.
I decide to sleep in.
It is Sunday morning.
- At twenty two past six on a still Sunday morning,
a Mercedes truck with a yellow railed bed and a gray cab,
entered a parking lot two hundred meters South
of the four story Battalion Landing Team (BLT) headquarters at Beirut International Airport.

- Arrange the plastic cups in 2 triangles of 10 on opposite ends of the table with the tips pointing to the center.
- Thinking back, I believe that the game got its name based on an analogy between
ping-pong balls flying across the table and landing on the opponent’s side;
and an idea that the U.S should bomb Beirut as a result of the casualties in the area.
The name of the game reflects respect for the Marines and the U.S losses in the region.
- A few seconds later,
another gentle quake,
a very slight, intimate change in the air pressure in the house.
A second bomb.
I lie in bed for another four minutes.
- The truck was a commercial model with no markings.

- Pick teams of two; one for each end of the table.
- How did the game become so popular?
- The phone rings.
It is my landlord who lives on the ground floor.
His voice is breaking with urgency:
- Its civilian license plate number was 508292.

- One person begins the game by trying to toss a ping-pong ball in any one of the other team’s cups.
Tip: The toss is all in the wrist; so hold the ball at above eye level,
lean in,
and lob it up so it drops down into the cup.
- The popularity of the game stemmed from it being a fast way to get drunk.
It only took 15 to 20 minutes for the consumption of over 10 beers.
As one brother once said:
‘ If you played Beirut, you got bombed.’
- They cannot have bombed the Marines.
In the street, Anderson is running for his car, Foley beside him, camera dangling from his shoulder.
‘Terry, wait for me.’
Anderson would have gone without me.
He drives fast, viciously, down the Corniche.
Foley’s face is fixed on the road and he talk without looking at me.
‘ They got the Marines and they got the French, car bombs. That’s all the radios are saying?’
- In the basement of a building fifty meters to the North,
I lay awake on my cot beneath a tent of green mosquito netting.

- A member of the opposing team has to drink the cup of beer it lands in.
If the ball misses, it is the other team’s turn.
- I heard that in addition to organizing Beirut tournaments,
the brothers of Theta Delta Chi created a Beirut table with the map of Beirut on it.
If the game was so popular, why did you advise against playing it in your fraternity after a while?
- Foley is angry.
‘How the hell do I know? It may be a load of crap but I heard the explosions.’
The airport road is deserted,
but there is a cloud of white smoke steaming upwards from the far end where the Marines are based.
- The soft methodical breathing of those sleeping around me,
a beam of early morning sunlight sparkling with dust motes slanting into the room from the doorway,
the smell of dank air.

- You have to drink one of your own beers.
Tip: Set aside a cup filled with water so the ball can be rinsed off if it lands on the floor.
- The poor judgment and behavior the game encouraged troubled me.
So when I spoke to my successor as President of theta Delta Chi,
I told him that the one thing he could do for the benefit of the house,
would be to cut up the Beirut table with a chainsaw.
- ‘We’ll find Bob Jordan. You try to find him in the press room, I will look for him in the BLT.’
But when Anderson stops the car, he is frowning.
- I’ve always thought that in the moment before a disaster I would feel a precognition,
a sense of dread, of foreboding,
that would prepare me for the cataclysm.

- Rebuild triangles as you play:
When there are only six cups of beer on a side, make a smaller triangle.
Then do so again when there are only three cups.
- And did he do it?
- ‘ Where is the BLT?’
‘ At the other end of the fence, Terry.’
‘It’s gone.’
‘It’s behind the smoke.’
- Actually the feeling was of laziness and pleasantness.

- Keep going until one team wipes out all the cups on the other side.
The winners get to make the losers drink the remaining cups on their side.
- No he didn’t.
But the Beirut table did not survive into the 1990’s.
- ‘ It isn’t.
It fucking disappeared.’
- Sundays were usually relaxing days highlighted by a picnic and a spirited game of volleyball.



Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck in Collaboration with Media Farzin


Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck and Media Farzin contribute a sculptural installation featuring a reinterpretation of a work by Alexander Calder on which has been superimposed a story of the tangled vectors of culture and power born of the Cold War— implicating the neutrality of modernism's apolitical abstractions in the real politic of cultural production.



Steven Baldi


Across the room, Steven Baldi has hung a series of photoreal paintings of a previous series of photoreal paintings depicting the cover of the catalog to the Museum of Modern art in New York's, seminal exhibition on modern architecture. Superimposed upon the book covers are renderings of invitations from the gallery in which the first set of paintings were originally shown. In addition, Baldi has sealed off the passageway to the room with a glass wall, bisecting the gallery and forcing visitors to retrace their steps to see the show in it's entirety.



Bassam Ramlawi and Mounira Al Solh


Behind the glass wall, Mounira Al Solh and  Bassam Ramlawi make their painting debuts with works devoted to the Dutch painter René Daniëls. Daniels' own work is presented alongside theirs in the form of mass produced monographs fastened to the wall. Odd figures and abstract motifs reappear and multiply between the works of the three artists, particularly the orthographic view of a gallery space. With each of the three walls of the room in which they are hung painted a different hue from the same impure, postmodern palette, the motif is multiplied in it's installation, the gallery mirroring it's own abstraction on a single flattened plane.



Lawrence Weiner


Lawrence Weiner Larence Weiner has contributed a site specific piece, his first work on glass. It Runs the entire length of the gallery, running one room to the next, mirroring from the center as to be legible from the outside as well as the inside of the gallery. The text is in arabic, in green vinyl and reads:  



Babak Radboy


And Babak Radboy has installed several regressions of documentation of an installation of a section of gallery wall removed from the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York, along with a photograph of the corresponding hole left by its removal. The work was installed in the space, photographed, reinstalled then re-photographed to form the final installation. Above the installation a wall clock displays the present time while across the room a photograph depicts two laptops displaying press release of the exhibition on the Sfeir-Semler website. The work forms a mise-en-abyme between artwork and its documentation, the intent of a gesture and it's fate in exhibition, examining the way art is experienced through multiple layers and modes of mediation across time and space.

Also making her exhibition debut is gallerist Andree Sfeir as herself with an edited sound recording of a conversation she participated in with the curators.




February 05, 2010

Tuning in to the off-white noise of the white cube
Sfeir-Semler exhibition falls short of curator’s challenge, but offers some pleasures

by Jim Quilty


December 16, 2009

Make some NOISE
Sfeir’s show challenges the idea of art galleries

by Lucy Fielder

read article at nowlebanon.com

The blurb on the wall as you enter Sfeir-Semler’s NOISE gives a taste of things to come.
It appears to describe the gallery’s latest show, but has no relation to it at all.
“It’s sort of a joke by the curator,” explains Sfeir’s assistant director, Peter Currie. “It’s actually a mish-mash of phrases from blurbs from previous exhibitions.”
Look for clues from the headphones plugged into the wall and you’ll be disappointed ­ the rolling audio guide describes another show, all the way over in New York at the Museum of Modern Art, for the benefit of the blind.
NOISE is no conventional exhibition, but a mischievous challenge to the idea of galleries, such as this one in the Karantina industrial zone north of Beirut, and the way they present art.
NOISE “attempts to close its eyes and tune its ears to the white noise of the white cube,” according to the show’s real description, and to question how much the frame and context ­ the gallery, the visitors and the city ­ affect the art. Curated by Negar Azmi and Babak Radboy for the Bidoun contemporary Middle Eastern Art magazine, the exhibition opened on Friday and will run until February 6.
One of the clearer examples of this is the room exhibiting unsold work from a previous show by Syrian painter Marwan. A large white cube takes up the center of the room, leaving just a narrow perimeter, cramping visitors against the works and forcing them to view them at an uncomfortable proximity.
Walead Beshty sent a series of copper blocks to the gallery by Fed-Ex, via other points on the globe. They are displayed as they arrived, smudged with fingerprints, grubby and plastered with stickers: the opposite of taking a pristine work of art and displaying it in a blank white cube with no interaction with the world outside.
“They’re only considered works of art once they arrive at their destination, they have a story, they have a life,” Currie says. “It’s a meditation on minimalist practices.”
Beshty’s series of photographs from film damaged by the X-rays at Beirut airport, meanwhile, explores globalization and what Currie calls the “residue of travel”.
Art and elitism
Several works highlight the exclusivity of the modern gallery, which often seems to aim at an elite (try reaching Sfeir-Semler without a car, for example).
One such is visible from the highway: Vartan Avakian’s sign spells out Sfeir-Semler ­ signposting the usually unmarked gallery for the first time ­ in the Indian Devengari script, for the benefit of Asian migrants in nearby Bourj Hammoud. Inside the door is another sign in Armenian.
New York-based artist Steven Baldi has blocked off part of the space with a glass wall, forcing visitors to retrace their steps back through the show to see the works again, and also drawing parallels with the “glass ceiling” and the invisible barriers created by class and wealth.
NOISE is often playful; architect Rayyane Tabet’s sculpture represents a drinking game called “Beirut”, which was dreamed up by US military personnel based here.
And Bassam Ramlawi makes his debut with a series of works based on Dutch painter Rene Daniels’ explorations of artistic perspective; it turns out that Ramlawi is the invention of Lebanese artist Mounira Solh.
NOISE is a conceptual exploration, provocative and far from easy. It raises a smile and some interesting questions, and so even for those who like their art a little more conventional, it is well worth a trip.