BEIRUT: "You can actually sit on them," says artist Ziad Abillama, pacing through the cavernous exhibition hall at Art Lounge, as an expression of child-like wonder crosses his face. Abillama's latest show in Beirut is called "Frustrating Chairs," and true to its title it features 12 designs - both unique pieces and limited editions - for metal chairs that one would more likely use as sculpture than seating. Still, it is possible to perch, however precariously, on a few of them. The tendency of each piece to seduce with slick design and rebuff with palpable discomfort may very well be the point.
For those who have been following Abillama's artistic practice since the early 1990s, "Frustrating Chairs" doesn't mark a return to his first body of work - an abrasive set of site-specific installations such as "San Balech" (from 1992), "Sanayeh" (from 1995) or "Systeme Full Fill" (from 1996) - or to his last - the four agitated, rough-cut video works he made in the aftermath of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's assassination. Rather, the current exhibition recalls the large-scale metal sculptures in exuberant colors and curves that Abillama exhibited in 1999 at Galerie Epreuve d'Artiste, and the sinister yet smooth "war machines" he produced in 2004 for a show at the same, relocated gallery called "Delire Esthetique."
That said, Abillama is particularly resistant to the use of such linear narratives to explain his work. "I don't believe in periods with a beginning and an end," he says. "I am building up on aspects of the past, rewriting the history of my work as a failed cultural practice. At some point my work was about solutions. Now," he says, it is not. It is more about reproducing failure and returning to moments of possibility. Moreover, he asks: "Why is it so convenient to like my old work and dismiss my new work?"
Abillama doesn't want an answer to that question - much less an affirmation that the new work is "as good" the old - but he does want it to be used as a spring that releases another question and then another.
"I am always maintaining my work as a riddle," he says. "There are these questions that need to be alive. There is a great demand to know what art is today. What is true art, political art, contemporary art and modern art, which holds great fascination for me? My work is not about aesthetics. My work is a forum for discussion." Instead of proceeding by accepting the terms of the debate, he wants to shift the parameters first. "The risk of art is the risk of doing nothing at a time when people want to do something."
To grasp how Abillama's chairs - delicate on the one hand with their thin metal frames and tiny seats made from textured glass panels or pie-shaped pieces of Plexiglas, dangerous on the other with their voracious teeth-like corners and dramatically skewed angles - jump from Gerrit Rietveld and Piet Mondrian to the intricacies of Lebanon's sectarian political system is to recognize the distance between them. That, in and of itself, may be the best Abillama can hope for in this show. Art and politics, after all, aren't so very far apart, especially if one manages to reconfigure the power relations that structure the other. Lebanon's seemingly intractable problems are nowhere to be seen in the rooms of Art Lounge now. But of course they are there.
"To have a separate sphere for artistic practices is about recreating a community that shares certain assumptions," he says. "Reproducing sectarian politics has been at the core of the problems in this country since 1975. The war that began in 1975 imposed a certain triumphant discourse that was a way of asserting oneself. Then one war annuls another. With the last war we see how people are stuck in this language and accept the terms of the fight. It's a simplification of the world.
"I really have a problem with history in this country," he adds. "I staunchly refuse to go and film ruins and say this is where history happened."
However tenuous there is a thin thread that links all of Abillama's work together, from the older installations to the newer sculptures. If one takes his artistic practice as a series of iterations, then the clearest articulation of what he struggles to do is probably "Systeme Full Fill." The work consists of an eight-page brochure feigning an advertising campaign for a small bomb shaped like a vibrator. The bomb is posited as an object with many uses - a children's game, a sleek sculpture, an amulet, a sex toy.
Because it is a relic left over from Lebanon's Civil War, the bomb recast as a household accoutrement becomes a thing that stands in or substitutes for the conflict, an object that serves to fill, however awkwardly and inadequately, the hole the war ripped in the surface of reality. It is loved, it is hated, but more than anything it is needed.
"I have been rethinking how I acquired intellectual tools, and rethinking the moments where meaning is reinvested," says Abillama. "Ideas feed into a failed evolution, of getting up and going to the studio and
seeing that nothing is going anywhere. It starts as just fooling around in the studio. You make something, like a totem. You fail. You don't believe in it as a solution."
By way of Freudian psychoanalysis as interpreted by Jacques Lacan, Abillama notes that "the object that is unsettled that comes back to the home" hooks "Systeme Full Fill" then into "Frustrating Chairs" now.
"If you accept that communication is a disaster then failures of communication become interesting," he says. "What if you blame everything on the object and then see what happens?"
It isn't such a stretch. A seat that doesn't fit the sitter is quite like a state that doesn't fit the citizen.
Ziad Abillama's "Frustrating Chairs" is on view at Art Lounge through April 29. For more information, please call +961 3 997 676