Reading the word, reading the image
Christopher Atamian

The Armenian Reporter, Dec 1 2008

I (By way of introduction...)

I have admired Madeline Djerejian's work since her graduate thesis show at SVA in 1997. Those 11 color portraits possessed that rarest of qualities: a quiet, almost hieratic presence, as if the work were whispering unknown aesthetic secrets to your subconscious. The portraits were alive yet distant, cool yet engaging, and displayed near-perfect composition.

An almost unheimlich quality, to borrow a term from Freud, was evident as well in her series of photographs titled Empire. These remarkable shots of people looking out at New York City from the top of the Empire State Building both disturbed and comforted the viewer, like some intensely familiar object or person that one can't quite place. The angles that Djerejian used revealed just enough side of face or top of shoulder to suggest hidden lives, untold secrets, simmering emotions.

Since then, Djerejian has exhibited her work worldwide, including over 30 group exhibitions. The University of Wales Newport, in Gwent, U.K., the Galerie Otto Schweins in Cologne, and the Galerie Klaus Peter Goebel in Stuttgart have all accorded her solo exhibitions.

Djerejian's current work departs significantly from these early efforts, as they involve still photographs juxtaposed with original and found texts and presented as silent videos. Two such works, The Last of Beirut (2006) and Decima Campesina (2008) draw upon photographs taken by her father, Robert Djerejian, first in 1975 during her family's evacuation from Beirut, then in June 1991 on the Highway of Death after U.S. and U.N. coalition forces had bombed the Iraqi army during its retreat from Kuwait to Basra.

II. The Last of Beirut

The work of a book is done when the mind wanders.-Roland Barthes

We knew to look down a street before entering it, to check whether it was busy or empty. Empty meant find another street.-The Last of Beirut

In the 2006 video The Last of Beirut Djerejian plays with the notion of how one reads both image and text, as well as their disjunction, intersection and other associations. In the video, the voices of various, unnamed narrators, describing their reactions to Beirut's 1975 grand evacuation, range from that of an 11-year-old male adolescent who sees the presence of missile launchers, bullets, and the like as adventuresome and exciting, to an adult - a mother who worries for her family's safety. The narrator then changes again to another child who describes a crazy plane trip to Athens with animals running through the aisles and spare luggage and rugs overflowing in all directions: a veritable modern-day Noah's Ark. There are no images of violence or of the civil war per se in the video.

While alluding to the French theorist Roland Barthes, Djerejian is careful not to overemphasize theoretical discourse: I am thinking of his notion of the death of the author. In Barthes's theory, the writer doesn't have complete authority over his own text anymore, as the reader's interpretation or reception of the text becomes of primary importance. The act of reading takes precedence over the act of writing. With the addition of images, there is an added layer to this textual morbidity, as a disjuncture occurs between what is being said and what's being seen. The text isn't really a caption, and the image really isn't an illustration, so the viewer has to do considerable work in order to, as Djerejian says complete the work. The act of viewing becomes the act of reading as well.

Hence, Djerejian's different narrators represent different interpretations of reality and points of view. In constructing The Last of Beirut, Djerejian wrote to a number of people who had also lived through the evacuation, asking them for their recollections of the evacuation, and we hence become privy to a collective memory of sorts. Close ups, jump cuts, freeze frames, and other cinematic devices help us to imagine the different states of being and the minutest aspects of what people fleeing Beirut must have experienced, perfectly illustrating Susan Sontag's savage autonomy of the detail. Djerejian notes in her artist's statement that the resulting close-cropped shots also function as a metaphor for attending to the minute details involved in something as drastic as evacuating Beirut at the onset of Civil War.

On a more daily, prosaic level, The Last of Beirut functions as a sociological investigation as well. I was interested in what it meant to evacuate, as well as what we did, physically, says Djerejian. Viewing the video is an exercise in cognitive dissonance: shown standing on their Beirut terrace, Djerejian and her two sisters could be anywhere - Mexico City, Rio, or Marseille. A later street picture of Beirut evacuees displays a profusion of what appears to be high-end luggage - enough to fill a small cargo plane. Typically nonchalant Beirutis smoke and converse to the side. You are not quite sure if they are fleeing artillery fire or leaving for a tropical vacation. To viewers who have been to Beirut or who know Lebanese culture, this picture takes on an added layer of poignant humor.

Sequencing pictures of, respectively, a German shepherd, the Djerejian sisters playing on their roof pool, and another set of luggage outside a Beirut residence, the following text: I remember the day Smith's grocery took a direct hit from a stray shell and we all raced to pick up the comics and candy that had blown out onto the street. No commentary required.

Why do I find this work so compelling? In part because it offers us a different and more liberating narrative from what we read in newspapers and television on a daily basis. Because it's intelligent, humorous, and intensely human. Because in the increasingly incomprehensible technological melee of cell phones, e-mail, voice mail, traditional and new media that continues to assault our everyday selves, we are unable to step back and take the true measure of things. The best art should help us in this process, and present different views of reality. In this case, a young man mistakenly excited by an approaching war, a mother afraid that her family may perish in a fratricidal war, a young artist looking back thirty years later on her childhood, and finally a critic viewing both and filtering the result through his own father's flight from Beirut.

III. The Happy Man, Part III

This work again associates text and image in a readerly act, but to completely different ends. The images in this video are taken from Flemish painter Peter Paul Ruben's gory and devastatingly beautiful Wolf and Fox Hunt (ca. 1615-21) currently on exhibit at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Djerejian intercuts close-ups from the painting with revealing quotes by the French Nobel laureate and writer François Mauriac. The author of Thérèse Desqeyroux and Le Noeud de Vipères comments on the artistic life, its goals and pitfalls, as well as fame and posthumous legacies. In doing so, he echoes Hannah Arendt's famous introduction to Walter Benjamin's Illuminations, where she writes: Fama, that much-coveted goddess, has many faces, and fame comes in many sorts and sizes.... Posthumous fame is one of Fama's rarer and least-desired articles, although it is often more solid than the other sorts, since it is only seldom bestowed upon mere merchandise.

The images in The Happy Man, Part III uncover the Rubens painting piecemeal and in close-ups: the fangs on a wolf/hound, the blade of a spear, and ultimately a helpless and hapless fox, caught and killed in this most violent of sports, suggesting the violent state that a struggling artist also finds him or herself in at the hands of society. (In passing, it might be noted that at least Mauriac was born to wealth and didn't have to worry about making a living. . . .) Mauriac is remarkably retiring here, professing a preference to being forgotten after death and worrying that his work will never be good enough: The rarest thing in literature and the only success, is when the author disappears and his work remains. Preceding the picture of a wolf's open mouth and bare teeth, the clever juxtaposition: My enemies believe that I wish to remain onstage at any price - that I make use of politics in order to survive. And following a dark smoky image of a horse's hooves, the sublimely poetic He is lost in the radiance of his creation. That is quite rare.

Part of a longer video-in-progress titled, The Happy Man . . . or so I have heard myself called, which includes the words of T.S. Eliot, Harold Pinter, and other famous writers, the work is ultimately a comment on the impossibility of achieving literary perfection. As different writers comment on what it means to create and to be a writer, a new composite writer emerges who will ultimately meld, one assumes, the individual opinions at hand. The text then becomes an über-commentary on the goals, successes, and failures of people engaged in the creative process.

IV. In conclusion

There has always been something quietly mesmerizing about Djerejian's work, something that no doubt springs from the artist's equally studied presence and intelligence. I'd be remiss however, if I implied in any way that Djerejian lacks a sense of humor. In a 2005 series Blonde in Hong Kong, for example, the photographer roamed the former British colony snapping up pictures of any blonde woman she could find. A wry aesthetic comment no doubt, on notions of the exotic, in a land where blondes are as rare as brunettes in Southern California.