After the Lebanese civil war an elegant apartment block in Beirut, known locally as the Yellow House, was left disfigured by gaping holes, every surface scarred by bullets. Scheduled for demolition it was saved by a 1994 heritage campaign. Today the building has been artfully restored and turned into a cultural centre called Beit Beirut (“Beirut House”), which recalls the history of the city and the war.
I found myself thinking of the many lives of Beit Beirut when I looked at the 92-channel video installation, 70,000 veils (2013-14), in the exhibition, Khaled Sabsabi: A Promise, at the Art Gallery of NSW. The artist tells us the work consists of 10,000 photos manipulated to yield 70,000 digital layers, distributed across 1,000 video sequences. It sounds impressive, especially when we learn that this monster took a decade to produce.
Sabsabi’s title refers to a statement by the Prophet, Muhammad, who said there were “70,000 veils of light and darkness separating an individual from the Divine.” In the relevant passage of the Hadith, Muhammad further explains that if God removed these veils we’d all be incinerated by the radiant splendours of his Face.
There’s no chance of that happening with Sabsabi’s installation. For such an elaborate work it has remarkably little impact. On these screens we see a mass of disjointed, vaguely psychedelic imagery in shades of green, blue and silver. It’s not easy to decipher the details, even using the 3D glasses provided. One takes away an overall impression of a city (or cities) in ruins: layer upon layer of fragments, heaped up into a sprawling visual junk-pile.
This is not the first time Sabsabi (b.1965) has exhibited photos of ruins – it’s almost his speciality. It’s a preoccupation that attests to the images lodged in his mind from the time he came to Australia with his family, as part of the great Lebanese disapora. That was 1978, three years into a civil war that would rage until 1990. It was a particular disaster for Beirut, one of the most cosmopolitan cities of the Middle East. By the end of the war much of Beirut lay in ruins, and the scars have lingered right up to the present day. On his return visits to Lebanon, Sabsabi has always found plenty of wreckage to photograph.
It’s a new form of tragedy for Beirut to be partially destroyed by an accidental explosion. Even in times of peace it seems there’s no respite for this seductive, ill-starred city.
To understand Sabsabi’s work it’s necessary to have some sense of the country where he was born, and the western suburbs of Sydney where he grew up. Sabsabi is a textbook example of an artist adrift between two cultures, constantly seeking ways of reconciling contradictions. He looks at the world through the twin lenses of politics and religion, being an adherent of Sufism, a peaceful, mystical form of Islam that shuns the age-old conflicts between Sunnis and Shi’ites.
Sabsabi describes himself as “a socially-engaged artist who’s worked in detention centres, schools, prisons, refugee and settlement camps, hospitals and youth centres, in the Australian, Arab and broader international context.”
A Promise consists of only a handful of works, including three monumental video installations and three suites of small pictures in acrylic and oilstick. There will, apparently, be a second installment of the show held next year at the Campbelltown Arts Centre.
Although there’s an appealing rawness in the 14 small, imaginary portraits that make up the series, Messiah part 1 (2019), Sabsabi’s works on paper are largely supplementary to the main action. It’s the mega videos, 70,000 veils and Organised Confusion (2014) that present themselves as museum pieces.
For the guardians of contemporary art Sabsabi ticks all the boxes: a refugee background, a peace-loving Muslim, working class origins in the western suburbs, socially-committed, politically aware, a maker of large-scale audio-visual installations. He even began his creative life as a hip hop artist! Sabsabi’s work is a gift to those who prefer their art to be rooted in identity politics and issues such as human rights, social justice, racial and religious tolerance, etc, that strike sympathetic chords in almost every one of us.
I don’t have problems with the issues or the political stance, but I’ve never seen a piece by Sabsabi that I found especially engaging. He is an artist that deals in presentations rather than transformations, leaving it to the viewer to respond in a predictable way to the given cues. This is the case with 70,000 veils, and with Organised Confusion, which places us in a room between two giant-sized screens showing football fans singing, dancing and chanting during a Western Sydney Wanderers match. That’s all that happens, but Sabsabi has chosen to interpret these scenes as a secular religius experience, if you’ll pardon the oxymoron.
The artist was delighted to find the crowd packed with people from different ethnic minorities, united in their fanatical partisanship for the Wanderers. But although it’s possible to see these images as celebrations of multiculturalism-in-action, one might imagine a contrary interpretation in which these fans with their different backgrounds, languages and customs have been welded into one indivisible mental whole by their love of a single object. The scary thing about all crowds is that individual morality and discrimination are subsumed by the thrill of collective action. A crowd can be as enthusiastic about a dictator as a football team. In the middle ages crowds gathered in a festive mood to watch gruesome executions.
Neither do some of the protagonists in these videos inspire thoughts of multicultural togetherness, certainly not the guys with bare torsos covered in tattoos, and close-cropped or shaven heads. They may, for all I know, be saintly human beings, but their personal style isn’t designed to put people at ease.
In between the two screens Sabsabi has placed another video work, each panel showing part of a very slow performance by Indonesian dancer, Agung Gunawan. It’s a meditative interval between the two poles of chanting footy fans. I was initially puzzled by this clash of registers but then realised it made sense only if we saw the football crowd in terms of religious ceremony. In this scenario we get two forms of worship: the inward and contemplative versus the ecstatic, collective expression of faith.
It’s a sociological cliché to see art or sport as filling the void once occupied by organised religion, but it confirms Sabsabi’s status as an unconventional religious artist whose work is more an expression of belief than a vehicle for critical analysis. There may be nothing especially revelatory about his installations but they inspire their own forms of religious veneration in a contemporary art crowd forever willing to take signs for wonders.
Khaled Sabsabi: A Promise
Art Gallery of NSW, 18 July until 2021
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 29 August, 2020