Hammer Projects: Investigating Contemporary Lebanon

Although the University of California, Los Angeles’s Hammer Museum is undergoing a renovation project, its exhibition programming has not lost momentum. Several small exhibitions and an extensive film and performance series maintain an active and vibrant atmosphere around the museum. In a Hammer Projects exhibition, Beirut-based artist Marwa Arsanios investigates the state of contemporary Lebanon through the lens of its landfills. The metaphorical exhibition consists of three pieces that together tell a story of destruction, corruption and hope.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is Falling is not collapsing, falling is extending (2016), a video essay documenting landfills around Beirut. Despite showing different locations, there is a haunting sameness in the cyclical representation of trucks and waves and mountains of trash. The footage in the video depicts sun-bleached sites, like nostalgic images of summers past, but the content is drastically different than dreamlike beach-scenes. Heat radiates above the evidence of modern humanity’s wastefulness as truck after truck deposits its contents in landfills, often spilling directly into the sea. The environmental impact of this action is obvious, but the superimposed text further explains the context of these landfills in a post-civil war Lebanon. The landfills are not simply a repository for waste but also a sign of the corruption present in Beirut – developers encourage seaside landfills to plummet the value of the of the land so they can later become prime, luxurious real estate.

While the video dominates one of the larger walls in the gallery space and provides a subtle soundtrack, a three-dimensional work stands slightly off-center, confronting the viewer as he or she enters the exhibition. Arsanios has created a topographical map of a few of the landfills represented in the film isolated from their geographical context within the city. The models are rendered without reference to scale and without fine details – they are vague contours and masses, growing and changing constantly, and unable to be set in descriptive stone. The sculptural inclusion lends a solid and physical component that highlights the documentation of the video piece. Maps and models are not without historical precedent, and Arsanios’s inclusion of this piece continues a dialogue rooted in science that has evolved to colonialist and militaristic connotations. The aerial view, in particular, suggests an omniscient power above.

Despite the primarily negative themes, Arsanios includes a piece that suggests hope and resilience. A series of ink drawings of plants and animals that live in the landfills is a testament to the power of nature to overcome adversity (and toxicity) to survive. Lebanon’s recent history has not been easy on both an international and national scale, and perhaps the artist intends this work to represent the Lebanese people.

The three pieces in this exhibition are created with a detached scientific methodology that suggests an outside observer – the film portrays dump trucks as self-driven machines in a barren landscape, the topographical models present an isolated geographical interpretation of the sites, and the drawings of flora and fauna are rendered in a style reminiscent of a naturalist’s documentation. The artist, however, lives and works amidst this climate of redevelopment and perhaps uses the suggestion of science to contribute authority and veracity to the conditions she records.

Emily Sack

Marwa Arsansios, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, runs until 8 January. The exhibition also featured in the 10 to See for Issue 72 of Aesthetica Magazine. 

Find out more: www.hammer.ucla.edu

1. Marwa Arsanios, falling is not collapsing, 2016. Still from digital video. Courtesy of the artist and Mor-Charpentier, Paris.