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Akran Zaatari is one of those Middle East artists that have transformed the presentation of their practice into their practice. This is a tricky thing to do because it transforms his own career into a sort of ‘ready made’ object that is supposed to have value in itself and avant la lettre. The Beirut-based artist has worked in photography, film, video, installation, and performance, and has built a complex but also complicated body of work that explores the state of image-making today. To be perfectly honest, the problem that I have with his approach is that under the excuse of ‘exploring the state of image-making today’, he deploys a series of media to transform presentation into representation. In other words, anything might be considered as ‘art’ in this context for there is a displacement of ‘the institution of art’ into ‘the institution of memory’ that tends to justify anything said or done as if it were a Duchampian ‘ready made’ urinal in its own right. 

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Zaatari is one of the founders of the Arab Image Foundation, which aims to track down and preserve photos from North Africa, the Middle East, and Arabic communities around the world, Zaatari collects, examines, and recontextualizes a wide range of documents—from found audiotapes to family photographs to videos found on YouTube—that testify to the cultural and political conditions of Lebanon’s postwar society. According to MOMA: ‘His artistic practice involves the study and investigation of the way these documents straddle, conflate, or confuse notions of history and memory’. Of course, this raises the issue of the artist as being the one with the ‘magical’ powers to differentiate what history and memory are and where we stand in relation to them. 

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The problem is that Zaatari does not go too far to answer these questions for he decides to focus on the quite obvious source that modernist studio photography is. By transforming that kind of ‘old’ photography into the vehicle of ‘memory’, he objectifies memory as something private and history as something public. My problem with this is the use of video installations to highlight what is already in the source material (I mean, the old photographs) which makes the intervention of the artist unnecessary and if you want, rhetorical. This split between private and public was obvious in his MOMA show, where he presented two video installations: Dance to the End of Love (2011) and On Photography, People and Modern Times (2010), comprised of found YouTube clips made by Arab youth and shared freely online, Dance to the End of Love examined the role of social media as a space that is both intimate and public. 

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In the Thomas Dane show: On Photography, People and Modern Times, he tracks photographic records that Zaatari researched and collected for the Arab Image Foundation in the late 1990s, is a meditation on intimate past moments evoked by photographs and a present environment that secures their preservation. According to the MOMA webpage, ‘cutting across temporal and geographic borders, these two video installations probe the nature of time and assert the permeability of memory’. Really? How? This is why his show at Thomas Dane in London was a very good opportunity for the artist to make his project a bit more specific. Unfortunately, the Thomas Dane show repeats the same idea magnified to the point of using the whole gallery as the frame for what seems to be the recreation of a mid XX century photographic studio. This brings the whole project closer to a theme park than to art as such and, at this point, one starts asking oneself whether memory as linked to the erasure that war brings about is what is actually behind this show and whether this is about image making or about defacement through war. 

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At Number 11 Duke Street we find ’28 Nights and a Poem’ which occupies the entire space and is an homage to Studio Sheherazade, a portrait studio which was opened by the photographer Hashem el Madani in Zaatari’s hometown of Saida, South Lebanon, in the 1950s. Zaatari employs iPads, LCD screens, Super 8 projections, photographic prints and cabinets packed with memorabilia to conjure a shifting snapshot of Lebanon’s postwar society through the negatives, celluloid reels and photos belonging to El Madani’s studio. I am still asking myself what is the relevance of this? 

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Down the road at 3 Duke Street you’ll find the film ‘On Photography, People and Modern Times’. A 38-minute study of Zaatari’s work as co-founder of the Arab Image Foundation (which was begun in1997 to collect and preserve images from the Arab world), it marks a shift in mood. Here the almost clinical act of archiving pictures is portrayed on screen, while personal stories about how the photos came about flash up as a series of extended subtitles. so on one hand we have the production of studio photos and here we have the archive. OK….

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According to Time Out magazine, this show raises an important question. Has photography’s power been diluted through the ubiquity of digital images? I don’t need Zaatari to tell me what Walter Benjamin has already said in a more succinct way. Just a thought. 

Akram Zaatari: On Photography, People and Modern Times
at Thomas Dane Gallery
Until February 1st