For their solo exhibition ‘Lebanese Rocket Society: Part III, IV and V’, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige considered two remote narratives of pre-Civil War Lebanese and Armenian 20th-century history through the medium of two ‘uncomfortable’ objects – a space rocket and a rug – which were fused into new ones, including a rug depicting an image of a space rocket. ‘Lebanese Rocket Society’ (2011–ongoing) is a project which will culminate in a documentary later this year; it orbits around the achievements of a largely forgotten group of young scientists and students at Beirut’s Armenian-community Haigazian College (now University), who initiated the Middle East’s first space programme in the 1960s. The Cedar IV rocket was the apogee of this extraterrestrial ambition and reached 200 kilometres into space in 1963, a potent declaration of Arab modernity.
Although not part of the show at The Third Line, the artists’ Cedar IV: A Reconstitution (2011) is an eight-metre-long sculpture facsimile of the rocket tilted towards the sky in a square in the neighbouring Emirate of Sharjah (a remnant from the 10th Sharjah Biennial in 2011). Painted white in lieu of the original’s Lebanese national colours, it evokes none of the space-age delight that was associated with the original; today, despite being welded to a pedestal, such a missile-shaped form signifies grim militaristic violence. The series of photographs ‘Restaged’ (2011) and accompanying documentary video fragments, shown in the upper gallery of The Third Line, record the nervous transportation of a second version of the sculpture along a Beirut highway to a permanent home in the grounds of its alma mater, Haigazian University (a more straightforwardly commemorative context perhaps?). Yet the photographs were shot with long exposures, so that the rocket-entourage appears as a blur across crisp cityscapes, suggesting a necessarily indistinct restitutive trajectory. The Golden Record (2011) was inspired by the discs launched aboard the Voyager spacecraft as humanity’s 1977 mixtape for any aliens it might encounter; it comprises a video-projection on the floor of a record on a turntable which play an imagined Cedar IV soundscape time-capsule – including fragments of a Gamal Abdel Nasser speech, street hubbub and a song by diva Umm Kulthum.
A Carpet (2011) takes the form of a rug bearing the design of a Lebanese postage stamp issued in 1964 to honour Cedar IV, as if updating the flying carpet device of Middle Eastern literature. Through noting that it was made in Armenia, this work segued from Hadjithomas and Joreige’s concern with the rocket as a relic of techno-scientific pan-Arab optimism to an earlier and contrastingly handmade symbolic offering. A row of document copies and archival photographs pinned to the wall took us back to the 1920s, when, following the atrocities of the Armenian Genocide, the American organization Near East Relief evacuated thousands of orphans from Turkey. We learn that in a mountainous village north of Beirut, an enterprising Swiss missionary bought looms and established a carpet workshop in order to teach orphaned girls how to weave. As a token of thanks to America, the blossoming factory made an intricate carpet that was presented to President Coolidge in 1925 and graced the White House’s Blue Room. The gift accompanied him on his retirement and wound its way back into the White House collection in the 1980s. The possibility of its public display is now indelibly linked to contemporary diplomacy and US reluctance to officially recognize the Armenian Genocide.
Opening just before Art Dubai’s hosting of the Abraaj Capital Art Prize, in which the duo were represented, Hadjithomas and Joreige’s exhibition smartly wove diasporic threads through artefacts that far exceeded their materiality. By simultaneously making and examining Arab historiography their projects really projected its possibility and futurity.
First published in Issue 148