ALI CHERRIFragments, 2016, Archaeological artifacts, taxidermy bird and light table, dimensions variable. Installation view from the exhibition “A Taxonomy of Fallacies: The Life of Dead Objects,” at Sursock Museum, Beirut, 2016. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Imane Farès, Paris.

A Taxonomy of Fallacies: The Life of Dead Objects

Ali Cherri

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

In January, the Emir of Sharjah ventured into the desert to unveil newly unearthed tomb inscriptions dating to the 3rd century BCE, bearing the name of a king of the ancient kingdom of Oman. The event’s press release touted the discovery as being of “major historical significance to the region” and one that “proves the existence of the ancient kingdom.” However, the chirpy text soon revealed that the historic site will be part of a vast “archaeological and eco-tourism project,” complete with “three luxury hotels” and “entertainment facilities.” It was an announcement that made one wonder, how has archaeology—the science that unearths evidence behind founding mythologies, that timeworn proof-point of nation-building narratives—descended into mere leisure-park fodder? The same question serves as the core of Lebanese artist Ali Cherri’s latest show at Sursock Museum in Beirut.

The show, “A Taxonomy of Fallacies: The Life of Dead Objects,” consisted of three works. The installation Fragments faces the video Petrified (both 2016) in Sursock’s symmetric Twin Galleries, and another film, The Digger (2015), was screened in the institution’s auditorium. Fragments is a large, table-like light-box that holds a legion of archaeological artifacts of varying authenticity—mostly heads and figures in clay, stone and wood—gleaned mainly at auction houses, some still bearing labels attesting to their provenance. Petrified pans from birds cavorting below neon strip-lighting at an indoor wildlife park, to rows of artifacts, to the bleached, fissured topography of the vast Sharjah desert. Together the works seem to inveigh against the “museum” and “wildlife park” as constructs devoted to the spectacle of “re-creating” what is lost and freeze-framing what “requires” preservation.

In Petrified, scenes of Sharjah museum interiors, rife with display cases and dioramas, pinpoint the specific Gulf breed of artifact fetishization. The dug-up pieces are conscripted to weave nationalist yarns that tell of ancient cities and kingdoms, faithfully (and ironically) adhering to the tenets of object-based Western traditions that date from the dawn of the archaeological enterprise. The sad irony of modern nations crumbling from conflict around the Gulf States is driven home by sounds of shovels excavating historic sites, morphing into those of hammers destroying others.

Cherri himself narrates Petrified—stern, steadfast, with just a whiff of righteousness—yet the film’s final frame is a quote from The Desert of Darkness, a book from Saudi novelist Abdul Rahman Munif’s five-part series Cities of Salt (1984–89), a cautionary tale of how the Bedouin culture in Saudi Arabia was transformed by its 1980s-era oil boom. Like Munif, Cherri flags the fallout of transgression: it is not so much that digging up the dead has “transgressed their soil,” as is quoted in Petrified; the real issue lies in the resulting constructs, museums and historic sites, which, like the hastily built, so-called cities of salt, offer insubstantial, hollow spectacles.

A fundamental cynicism courses through “Taxonomy,” pithily captured by a Petrified sound-bite: “When we try to save a ruin from its own decay, aren’t we disavowing its status as a ruin?” Even more cynical is the sense that these “saved” artifacts are ultimately little more than merchandise to be valued and traded. Thus, from nationalist endeavor to tourist project, it is a small step to capitalist emporium: on the exhibition’s opening night, Cherri live-streamed auctions of artifacts similar to those on display.

Purely as an exhibition, “Taxonomy” felt slightly uneven: Petrified was the fulcrum, while Fragments seemed incomplete and The Digger somewhat superfluous. What linked them is perhaps a very conscious aesthetic—the monochromatic desertscapes of the near-silent Digger and its clear, performative bent, where a caretaker of an archaeological site bows and meanders in meaningless, forlorn rituals, was echoed by the deliberate staging of Fragments and the insistent close-ups of Petrified. Yet the intelligence of “Taxonomy” was its very presence in a museum and the institutional critique that this allowed. Cherri questioned the legitimizing structure and paradigm of the “museum” and how it ascribed meaning and value to its displays. As other new museums arise on the regional scene, “Taxonomy” looked at the malfunctions of the existing system, asking if, in fact, it is at all useful.