Chisenhale Gallery, London 31 March – 4 June
The Drift (2017), produced by the Chisenhale together with Spike Island, Bristol, is Maeve Brennan’s latest film. In it, the artist turns her attention to questions of heritage and conservation in a country damaged by a civil war, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the increased looting of heritage sites. Filmed, using long and wide static shots, in the arid, semideserted plains of the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon, 30km east of Beirut, the 50-minute work captures the melancholic sense of stillness and immutability that such grand-scaled landscapes can evoke. Alternating with these are extracts from recorded interviews – partly authentic and partly staged, according to the exhibition text – with three men who serve to humanise these landscapes and seem to have been selected by the artist for their vocations as ‘caretakers’ of sorts. One is Fakhry, an older man who, since the 1970s, has been guarding the ruins of Roman temples around his native town against thieves, while also engaging in some reconstruction, and is proud to share his passion for these old stones. Another is a conservator, who remains silent except for his concentrated breathing as he, armed only with a scalpel, a toothbrush and some superglue, patiently attempts to reassemble broken pottery in the basement of the American University of Beirut (these last dialogue-free scenes create an intense sense of frustration, as the conservator never succeeds in restoring any pots to even an approximation of their original state: they remain unfinished puzzles). The third interview is with a young man – a less conventional type of ‘caretaker’ – who drives around the region in his old BMW, picking up car parts from scrapyards seemingly with the sole aim of upgrading his car. When he’s not changing the car’s door or wheel in the middle of a deserted road, he kills time by spinning his car in circles – what car enthusiasts call ‘drifting’ – in the dusty plains.
The deliberate slowness and contemplativeness of Brennan’s film, in particular when capturing the landscape, seems at odds with the activities going on in the Beqaa Valley. Indeed, the vast chain of mountains on the horizon forms a border with Syria, and the multiple ‘outlaw roads’ the young car-driver shows us snaking through the mountains have made the region a central junction in antiques smuggling from Syria. The valley is also reputed to be a haven for carjacking gangs, drug trafficking and counterfeiting of all sorts, as well as being known for its high number of Hezbollah disciples. This reality is not absent here, but placed in perspective. The young man stops to show us the remains of a Hezbollah member’s car, bombed by the Israelis in 2012, before saying with a smirk: “God have mercy on his soul. But those wheels are brand new. One day I’ll come here and take them.” Elsewhere we witness someone who could be an antiques smuggler, filmed at night under a streetlight. We see only his hands as he swipes a finger across photographs of presumably looted artefacts on his smartphone. His tone when describing the objects is light and intimate, like that of a regular salesman.
Emerging from these contrasts is the mundanity of people getting on amid the rubble around them – a subject dear to other post-civil war artists, such as Akram Zaatari – and the unusual passion and interest they demonstrate for this detritus, be it car parts, Roman stones or broken pottery. What is revealed, in turn, is a human drive to preserve and rebuild, even if here the attempts can feel at times pointless, in a Sisyphean way. The reason why, perhaps, the young man drifts almost obsessively: “We go and drift on the main roads, in the fields, in the mountains... We must leave our mark, a souvenir.”
From the May 2017 issue of ArtReview