Toxic monuments, precious landscapes

BEIRUT: Precious objects need not be ostentatious, but “A Map of Good Memories” is particularly unobtrusive. At first blush Stéphanie Saadé’s 2015 work might be mistaken for a stain on the floor of the Beirut Art Center’s main gallery. One clue that it’s not is the deliberation with which the borders of its nearly two-dimensional form have been crafted. Then there’s the medium that forms the “stain.” It seems Saadé’s map isn’t a smear of coffee or paint that’s been spilt on the concrete floor and allowed to dry but a layer of 24-carat gold leaf.

The artist has employed maps and landscape elements in some of her past work. Subverting the “objective” measure of cartography with personal narrative, she has created objects that are shamelessly – but seldom simply – aesthetic.

The well-traveled artist has described “A Map of Good Memories” as a geographical self-portrait, made by retracing the trajectories of 20 fond memories associated with her life in Lebanon.

She has collated her visits to “beloved people and ... beloved places,” and reassembled them, “respecting their scale and orientation,” to form this map.

Mounted upon the gallery floor without barriers to protect it from meandering BAC visitors, the work’s pristine surface was quickly marred by footprints. Public exhibition soils the work’s depiction of “precious memory,” suggesting a formal scepticism toward nostalgia.

“A Map of Good Memories” is one of 10 works curator Christine Tohme has selected for “On Water, Rosemary and Mercury,” one of two exhibitions mounted for Home Works 7, Ashkal Alwan’s sort-or-biennial forum on cultural practices.

Tohme’s exhibition statement is derived from the 17th-century text “Chymico – Physical Doubts & Paradoxes.” This brief quotation is concerned with defining the elements – “certain Primitive and Simple, or perfectly unmingled bodies.”

The works arrayed under this elemental rubric range over several media – installations in sound, video, photography and mixed media as well as sculptural objects and canvasses as well as gold leaf.

Broadly speaking, the works can be read as exploring the culture of landscape. Some works are finished pieces, while others are physical apparitions of the artists’ ongoing research projects.

Notions of “culture” range from the personal to the domestic to that of the public sphere. The landscapes they navigate vary from Saadé’s autobiographical mapping to facets of vernacular architecture, public monuments, the interstitial territories of Palestinian experience and animated synecdoche of Fortress Europe.

Nominally the most classical (aka “old media”) of these pieces here is “Let Me Stay a Little Longer,” 2015, eight variously sized, unframed canvasses painted by Tamara Al Samerraei. Each work depicts a household’s interior landscapes, or else still lifes of some of the objects that belong there. The interiors focus upon the rooms’ furniture but, on the floor, partially concealed furnishings, ferns and so forth, are ghostly suggestions of seemingly nude human bodies.

These paintings aren’t cast as a series of individually named works but a single piece that depicts shards of a narrative, represented in a Dear John letter that stands in for an artist’s statement.

“Since the last time we met, you asked me to stop making a scene,” the letter begins. “I was more confused by the request because I wasn’t sure whether you meant a love scene or a crime scene.”

Samerraei’s impish conflation of narrative genres – the love story and the police procedural – is one of several lines of convention this work crosses. The hypothetical exhibit tag accompanying the work lists its media as “Bed, Corridor, Oyster Knife, Living Room, Shore, Flesh and Green Acrylic paint on canvas.”

A less menacing representation of the household interior can be found in Abbas Akhavan’s mixed-media installation “Variations on a Garden,” 2015, which dominates the BAC’s main gallery.

Hanging like curtain from a clothesline, a length of textile hangs between the gallery entrance and the main body of the work, partially concealing it; a second piece of cloth hangs at the far side of the work.

The major part of the piece is a pool rough-hewn from breezeblocks. Water drips into the pool from a device rigged to the rafters above, while the gallery ceiling is reflected by several gray-toned mirrors on the bottom of the reservoir.

Akhavan says the pool’s design accurately reproduces the sort of reservoirs built in traditional Iranian courtyard houses, where families would relax, the women’s forms concealed from public view.

Several of the exhibition’s works address expressions of state power.

Enclosed within a miniature white cube at the far end of Akhavan’s piece, Omar Fakhoury’s “Le Socle du Monde” (the base of the world), 2015, is a large plinth – the cuboid base used to elevate statues and similar public monuments above the ground.

The plinth is a fair sized object, large enough to serve as the base of a large statue. Here the room enclosing it is relatively small and of low ceiling, effectively making the plinth itself the monument. The cuboid has been painted with naphthalene – the stuff that’s used to make mothballs – which tests have confirmed is toxic vertebrates.

The work can be read as a discreet critique of the upstanding individuals who usually erect monuments to themselves (aka “politicians”).

Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s “A Convention of Tiny Movements,” 2015, also addresses matters of power, albeit via completely different media.

The artist’s most recent work has derived from research being carried out at MIT, based on the discovery that sound waves leave minute impressions upon malleable objects. One devious application of this work is the use of everyday objects – a packet of chips, a glass of water, a potted plant, a box of tissues – as microphones.

The main part of the work is a cube-shaped tissue box. To it is affixed a small vibration speaker that transforms the opened box into a speaker. From it arises Abu Hamdan’s voice, describing the state of state surveillance from the perspective of a London phone box in 2017. Nearby, a stack of publications describe the MIT research that’s inspired the work.

In an exhibition festooned with research-based works and attendant narratives, Abu Hamdan’s piece bears the sexiest narrative premise. In this particular iteration of his project, unfortunately, the work is overshadowed by the tale inspiring it.

The prospect of someone using a tissue box to listen in on your conversations is as intriguing as it is frightening. An artist talking to you though a tissue box is less so.

“On Water, Rosemary and Mercury” is up at the Beirut Art Center through Dec. 10, 11 a.m.-6 p.m., 12-8 p.m. after Nov. 24.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 20, 2015, on page 16.




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