Precious banalities in gold leaf

SHARJAH, United Arab Emirates: Stephanie Saade’s “Elastic Distance,” 2017, consists of a wall-mounted mobile telephone, whose screen shows a changing series of digits. Updated every five seconds by data from the artist’s mobile, the number reflects Saade’s physical distance from the work.

“I don’t like installing [an exhibition], then going off while it is still up,” Saade says. “It’s alive. It’s evolving. [This work] is a way for me to remember this show and keep a link to it.”

“When visitors come to see the show when I’m not there, they have a way to communicate, not to know where I am but how far away I am.”

“Elastic Distance” is the first work visitors find upon entering “The Second Space,” now up at Marfa’ gallery. Most of the work in this solo exhibition was created in 2017 – the show’s oldest piece dating from 2013. The work is an appropriate gesture for Saade’s debut hometown solo. She is among those Lebanese artists who spend much of the year outside their country, and a significant part of her practice has used maps and measures of distance as a formal device.

The Daily Star caught up with Saade in the UAE, appropriately enough, where she’s showing her latest commission at the Sharjah Biennial 13, “Tamawuj” (Waves).

Lodged on the first floor of the Sharjah Art Foundation’s Bait al-Serkal, Saade’s “Portrait of a Lake” reproduces a 1938 map of Lebanon’s Yammouneh Lake, printed upon a 280 cm x 480 cm piece of fabric that’s been suspended from the ceiling by lengths of hemp rope. The map collects water, which saturates the fabric and drips to form a puddle on the concrete floor below.

“Since the Sharjah Biennial is about water this year, I didn’t want to be spoiling water every day, so I asked to use waste water [from the] air conditioning system ... This wasn’t available, so instead I got it from the dehumidifier. When it evaporates from the work, this water returns to the air.”

Yammouneh Lake is the only naturally occurring lake in the Bekka, the artist explains, though technically it’s not a lake at all but a “pull-apart,” a reservoir formed on the geological fault line between two tectonic plates. One of several fault lines riddling the earth’s crust beneath Lebanon, the Yammouneh fault’s seismic activity has been implicated in triggering earthquakes from Jordan to Turkey.

“This lake emptied at the end of summer and refilled again with the springtime thaw, so its natural cycle was sometimes dry, sometimes wet,” she observes. “Now it’s always dry because, since the French mandate, a canal feeds its water to nearby villages. So this work is a symbolic gesture to return water to what used to be a lake.

“The water from this lake is used to irrigate [Lebanon’s most-loved] illicit agricultural crop,” Saade smiles. “This directly ties Yammouneh Lake to power, because it’s not the growers that export the crop but politically influential people.

“Water is poured on this representation of the lake daily, reactivating it. The lake is also drawing its own self-portrait with its own material, water. This drawing,” Saade points to the puddle on the floor, “does not respect the limitations of the media. So actually there are two parallel portraits.”

For all the distance separating Beirut and Sharjah, Saade easily elucidates links between “Portrait of a Lake” and “The Second Space.”

“I conceived the Marfa’ show as a whole,” she says. “Each work is going in a direction, which makes it like a map – one that takes notions of time into consideration as well as geography. In my [Sharjah] work and in Beirut there’s a back-and-forth pattern which defines how the visitor looks at it. I reconfigured Marfa’, shifting its entrance – making the gallery’s second space its first space. This starts the back-and-forth ... Visitors go through the show, then, to exit, they must do so again, the other way around.”

In “Golden Memories,” 2015-17, five portrait-shaped frames contain rectangles of 24-karat gold leaf, some arrayed as portraits, others as landscapes. The rectangles’ alternatively rounded and sharp-edged corners betray their origin as photographic prints, but the gilding has erased the figures of each image.

“Here I show ‘Golden Memories’ as a series for the first time,” Saade says. “Like a lot of works in the show, it departs from an intimate, private, autobiographical object – a childhood photo.”

“I’m not showing the images, though, so what you have is abstract surface, upon which the viewer can project any image she wants.

“Gold has always been used in sacred art,” she continues, associated with “everything that’s precious or somehow ‘higher.’ Many metals are shiny and bright, but gold leaf remains shiny. For me it has a dimension of eternity, relating my work to [that of] antiquity, in a kind of lineage.”

At Marfa’, “Golden Memories” has a counterpoint in “Identity in Change,” 2017, 3.5 x 4.5 cm.

Here the frame contains a small portrait-shaped rectangle (the artist’s recent passport photo), wrapped in silver leaf.

Unlike gold leaf, the exhibition pamphlet points out, silver leaf oxidizes so that (unlike “Golden Memories”) this work’s glimmer has been fading since “Second Space” opened.

These pieces are reminiscent of Saade’s 2015 work “A Map of Good Memories,” a floor-mounted gold leaf map of Lebanon, first staged at Beirut Art Center as part of Home Works 7. For her solo exhibition Saade also uses the gallery’s floors and ceilings. For “Thin Ice,” 2015, she had a wee diamond embedded in the floor of Marfa’, inviting visitors to walk on the art.

Saade’s approach to abstraction often sees her apply luxury materials to banal items from the artist’s private life, making them precious objects. The practice suggests an elegantly concise metaphor for the creative act itself.

“When people ask what type of materials I use, I frequently reply, ‘I work with gold and garbage.’ In French it’s even better, ‘Or et ordure.’ I like to take objects that have no external value and combine precious materials to them. A childhood photo is ultimately a piece of paper that’s growing yellow with time.

“It comes back to the [issue] of considering things to be ‘low’ or ‘high.’ I like to elevate what is low, and lower what is high.

“I like to create a link between them, making things meet that aren’t meant to meet.”

The 2017 work that names Saade’s show, “The Second Space,” also transports an object from the artist’s personal life – a wooden beam, a structural element in her grandfather’s Beirut house, itself destroyed early in the Civil War – to ornate abstraction. “It’s the only element of the house my father managed to save,” she recalls. “This beam is really a witness to Lebanon’s history – the rise, the downfall and aftermath, and of my entire childhood.”

Saade has had the beam hung parallel with the floor and introduced three abstract elements to it – narrow lengths of brass that have been worked to resemble coastlines or borders on a map, and hammered into the grains of the wood.

These three interventions – on the west and east faces of the beam and along the top – actually replicate three distinct paths that the school-aged Saade followed every day to get to school. “Here, too, I thought of these back-and-forth trajectories you follow every day, for years, completely inscribed in you and your memory, in your body ... Inscribed within this larger history of Lebanon, these interventions are about the width of the veins of the wood, and so compare themselves to the growth of the tree itself.”

Sharjah Biennial 13, “Tamawuj,” runs through June 12. For more information, see

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 30, 2017, on page 16.




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