A Swiss-Lebanese fusion of language, art

BEIRUT: The Helvetic Republic, aka Switzerland, is historically a zebra-less zone. This month, however, the striped African equid and the Swiss Republic are coming together at Jisr al-Wati’s STATION.

“Helvetic Zebra,” a monthlong exhibition accompanied by a week of performances, workshops and talks, aims to seek common ground between the contemporary art scenes in Switzerland and Lebanon.

Curated by Donatella Bernardi, a Swiss artist and digital media professor at Stockholm’s Royal Institute of Art, the project stemmed from STATION co-founder Nabil Canaan’s desire to explore his Swiss-Lebanese background.

An old friend of Bernardi’s, Canaan had been following her work for several years when he decided to approach her about organizing a Swiss-themed exhibition featuring work by international as well as local Lebanese artists.

“I was interested in showing the artistic side of Switzerland,” he says, “so I don’t have to keep explaining to people that it’s not just about cuckoo clocks and cows and chocolate and stuff ... We’ve taken a certain angle, which Donatella has curated. There’s a lot of constructivist, optical art and design elements.

“When we started discussing it we quickly steered away from the whole cliché of Lebanon as the Switzerland of the Middle East,” he adds, “and decided to look more at particularities that potentially bring the two countries together.

“One thing that stuck Donatella was the multilingual side of Lebanon [and] Switzerland. Based on that, she developed a whole discourse about artistic languages, whether visual, textual or sound.

“I mentioned to Donatella that Beirut was known as the publishing capital of the Middle East and from there she linked to the Most Beautiful Swiss Books project, and then typography, calligraphy and then she started building from there.”

She has assembled a “mini festival,” as she calls it, including work by sound, video and plastic artists, musicians, typographers and calligraphers. Stemming from a broad range of backgrounds, their work is united by a focus on language, whether visual, textural or oral.

“You can consider language as a medium,” Bernardi says, “like English or Arabic or French. You know some of them and you don’t know some others.

“Then a language is a formal game, and you can be seduced by the way it looks even if you don’t get the content ... There’s a gap between what you want to say and how you say it and I think that art has a capability ... to interpret something that is in between these two forms.”

One facet of the show is literary. The annual Most Beautiful Swiss Books competition, now in its 70th year, aims to highlight and reward innovations in typography and design. The 22 books awarded in 2014 will be on show as part of the exhibition, along with the 2013 catalog, which was designed by Maximage, a duo consisting of graphic designers David Keshavjee and Julien Tavelli.

Six artists, including Bernardi, will also be exhibiting work. The Lebanese scene is being represented by painter Oussama Baalbaki, whose work Bernardi discovered while enjoying a drink at Abou Elie, a communist bar in Caracas.

Intrigued by the blend of realism with subtle surreal elements in the artist’s self-portraits, she says, she contacted him and determined he’d be a good fit for the show.

Also exhibiting is Swiss artist Philippe Decrauzat, known for his black-and-white wall paintings, optical illusions that play with retinal afterimages.

Decrauzat’s framed screen prints will be offset by Bernardi’s own contribution, two wall paintings inspired by British artist Bridget Riley.

“Basically I’m copying one of her pieces,” she says. “It’s called “Fete” [party] and it’s not one of her most known pieces, in black-and-white. There is color and there is black-and-white that might be a zebra – it’s not.”

Bernardi, has delegated the realization of the work to a Syrian laborer, with whom she says she struggled to communicate, who hand mixed the colors to the nearest approximation. “He’ll be interpreting Bridget Riley’s work without even knowing about this woman,” she notes. “There’s a kind of margin where something gets lost or translated and that’s very interesting.”

Paris-based Moroccan artist Mounir Fatmi’s video work “Technologia” will be tying together the focuses on op art and language. The work revisits 25 of Marcel Duchamp’s rotoreliefs in Arabic calligraphy.

Dunja Herzog will display site-specific sculptures and installations fabricated using found objects scavenged from Beirut streets. Turkish video artist Ali Kazma’s video art piece documents the practice of an Arabic calligrapher.

The artists will make several appearances during the opening week of the exhibition.

Maximage will be joining forces with Manuel Krebs, co-founder of book and typeface publisher NORM, to give a typography workshop, followed by a talk on type and design, during which they’ll be joined by local typographer Pascal Zoghbi and Yara Khoury, founder of Al Mohtaraf design house.

Bernardi will moderate a talk by Baalbaki and Herzog. Audiences can also attend a workshop on radio art with Laurent Schmid and Jonathan Frigeri of the LapTopRadio collective.

The workshop will be followed by a performance of “The Submarine Report,” a live radio act combining experimental electronic music, spoken text and video projections.

Famed Swiss musician Franz Treichler will be creating live soundscapes to accompany a selection of 20th-century avant-garde films spanning the Dada movement.

The final day of live events will feature a music workshop led by Treichler, followed by a jam session. The exhibition will remain on show until Nov. 9.

Bernardi explains that the breadth of the project reflects an attempt to engage the widest possible audience. “The main problem in contemporary art is the audience ... There’s no point in doing a show if nobody’s coming to see it,” she shrugs. “My concern is to get a discussion started. I am not really interested in producing a show that remains in the specialized field.”

“Helvetic Zebra” runs at STATION until Nov. 9. For more information and to register for workshops please call 71-684-218 or visit

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 07, 2014, on page 16.




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