Across a body of work that spans photography, video, and installations, Nadim Asfar’s early works engage with the technical and experimental origins of image-making. In Hyper Images (1996-2004) for instance, he employs a camera-less photographic technique—the photogram—that is as old as photography itself, to produce a series of floral “photogenic drawings” that are as much records of action as they are still lives disconnected from recognizable spatial and temporal markers [+] [-] Hyper Images presents floral figures positioned against a monotonous expanse. Jasmine flowers are carefully placed, handled, and modeled on a photo-sensitive surface. The project employs a technique called « photograms » that first emerged in the mid-1800s, and is as old as photography itself. It is a camera-less technique that entails placing objects directly onto the surface of a light-sensitive material, then exposing it to light, creating negative shadows as a result. Several avant-garde artists, in the 1920s, including Man Ray, experimented with the potentialities of these “photogenic drawings”, as scientist and photographer William Henry Fox Talbot called them. Hyper Images pays tribute to these experimental origins of lab-based photographic and non-photographic imaging. This very first work of the artist initiated when he was still a student, announces an immersive and performative practice of photography as a technique and as a medium: as a self-sufficient, poetic and vital working habit. The series can thus be seen as a collection of actions, an intimate record of repetition and variation, and a collection of material lifeforms rendered abstract between the tactility of plucking and gathering jasmines, and the volatile chemistry of the development lab.
The registration of action, both of photographed subject and the act of photographic capture itself, animates the artist’s projects. In Habiter Le Jour (2004-2008) images register the bodies of anonymous passersby, as observed and captured from the balcony of the artist’s home-laboratory-studio. As faceless figures cast shadows under the hard city light, heading in undisclosed directions, their narratives are only announced, never told [+] [-] Habiter le jour is a series of photographs taken over several years from the artist’s studio overlooking a dynamic crossroad in Beirut. Produced during a formative part of the artist’s career, the project presents the meticulous, almost compulsive marks of a photographic activity that the artist devoted his days to. Framing and fixing the crossings of anonymous passersby, he records the space of textures, lines, and bodies in the city of Beirut. Bodies and vehicles head towards undisclosed locations and unannounced narratives. Faceless, the walking figures cast shadows and are frozen mid-gesture, simultaneously anonymous and the object of intimate observation. In a nod to Vito Acconci’s Following Piece (1960)—a photographic and cartographic project following the journeys of unidentified passersby in New York City—Habiter le jour mobilizes the scrutinizing gaze in lieu of mobility, plotting the ambulant characters and vehicles in what Acconci calls a “scheme”: a rule-bound exercise by which the artist surrenders to the restrictions of his plan and that of his characters. Habiter le jour, thus, also evokes the negative of what it portrays, namely, an observer or invisible participant willingly confined, motionless, finding respite in repetitive activity. His relation to the space of the house we never see is marked by attachment, as opposed to the fleeting records of the subjects depicted in the photographs.
Everyday Madonna (2010) a video completed a couple of years later, communicates a saturation or exhaustion of the household as repository and producer of images. Moving around the same space from which the photographs that make Habiter Le Jour were taken, the camera wanders around the confines of the interior, lingering over objects, the play of light and shadow on a wall, still images, moving images on television… The space of dwelling is constructed and disassembled via a series of events, however mundane or minute, flooding the space with a continuous flow of images and sounds [+] [-] In July 2006, during the Israel/Lebanon war, the artist lived 33 days anxious that he, along with the images and sounds that surrounded him, were going to disappear. All possible things that hadn’t yet become and could be interrupted by the surrounding disaster. After the war, he started filming and collecting long sequences in his apartment, while searching for a language that could speak of this feeling that haunted him for 33 days, a language that strove less to document or recount that period than to physically record the traces, images, and sounds that he heard and recorded in his apartment and neighborhood. Everyday Madonna is a filmic choreography of this quotidian. The film is a detailed and immersive description of the apartment from its corners, walls, textures, views, different lights that traverse it, and of how the body evolves in this particular matrix. The camera records long time lapses that develop into visual stillness, immersion in minute events that appear to provide some sort of company—temporary solace at a time when one could not tell how long things will last. The ghostly presence of the titular Madonna, the infamous pop star, in the film, isn’t merely a sign of the artist’s affection for her songs, which seem to be part of his everyday life. The music is an integral diegetic component of the film that flood its often doubled and framed shots. Madonna’s voice seeps into the rooms, painting a personal and intimate image of the singer in a domestic realm removed from the culture of mass communication and spectacle that characterizes stardom. Madonna’s voice gets lost amidst the ambient sounds of the city, becoming a singular and subjective disembodied voice, living matter recorded and heard at this precise moment in time in and space.
Each of Asfar’s work is characterized by a scheme or system of observation that governs the interactions between apparatus, body, and space. If in Habiter le Jour, the scheme revolves around a fixed position, Experiencing The Mountain (2015-ongoing) is an expansive photographic series of the mountainous Lebanese countryside that conveys the meticulousness and of an ambulant land surveyor [+] [-] The Lebanese landscape has marked the country’s popular imaginary throughout its modern history, as the quintessential idyllic symbol of the country’s then-recently obtained independence. Whether in the form of landscape paintings depicting nascent towns against a stratified scape of land and sea in Mustafa Farroukh’s paintings, or in Fairouz’s songs about daily life in rural Lebanon, landscape has emerged as a medium of national and nationalist imagination: a central component of the Lebanese imaginary. Experiencing the Mountain, an ongoing project that the artist has devoted his time to since 2014, is a work that engages with this tradition while setting the ground for a contemporary encounter with a de-nationalized landscape. The work revisits questions central to the medium of landscape: what is the relationship between territorial violence and pictorial beauty? What types of physical, material violence have the Lebanese wars impressed on the seemingly serene, mute mountain-scapes that surround us? What role can have representation and « beauty » in the specific context of the country? The work departs from maps, geological surveys and historical accounts of the Lebanese landscape, and proceeds to multiply the views, working from thousands of photographs taken at hundreds of sites across the entire country, forming until now an archive of twenty thousand images representing multiple seasons, multiple lights, multiple angles. The work also draws inspiration from a range of experiments in photography and land art, especially the work of Robert Smithson, in which “site”, as a concept and as an experience, plays a key role in the fashioning of photographic and spatial dispositifs that grapple with the pictorial and material qualities of land and landscape. The encounter generated by Experiencing the Mountain is marked by a tension between planning and contingency. The artist meticulously scouts for his locations and fills in the voids in his database-like landscape project. At the same time, the beginning of each trip is destabilizing and disorienting, prone to countless surprises. Engulfed by the affective and sensorial powers of the scenes before him, the photographs exit the boundaries of the survey and design instead a dispersed sensual space that is at once personal and material—plastic, haptic, erotic.
With Territorial Waters (2015) as its prologue, Experiencing The Mountain marks a departure or new direction in the artist’s work, from an engagement with the technical potentialities of the photographic apparatus as such, to a more thematic engagement with historical mediums and traditions, such as landscape [+] [-] Shot with a military drone from the deep edge of the Lebanese territorial waters, the video recalls the experience that the artist had as a child when travelling back to Lebanon, by boat, as the civil war had made the airport unreachable in the divided country. The sequence shot depicts the contour of the Lebanese mountains that were at the same time an announcement of extreme beauty and a deep source of anguish, both a promise and a threat. The video ends with a question: how can we bomb a landscape?
How does one de-nationalize a landscape at once arid and fertile, long-domesticated as a national emblem and tradition in Lebanese painting? How does one pair, sonically and visually, the impersonal vastness of sea and the volatility of one’s interior voice? How does one move across and register the all-too-familiar textures of the walls, streets, and fabrics of domestic space against the faces and surfaces of a city that is increasingly de-familiarized? One can say that Asfar encounters and apprehends things and phenomena by photographing them, each element exerting its own set of forces, restrictions, and potentialities on the act of capture, whether it’s the play of light and shadow in a living room at dusk, or the topographic complexity of the Lebanese landscape.