Six Degrees of Connection: Photographer Gilbert Hage and the Artist Collective Antonello Ghezzi

Nélida Nassar   01.28.2018

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Gilbert Hage’s photography exhibition “I hated you already because of the lies I had told you” is paired with a performance by the Italian artist collective Antonello Ghezzi’s “Blow against the walls”. In the former, the viewer is confronted with a series of nine images from a hundred of them showing women (ranging between the age of twenty to thirty) “sticking out their tongues”. Photographed at the onset of the 2011 Arab Revolution, the series of color digital prints took one year to complete. Hage’s images interpret and reflect on the meaning of that year’s events. He explains that the protests, which started in Tunisia, were sparked by the self-immolation of the street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi . An intensive campaign of civil resistance followed, including numerous street demonstrations triggering the removal of presidents and regime changes, many of which were carried out by women. It inspired similar actions throughout the Arab world, known as the Arab Spring. The artist’s predilection is to work in series, and this extends to subject matter, size and presentation support. The pigmented square prints (110 x 110 cm) are mounted on aluminum. What seems obvious is that women are not just saying “Ah”!

Simultaneously with Hage’s show, the Bologna-based artists Nadia Antonello and Paolo Ghezzi will give a performance on opening night only in an adjacent part of the gallery. The duo works with scientists and businesses, bringing art to the realm of everyday life through installations that combine technology, reality, and poetry. “Blow against the walls” is part of their journey around the world, searching for barriers built by humans to keep other men far away or just because one needs to leave and couldn’t do it. The performance is divided into two sections. First, 200 bottles of soap bubbles in 6 different pastel colors are lined up in front of a white-washed wall (2.80 meter height x 2.00 meters wide, and the visitor is invited to blow bubbles, thus actively participating in the creation of the art piece. The other part of the performance makes use of six vertical paintings (100 x 150 cm each), outlined in black, with barbed wire and horizon lines on a white background, suggesting borders and barriers. Here, too, the visitor is invited to paint over the images using the soap bubbles. Three additional finished paintings from the Documenta 14 in Athens complete the installation. The six paintings are part of on-going project which will travel with the artists to other countries where the performance can be repeated, while the temporary wall may be dismantled or kept by the gallery at the end of the exhibition. The artists’ intention is “to break walls and the frayed string poetically, quietly, and non-violently, with beauty and sweetness. They want to fight arrogance with naivety. As long as there is enough breath to blow another bubble of soap we will blow away our anger.”

The performance provokes a feeling of whimsy, approaching a serious and urgent subject lightheartedly and in a participatory fashion. This feeling is accentuated by the ethereal quality of the evanescent soap bubbles. The involvement of the viewer adds an element of chance, since every time the piece is performed or exhibited it will necessarily be different from the previous time. Unlike earlier works of art which were, by definition, static, performances or happenings evolve and provide a unique encounter for each individual who partakes in the experience.

Hage’s approach is not new: the history of art abounds with images of people sticking out their tongues, and in each of these cases different interpretations are possible. The tongue, as always, is the locus of seduction, mischief, respect, sex and power. It brings to mind such artists as Pierre Alechinsky and Lee Aguinaldo, or examples of the tongue sticking out mouths in Aztec art, as well as Piero Fornasetti’s decorative black and white plate No. 82, a lithographic print of the beautiful, enigmatic operatic soprano and house muse Lina Cavalieri sticking her tongue out, imagined by the artist as an erotic gesture. And, of course, there is the funny photograph of the great physicist Albert Einstein taken just after his 72nd birthday banquet when a group of photographers and reporters pressured him to smile for them. Reluctant to offer another smile to the importuning media, he stuck his tongue out instead and immediately turned his head away. One of the photographers, Arthur Sasse, clicked his shutter at just the right moment; little did he know that he had just taken what would become one of the most influential, mischievous photographs in history. Psychologists tell us that when we are trying to complete an important job, a protruding tongue may send conscious and unconscious signals to others that we want to be left alone. Whatever the reason, it appears that it is an entirely benign condition, hard-wired into our nervous systems and commonly seen in people who are focusing their attention (as in the case of the basketball champion Michael Jordan). On the other hand, in Tibet, for example, sticking out your tongue has an entirely different meaning. It is a greeting and a sign of respect. The diversity of meanings associated with this gesture demonstrates the power of language and socialization.

The tongues sticking out in Hage’s photographs may suggest some of the above interpretations. However, the most relevant ones here are certainly an anti-authoritarian attitude, a response to powerlessness, and the kind of mockery not unlike that implied in John Pasche’s Rolling Stones tongue and lips logo with its obvious sexual connotations. All these images seem to split the difference between mischievous kid and sexy adult. With unprecedented realism, Hage tackles the subject of resistance head on using suggestive images of the tongue to provoke new reactions and to subvert established meanings. The series reduces photography to its documentary and graphic essence, conveyed with exquisite purity. The images are also witty. Yet, by subtly isolating them as cultural artifacts, the artist transforms them into sculptural entities.

Usually, only artifacts remain from performance art, often in the form of photographs and oral histories. In the “Blow against the walls”, by contrast, part of what remains is, exceptionally, not simply ephemeral: it is a group of paintings. They resuscitate the older notion of an “art object”. While performance art is defined by the action, occasion, and/or experience that constitutes it, here it is somewhat altered; for in this case it leaves traces in the form of substantial objects. As it confronts and dismantles conventional views of the category of “art,” it also to some extent restores them. Hage and the collective Antonello Ghezzi – two different artistic practices – both succeed visually and semantically in tackling the ubiquity of serious issues of resistance to authority and wall-building. They enact a dialogue with their viewers while re-appropriating the same agency (the mouth) and subverting art to further their artistic needs. Hage achieves this with maximum tonguosity while the collective Antonello Ghezzi does it with recorded, ephemeral bubbles. As can already be seen from their titles, each employs humor and the erotic in initiating their conversation with the viewer.

Exhibition and Performance at
Gallery Tanit, Mar Mikhael, Lebanon