Trembling Landscapes

2016, Historical photograph 1900/1920. Drawings, ink and charcoal. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Imane Farès, Paris

In Trembling Landscapes (2014–16), a series of ink-stamped aerial views of Algiers, Beirut, Damascus, Erbil, Makkah, and Tehran, Ali Cherri highlights fault lines that have resulted in catastrophic earthquakes, juxtaposing them with instances of political unrest and architectural development. The maps are reminiscent of well-known photographs of cities destroyed in the Second World War, or more recent image filmed by hovering drones, but without a clear reference about whether the given city is in the state before or after the catastrophe. What they offer though is retrieval of memory that we share and too often suppress, as well as a possibility to transform this information into a metaphor for the unrest that envelops those cities ceaselessly. Beirut is a city dense with tensions. It lies above the crossroads of many fault lines that are giving shape to a high potential of earthquakes. By looking at the history of earthquakes of Beirut, this areal view reveal fault lines as signs of a “worried” present, anxious about the catastrophes of the past that it seeks to overcome, and the anticipated catastrophes of the future that it seeks to avoid. Presented in four split panels, the lithographic print “Paysages tremblants: Beyrouth” echoes the Beiruti green line that divided the city during 17 years of civil war, where the artist grew up and lived.

A bird’s eye view implies a bigger picture. Ali Cherri describes it as “a technical term, as used for instance for architectural perspectives, which implies an impossible viewpoint, a perspective as though the observer were a bird, often used in the making of blueprints and maps.” Ali Cherri belongs to a generation of artists who make use of video, of archival images and found footage as a counter-act to the violence of images distributed through the social and mass media, which in the 21st century, more than ever, construct the perceptions, the sensibilities and opinions. Cherri enhances the material’s performative ability of affecting and changing the meaning of the circulated images depicting catastrophes and wars. Preoccupied by the geopolitical situation of the place where he was born and its conflict-driven neighbours, Lebanon and surrounding countries of the Middle East, the artist incessantly investigates new visual language that could formulate the (im)possibility of finding some political stability within it. With his approach to look into the production of the contemporaneous moment as a scientific fact, to research into the archives and to follow the automated labour of the seismographs, Cherri asks the question on how to deal with the troubled territories. The artist thus performs a drastic turn of perspective by insisting that the attention should be turned away from the spectacular mediatisation of the religious, sectarian and civil violences in the region, to the inner and shaky structure of the ground on which these territorial battles have been unravelling since a long time. The decision of addressing a particular political situation from the viewpoint of geology is no longer a mere metaphor or metonymy. Out of it emerges a daily practice of struggling with finding sense in surviving and becoming resilient to the disaster and its inevitability.

Tracing the history, the geological maps and the actual inscription of the movement of the tectonic plates and fractures, Cherri underlines that “we are already living a moment of a catastrophe”, but it is being slowed down (Matthew Gumpert). In aesthetic terms, the artist draws analogies between the devastation occurring after a natural tragedy and the visual clichés of ruins caused by wars, since a rupture instigated by a disaster provides also an irretrievable caesura in language. However, the opening lines of his film The Disquiet (2013) remind us, through the haunting verses of Bertolt Brecht, that “In the dark times / Will there also be singing? / Yes, there will also be singing / About the dark times.”