Marya Kazoun and the suffering of humanity

BEIRUT: "I want to make you come. I want to grab you and put you inside," says Lebanese contemporary artist Marya Kazoun in her new book "Personal Living Space."  Whether or not she succeeds in bringing you to climax this remarkable young woman's art grabs you by the balls and forces a reaction - sometimes violent, sometimes dark, sometimes repellent - but always questioning.

"I want to have all men cry in my lap. I want to console them, to heal them and tell them it is ok."

Kazoun, who will be signing her book at the Virgin Megastore in Beirut this evening, has come far since we last spoke in 2002. Then the sculptor, jewelry creator and installation artist had just embarked upon an MSA at the prestigious School of Visual Arts in New York, and was about to show her work at the OPEN2OO2 5th International Exhibition of Sculptures and Installations in the Venice Lido.

Today, at 29, she has had her work shown around the globe - from Taiwan to Sweden, and New York to Italy (where she has received much critical acclaim) - in solo and group exhibitions and has just returned from a performance entitled "Pull Christian, Pull Pull" in Como, Italy.

"I had two men dressed up in hairy costumes dragging a closet through the streets stuffed with tentacles," Kazoun says over coffee at a Gemmayzeh caf? earlier this week. 

Just to be clear Kazoun walked through Como's medieval streets leading her fellows as they pulled this closet on wheels full of sewn pouches and organic masses as part of a show for the Roberta Lieti Gallery.

"Each pouch contained memories, shadows, growths, long hair, short hair, ingrown hair ... and the characters, Amos I call them, are these hairy living creatures with an uncertain nature. Human or animal, sweet demons. The Amos are tired of the heavy load of humanity, this is reflected on their bodies," she explains.

Quite. But "Pull Christian, Pull Pull" is merely the latest exploration of Kazoun's ever-increasing infatuation with humanity and human suffering.

One can see the influence of modern day contemporary artists such as Petah Coyn, and Sarah Sze (whose sculptures are flowing, elaborate structures consisting of a conglomeration of small-scale household items that respond to and infiltrate the surrounding architecture), as well as the long established 90-year-old Louise Bourgeois, a sculptor who creates huge anthropomorphic sculptures often of spiders.

"These people have been hugely influential on my thinking as well as the Lebanese curator and artist Arwa Seifeddine (Professor of Fine Arts at the Lebanese American University)," she says.

Kazoun creates installations of sewed material, bones, long fabric-full tentacles reaching out into hairy limbs touched up with threads, pearls, rubber bags and glass. They are often a work in progress which she herself is part of.

At her most recent and prestigious show also entitled "Personal Living Space" which just closed out of competition at the 51st International Art Exhibition during the Venice Biennale, Kazoun created an installation of stitched satins and resin sculptures in which she sat singing to her handiwork, like a mother to a child. Sometimes humming, sometimes chanting in Arabic, this work illustrates much of what clearly seem to be her anxieties and memories of a childhood spent during the Civil War.

"It's true I am definitely giving a voice to the seven year-old inside me - from the effect of war in my work. My childhood. There are ugly things yes. And I am making operations on them, sewing and attaching them during the show, the pieces some of them resemble body parts - though I have never seen a dead body," she explains in a stream of consciousness.

Kazoun's works like "Personal Living Space" and another called "The Ignorant Skin" featuring pink satin covered humans with bits of hair sticking out of them and puffy limbs protruding from walls are not easy to look at, and her personal involvement in the installations can be remarkably off putting.

But it is precisely in our disturbed or inspired reaction that Kazoun's installations succeed - by making the viewer question the borders of the art world and of daily life, and - like Sarah Sze with her use of regular objects - make the viewer reflect upon his  or her own contemporary existence.

"The boundary between art, art making and life is very thin, as is the boundary between pleasure and pain," she says but "I am more sane than the sane ... The last artwork I made was a surgical operation performed on my brain [metaphorically]. I cut it open. A lot of fragments splashed out. They all had hair."

For some it may be too much but Kazoun, like many of the best artists in any medium, succeeds indeed in grabbing us and putting us inside, forcing us to question the human condition.

A mark of her growing impact in the contemporary art world is that her book with full color images and text and published in conjunction with the Venice Biennale, has been picked up by the Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the MOMA Museum of Modern Art amongst others. It also features a foreword from two-time curator of said Biennale, Achille Bonito Oliva.

Still, fame is not really going to Kazoun's head.

"I am going to continue to work and go further, the more I work I find new relationships with new content and ideas," she says. "I have a feeling that it is going to take me a while to find where I am going. But for now I am ok with being an artist. I am just establishing myself. It's just the beginning."

Marya Kazoun will be signing her book "Personal Living Space" at the Virgin Megastore in Downtown Beirut and showing an installation tonight from 6 - 8 p.m.





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