The truth lies beneath the surface

BEIRUT: “Still waters run deep.” The old adage is particularly resonant at Ayyam Gallery nowadays. The gallery is hosting “The Unseen,” an exhibition of 12 recent photographs by Lara Zankoul that address the notion of appearances. One of the contributing photographers at the Beirut edition of PhotoMed, Zankoul stages works that by various means – anthropomorphism, say, the question of gender and submerged desire – immerse viewers in the surreal.

This is the young photographer’s second appearance in as many years. “Depths,” her January 2013 Ayyam show, provoked interest as it dealt with a photographic representation of dreams – with butterflies trapped in jars, bow ties flying away like birds and women levitating as though yanked by an invisible force.

The same imagination is at work in the present series.

Complementing the photos is a video projection that documents Zankoul’s practice.

“I discovered there were special lenses to be taken for sea pictures,” 26-year-old Zankoul told The Daily Star. “I wanted to fill a room with water so I had to find an idea and come up with a technique.”

The video depicts the studio’s half-filled water tank, which is augmented with different props for each series, and the photographer’s hands-on approach to directing her models.

Zankoul explained how several leitmotifs link each photo to the others in the series. Pastel shades of blue and pink mark several pictures, a role also played by the ballerina’s tutu.

Several works seek to portray the true image of society. “The Zoo” and “Nouveaux Riches” respectively represent one couple with animal heads and another couple elegantly dressed for what pretends to be a posh party.

These anthropomorphized zoo animals – he wears the head of a horse while she is burdened with that of a rabbit – suggest a skeptical perspective of the role of appearances. The surface of the water conceals that it is in fact human beings that are behaving like animals, albeit clad in stylish brands and polished manners.

“The idea is to show appearances on the upper side,” she said, “and the hidden iceberg effect – underwater.”

As for “Nouveaux Riches,” viewers gaze upon a woman wearing a chic dress, immaculate white gloves, a pearl necklace and a bracelet. She smiles alongside an elegant cigar-smoking man. Beneath the water, it is evident that this couple is not as wealthy as they let on.

In this, Zankoul’s photos can be seen as an artistic representation of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” in which the ancient philosopher ruminated on the disparity between perception and reality.

“Censorship” and “Hurtful” are strong works as well. The first, a close-up depiction of a woman’s face, notes that, beneath the surface, her mouth is covered by a starfish, preventing her from speaking. The second shows two friends smiling at one another above the water’s surface; below the surface, the women’s hateful feelings toward one another are represented with a pair of scissors.

With the proliferation of water in these works, sailing seems to be as much a preoccupation as fantasy. Boats and steering wheels are repeated motifs, presumably representing the passage through life and human agency.

With “Feminine Side,” a young man attired as a silver service waiter above the surface is shown to be wearing a woman’s skirt below – suggesting something of his indecisive gender positioning.

Zankoul’s work is quite unlike that of other young and emerging photographers on the local scene. Her world is pinioned between fairy tale a la “Alice in Wonderland” and an engaged form of art. Certainly there is veracity here – Beirutis unfortunately do live in a society where identities are defined by appearances – though her juxtapositions are so direct that they play more like visual parables than art.

Lara Zankoul’s “The Unseen” is now on show at Ayyam Gallery until March 30. For more information, please call 01-374-450.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 12, 2014, on page 16.




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