Threshold, the ubiquitous multidisciplinary artist Hatem Imam’s first Beirut solo show has the ambitious agenda to ask for the reconsideration, at once, of several staples of Western art — the print, the frame, the landscape — and to do so, simultaneously, on the material, conceptual, and ideological level. A far-reaching intellectual project that translates, for visitors, into a somewhat disorienting yet paradoxically meditative meandering through a plain room turned labyrinthine, thanks to its partition by tumultuous evocations of landscapes. The artworks, either floating mid-air, turned away from the street, or placed directly on the gallery floor, refute the tropes of the wall hanging and the pedestal — a seldom-seen scenography befitting the exhibition’s intention to reconsider framing devices. That is, until seeing the works and talking about them inscribes them within frames of sorts.
The monochromatic prints, save for a striking red circle that re-infuses energy into the room, demonstrate the physical and visual potential of various printmaking techniques, including engraving and monotype, and the panoply of materials that printing lends itself to, from metal to paper to plastic to stone. They could be moonscapes after all: one can’t even tell if they have any referent in nature, or whether they are real or imaginary. They are neither abstract nor figurative, neither close-ups nor panoramas. There are suggestions of waves and shores in some of them; others bring to mind water, stone, and lava. Juxtaposing plates and prints reveals the steps of the printmaking process, and further interventions with scratches and paint show that prints have a future beyond being the mere end-products of a mechanistic process.
Imam might conceivably be on the threshold of a renewed criticism of the landscape, more than thirty years after WJT Mitchell’s canonical Imperial Landscape, appended to the exhibition booklet possibly as a kind of intellectual starting point.* There exists no virgin landscapes (especially not in representation), but only man-made ones, as WJT Mitchell argues. And if the representation of a landscape can denote, among other things, a desire to express one’s wish to dominate a physical and social space, here, it is Imam that dominates the conception and appearance of alien spaces of his own fabrication, which seem to belong to no one and that no one belongs to, negating the sense of belonging that landscapes are said to spur, yet without overturning one’s urges to guess what they could be or mean.
Hatem Imam’s Threshold continues until 19 January, 2019, at Letitia Gallery, Hamra, Beirut.
*Yet, despite its landmark theses concerning landscape, power, and the formation of social identities, Mitchell deserves critical reexamination today, especially concerning the pertinence of extrapolating from specific art historical moments overarching theses about landscape’s “imperial” character, and his argument’s nuances.