At the Common Guild, Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari is making his solo debut in Scotland for Glasgow International 2016, a festival of almost eighty shows running until April 25th across the city. Zaatari’s exhibition, ‘The End of Time’, features film, photography and drawing from his expansive practice, devoted, since the late nineties, to exploring the effects of Lebanon’s post-war condition in psychological, social and cultural terms.
For me, the main draw in the exhibition is the commercial photography Zaatari has archived from Hashem el Madani’s ‘Studio Sheherazade’, founded in 1953 in Saida, where young Lebanese men and women went to simulate the social rituals of love (then proscribed prior to marriage) and the machismo of national pride (often posing with guns as props).
The resulting photographs appear in the upstairs gallery, two rows of intimate reproductions. Boys kiss blonde cardboard cut-outs and each other. Girls lean in to chaste embraces that emulate the choreographies of filmic romance. These private remnants of innocent, yet covert, experiment are queered once placed – quite out of place – in public, white-framed, on the Common Guild’s walls, without explanatory text. Their status blurred, as art objects, historical documents or ephemeral fragments of personal life, they become tied, without any direct reference, to the constraints – social and legal – that Lebanese life has placed historically, and still places, on sexuality (of all kinds).
The Sheherazade archive offers an accumulation of moments, but can we extrapolate from it definitive social truths? In any case – and maybe Zaatari intends this – in finding these photographs odd, naïve and charming, I know myself to be a stranger to the time and place of their making. This I take as a caution against framing them in well-meaning – Western – paradigms of sexual emancipation. Because, while West and East are not, in their complex relations, ‘binary,’ as Zaatari states: “the assumption that ‘freedom’ necessarily means being openly gay cannot be taken for granted.” I feel like I have entered this terrain to learn from a master with a light touch.
Zaatari is invested in the anthropology of photographic imagery, in its revelations, as a social archaeology, on the mesh of effects that our geographies, psychic and physical, past and present, have on our personal and collective being. For this reason, and having never seen his work in situ before, I had expected to feel a greater cerebral distance from the show’s material than I do. The work at Common Guild invites a tender proximity, revolving, as it does, around the pain and joy of love, into which his subjects (almost all gay men) fall, and in which they fail – victims as much of human condition as of social history.
In the video, ‘Tomorrow Everything Will Be Alright’ (2010), which plays to a ghazal in a small, half-lit space next to the Sheherazade work, two former lovers make contact after ten years apart via a typewriter (in place of an online chat), and finally agree to meet – at sunset by the sea. The typewriter’s click, the finger’s hesitations and missteps when hitting the keys, slow the exchange, inserting into it a seam of delay in which the paralysis of loss and longing, the promise – and bitter uncertainty – of love’s recovery, become apparent, and deeply moving.
Described as ‘A tribute to the love stories that marked our imagination when we saw them on film,’ the script is familiar – “Yes, I know that feeling” – and the ending (a huge sun glinting on water) implies a fantasy that we might wish for ourselves.
A less appealing scenario is depicted in ‘The End of Time’ (2012), a 16mm silent film that plays to its own rhythmic clicks in the downstairs gallery, whose walls are lined with pale drawings of gay sex in a variety of joyful, brutal, silly and sinister forms, made from digital Xtube stills in 2016. In three parts, the ‘End of Time’ shows two men, isolated against a white background, in a repetitive choreography of dress and undress, command and retreat, attraction and rejection. They circle, magnetised, in a kiss that stiffens to awkward rigor when it finally occurs. They deny each other acts of love. They walk off and disappear. Set against the drawings, a digital fantasia of consummation turned hand-wrought art, the film acts out, in silent mime, in black and white, stilted rituals that feel, by virtue of the celluloid medium, timeless and universal. Yet, in the third part, this cycle, it seems, might break – “We fall in love,” one man mouths. But finally, “We fail,” he says, “in love.” As we all have.
The Common Guild’s show does not give us Zaatari at his most political, as in, say, his four-channel video ‘Dance to the End of Love’ (2011), in which he collates YouTube videos of Arab youths acting out, with striking sensuality, male heroics, with guns, cars, motorbikes, and their own bodies on the eve of the Arab Spring (2010). But what we do see is Zaatari’s most intimate variations on male love – as sublimation, as fantasy, as failure, as loss and as salvage. We run, in this small exhibition, a finely judged gamut of feeling, some strange, but much of it familiar, and all of it minimally – perfectly – directed by the Guild’s team.
Zaatari is fascinated by the male body, by how men choose to present themselves in photographs and on film. ‘I do not know,’ he says, ‘if this is a desire of men…or a desire to be able to understand even for a second the mechanism that makes them desire themselves.” Let’s hope, as he does, that the answer remains elusive enough for him to retain the drive to continue making such vital works as these.
 Chad Elias: ‘The Libidinal Archive: A Conversation with Akram Zaatari,’ Tate Papers No.19, Spring 2013, http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/19/the-libidinal-archive-a-conversation-with-akram-zaatari (accessed 18/4/2016)
 Akram Zaatari: This Long Century, http://www.thislongcentury.com/?p=5802 (accessed 18/4/2016)
 Eve Respini and Ana Janevski: Interview with Akram Zaatari for Projects 100, April 2013, http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/projects/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Interview-Akram-Zaatari1.pdf (accessed 18/4/2016)