ArteEast is pleased to present Omar Mismar in our October 2016 Artist Spotlight. Omar recently moved to New York City for a fellowship in the Whitney ISP, where he is generously supported by a grant (fiscally sponsored through ArteEast) from the Violet Jabbara Trust.
Our recent studio visit with Omar at his desk at the Whitney ISP was a revelation. His early works, including “Hands Routine”, created while the artist was living in Beirut, and the later “The Path of Love” and “The Man Who Waited for a Kiss”, both produced in San Francisco, trace Omar’s negotiation of sexual boundaries and eventual coming out. Taken as a larger series, the works all share an emotional tension—first, the constant vigilance to avoid social censure and potential violence within the ‘translucent’ space of a moving vehicle, then, the stark anxiety associated with the artist’s quest to get close to objects of his desire, and finally, the anticipation of a romantic interlude cast in noir-ish lighting followed by a newspaper’s titillating revelation.
Omar’s more recent works fundamentally challenge the aesthetics of both conflict and political peace. “I will not find this image beautiful, I will not find this image beautiful, I will not find this image beautiful (An Unfinished Monument)” is the artist’s gradual digital sabotage of a bomb cloud over Gaza, and the literal re-writing of the image source code to contain the names of the explosion’s victims. The work acknowledges, with despair, the seductive beauty of violence and its images, and challenges us to evaluate the limits and futility of memorialization. The artist’s work also penetrates the language of unity; “Lucia Mendez and the Peace in Lebanon” features a reading of the Taif Agreement, in classical Arabic, by a beloved Mexican telenovela star, provoking questions about the mechanics of peace, the glamorous veneer of political solutions, and alienation between the language of authority and the languages of its subjects.
Omar’s most recent work, a video still in progress, documents his friendship with a gun shop owner and his manager in rural Maine. In one sequence, the three stand together, holding automatic weapons and reading from Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political. The juxtaposition of the artist and the two men is at first viscerally confusing, and then after a few moments, deeply poignant; the three, as bodies, represent in so many ways opposing enemy camps, yet there is a rapport and cautious respect among the men. Done differently, with less humility and any inclination to mockery, the piece could have easily become an exercise in camp. Instead, watching the piece is a bit like peering through an autorefractor, imposing clarity and human dimension onto our preconceived notions of allies and enemies.
Our interview with Omar and images of his work follow.
Would you please introduce yourself to our audience and tell us about your work, your background and how it reflects in your work?
I was born in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, where I grew up and went to high school. I moved to Beirut for college and got a BFA in Graphic Design from the American University of Beirut (AUB). After working as a designer for several years and teaching at AUB, I moved to San Francisco on a Fulbright scholarship. There, I finished an MFA in Fine Arts (with an emphasis on Social Practice) and an MA in Visual and Critical Studies. I taught and practiced in San Francisco after that, and currently I am a fellow at the Whitney Independent Study Program in New York.
My practice is project-based, tinted by influences from conceptual art, critical studies, and design. Former work has taken refuge within the politics of everyday life and its porosity— concurrently alluring and problematic. Capitalizing on my status as an artist without “a job” and with plenty of time on my hands, I drift, clinging onto different frameworks, occupying different roles, and forming temporary alliances—to space, people, and situations. Within these fabricated routines, desire and romance complicate the body of work, manifesting, for instance, as a libidinal thrust fueled by mobile apps such as Grindr and Scruff. I forged connections through colliding the realm of the apps with the topographic one (The Path of Love), constructing romantic encounters with the city as a stage (The Man Who Waited for a Kiss), or defying a homophobic public space through the forbidden act of hand holding (A Hands Routine). The figure of the detective, with the concepts of voyeurism and power dynamics inherent in his/her practice, is an enduring fascination. Captivated by other’s lives, a detective is a parasite on other systems—a drifter and a lurker whose everyday is always that of the other, always trying to find someone. As a conceptual artist working across a range of media, the outcomes of my investigations and aftermaths are a dérive through form, from performances, ephemeral in nature, to installations, video, photography, and sculpture.
My recent work explores the meaning and capaciousness of gestures in spaces of political strife. Between the aestheticization of lived realities, and the instrumentalization of ambiguity and aesthetic sensibilities, is there a space that we can occupy? By wagering on a poetic occupation, a performative obliqueness emerges. Such obliqueness is not slanted enough to lead to a flight from the situation under the wing of the beautiful, but it is slanted enough to avoid engaging the context didactically. I hope to establish a lexicon of practices that allow for scrupulous buoyancy between the gestural, the aesthetic, and the political. The work grapples with conflict and its representation, injecting into its discourse material interventions, formal deliberations, and futilities (I will not find this image beautiful, Monuments to the Artist’s Futility in Light of Recent Events). With this line of thought, we can perhaps relinquish political instrumentality, re-consider our standard assumptions, and redirect the paralyzing quest for art’s “effectiveness.”
Can you tell us a little about the project you are pursuing while you are here?
While here, my focus is to continue turning towards conflict, wrapping myself (drowning perhaps would be more suitable) with the aesthetics of war and disaster, with the entanglement of aesthetics and politics, guided by a question that I stole from Francis Alÿs: how can art be politically significant without drifting towards a doctrinaire standpoint or becoming social activism?
Drowning can turn into swimming and a project is bound to come up then, and that could take any form, which is extremely exciting. If no swimming happens, then more knowledge of the depths is (hopefully, latently) acquired. But in all cases, I am now in the process of finalizing two projects that both happen to be videos, eventually video installations. “Lucía Méndez and the Peace in Lebanon” was shot in Mexico City with telenovela actress Lucía Méndez, famous for her role in Tú o Nadie (You or No One, Anta aw la Ahad), the first Mexican telenovela to air in Lebanon in 1992, shortly after the Ta’if agreement that ended the Civil War was signed. Méndez was the beautiful and sensational Raquel, in front of whom all froze in appreciation and sublimation. She was dubbed; the lips swayed in silenced Spanish while the voice we heard imposed itself in the official written Arabic language. We never heard her voice. This work fancies a connection between the Ta’if as a dub to the Civil War, and between Lucía Méndez as a representation and extension of the post-war Ta’ifization of cultural production. The video sets out to create dystopic advertisement-like videos where the protagonist is reading in Arabic—in a robotic detached manner in a language foreign to her—principles from the Ta’if. The work nurtures a set-up for an unscripted encounter: between the dub and the dubbed, between a now-forgotten telenovela actress and an aspiring artist, and between the seeming triviality of telenovelas vis-à-vis the war and a yearning for Lucía Méndez as a figure who “united” the warring factions.
I am also working on a video tentatively titled Schmitt, You, and Me that I shot when I was a resident at The Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture this summer. I frequented a gun shop in town, hanging out with its owner Bruce and the shop manager Bailey. They took me to a shooting range, giving me a crash course on guns and aiming, and I asked them to read excerpts from Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political, where he identifies the political as boiling down to the distinction between friend an enemy, and the extreme case of conflict between the two, of going to war.
Do you work with a specific audience in mind? Is there something you would hope for an American audience to take away from your art?
I don’t work with a specific audience in mind. Each project embeds itself (or is a parasite onto) a specific place, culture, and context that by extension it might speak to those who identify with any or all of these, but that’s not a rule. Working with apps such as Grindr or Scruff, with a soap opera actress, with the image of a war photographer, or with a gun shop owner might include as “audiences” people who use the apps, watch the soap operas, photograph/read what’s happening in Syria and Palestine, and own guns or oppose them, but again not necessarily so. Perhaps it is limiting to think of a specific audience in that way, or altogether, at least for how I work, because I think it disregards the fact that we exist at the intersection of many subject positions, relations, discourses, and media that cannot be reduced to one. The hope is that the work communicates and appeals, reaches out.
One way to consider the tricky term “audience” is by replacing it by another term, not less tricky but definitely with less implication of the unidirectionality and the “targetness” that audience has, and that is publics. Michael Warner here is helpful for me, where he posits that a public is a relationship among strangers, constituted through mere attention. By picking up a text (or an art work or any other form of media), by actively uptaking it and paying attention to it, a relationship among strangers ensues and a public is constituted. I would add that it is almost like setting up the conditions for an encounter, which does not guarantee that it will happen, because what you consider as an encounter someone before you have just overlooked it and someone after you will. But once it happens, that encounter will create a swerve. So perhaps the audience question is that of encounters.
As for the American audience question, I am also not sure we need to isolate it as such, with the American descriptor. I have been making work in the United States, work that is influenced by where I am and where I am not. Of course I seek to tackle issues in a way that would allow revisions and reconsiderations of prejudices and assumptions, and equally to go beyond these and assert a position that does not merely exist as a defense or a corrective.
Do you see your art work as building upon a tradition, or form specific culture and influences to your region?
It’s impossible not to carry with us the works and ideas that we have been exposed to and that we value and also dislike, recognizing that these constitute lineages and traditions that are bound to affect the way we work, consciously or less so. Equally, the question of how to crack a path of one’s own is necessary, otherwise we end up all saying the same thing, with the danger of regurgitation. The challenge is to pursue an individual project and find its ties to a collective mode of other practices and relevancies.
In regards to influences to my region, I am not sure how that can be gauged. Certainly showing the work there would be a step towards that, which I haven’t had the opportunity to do yet, but definitely looking forward to it.
When it comes to your art techniques/ ideas, do you tend to put them in a global context, or drawn from personal experience?
I don’t think the two need to be opposed to one another. Projects start from questions and unknowns that feed a curiosity which drives the work. They might start from a personal place, a break-up, a challenge, a memory, a yearning… that plugs itself into a wider context of shared experiences. This move between the personal starting point towards a certain collectivity is a hope for the work to resonate and touch, to open up the esoteric and the self and strike connections. This move also does not happen in one direction, it is multidirectional and dialectical.
How was your transition to the New York art scene and what are the contrasts that influence your work the most?
I moved to New York less than a month ago so it is definitely too early for me to say. The pulse of the city is certainly enlivening, and the programming and events happening daily are solid and wonderful resources. So are the people I’ve met thus far. But ask me again in a few months, I’ll know more, and maybe, I will have encountered a boyfriend by then as well. Isn’t it fascinating how one sentence can seem to shift the interview into an ad in the personals section?