Culture

How ghosts can bring a demolished building back to life

Interview

BEIRUT: Caroline Tabet spent five years living on the second floor of an old yellow house on Sharieh Lubnan, the street named after the country that cuts a deep groove down from Achrafieh's Abdel Wahab al-Inglizi Street to Gouraud Street in Gemmayzeh. Tabet, a 32-year-old photographer and filmmaker, moved in to her apartment there in 1999. When the building, which dates back to 1890, was slated for demolition in 2004 - despite being listed as an address of architectural and historical significance - Tabet moved out. Before the structure came down to make way for a high-rise residence, however, she and fellow artist Joanna Andraos, 26, returned, sleuth-like, to create a series of artworks both in and based on the building.

"290 Rue du Liban" is an exhibition of photographs in three veins that is currently on view at the Saifi Village gallery space Piece Unique. First, there is a set of nearly 20 large black-and-white prints produced with a medium-format camera. Each features a hazy figure who floats through the composition, thanks to the vibrating blur and light-infused translucency engendered by long exposures.

Second, there is another set of 35-millimeter color photographs documenting the building's destruction - in one picture, see the building with its windows knocked out; in another, see the frame of the house after it has been robbed of its roof - until it literally disappears.

Third, there is a final set of archival photographs rescued from the rubble - pictures taken in and around the neighborhood by a cobbler who kept a shop on one of the lower floors. Resting on red velvet inside a glass box with a magnifying glass attached, the photographs now belong to the collection of the Beirut-based Arab Image Foundation.

Three years ago, Tabet and Andraos formed an artists' collective known as "Engram." In neuropsychology, the word refers to a physical or chemical change in brain tissue that theoretically represents memory, although the fact that the word also refers to one of the central tenants of Scientology - championed by a certain L. Ron Hubbard and defined as a recording of past pain stored in the unconscious - rather detracts from the term's otherwise unfettered aesthetic and conceptual potential.

"Rue du Liban" marks Tabet and Andraos' latest effort as Engram, following an installation with video, photography and sound at the Beirut City Center Building (best known as the Dome), a small piece in the gallery Espace SD, and dreamy photographs for such nightlife venues as L'O and Goya. This latest exhibition, says Tabet, "is related to projects we did before, and related to memory traces and sightings. We wanted to materialize the eerie presences that had passed through this house."

Indeed, the black-and-white photographs seem to echo with ghostly presence. Lone women - sometimes Tabet, sometimes Andraos, sometimes other women who cannot quite be identified - seem to levitate in each image, emanating a kind of Victorian gothic aesthetic that is all the more amplified by the long, flowing, white 19th-century gown that each figure wears. That gothic vibe fits well. After all, what is Beirut if not a city haunted, constantly metamorphosing and eating itself, full of ruins and metaphorical vampires? The works of such artists and filmmakers as Jalal Toufic, Ghassan Salhab, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige have mined similar terrain. And the latest edition of the Engram technique also makes use of Beirut's predominant artistic practices, blending fact and fiction, exploring memory and rupture, and mixing documentary with more creative narrative.

"When we heard that his building was going to be destroyed we decided to do this series," says Andraos.

"The site was full of surprises," adds Tabet. The remains of a Roman necropolis, for example, were discovered once the building came down. "The series came naturally. Beirut is like this. The pictures reflect all this energy that maybe was actually there once."

The building's story emerged in fragments as the artists explored the site, and that carries over into the actual exhibition. But as to how Tabet and Andraos actually produced their pictures, the artists are tight-lipped.

"There is also something imaginary but the imagination sometimes crosses over into reality," says Tabet. "Of course, the house was big, it was dark, and it was cold. We don't believe in ghosts but you cannot have a family living in a space for 20 years and think they did not leave something behind.

"That's the thing with photography. It shows things you might not otherwise see. We work with light and movement. We work on floating frames. We exchange the camera between us. But as to who takes which photograph, it's our secret."

Caroline Tabet and Joanna Andraos' "290 Rue du Liban" is on view at Piece Unique in Saifi Village through January 20. For more information, please call +961 3 390 439 or +961 3 314 665

 

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