Group Tuesday

Doubting images

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From the back of Charles Mellin’s (c.1597–1649) Cimon and Pero, undated, oil on canvas, 96 x 173 cm, Louvre, Paris

“Let’s not create a mythology here,” says Walid Sadek, with a gentle smile and an inward laugh. “We didn’t always meet on Tuesday.” Sitting in the back corner of the Benedorme Cafe, a coffee shop tucked into a lackluster strip facing Beirut’s sea-swept Corniche, Sadek is recounting the past and possible future of Group Tuesday, a collective comprised of himself, Bilal Khbeiz, and Fadi Abdallah. It is Tuesday night, and the Benedorme happens to be their usual gathering place.

Group Tuesday first appeared as such during the third edition of Beirut’s Home Works Forum in 2005. There, at the annual meeting of artists, the trio presented a piece they calledPublic Time, a “file” filled with interlocking Arabic texts written over the course of eighteen months, during which Sadek, Khbeiz, and Abdallah endeavored to witness (rather than document) a number of rupturing events that are never explicitly named. Group Tuesday itself had not yet been named.

Six months later, the three of them performed Public Time in a reading at a symposium held at Modern Art Oxford, as part of a group exhibition called Out of Beirut. Not insignificantly, they swapped roles and recited each other’s texts instead of their own. Nearly a year after that, and with a war in between, Group Tuesday minted their name for a piece they produced for the eighth edition of the Sharjah Biennial this past spring.

Tragedy in a Moment of Vision and Knowledge of the Expelled, their most recent works, are two related pieces that tease out meaning through their close proximity to one another. The former consists of a tiny tripod holding up a tiny projector, which seems to be tilting its head in thought, alongside a stack of books filled with Khbeiz’s poignant account of Beirut after the summer’s war, written as if he were, to borrow a phrase from Sadek’s writing, casting wounded eyes over the devastation, physical and otherwise. The latter consists of ten museum tags for absent paintings depicting variations on “Roman Charity,” the story of Cimon and Pero, in which a starved father is offered clandestine sustenance by his daughter.

Both pieces hinge on a withdrawal of images. In Tragedy, viewers must follow the (subtle) instructions offered and place the book in front of the projector to catch the image of a young woman seated with her back to a television broadcasting images of Beirut in the process of being destroyed. The image frustrates, tells you nothing. In Knowledge, the viewer must conjure the missing paintings from the texts provided. The image of a father being breastfed by his own daughter floods the imagination with excess; it’s somehow too much for the mind to bear.

“The three of us, we are very critical, even doubtful of images,” says Sadek, “although we have not ceased writing about images. The image is pivotal. We do not entertain any notions about the primacy of written over visual language. We are obviously disturbed by the prevalence of images. What we try to do when we write is slow images down. We try to give them weight. We experience, we who live in the third world, that to be in an image, to be photographed, is almost like a death warrant. But we are equally uneasy about standing behind the lens. We work and live somewhere between the lens and the photograph.”

It is perhaps a concession to the logic of an international biennial that their participation at Sharjah forced Sadek, Khbeiz, and Abdallah to choose a name for themselves. Group Tuesday is not a collective in the painfully clever sense now commonplace in the art world. “We all three work on the edge of our respective disciplines,” says Sadek, who is the only one of the group to have trained as an artist (Khbeiz is a poet and writer; Abdallah is a poet, writer, and musician and is particularly mistrustful of the power politics inherent to museums — he regards them as spaces to use but where one should leave no trace behind). “I quit art a long time ago,” says Sadek. “But I think what the art world allows us to do, we cannot find anywhere else. It gives us leeway to think and to produce work that is hard to define, and in that sense we are still working on the edge of the art world.”

Still, the name Group Tuesday does have added resonance in Arabic. Jamaa, the verb, means “to be gathered or grouped.” Al-Thuletha, the subject acting on the verb, takes its root from “three,” for the third day of the week. Tuesday is that which has made the group.

Meanwhile, Sadek describes artistic process as a means rather than an end. Following that logic, the visibility of Group Tuesday calls attention to a particular practice — the circulation of texts as an artistic strategy — that has been operative in Beirut for years but has always been overshadowed by video work. The point of Group Tuesday, it seems, is not to produce work per se. Rather, it is to imagine a set of relations and experiences that cannot, for various reasons, be forged in public life, and to realize them through writing — in Group Tuesday’s case, through writing extensively, rethinking, and writing anew. At the end of the day, to work collectively without consensus, and to welcome dissent as critically productive, suggests a progressive political project.

Kbheiz acknowledges that Group Tuesday’s work often bears witness to loss, but he maintains no illusions that theirs is a process of nascent nation-building. “If not the nation, there is this sense that a sort of sociality is a curse here,” he says. “You recognize that it is impossible… Everyday your work is [to] concoct and perform this sociality. You constantly undo it and put it together again.”

Public Timeremains an open file that Group Tuesday considers unfinished. They return to it on occasion. Khbeiz says writing about Western cities as he has written about Beirut — as the flipside to Orientalism, for example — is an idea he considers seriously. “It’s a tool,” he says, “but with this group we try to make these tools to work through our relations with modernity, democracy, and citizenship. These three matters are always in the background of our discussion.”

Having completed two projects to date, Group Tuesday, it could be said, is moving forward by looking back. Reconsidering the strengths and weaknesses of past pieces is an integral part of their process, as is sifting through old material to detect the lingering questions that continue to be most contentious among them. The dynamic of Group Tuesday relies on, even relishes, a certain sustained tension. Currently, Khbeiz and Abdallah are raking through alternative readings of their last work as well as the formal concerns raised by its installation. Sadek, for his part, is preparing a text-based piece for the Venice Biennale, where Lebanon will have its first (and fraught) national pavilion. Beyond these projects, there is little about their future that is fixed.

“Inevitably, I think, we will continue to work together, and inevitably, I think, we will do something again soon,” says Sadek. “But Bilal, Fadi, and I have no necessary loyalty to Group Tuesday. It came out of the pleasure of being together as friends and working together. We may end it tomorrow. Or do something else. We have not invented a brand.”