BEIRUT: Raed Yassin and his family have lost a lot of houses over the years. Among the objects that have gone missing in the uprooting and re-rooting, and the memories attached to them, are various family photographs. This is the stuff of Yassin’s “Dancing, Smoking, Kissing,” which opens at the Running Horse Art space Thursday evening. The artist’s first solo exhibition in Beirut is comprised of 24 new works.
The media are factory-produced silk fabrics – the often-floral-patterned material used to manufacture ornate curtains and throw cushions – upon which vistas have been machine-stitched in silk thread. This second element is the artist’s reconstruction of lost family photos.
At times there is a striking complementarity between individual media and the works printed on them.
A fabric with a colorful sine-curve pattern offers a good background for “By the sea,” 60 x 90 cm. Used as the medium for a remembered photo of a party, a dense floral print brings a psychedelic air to “Dancing,” 85 x 85 cm. The colorful dots on another fabric is matching motif for “Mama with balloons,” 100 x 100 cm.
At times the stitching of recollected photos are thinner than that of the fabric beneath, giving an appropriately ghostly quality to the pieces.
A week before the show’s opening, Yassin was in the process of hanging the works when he sat down to chat about his first solo exhibition in his hometown.
That day most Beirutis were wondering when the U.S. military would launch an airstrike on Syria, a distracting prospect.
“Remembering is interesting for me,” he says. “I’m less interested in collective memory ... than in the collective unconscious. These are universal photos. If you’re from any place in the world ... you could feel they are photos of your own family.
“Remembering is not always an absolute thing. The interesting part is [how the work is] not only built on memory but on fiction, imagination ... There’s a thin line between remembering, fiction and imagination.
“It’s really hard somehow to reconstruct these moments ... Maybe the choice of these fabrics came from trying to remember. How did our old house in Beirut look, before my father was killed in it? Before it was burned? That’s also part of the remembering.
“There are stories my parents told me of some lost photos of them that I never saw. Sometimes I try to reconstruct those photos from their stories.”
“With Imad Hamdy and his Twin Brother,” 75 x 110, is one such work, depicting Yassin’s parents with the famous Egyptian actor.
“I always heard this story from my mom that they were on the boat to Alexandria and there was Imad Hamdy and his twin brother.” He recalls. “This photo was taken, but it was lost when they lost their house. That [was] before I was even born, so it’s a constant process.
“This reconstruction, it’s a way not to rewrite the family history but to rewrite some intimate feelings, attachments,” he says.
Yassin laughs. “The funny thing is that I don’t remember how the idea for this project came to me.”
These machine-crafted works are reproducible, a feature they share with the photos that inspired them.
Each work, Yassin says, is an “edition of embroidery, not the background fabric. I cannot guarantee the same fabric but I can guarantee the same embroidery because each is printed from computer files.
“I’m using the term ‘edition’ because of the connection to photography. All these works are based on lost family photos, and I want to retain [that] connection.
“The cloth is very good quality ... I wanted something that people could connect to, that they might see would fit with their furniture.”
He grins. “I’m trying to sell more. If somebody sees something and says, ‘Okay that goes with my curtains, so maybe I’ll buy this thing,’ I won’t mind.
“It’s the first time I work in this medium. I’m really interested in the fabric, the craftsmanship ... Both [my father and mother] were tailors, so I was also attached to this medium.
“I love floral patterns,” he says, grinning briefly. “Many of my shirts have floral patterns.”
Yassin’s work runs the formal gamut from music and performance to video and visual art, making it difficult to compare individual projects. Yet the pieces in “Dancing, Smoking, Kissing” are reminiscent of one recent series, the vases he created for “China” – exhibited a couple of years back at ArtDubai’s “Spectral Imprints” show.
These seven vases depict set battles from the Lebanese Civil War, depicted in a manner reminiscent of Persian miniatures and reproduced in porcelain.
The tapestries in “Dancing smoking kissing” also depict scenes from the artist’s formative years. Yet any off-hand comparisons between the two series are undermined by subtle differences between them.
Before “China” was unveiled, Yassin explained that his intention with this work was to take “the war” – which was repeated cultural reproduction has sacralized – and reduce it to household decoration.
At the core of “China” is a delicious irony. The seven works were expensive to make, but only because they are one-of-a-kind objects; in the world of Chinese porcelain, their manufacture is actually that of cheap mass production. Were the demand great enough, Chinese mass production would make them dirt cheap.
The “sacred,” apparently precious, is made mundane, throwaway.
The fabrics used for “Dancing, Smoking, Kissing” are machine-produced. The fact that they depict personal memories naturally makes the vistas stitched into them intimate, rather than ironic. It is as if the ghostly images of the artist’s childhood have been impressed upon the media.
This impression is reinforced by the fact that it is not the actual “document” of these events that have been reproduced, but rather the artist’s recollections of the photographs.
Yassin is reticent about comparisons. “Maybe let’s say it’s coincidence,” he says. “In ‘China’ I was really insisting on doing work that looks decorative. It was not like that here.
“Earlier this year I did [“The Impossible Works of Raed Yassin”], which was totally immaterial. So I was bouncing between doing something very materialistic, manufactured, and the immaterial.
“But the new work also had an immaterial point of departure, connected not only to ‘China’ but also to ‘Impossible Works,’ not because the tapestries are impossible but because ... I wanted people to imagine the past works. This time instead of the audience imagining, I’m imagining. It’s like remembering, mixing the imagination with memory, all this to produce this work.
“So somehow, if the medium is very different – if it’s a porcelain vase or just an idea, or fabric – I think it is somehow connected.”
The attrition of loss is, for Yassin, an ongoing process. “These photos were lost in different stages,” he explains. “It’s so easy to lose stuff in Lebanon.
“I’m not saying that Lebanon ... is very special. Maybe I used to believe that there is something interesting in [Lebanon’s] production – in the art and cultural responses to ‘Lebanon’ as an absolute state of mind.
“I don’t believe this anymore. It’s becoming more and more ridiculous, this ‘absolute state of mind,’” he laughs again, “as a country and as a situation.
“I think we are in the worse times of this place ... I don’t think that – as everybody was saying – the problem is with our surroundings. I don’t believe anymore that because there’s Israel and Syria,” he chuckles, “the worst neighbors to have. Now I believe there’s something in the DNA of Lebanese people that’s really fucked up.
“I really don’t know,” he laughs. “It’s serious actually. It’s sad. I’m seeing myself with no other options. If I have an easy option, if I have a second passport, I’d be living someplace else. I know that’s possible.
“But I don’t think sometimes that you can afford this. Also, when you get older and older, chances get less and less. I don’t know ... Can it get worse than this? Yes, of course. And when it does get worse than this, then we might be forced to leave. That’s another matter.
“Why am I doing this [exhibition] now? Why didn’t I just cancel and send the works to my gallery in Athens, just ship them and do the solo there? Because I think it’s too easy to surrender," Yassin says. "Now it’s a good time for remembering.
“It’s also ... something to do with survival maybe? I literally don’t know how to do any other thing,” he chuckles again.
“Maybe that’s problematic.”
“Dancing, Smoking, Kissing” is up at the Running Horse Art space exhibition is up until Oct. 25. For more information see http://therunninghorseart.com or ring 01-562-778.