BEIRUT: The World Cup tends to pry the inner sports fanatic out of even the most stoic of observers. Those who might otherwise be completely indifferent to watching soccer on television end up getting sucked into the drama - cooing over the intricacies of the Argentinian team's passing patterns, admiring the guts and poise of the Ghanaian team, puzzling over England's lackluster performance so far or laughing at the United States' brutal lack of finesse and spoilsport early exit from the tournament.
Nadine Begdache, the director of Galerie Janine Rubeiz, knows this city well enough to understand that Beirut goes mad for the World Cup (her gallery is one of the Lebanese capital's longest-running art venues, pioneered in the 1960s by her mother, for whom the space is named). But instead of simply closing shop to avoid competing with the matches for attention, Begdache has embraced the spectacle by mounting an exhibition devoted entirely to the "beautiful game," as seen through the eyes of three young artists.
From now through the end of this month, the works of Mansour al-Habre, Christian Rizk and Julie Audic are giving viewers another angle on the sport. The show took over two years of preparation and exemplifies Begdache's foresightedness as well as her commitment to developing young talent slowly.
"I don't think we did it on purpose," says Rizk, who is of Colombian and Lebanese descent, lives in Paris, returns to Beirut often and works with Audic always under a collective moniker that mashes their last names together. "I think Nadine understood the timing better than we did. We talked about the show two years ago. We knew we'd come in June."
It was Begdache who orchestrated an opening date two days before the start of the World Cup frenzy and a closing date that would leave gallery-goers free to enjoy the finals.
Truth be told, neither Rizk nor Audic are avid sports fans. For the past few years, they have been perfecting a technique of photographing cities at night, using long exposure times and a digital camera set to capture negative images in color.
Both architects by training, they moved to Tokyo in 1998, when they were offered government scholarships to conduct research on Japanese urbanism. Five years later, they expanded their analysis into an aesthetic tool.
Audic and Rizk refer to their works as "intensive tonalities." Their mission - influenced by the likes of French theorist Gilles Deleuze - is not to represent a city as it is, in its reality, but rather to create a language for expressing the spatial experience of the being in a city.
Because of the way they take their pictures, their final prints carry traces of movement. Because every color appears as its complement, approximations of distance may be gauged, for example, in the juxtaposition of lurid pinks and garish greens.
The idea of adapting their treatment of the city to sport came from Begdache.
"We are not avid sports watchers," says Rizk, 34.
"We were just trying to grasp another subject," adds Audic, 32. "The technique is the same. We changed the parameters of time and tried many things."
"Whenever we caught a [television] program on sports, we thought: 'Okay, Let's do it.' We might have missed a goal here and there," laughs Rizk, who adds that he and Audic's creative processes are so thoroughly fused that neither of them ever remembers who actually shot a given picture. They pass the camera between them on instinct.
Audic and Rizk started their sports series during the Olympic Games in Athens, so many of their images do not, strictly speaking, portray the game of soccer. There are a few discernible track and field events mixed into the scenes of legs scrambling around a small orb. But the overall effect is the same, namely, depicting the intensity of sport not through narrative but through a series of strange visual cues suggesting the extremes of heat, sweat and speed.
Mansour al-Habre, by contrast, is an avid sports fan. He is reluctant to pin his hopes on any one team but eventually, after a bit of prodding, he admits that he's with Brazil for the World Cup. His choice of subject here is his own, and it represents one variation on a theme he has been playing with for ten years.
"People consider that art is only the idea," says Habre, 35. "The profound idea. The philosophical idea. High philosophy and the high things about life and death. Psychology. In the history of art in the 20th century, art is made for such subjects. It presents the world of the artist, the interior world. So I wanted to choose instead a simple subject - football, the game - and paint it with the same high quality."
Habre's acrylic paintings, lithographs and silkscreens touch down on various art historical movements. His treatment of the body recasts Gauguin's Tahitian beauties as burly bruisers on the playing field. His subtle, serial repetitions and transparent, patterned layers pay homage to Andy Warhol. And his embrace of a subject with mass appeal puts him in league with pop art as aesthetic practice as well as ideological conceit. "I paint from photographs in newspapers and magazines," he says. His appropriation is also an act of translation. From clipping to canvas, his images become fragmented and abstract. "I use my imagination," he says. "I want to travel in the painting itself."
The work of Christian Rizk, Julie Audic and Mansour al-Habre is on view at Galerie Janine Rubeiz in Raouche through June 29. For more information, please call +961 1 868 290