REVIEW: ‘Hard Cell’ is a criminal waste of time for audiences

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DUBAI: Moments before the Beirut port explosion ripped through the city on August 4, 2020, artist and filmmaker Joana Hadjithomas sat in a cafe in the Lebanese capital’s Gemmayze district. Located not far from the studio she shares with her husband, artist and director Khalil Joreige, she was with a friend when they suddenly heard an unusual noise. Growing up during the Lebanese Civil War, she instinctively dove under the table.

“I didn’t know what happened, but my instinct for danger is very strong,” she says. Moments later, around 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in hangar 12 at the port exploded, killing 218 people, injuring 7,000 and displacing more than 300,000 people. Caught in one of the areas closest to the explosion, the couple’s workshop was destroyed. Hadjithomas suffered minor injuries, but that was nothing compared to the loss of friends and colleagues.

The couple’s workshop was destroyed. (Provided)

Among the items destroyed in their workshop were a series of photographs depicting archaeological sieves. Designed to reveal anything of historical or geological significance, the sieves contained everything from seeds to traces of baked clay. Their documentation was part of an ongoing project called “Unconformities”, which began with the artists collecting a series of core samples from construction sites in Athens, Paris and Beirut. This fueled their fascination with history, its representation and the constructions of the imagination.

Saddened by the loss of the photographs and looking for a way to restore what had been destroyed, they turned to tapestry. Working with weavers and various types of yarn, they embraced this traditional craft as a form of therapy.

Among the items destroyed in their workshop were a series of photographs depicting archaeological sieves. (Provided)

“The tapestry takes a long time and it’s like something is being fixed,” says Hadjithomas, who had small shards of glass embedded in his back after the explosion. “You’re fixing something that’s been destroyed, and to do that you have to experiment with threads, colors, textures, and that takes time. And this time restores something deep within you. I needed this.

“I was very close to Etel Adnan (the acclaimed Lebanese poet and visual artist, who passed away in November) and at the end of her life she always said to me, ‘You should do tapestries.’ She wanted my daughter to do them too, and I always thought, “My daughter? Why?’ And then later, I understood what she was trying to say. That would give me strength.

Their documentation was part of an ongoing project called “Nonconformities”. (Provided)

Three of these new tapestries are part of ‘Messages with(out) a code’, an exhibition of the duo’s work at The Third Line on Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue. The exhibition also includes a unique core sample in experimental resin, a series of digital photographs, works on paper and the short film “Palimpsests”, which was shot at several sites in Beirut and documents the coring process. The opening of the exhibition in March coincided with a three-week retrospective of the couple’s film work, the focal point of which was the exclusive release of the film “Memory Box” at the GCC.

“When you step back, it doesn’t feel like a tapestry, does it?” asks Hadjithomas on the opening day of the exhibition. “It may be a photo, an image. We really wanted them to be non-traditional, so there’s a transparency to this one for example,” she says, moving to another part of the gallery. “It was a gauze that (the archaeologist) was using and a little flower was appearing underneath. So that was one of our obsessions. There were several layers that you could immediately feel in the tapestries.

The “mismatches” began with the artists collecting a series of core samples from construction sites in Athens, Paris and Beirut. (Provided)

Their interest in carrots and archeology comes from a friend, Philippe Fayad, a civil engineer who invites the couple to observe his work on construction sites. “When we went there, we understood that while he was drilling, he was extracting what is under our feet: traces and vestiges of all these civilizations and eras.”

It was the start of an obsession. They took photos without understanding what they were seeing, visited an increasing number of sites in Beirut and eventually befriended Hadi Choueiri, an archaeologist in charge of a large construction site opposite their home. It was he who would help them decipher everything they had photographed.

“We started working on this idea that we can talk about history and what’s under our feet. By doing that, you have another relationship with history, because you understand that history is cycles, and that these cycles are not a linear story. It’s not layered, it’s mixed,” says Hadjithomas. “Sometimes civilizations have used the same stones to build something else, so you get that idea of cycles: the cycle of catastrophe and regeneration. It’s those moments when something ends and something else begins.

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