BEIRUT: Habitues of Galerie Sfeir-Semler are likely to be stunned on their next visit. Karantina’s vast, white-walled, fluorescent-lit commercial art space, devoted to minimalism and contemporary Middle Eastern art, has been elegantly gutted by Mexican artist Gabriel Kuri, whose “my 50% of your 100%,” his first solo show in the region, just opened there.
For the past two decades, Kuri, 41, has been making whimsical sculptures with a formalist bent and a fondness for everyday materials such as newspapers, plastic bags, receipts and random slabs of marble.
Certain shapes and gestures repeat in his practice – the wedges of pie charts painted in primary colors, the generic curves of decorative marble cornices, receipts impaled on a thin spike like so many bar tabs on a busy night. Always, everywhere, bits of stuff are pinched between two flush surfaces.
Less known are Kuri’s experiments in city life, such as “Per favore Per favore Per favore” (Please Please Please), a project he carried our nearly 10 years ago during the Venice Biennale, which involved plastic bags printed with smiley faces – minus the smiles, leaving the dots as eyes to convey weirdly forlorn expressions. These he circulated around the shops and grocery stores frequented by regular Venetian residents (as opposed to art-world tourists).
Even more rarely discussed are his architectural interventions – or rather, the way he not only deals with the delicate placement of his objects but also does muscular reconfigurations of the spaces in which they are shown.
“The exhibition space is huge,” Kuri says of Galerie Sfeir-Semler. “I am only happy with a project when I feel that I take command over the possibilities of the space, when I negotiate with the existing conditions and use them – although without imposition – in my favor.
“The main architectural feature of Galerie Sfeir-Semler is the dividing wall that cuts right through the middle of the space. That is why I decided to make of this an even more emphatic structure by stripping away all of the other partition walls.
“This gave the space clearly two halves and a connecting corridor at the back, which I could use for a little afterthought. In the simplicity of the layout, I could invest a multiplicity of aspects or features. I wanted to make an exhibition that spectators would be encouraged to zoom in and zoom out of constantly in order to make something of it.”
The two rows of partitioned rooms that used to run up and down the gallery’s two sides are now gone. In a way, Kuri liberated and palpably lightened the space.
Then he played. On one side, all of his works hang or lean against the wall: three grey-painted steel discs (one flat, one bent, one curved); six paper towel dispensers, whose scale swings erratically from oversized to miniature; marble slabs between which 5,000 lira notes have been slipped; two swaths of insulation folded and pinned and titled self-portraits.
At the back, a collection of baseball-bat sized matchsticks fills the space in an arrangement of casual disarray.
On the other side, all of the works are freestanding: big tissue boxes made of concrete; three slabs of metal (the first flat on the floor and yellow, the second bent, curved and blue, the third merely bent and red); and three pie chart wedges, tipped, it seems, because they cannot stand. The only works on this side of the gallery that touch a surface other than the floor are two, terrific “stripped columns” revealing iron rods between neat tufts of concrete that keep the things braced from floor to ceiling.
Kuri, whose name derives from Khouri, is the first artist to show at Galerie Sfeir-Semler who qualifies as a “heritage pick,” although he fits stylistically with the history and aesthetic of the gallery’s roster of artists. This particular show seems a fine conversational counterpoint to Yto Barrada’s exhibition there a few years ago, particularly in terms of each artist making new meanings from an alphabet of familiar forms.
Kuri’s connection to Beirut is tenuous. His Lebanese grandfather was born in Mexico, like himself. He now divides his time between London and Brussels with regular visits back home. His initial response to Beirut was not one of recognition or belonging but simply one of sympathy.
“I am Mexican,” he says. “I grew up in Mexico and had the chance to travel a little but never really lived long periods abroad until I went to London to do my master’s degree in the early 1990s.
“The Lebanese community as I experienced it in Mexico is an industrious and caring kind,” he continues. “I think the stories in Brazil, Australia, the United States, Canada or other countries to which the Lebanese migrated follow similar patterns – one of these being that the Lebanese abroad have never been too concerned with pursuing cultural enterprises that involve risk.
“I became an artist on my own without really minding the community. I like what I see now in the art scene of Beirut because it seems to be all about appetite. There is the exciting energy of beginning. It is really with this energy that I connect.
“I did not expect anything in particular [from Beirut]. If anything, I hoped that with the exhibition as an excuse ... I could begin a dialogue with the people in a place [about which] I had been hearing exciting things. I knew Beirut was one of the places, if not the place, in the Middle East with the most visibility and connection to the international art world, so this would be my one shot in the Middle East for the time being.”
Speaking of his stripped columns specifically, and his gutting of the gallery more generally, he adds: “I did not feel entitled to make any judgments about what I was starting to perceive in the configuration of the city, of its many contradictions and clashes. However, it was clear to me that there was something about its recent material history, about the destroying and rebuilding that could be addressed in a concrete way, in which the social is touched by the material, by the concrete, and not by the narrative.
“I like to feel that I am able to work pretty much anywhere. Although I remain consistent with my vocabulary and methods, I can adapt to the specificity of the place. Having to do without the usual convenience is a good way of stripping down method to its foundational notions. Weight, fragility, color, some basic features in sculpture often come to the surface when the methods to achieve what is in one’s mind suddenly have to take side routes or go back to basics.”
Gabriel Kuri’s “my 50% of your 100%” is on view at Galerie Sfeir-Semler in Karantina through Nov. 17. For more information, please call 01-566-550 or visit www.sfeir-semler.com.