BEIRUT: For more than a decade Lebanese artist Nada Sehnaoui has made somewhat idiosyncratic arrangements of mundane objects in public space to explore issues of war, memory and life in a post-conflict society.
In her latest work, “Light at the end of the tunnel,” the artist abandons more readily recognizable objects – such as the brooms, toilet bowls and rolling pins that have been the center of previous installations – in favor of more abstract maze-like structures spread out across Zaitunay Square.
Occupying this public space just behind Starco Center, the piece is comprised of 360 wooden parallelepipeds. In case you were wondering, a parallelepiped is a polyhedron consisting of six faces that are parallelograms; a polyhedron, of course, is a multi-faced three-dimensional geometric figure.
Anyway, all 360 of these things have been painted red and connected in sets of four that lay flat to the ground or else build up into boxy structures, four or five layers high. At nightfall, onlookers can see in the corners of these structures the flickering of battery-operated candles.
For Sehnaoui, these hollow structures represent the labyrinth of navigating life in Lebanon and a deep desire to see the end of conflict in this country.
“It feels like we’re not in a country. We’re in a battlefield. This symbolizes that,” Sehnaoui told The Daily Star at the event opening last week.
“Every structure is like a tunnel. You can see through and see that you can get out of [the maze] but it’s difficult to maneuver.”
Sehnaoui’s public art has often worked to express exhaustion with war and implored the country’s population to abandon conflict and live together more harmoniously. “Light at the end of the tunnel,” is less direct than her most recent intervention.
In 2008, in what may have been her most memorable and certainly most strident work, Sehnaoui installed 600 toilet bowls upon an abandoned lot in the Wadi Abu Jmeel district of Downtown Beirut. That piece was entitled “Haven’t 15 years of hiding in the toilet been enough?”
The piece, quite literally, asked the Lebanese if they were tired of running to hide in the toilet each time internecine fighting breaks out.
“We’ve been there, done that, killed each other like idiots. Aren’t we going to live like citizens together?” Sehnaoui asked. “I think there is a strong public desire to see the end of conflict, the end of living in a potential battleground. The stress of this ongoing threat is dreadful.”
The red mazes in her latest work are not as literal a statement.
At the opening, observers expressed a mixture of enthusiasm and confusion over the piece.
“I don’t really get what it’s supposed to be,” remarked one visitor, George, who pointed toward the construction sites surrounding the square. “Is it supposed to be like a construction project?”
Aziza Khalidi, another guest, was effusive about the “courageous” work.
“The shapes are simple but it’s ingenious in a way because it allows you to just imagine something,” she said.
“I see Lebanon,” she explained, pointing to the higher structures with many candles, and the smaller mazes with fewer lights. “Some areas have people living with hope and in other areas there is no light, no hope.”
Sehnaoui enjoys observers’ different readings, hailing the variety as one of the benefits of public interventions.
“This is what’s wonderful about [public art],” she said. “If you do something and it has a life, people add meaning to it.”
While a champion of public art, Sehnaoui does not expect it to have a dramatic impact on the country or its politics. Her aim is to express herself while hoping to attract people into Beirut’s public spaces. Designed by architect Gustafson Porter in collaboration with Imad Gemayel Architects, the relatively new Zaitunay Square is one such space.
This is the first occasion that Sehnaoui has used a finished, designed space for her interventions.
“Usually I’m in a space that’s just dirt, abandoned or unfinished. So I go find it, reclaim the space and turn it into a public space,” she explained, adding that she decided to change her practice and use a finished space to celebrate the fact that it’s not just another building site.
On the subject of Solidere and public space, Sehnaoui is positive. She isn’t a guerrilla public artist, warring against authorities or real estate developers. She goes through all the permit processes with Solidere and the government to obtain permission for her work because her objective is to make these places accessible.
“I like the idea that this space has been taken care of as a public space,” Sehnaoui said. “I just wanted to inhabit it for a while.”“Light at the end of the tunnel” is open to the public in Zaitunay Square through Oct. 14.