“This lovely light, it lights not me,” says an anguished Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s epic of whale hunting, Moby-Dick. The idea of light as evasive, used for both good and nefarious purposes, and available to some and not others is the theme of the new video by Haig Aivazian, All of Your Stars Are but Dust on My Shoes (2021), which opened this week at The Showroom gallery in London.
Created of footage the Lebanese artist found on the internet, through WhatsApp groups and filmed himself, the video starts with the gruesome recollection of the specifics of sperm whale-hunting. The poor creature’s giant head – really an extension of its body – is cut off and pulled aboard the whaling vessel. The sailors bore a hole into its head and two people climb inside, ladling out the yellowish oil from within.
Whale oil helped lubricate a late 19th-century boom in lighting, as street lamps and policemen’s lanterns lit up cities, making them safe after dark. Areas that were once off-limits suddenly allowed “respectable people” to pass through them without fear of criminals lurking in the dark.
But who gets to decide what “respectable” means (or for that matter, “criminal”) is an open question, suggests Aivazian. It could just be that light simply allowed for more surveillance, whose potential only grew as light became more pliable with the invention of electricity and more powerful forms of lighting and tracking movement.
Aivazian says he has been thinking about the uses and abuse of light for almost a decade.
“My interest in electricity started with a film I made about Zinedine Zidane [How Great You Are, O Son of the Desert!, 2013], which made a parallel between Zidane’s infamous head-butt and the riots that took place in Paris in 2005,” he says.
“The riots were started by three boys in the northern suburbs who were running away from the police. They hid from them in a transformer, and all three of them got electric shocked, and two of them died.
“It became an interest in slippery subjectivities,” Aivazian says. “Depending on what side of the law you may fall on, or what side of stardom you may fall on, you’re either a thug, or a terrorist, or even a super-talented athlete.”
The complex narrative of his films, weaving in historical and contemporary examples, show that power relations are often the source of who is deemed “good” or “bad”, as the example of the three French immigrant children – whom the police assumed had committed a crime – running away suggests.
In Prometheus (2019), which is showing alongside All of Your Stars at The Showroom, Aivazian contrasts the Dream Team of basketball stars who represented the US at the 1992 Olympics, in the height of American athletic stardom, with footage of the Iraq War, a project that many consider the dangerous height of American overreach. What was billed as a just, necessary war in Washington was encountered as sheer violence in Baghdad.
Aivazian learnt to question international power relations early on, he says. His family moved from Beirut to Sharjah near the end of the Lebanese Civil War, when he was aged about 9. Growing up in the UAE, his encounters with US military servicemen allowed him to glimpse race relations in a foreign country.
“Because the American ships would dock in Dubai, every once in a while, you had these American marines hanging around in shopping malls,” he recalls. “They would have this sports attire that was clearly authentic, whereas we were wearing the knock-offs. We would talk to them, and we were fascinated by them. They were, for the most part, young black men and some women at the time, so it was also an encounter with American culture as being an encounter with blackness. We were trying to figure out the complications where what’s seen as a monolithic power also has another struggle embedded within it.”
Aivazian left Sharjah for university in Canada, and returned to the UAE just as the art world was picking up in the early 2000s – installing himself at the centre of the scene. He worked at The Third Line just after it opened in 2005, was an occasional contributor to the arts magazine Bidoun and became an associate curator for the Sharjah Biennial in 2011. He left to do a masters in fine arts in Chicago, and eventually moved back to Beirut.
His exhibition at The Showroom comes as part of Mophradat’s Consortium Commissions programme, which helps place work by Arab artists among well-regarded art organisations in Europe and the US. All of Your Stars first appeared last year at The Renaissance Society in Chicago, and the exhibition All of Your Stars Are but Dust on my Shoes, which also includes Prometheus, marks Aivazian’s first solo show in London.
The Showroom is an ideal venue for the project: in 2009, the gallery moved from its longtime East End location to the slightly off-the-beaten track area of Edgware Road. Although nearer to the city centre, it traded an artist community for an Arab one; The Showroom now sits parallel to Edgware Road’s parade of shawarma shops, Middle Eastern food halls, and travel agents promising Khaleej holidays.
With his set-up for the exhibition, Aivazian is hoping to reach this Arab community, many of whom are part of the Lebanese diaspora and are keenly engaged in the Beirut protests and crisis that All of Your Stars documents. The artist opened up the show – ironically – by controlling the illumination of the room: he installed car tinting on the windows, so that the interior of the gallery remains dark enough for visitors to watch the videos, but also transparent enough that those passing outside can glimpse the images of protests, police surveillance, and pop-cultural nuggets that the videos weave together.
Although All of Your Stars Are but Dust on My Shoes was not specifically made in response to the protests, Lebanon’s recent crisis is indelible within it. The title comes from a popular protest chant.
“It’s a promise to trample on the police and the army who are trampling protesters,” Aivazian says. The stars refer to the police and the military, who wear stars on their epaulettes to indicate their rank. And while light is explored as an idea throughout his work, there is no discussing light at the present moment in Lebanon without thinking of Electricite du Liban and its corruption scandals.
“You bunch of swindlers! You looted state funds! You crooks, you fill your pockets and tell us there is no electricity!” shout protesters in Beirut, in Arabic, in the beginning of the work.
Aivazian says he has no plans to leave the Lebanese capital, despite the widespread exodus of art professionals to Europe and the Gulf, particularly of a younger generation. The decision has not been easy. He and Ahmad Ghossein began as co-directors in January 2020 of the Beirut Art Centre, a well-established contemporary art space in the city. But the partnership has disbanded, as Ghossein left to pursue his filmmaking career.
“It’s been tough and tricky, and frustrating, but also inspiring – and probably one of the few reasons that I'm not really questioning being here [in Beirut],” Aivazian says. “The idea for the arts or the art institution is to open a space of imagination. And if one of our political problems here is a lack of imagination, then it seems like a no-brainer [to remain open], in terms of the work that needs to be done.”
All of Your Stars Are but Dust on my Shoes is at The Showroom, London, until March 19, 2022