Art in the Auditorium: Jalal Toufic

28 Jan – 17 Apr 2011, Whitechapel Gallery, London, UK

Art in the Auditorium is an international touring programme, aiming to showcase the work of some of the most exciting young artists working with film, video and animation. As the selection process’ goal is not to unite the disparate works under some thematic umbrella or examine particular issues pertinent to the mediums listed above, it is only just to muse on each work in its own right. From the six videos screened (four of which were by the Chinese artist Huang Xiaopeng), one sticks to mind.

Lebanese writer and artist Jalal Toufic presents us with one part of his trilogy around rituals of the Shiite Muslims. The five minutes video Lebanese performance art; Circle: Ecstatic; Class: Marginalized, Excerpt 3 (2007) seems to occupy three conceptual parts. Starting with a quite documentary approach and subtitled Lebanese performance art , a group of topless men engage in the ritual of Ashura where they mourn the death of Husayn (grandson of prophet Muhammad) by chest beating and shouting. They do it in waves, and the beating is usually accompanied by painful exclamations such as “O, stranger”, O, Husayn”…. That cuts to a second part, titled Review of the Cinematic Memory. This section of the video is a mesmerizing slow-motion essay of the movements and emotions of the same group of men. The camera is engaged with its own viewing intelligence, trying to remember not the underpinning ideologies but the purely external, formal concerns of physiognomy and bodily drama. Suspended is a purgatory of emotions, these men seem to never be able to make it out as everything is slowed down to the frustrating dream of motion. The dullness of the slaps, however, gives the illusion of smoothing the flesh so mercilessly self-abused. The video ends on a note: “An original video should be watched twice (rather than looped)”, and it starts again. So that the whole second viewing becomes a holistic third part of the first screening. This last statement implies a rhetoric blame for passivity from the part of the beholder who should choose whether towatch something again or not, but is told by the artist to do so, simultaneously playing with the idea of “newness”. Ironically, it loops anyway. Something that has to do with being forced to watch it again under the auspices of being tricked by the artist, resolves certain problems with the intimacy of the viewing process otherwise absent in the loop situation. Without sanctifying or sacrificing too much the freedom of the audience, it reaches a fine balance to enter more ideological arenas.

In his intro to the video, Toufic tales an ancdote from Nietzsche’s trip to Italy where he witnessed the whipping of a horse. His reaction was to toss his arms around the horse’s neck to protect it but then collapsed. He signed many of his letters after this incident as “The crucified one”, and this story is often told as the point of his mental breakdown. Looking back in the afterimage of my memory of the half naked men beating themselves, I kept thinking: would I step in and protect them from their self-inflicted pain? Would I stop the loop?

By Snejana Krasteva

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