BEIRUT: Art is commonly used as a vehicle for messages of peace and tolerance. Lebanese-Senegalese photographer Hadi Sy’s installation piece “One Blood,” on show at Zaitunay Bay until Aug. 20, employs photographs of blood donors around the world to demonstrate that we are all the same on the inside.
Meanwhile a few hundred meters away, at BIEL’s Beirut Exhibition Center, Spanish artist Ana Corbero’s solo exhibition “I&I = Us” is a call for mutual sympathy and understanding.
Corbero spent a year and half preparing an exhibition of paintings, sculptures, drawings and furniture, along with a series of her poems set to music. The exhibition was intended to celebrate her love for Lebanon, where she has lived for 13 years.
In June, with Lebanon seemingly in the midst of a crisis, she set aside her preparations and put together a completely different show, changing everything, from the work to be displayed to the title of the exhibition. All that remained of her plans was the musical element, the perfect accompaniment for an exhibition united by a common theme, expressed in a poem entitled “Us and Them,” penned by the artist in 2007.
“[The exhibition] is about why don’t we think about this concept of ‘us’ and ‘them’ differently,” Corbero explains. “This ‘us’ and ‘them’ thing is not going to get us anywhere, because ‘us’ is always innocent, ‘them’ is always guilty, and ‘never the twain shall meet until they’ll all be under a sheet,’ as the poem says.
“So maybe we can start thinking of each other as ‘I and I equals us’ – that the other person is an ‘I,’ however deluded you think it is. You can’t change others. You can only change yourself to have an understanding with others, so we have to be a little bit more creative if we’re going to go forward as a species.”
The oldest work on display is Corbero’s “Universal Totems/The Future is Small,” a series of enormous sculptural children covered in gold, silver and blue velvet. They stand outside the exhibition center and within the lobby, towering over even the tallest adult and forcing them to look up to the child totems the way children look up to adults.
“You may have your totem,” explains Corbero, “and your totem may be a cross, his totem may be a yin yang, his totem may be an ohm, his totem may be a crescent – fine. You’re all welcome to all your totems. I don’t have a beef with any totems.
“But, why don’t we choose a totem that we can all share, which goes over the other totems?” she says. “A little human being. Whether it’s black or yellow or this or that ... [That] should be the ... No. 1 thing that guides us.”
Corbero’s pacifist message continues within the BEC’s main hall. In the center is a large installation piece entitled “Phoenix Redux,” after the mythical bird, symbol of rebirth, from which the Phoenicians took their name and which Corbero associates with Lebanon, a country that has survived multiple wars.
A series of seven large bowls, resembling inverted saj ovens – the domed surfaces used to bake Lebanese bread – stand in a circle. One in the center is painted a vivid red – above it a circle of tiny silver heads hangs from transparent threads, following the curve of the bowl’s rim.
Around it stand six other vessels, identical in size and shape. One, of a deep bronze hue, is filled with handguns, grenades and automatic weapons covered in brown felt. Another, a dark green color, is filled with soil, out of which a small tree grows.
A silver vessel is filled with water, upon which a flock of small tinfoil boats float. A fourth gold pot is filled with tiny golden heads. A fifth is covered with vivid copper and filled with shiny 100 lira coins. The final bowl is face down and covered with black felt, representing both an oven and a grave.
During Thursday’s opening, this large installation became the site of a performance of butoh – the Japanese dance form that was born in the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Dancer Gustavo Thomas was accompanied by a mixture of prerecorded and live music by Sarah Sarhandi, dressed in a simple, toga-like white dress.
Thomas – arrayed in a loose black robe, a head and face veil and white Japanese tabi (socks with a separation between the first and other toes) – held a large pink rose. As the performance began, he carried it gracefully across the circle of vessels to lay on the black dome of the grave. He then removed his veil and outer robe to reveal a black velvet dress and the white paint covering his face and shaven head.
Accompanied by Sarhandi’s riveting viola performance, Gustavo performed a series of nine butoh sequences, split up by three breaks.
During each of these, a small part of the opening-night audience drained away, leaving a crowd of 50 or so enthusiasts or converts to enjoy the final movement, entitled “Look Up Into the Bowl of the Sky,” in which Gustavo’s seemingly tortured character was finally laid to rest beside a rowing boat with silver filigree oars.
For those who missed this performance, a CD of the music is on sale in the BEC foyer, along with a book of Corbero’s poems. All profits are being donated to the World Food Program.
Corbero’s other works are all variations on a common theme. A large blue screen has been covered in delicate chalk stars that weave a pattern resembling an enormous breast, a motif inspired by Renaissance master Jacopo Tintoretto’s “The Original of the Milky Way,” illustrating the Greek myth that the milky way was formed by the goddess Hera’s breast milk.
The impermanence of the easily erased chalk aims to remind viewers of the fragility of human existence.
Behind the screen, at the back of the hall, are two pieces.
The first is a video, showing children from the Wendell Park multicultural School in London reciting Corbero’s poem “Us and Them,” along with footage of Gustavo’s butoh and of Lebanon.
The second, entitled “Memory/ Appropriation,” consists of 12 deep-blue towels, each embroidered with the same poem, written by Cordero, in a different language. The poem, which links human tears with the sea, is accompanied by a series of yellow Post-it notes, stuck on the wall.
The piece documents every armed conflict to have taken place from the beginning of the 20th century, and the numbers of people killed. Its stark simplicity – and its length – is shocking, a grim stocktake of a staggering number of conflicts, each responsible for tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths.
“It’s amazing that this number doesn’t get about,” Corbero says. “Why isn’t this number taught in schools? Why isn’t this number sung in churches, or mosques, or whatever? Do we want to really behave so stupidly?
“We are our own worst enemy. Forget the Ebola virus. Forget everything else. We do a better job than everything else. I think we’re evolved enough to think maybe we should rethink the whole premise.”
“I&I = Us” is up at the Beirut Exhibition Center until Sept. 1. For more information please call 01-962-000, ext. 2883.