A Museum of Immortality

A Museum of Immortality

A Museum of Immortality, 2014, Ashkal Alwan, Beirut © Ashkal Alwan and e-flux.
A Museum of Immortality
June 11, 2014

The Home Workspace Program presents at Ashkal Alwan, Beirut,  A Museum of Immortality, on view from June 11 through July 18, 2014. The exhibition is initiated by Anton Vidokle, following a curatorial concept by theorist and historian Boris Groys. A Museum of Immortality is comprised of works by more than fifty artists, writers, curators, filmmakers and architects who took part in and contributed to the 2013–14 Home Workspace Program, presented in an architectonic environment designed by Nikolaus Hirsch and Michel Müller.

“In the 1880–1890s Russian philosopher Nikolai Fedorov developed the project of the ‘Common Task,’ which consisted of the creation of the technological, social, and political conditions under which it would be possible to resurrect all men who have ever lived—through technological, artificial means. Here, the Christian promise of immortality and resurrection had to be realized by technological means. Above all, however, Fedorov believed in the power of social organization, and in this sense he was a true socialist. True social justice meant for Fedorov also justice for the dead—the end of the privileging of the living in their relationship to the dead. This artificially produced immortality was for him a way to unite the right technology with the right social organization. After the October Revolution, Fedorov’s ideas became especially attractive, since materialist philosophy constituted the core on which Communist ideology was built.

“Fedorov considered the museum as an institution that could and should become the basis for the immortalization of the whole of mankind. He believed, namely, that the technique of museological conservation is a kind of anti-technique, since it does not produce new things but cares about the old ones. The museum is thus fundamentally at odds with progress, which necessarily replaces old things with new things. The museum is a machine for making things immortal. In so far as each human being is also merely a thing among other things, the museum’s anti-technique can also be extended to the conservation of human beings. According to Fedorov’s project, at the first stage of its realization the museum should become the museum of all human beings without exception: in this universal museum, every human being should be allocated a room in which everything that is related to this human being should be collected: organic matter (urine, hair, etc.), personal belongings, and images of this person, and memories by her/his relatives and friends, etc.”
–Boris Groys, 2012

For the exhibition at Ashkal Alwan, a hypothetical model of such a museum is realized in Beirut, with contributions from: 
Balsam Abozor, Reem Akl, Liane Al Ghusain, Barbara Anderlic, Stefan Bakmand Andersen, Christiane Assoury, Ida Kat Balslev & Nikola Hartl, Mirna Bamieh, Daniel Barroca, Monica Basbous, Mihaela Brebenel, Maeve Brennan, Tony Chakar, Miguel Fernández de Castro, Laure de Selys, Rachel Dedman, Paul-Flavien Enriquez-Sarano, Octavian Esanu, Hadia Gana, Raymond Gemayel, Romain Hamard & Daphné Praud, Fadi Hennawi, Maxime Hourani, Amal Issa, Rahel Kesselring, Jessika Khazrik, Jinjoo Kim, Tarek Knorn & Nada Zanhour, Lynn Kodeih, Ele Krekeler, Mikko Maki, MoAA, Bettina Mooshamer, Mehreen Murtaza, Nanna Neudeck, Arjuna Neuman, Philip Pilekjær, Rivers Plasketes & Christopher Miller, Ambra Pittoni, Oleksiy Radynski, Raed Rafei, Eshan Rafi, Raqs Media Collective, Alicja Rogalska, Mahmoud Safadi, Maria Sarkis, Sarah Schalk, Clara Sfeir, Haruna Takakura, Pelin Tan, Graziella Rizkallah Toufic, Jalal Toufic, Anton Vidokle, Nathan Witt.


“A Museum of Immortality”, Artforum • Kaelen Wilson-Goldie

Rounding out the third edition of Ashkal Alwan’s experimental art school, “A Museum of Immortality” is the last in a series of exhibitions anchoring a curriculum developed by the artistsAnton Vidokle and Jalal Toufic. The show is based on a concept by Boris Groys, and actually tries to realize the Russian philosopher Nikolai Fyodorov’s wild notion of…

Rounding out the third edition of Ashkal Alwan’s experimental art school, “A Museum of Immortality” is the last in a series of exhibitions anchoring a curriculum developed by the artistsAnton Vidokle and Jalal Toufic. The show is based on a concept by Boris Groys, and actually tries to realize the Russian philosopher Nikolai Fyodorov’s wild notion of “The Common Task,” whereby a heady, hallucinatory mix of science, technology, political circumstance, and spiritual fervor reimagines the museum as a space for resurrecting the dead and immortalizing all mankind.

With the help of more than fifty fellow artists, Vidokle and Toufic have created a muscular, mazelike installation of stacked and angled boxes, display cases doubling as glass-capped wooden coffins. The range of people, ideas, and things offered for eternal preservation here is broad, uneven, and dazzlingly inventive in terms of materials and forms. Jessika Khazrik’s My Body If Only I Could See You (all works 2014), for example, pays tribute to the eleventh-century polymath Ibn al-Haytham and his Book of Optics by placing a pair of identical light fixtures face-to-face. Daniel Barrocaassembles seven vellum sheets, among others, scrawled with notes and astral drawings in Alberto Caeiro to conjure the spirit of the titular Portuguese poet, who was, like Ricardo Reis and Álvaro de Campos, one of Fernando Pessoa’s great literary heteronyms.

Inevitably, perhaps, several artists plumb their own autobiographies. But where Lynn Kodeih’s broadcast of 147 hours of psychoanalysis, Untitled, 8820 Minutes Ongoing seems excessive and self-indulgent, Tony Chakar’s How to Say Goodbye, a collection of at least as many cassette tapes, speaks beautifully to a time of loss and a sense of longing whose resurrection can only ever be painfully incomplete.

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“Immortality on display, in 54 boxes”, The Daily Star Beirut • Jim Quilty

BEIRUT: When the living recall the dead with fondness, as sometimes happens, it’s not unusual to honor their memory. Memorials can be as idiosyncratic as the imagination of the one doing the remembering. Take the case of the “Orvillecopter.” At the 2012 edition of KunstRai, Amsterdam’s annual art fair, Dutch artist Bart Jansen unveiled a work…

BEIRUT: When the living recall the dead with fondness, as sometimes happens, it’s not unusual to honor their memory. Memorials can be as idiosyncratic as the imagination of the one doing the remembering. Take the case of the “Orvillecopter.”

At the 2012 edition of KunstRai, Amsterdam’s annual art fair, Dutch artist Bart Jansen unveiled a work he described as a memorial to his beloved cat, Orville. The artist had stuffed the beast – its pelt stretched out like a miniature tiger-skin rug – and mounted propellers on its four paws. With the aid of a remote control, Jansen’s memorial gave the gift of flight to his former feline friend.

The work had its detractors. While some found the concept playful and charming – gleefully glutting social media with photos of the airborne Orville – those with more conservative sensibilities derided Jansen’s gesture as a stunt. Sentimental cat lovers condemned the work as a form of animal abuse.

As its title suggests, “A Museum of Immortality,” the exhibition now gracing the central hall of Ashkal Alwan’s Home Workspace, is a study of that most radical form of memorial: resurrection.

Anton Vidokle, one of two resident professors at the Homeworks academy this year, organized this noncurated show, issuing an open call to artists – a cosmopolitan roster of Homeworks academy students and teachers – to create an installation immortalizing an extinct individual.

Of the 60 proposals, organizers selected 54 by pulling names from a hat. The only formal restriction on the contributions was that each work must fit within one of the 54 vitrines created to display them: wooden boxes – usually glass-fronted or glass-topped – whose dimensions approximate those of a coffin.

A wide array of media has been brought to bear in this exhibition.

There are objects and the odd USB-computer interface – and one work is exclusively tactile – but images and texts predominate. The latter range from handwritten notes to excerpts of texts to novels. The former include original and reproduced sketches, paintings and photographs, though – this being a postgraduate school of contemporary art – visitors will find a variety of video screens as well.

Though each component is prominently numbered (1-54), the show is not numerically arranged. Consequently it’s the modular design – credited to Nikolaus Hirsch and Michel Mueller – that conditions how works are received. Individual pieces can be absorbed both in their own terms and in juxtaposition with adjacent works.

One cluster, for instance, includes works by Jalal Toufic (who shares the professorial burden with Vidokle) and his collaboration with Graziella Rizkallah Toufic.

Toufic chose to reiterate his 41-minute, 2006 video “Mother and Son; or, That Obscure Object of Desire (Scenes from an Anamorphic Double Feature),” which interweaves audio and video elements of two apparently quite distinct films – Aleksandr Sukurov’s 1997 “Mother and Son” and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” from 1960. Shards of both films move across a flat-screen monitor, which shares its vitrine with the carcass of a wasp.

Above and to the right is Rizkallah Toufic’s “Victoria Rizkallah; or, The Sticking Out Hair.” A far more intimate video work (playing out on a tablet screen), it juxtaposes shots of the deceased Rizkallah’s open casket with scenes in which a tweezers-wielding young woman removes unwanted hairs from the still-living Rizkallah’s face. Alongside the tablet, a few white face hairs adorn a square of black foam, alongside a pair of tweezers.

No restrictions were imposed upon the selection of personages. Some artists chose more or less obscure historical persons.

Stefan Bakmand Andersen’s compilation of images of, and texts by and about, a thinker from antiquity called Stephanus of Byzantium has a patina of Google about it.

Amal Issa’s “Hope This Letter Finds You Well,” on the other hand, is an affecting altar to Abdel-Nasser Issa (1957-76), a relative killed at the start of Lebanon’s Civil War. His mortal remains rest in the cemetery of Shatila Camp, but a bureaucratic error misplaced his precise location.

For his “How to Say Goodbye,” Tony Chakar has stacked within a vitrine the collection of cassette tapes he can no longer use, thanks to the updated technology in his new car.

Mingling aspects of archive, library and trash can, Octavian Esanu’s “Untitled” seeks to resurrect the community of people that constitutes a particular individual (again himself), “including things made, produced, listed, documented or simply thrown away by people and beings that surround me.”

The premise of “A Museum of Immortality,” as proposed by art critic and media theorist Boris Groys, is the idiosyncratic model of memorial proposed by Russian philosopher Nikolai Fyodorovich Fedorov (1828-1903).

Fedorov saw mortality as the principal bane to the perfectibility of mankind, one that all of humanity should be unified in struggling against – the Common Cause, as he termed it – and was an advocate of bending scientific research to the task of radically extending life spans, with the goal of physical immortality and resurrection of the dead.

Given these premises, the single most entertaining work in this show is Alicja Rogalska’s “The Droste Effect (Lebanese Mormon Society),” which juxtaposes a contemporary view of immortality with that of Fedorov.

It takes its cue from a Wired magazine report that in a secure, subterranean vault, the “Mormon Church has squirreled away the world’s largest collection of genealogical material: more than 2 million microfilm reels … [holding] around 2 billion names, a sizable portion of the total number of people who have ambled through recorded history.”

Rogalska’s vitrine holds a tablet-sized screen relating, with lacerating wit, the research initiative inspired by her discovery.

She inquired whether the Mormon vault included the name of Nikolai Fyodorovich Fedorov. As it does not, she undertakes a conversation with churchmen about whether he ought to be included. This amusing dialogue is represented in subtitles across a Google Maps-style search for the location of the church’s Utah vault.

They don’t appear to have understood the joke.

—June 19, 2014

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“Traveller’s Tale”, Frieze • Kaelen Wilson-Goldie

Lady adventurers and the legacies of colonial history Three years ago, when the art organization Ashkal Alwan moved to a former factory on the edge of Beirut, it had no intention of establishing an exhibition space. Public programming would consist of talks and screenings and, for the most part, the venue would be used to house an experimental art…

Lady adventurers and the legacies of colonial history

Three years ago, when the art organization Ashkal Alwan moved to a former factory on the edge of Beirut, it had no intention of establishing an exhibition space. Public programming would consist of talks and screenings and, for the most part, the venue would be used to house an experimental art school, which would, somewhat maddeningly, overhaul itself every year.

How curious, then, that the most radical reinvention of Ashkal Alwan’s quasi-pedagogical Home Workspace Program to date, organized by Anton Vidokle and Jalal Toufic, turned the venue into precisely the curatorial engine it was never meant to be. ‘A Museum of Immortality’, was the last in a series of five exhibitions ranging from Anselm Franke’s ‘Animism’ to Hito Steyerl’s ‘Junktime’, whichkept the curriculum going through a year of notable political upheaval and uncertainty.

Based on an idea by Boris Groys, who was inspired by the 19th-century Russian philosopher Nikolai Fedorov, ‘A Museum of Immortality’ delved into Fedorov’s notion of ‘The Common Task’ which imagined the museum as the immortalization of mankind. Vidokle and Toufic gathered more than 50 artists– established and emerging, local and foreign – to make singular works resurrecting a specific person, idea or thing.

The architectural historian Pelin Tan pondered the ruins of Oscar Niemeyer’s unfinished fairgrounds in the Lebanese city of Tripoli. The filmmaker Raed Rafei considered Pier Paolo Pasolini’s visit to Beirut, where he screened his films in a cinema that no longer exists. The Raqs Media Collective took up the case of missing persons. And, in one of the exhibition’s most striking contributions, Reem Akl explored the serial burials of Lady Hester Stanhope, the 19th-century adventuress whose grave, initially located near a remote monastery in South Lebanon, was disturbed by earthquake, civil war and alleged theft.

Part of a larger project titled ‘A Proper State of Repair’, concerned with forms (from ruin to rumour) that transmit knowledge, Akl’s piece for ‘A Museum of Immortality’, The Five Burials of LHS(2014), is one in a fine line of works inspired by Stanhope.  An English aristocrat who ventured East, dressed in drag and died a recluse, Stanhope – the subject of a feature film currently in development, The Lady Who Went Too Far, from the producers and screenwriter of The King’s Speech (2010) – also played politics, harboured refugees and was possibly a spy.

Stanhope appeals to artists grappling with the colonial legacies of Lebanon and the wider Arab world, not only for her transgressions of statecraft but also for her independence and sexual freedom. She had a cameo in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) as Molly Bloom’s girlfriend, took a string of lovers and never married. In her artist’s book, Sayyîdî Milady (2004), Nadine Touma used Stanhope’s drawings and letters to compose a visceral study of a woman’s sexual pleasure.

Stanhope is just one among several adventurous women who traveled alone at the turn of the last century. Timed to the region’s patterns of political turmoil, they have attracted strangely cyclical fascination. The most famous is Gertrude Bell, whose name is rekindled every time Iraq appears ready to fall apart. Werner Herzog is mid-way through adapting Bell’s life into a feature film,Queen of the Desert, billed as the epic female equivalent to the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia. It stars Nicole Kidman as Bell, Damien Lewis as her lover, and James Pattinson as T.E. Lawrence himself, Bell’s great friend and harshest critic.

In Letters From Baghdad, also in progress, the documentary filmmakers Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl are taking a more measured approach to Bell by collaging her letters and photographs. Other women periodically seizing the collective artistic imagination include Vita Sackville-West, Freya Stark and Agatha Christie who, on an impulse, hopped aboard the Orient Express in London and traveled as far as Baghdad when her husband ditched her for another woman. She later married an archeologist who eventually became the director of a British school in Baghdad.

The problem, however, with valorizing these figures is that they are overly romantic and reside on the other side too many historical divides. What can they possibly tell us about today? Three years ago, the late journalist Anthony Shadid wrote a piece for Granta on the history of Baghdad College, a high school established in Iraq by New England Jesuits in the 1930s. The worlds they inhabited – East and West, religious and secular, students and teachers – are definitively gone, wrecked by disingenuous diplomacy, widespread corruption and realpolitik. But it could be that those worlds live on – in the time and spaceof teaching, in the act of making schools, and in the works that emerge, delicate and questioning, from the ambiguity of those public-private settings, where the transmission of knowledge remains, despite everything, a modest but noble endeavour.

—August 18, 2014

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Tony Chakar is an architect, artist and writer. He teaches at the Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts (ALBA/UOB).

Arjuna Neuman is an artist, filmmaker, and writer. As a writer he has published essays in Relief Press, Into the Pines Press, The Journal for New Writing, VIA Magazine, Concord, Art Voices, Flaunt, LEAP, Hearings Journal, and e-flux journal.

Oleksiy Radynski is a filmmaker and writer based in Kyiv. His films have been screened at International Film Festival Rotterdam, Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen, Docudays IFF, the Institute of Contemporary Arts (London), S A V V Y Contemporary (Berlin), and e-flux (New York) among other places, and have received a number of festival awards.

Raed Rafei is a Lebanese filmmaker, writer, and scholar. He is currently based in San Francisco, where he is finishing a PhD in Film and Digital Media at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Pelin Tan is a Turkish art historian and sociologist based in Turkey. She is a researcher and writer working on methodology and in the fields of critical spatial practices, alternative pedagogies, and the commons. Currently, she is a professor and head of the film department at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Batman University, a senior research fellow at the Center for Arts, Design and Social Research, Boston, and a research fellow at the Architecture Faculty, University of Thessaly.

She was a postdoc fellow at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2011), DAAD Art History, Humboldt University of Berlin (2006), The Japan Foundation (2011), and Hong Kong Design Trust (2016). Tan is the lead author of the report “Urban Society” by ipsp (Cambridge Univ.Press 2018) and has contributed to several publications, including Climates: Architecture and The Planetary Imaginary (Columbia University, 2017), Refugee Heritage (Art & Theory, 2021), Radical Pedagogies (MIT Press, 2022), Autonomous Archiving (dpr, 2017), The Silent University: Toward-Transversal Pedagogy (Sternberg Press, 2016), Designing Modernity: Architecure in the Arab World (Jovis, 2021), and From Public to Commons (Routledge, 2023).

Anton Vidokle is an editor of e-flux journal and chief curator of the 14th Shanghai Biennale: Cosmos Cinema.

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