Exile as Foundation: “Action at a Distance” at the Angela Meleca Gallery

It just so happens that I had been teaching Seneca’s Consolation To Helvia immediately before encountering the following text as part of one of Youmna Chlala’s light-box works on display at the new group exhibition Action at a Distance at the Angela Meleca Gallery here in Columbus.

Everyone reminds you that exile is a group activity.

For Seneca, who wrote his dialogue addressed to his mother during his time in exile on the island of Corsica between 41-49 CE, exile in itself was nothing to be troubled about either for the person enduring it or for the people who, like Helvia, suffer the grief of a loved-one’s exile at a distance.

I have determined to conquer this grief of yours, not merely to limit it; and I shall conquer it, I believe, if in the first place I can prove that I am not suffering enough to entitle me to be called unhappy, let alone to justify me in rendering my family unhappy: and, secondly, if I can deal with your case and prove that even your misfortune, which comes upon you entirely through me, is not a severe one.

The Stoic Seneca starts by ventriloquizing the common complaint of exile (“It is unbearable to lose one’s native land”) only to state that all that exile is is a change of place. There is no ‘homeland’, because as humans we are by nature creatures of change and movement:

Different people have been led away from their homes by different causes; but in all cases it is clear that nothing remains in the same place in which it was born: the movement of the human race is perpetual: in this vast world some changes take place daily.

Seneca follows this point with a flourish on the figure of the exile as founder of cities, using as a his crowning example the case of the Trojan Aeneas, an exile who founded Rome:

The foundations of new cities are laid, new names of nations arise, while the former ones die out, or become absorbed by more powerful ones…It is a fact that the Roman Empire itself traces its origin back to an exile as its founder, who, fleeing from his country after its conquest, with what few relics he had saved from the wreck, had been brought to Italy by hard necessity and fear of his conqueror, which bade him seek distant lands.

Later Seneca would transform this language of civic foundation into a philosophical lesson about the foundation of learning in his mother’s attempts to console herself.

Still, thanks to your keen intellectual appetite, you learned more than one could have expected in the time: you laid the foundations of all good learning: now return to them: they will render you safe, they will console you, and charm you. If once they have thoroughly entered into your mind, grief, anxiety, the distress of vain suffering will never gain admittance thither: your breast will not be open to any of these; against all other vices it has long been closed. Philosophy is your most trustworthy guardian, and it alone can save you from the attacks of Fortune.

The work of the five Lebanese artists in Action at a Distance all in their own way transform their various degrees of separation from their home in Beirut into differing forms of consoling and foundational acts. For the collaborating duo Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige the two mesmerizing photographs from their incredible (in many senses of the word!) documentary film The Lebanese Rocket Society (which I was lucky enough to see at a special screening at the Wexner Center for the Arts coordinated with the exhibition) capture the everyday cityscape of Beirut as the miraculous blur of their rocket-sculpture is transported through its streets.

In a swift, single gesture, Hadjithomas and Joreige enact both the collective act of forgetting as well as their own research’s creative recovery of the inspirational story of the scientists who experimented with rockets in the early 1960s at the Armenian Haigazian University in Beirut. Furthermore, like the final animated sequence of their documentary, the blur of the rocket also lays the groundwork for a record of the future that could have been possible – lightning-fast transportation – had the scientists’ program and the whole country had not been stifled by the Six Day War of 1967 and the Lebanese Civil War.

A comparable gesture of foundation is performed in Rhea Karam’s actions and their resulting photographic manifestation of her placement of large-scale photographs of tress of Central Park onto half-ruined walls in Beirut.

What would it mean to transplant such an iconic and expansive green space to the heart of the Lebanese capital? The artist’s own experience of being ‘uprooted’ is, in this very gesture, translated into a positive act of foundation and, like Hadijithomas and Joreige’s speeding transport, one that envisages a potential future through art.

The future is what stares back at us from the eyes of the children in the two large-scale photographs of Rania Matar, balanced by the background of the graffitied walls of Beirut. But once we discover that they are ‘invisible’ Syrian and Palestinian refugees, their human precarity overshadows the seemingly ephemeral words and images on the city’s walls. At the same time, here they stand, displaced and vulnerable, but also grounded and, thanks to the photographer, facing us with the sureness of their existence.

The rocket, the trees and the children all challenge us with their presence. But what of the artists themselves? Where do they stand? If not in Beirut, where has their particular version of exile, displacement or expatriate existence brought them? Youmna Chlala’s small light-boxes, culled from the 8mm footage of her film Notes for Leaving and Arriving, bring text and image together to answer these questions. It is through a grounding of the photographic form, amid the flux of film and graffiti across Beirut and its pot-marked history, a slowing-down and making material of memory and trauma, that the exile finds their foundation. And, like Aeneas and his companions, that foundation is bound up with the formation of a community. This is a special and timely exhibition for Angela Meleca to bring to us all in Columbus as we struggle with the shifting sands of this Home of the Brave. Amid missiles, travel bans, attacks on our environment and our civil liberties, whether we are citizens or immigrants, we are all in it together and so together we must console ourselves with the projection of a safe home for the future, but for now, let us start by building this new foundation out of the pain and trauma of our exile.

Action at a Distance is on view until May 27th and you can find out more information about the exhibition here.

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