BEIRUT: We all use glass in our daily lives. We drink from it. We see the outside world through it. For Venetian cultural entrepreneur Adriano Berengo, however, glass is about more than practicalities, or even decoration.
For the last 22 years Berengo has worked on transforming glass from practical material into artistic media, inviting more than 140 international artists to the Berengo Studio to work with his master glassblowers and demonstrate that Murano glass is an exciting and versatile media for artistic expression.
Berengo was invited to take part in the Venice Biennale in 2009 and again in 2011, when he included glass designers among the artists on display. Since then, his exhibition “Glasstress” has traveled around the world, from Venice to New York. The 40-artist show has now arrived at the Beirut Exhibition Center.
Berengo has ties to this country. His wife is Lebanese and their children were born in Beirut’s American University hospital. He believes there is an historical and personal link between this country and “Glasstress,” so he’s been keen to bring the work here.
“It seems that glass was invented in Lebanon,” he explains. “Pliny the Elder said one day – I don’t know if it is history or legend but it is written – that three drunken Phoenician seamen were drinking and cooking a soup on the beach in the south of Lebanon and they were cooking with coal on the sand ... When they got up in the morning they realized that instead of the sand there was something hard. Pliny said this is the birth of glass. This was about 5,000 years ago.”
In addition, performance artist (Berengo’s wife) Marya Kazoun and installation artist Nabil Nahas were invited to take part in Glasstress. Kazoun, who has used glass in her past work, exhibited an installation piece entitled “Self Portrait,” on which she began working 2003.
“It started with fabric pieces and then it slowly started to grow,” she recalls. “Then I came across glass and I started using glass in my work ... It’s a very solid material and at the same time it’s strong and it’s fragile and it’s reflective ... It’s all qualities I look for and I try to convey in my work. So I’ve been using it ever since.”
“Self Portrait” is one of the more striking pieces on show at “Glasstress Beirut.” The giant, black, stuffed-fabric shape towers over viewers, an abstract mess of bulges, points and tentacles, rendered mammalian by udder-like pink protrusions drooping alarmingly from one side.
Scattered across the floor at its feet like monstrous babies are more of these abstract forms in shiny black satin and clear and black glass.
Some have similar pink udders. Other are a mass of swirls and points. All are organic looking, unique, and vaguely menacing.
The glass shapes in particular remind the viewer that, once smashed, glass becomes a dangerous substance, a weapon.
Kazoun’s work often explores dark, slightly unsettling themes and “Self Portrait” is no exception.
“I’m very much attracted to organic shapes” says Kazoun. “You could see them as roots, or scorpions ... I would say it’s almost like throwing up something, like a fear inside. But at the same time saying ‘You know it’s okay. I’m not so creepy and scary.’”
In her daily performance, Kazoun dresses in a specially designed black costume which enables her to blend in with her creations.
“I carry on my process” in the performance, she explains. “I stitch them and take care of them and stuff them and perform operations, because they’re wounded ... I’m just giving them love.”
The crowd watching the performance was startled when, as if by magic, some of the fabric creatures began to move on hidden wheels as Kazoun worked. The effect was indeed creepy – the fabric forms somehow repulsive next to the glass pieces, strangely beautiful in their threatening fragility.
Nahas’ glass installation also found inspiration in older work. A bed of sand lies scattered across the floor of the space, scattered with rubbish – old soda cans, rusted metal bins, dirty-looking plastic bottles.
Scattered among this refuse, like Scarab beetles in a pile of dung, are a collection of beautiful, delicate stars – starfish, actually, made of blown glass, some colored in simple primary hues, other made of clear glass as fine as spun sugar.
“Unfortunately our civil sense in Lebanon is next to nonexistent and our ecological sense is very poor,” Nahas explains. “We have a jewel of a country, which we have proceeded to destroy, either with garbage or with erratic construction – so I thought why not send a little massage, an ecological massage.”
While the starfish were crafted with the help of glassblowers in Berengo’s studio, the rubbish came from a beach in the south of Lebanon. “I never swim here,” says Nahas. “I thought the contrast might be interesting and ironic ... You should have seen me sweating like a pig, picking up garbage – that was a picture that should have been taken.”
At first glance, Nahas’ installation is less striking than many of the other pieces on display, but conceptually it is one of the more interesting works.
It’s rife with contradictions. The contrast between the beautifully frail and the enduringly ugly are supplemented by other dichotomies – the starfish’s natural beauty belies its destruction of coral reefs, one just as sure as the rubbish on Lebanon’s beaches.
Among the other highlights of the show is Spanish artist Javier Perez’s ornate, blood-red traditional chandelier, which lies partially smashed on the floor, covered with stuffed crows.
The enormous glass rendering of the E Coli virus, by English artist Luke Jerram, resembles a jellyfish – its body covered with tiny tentacles, its translucent interior filled with a maze of intricate piping.
The sheer diversity in “Glasstress Beirut” renders it interesting.
Not every piece lives up to the same high standard. Yet the overall quality of the work – the artistic and artisanal facets of this unique deployment of glass – is impressive.
“Glasstress Beirut” is on show at the Beirut Exhibition Center until Sept. 2. For more information please call 01-962-000 or see www.beirutexhibitioncenter.com. Kazoun performs 4-6:30 p.m. daily, until July 21.