Ziad Antar: An Artist Creating Visual Love Letters to Lebanon
Photographer and video artist Ziad Antar turns film into a meditation on praxis. 2017’s Liminal Places and Things saw urban sculptures photographed for the gallery wall and then re-carved for the gallery floor. Degrees in agricultural engineering and cinema alongside residencies at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris and the UAE have melded to a discursive fascination with modes and contexts of production. The artist is known for using dated mediums such as expired film or archival cotton prints to produce images that bend across time–a photographic palimpsest that mimics his country and most common subject, Lebanon.
A version of this exclusive interview first appeared in the pages of the 13th issue of ODDA Magazine.
Tell us a little about your education, how you went between school and residencies.
I was always very into video, like recording and doing things with cameras without anything experimental or scientific: just as a hobby. This when I studied agriculture, I was always trying to do art but it was complicated in 1996. Moving from the South to Beirut for university, we had some small clashes in the country and so the circumstances made me stay in agriculture. Then I discovered video as a language with the artist Akram Zataari…at the same time, another photographer called Jean-Luc Moulène came to Lebanon to do a residency. I made my first documentary while he was working and we had a lot of conversations…And then I did a workshop with Akram Zataari with three-minute videos and a Lumière camera. Next I worked as an assistant with the Arab Image Foundation for Studio Shehrazade. That’s where I got my first camera. Then I went to France to study cinema.
Much of your work depicts scenes of Lebanon and Beirut, a city once at the center of the Near East’s economy but prone to political collision and civil war. How do you go out and shoot knowing your pictures will be perceived in a political light?
That’s a major problem that I try to make a revolution on but still haven’t succeeded. There’s a perception that this work coming from the East should tackle a conflict. When I started to work, my videos were more about humor and joy; I don’t want to reflect directly on conflicts. When I started making videos in the late 90s/early 2000s, most current videos related to war. It could be a reflection but not tackle the issue because it is so limiting. If conflict stops, do I stop with art? No.
When your work is displayed, it’ll be put beside other artists from the Middle East.
Yes, these artists labeled “Les Inquiets.” It’s a struggle to be seen in the context of art, not of war in the Middle East….Like for Photofest in New York, I sent images of Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates. And also some from New York. And by chance they sent me an email not meant for me, saying something like “Ziad does not understand. We don’t want to see our cities, we want to see their cities.” And that’s the main problem! They didn’t want to see the States with my eye, they wanted to see Beirut destroyed. It means they didn’t understand anything that happened in all these places. It’s a problem.
It’s a problem, and it’s hard for me not to make the same mistake and fixate on conflict in your work. I have to un-train myself. In that vein, it may come as a surprise to some viewers that your exhibits are quite understated. Why not go louder, larger?
In video, I never had the dream to make it bigger. I saw video as a simple medium; it is democratized. I always conceive the projects as minutes in life that can be shown easily.
Much of your collections is made up of quick snapshots–videos of someone showering, buildings as they look in a short moment. In Expired (2011), you used an outdated camera and expired film to depict the Lebanese Druze leadership–you have that famous photo of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt outside his house. Can you talk about the passage of time in your work?
Sure, well in Expired, the film had expired in 1976. They were poorly preserved and I started using them in 2000. The film was unexposed but it lived in the South Lebanon with the history of Studio Shehrazade and everything you can imagine: the war, the conflict, a small fire, no electricity. They lived all this memory as an archive but unexposed. These films for me had a “memorial exposure.” We see the reflection of time on the negatives. Whenever I work, there’s always the question of the medium: time, or space, always an experimental constraint. It was important to open this time. When you see Walid Jumblatt with expired film, it’s about history. History of the film, the negative, the Lebanese political system. They should all be related.
Do you think of yourself as cataloguing history, or is it more timeless than that?
I prefer to be timeless. In other projects I work with other constraints. In the cactus series where I shoot cacti and make sculptures, it’s related to the borders where you use cactus as a fence. Here, or in Mexico. The history of humanity of using organic plants and also industrial wires, together. It’s more about the history of how we live than the documenting. I do not document; I transform ideas into images.
That transformation is quite evident with Liminal Places and Things, where you display photographs of wrapped-up Saudi Arabian sculptures alongside your reproductions of those sculptures. Why did you choose to translate these pictures back into the three-dimensional?
There was this vision to conquer the public space in Saudi Arabia in the ‘70s. So the public space was an issue in the Arab world. This project came to put sculptures not in a confined space, but in the open Corniche…It was an avant-garde vision to commission sculptors from all over in the ‘70s to put their works in the public space. Then nowadays they were trying to refurbish the Corniche, so that’s why the sculptures were wrapped up. I found that the image of those sculptures documented something but it wasn’t enough. This form should be extracted, seen, and transformed today in another material, another way.
It’s interesting that you bring up all the preparation on the country’s part that went into covering and preserving these sculptures, because that seems so at odds with your method of point-and-shoot.
Yes, because I’m a bit radical against archiving. When I pick up a camera and show the work, I admit that this is my image. I agree that “this is a shot.” When I documented the coastline of the Emirates [on residency], it wasn’t about one image is good or bad; it was about the body of the work…The relation of water, this linear coastline that started with trade…I don’t know what’s good or bad. I admitted all the mistakes done in the development. They were images taken systematically from the land towards the sea. That’s it.
With this issue of the magazine we aim to provoke a personal reaction, a revealing of your own tastes. But how much room can you leave for that in your work?
Frankly, I don’t know. I think about one of my latest projects, After Images. It was related to a controversial book called “The Bible Came from Arabia.” I didn’t go into proving his idea; I just went in to search for the places he mentioned…Human mistakes should play a role: I used a camera from a friend without a lens. So when you ask me about personal taste, it’s difficult. I’m not an artist with a vision, aesthetically. I am an autodidact, not a pedagogue. I need to be taught all the time. I ended up with colors on that project; I didn’t start with expectations of the missing lens. So we’ve added ambiguity to the history and geography of those “first stories.” I don’t have a taste; I work and the taste comes little by little. My taste is anonymous.
Meanwhile when you conduct a lot of your own research for project–for example, the potato series–you end up fanning some flames.
Yes, the potato gives it a kind of activist point of view once you bring in the context of famine. Cactus is the same story when you shoot it. Cacti can be one of the basics of the conflict between Israel and Palestine: the use of the Arab-Jewish word “sabaar/sabra” for cactus [used to denote an Israeli-born Jew], and the Palestinians who show the cactus as their logo. And so directly you go into conflict. It comes into your work, and it’s stronger than the language of art.
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