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Pop-up shop meets expo in ‘Squat Beirut’
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BEIRUT: Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid has been in the news more than usual lately, thanks to her controversial design for Qatar’s World Cup stadium. Supposedly based on a dhow (the Gulf’s traditional sailing ships), the ribbed oval structure has been hailed widely as resembling a vagina.

Fans of Hadid’s output need not wait until 2022 to see her work, however. In the meantime, a selection of less sexually charged pieces is on show in Ashrafieh, as part of the Metropolitan Art Society’s second exhibition, “Squat Beirut.”

A swooping bookshelf resembling part of a spaceship from a ’70s sci fi film is displayed in the gallery’s main hall. Made from a single asymmetrical piece of white polyester resin, the piece – part of “Seamless,” Hadid’s 2007 collection – is characterized by smooth curves. So smooth are the surfaces, in fact, that items placed on them risk sliding swiftly to the floor.

A set of four organically shaped sculptural stools are grouped together nearby, in their equally slippery splendor.

“Squat Beirut,” which opened at entrepreneur and collector Tony Salamé’s Metropolitan Art Society in late November, marries pieces of vintage and contemporary design handpicked by the show’s curator – Tehran-born founder of Milan’s Nilufar Gallery Nina Yashar – with works of contemporary art.

The artwork on show was selected by Daniele Balice, owner of Paris’ Balice Hertling gallery, who co-curated the show.

Yashar’s extensive selection of design pieces, which includes items by more than 20 designers dating from the late 1940s through to 2013, has allowed for an informal, homey deployment of the work through the gallery’s four rooms and central hall. A series of showroom-style setups display mismatched pieces linked by common colors, shapes or motifs.

Following two shows in Paris in collaboration with Balice and Milan-based gallerist Gio Marconi, “Squat Beirut” is the first in a series of incarnations of Yashar’s art-meets-design experiment to be held outside the French capital.

The broad selection of work caters to all palates. A selection of glitzy but aesthetically pleasing contemporary lamps in mirrored chrome, by local designer Cyrille Najjar, stand in stark contrast to five rare 1960s boxy ceiling lamps by Swedish designer Hans Agne Jakobsson. A number of luxurious, upholstered 1950s Gio Ponti armchairs are the antithesis of the angular, nail-studded metal cabinets from the 1960s by Paul Evans, on show in the next room.

Although the vast selection of design pieces on display has nothing in common, sensitive curation prevents them from clashing. Yashar demonstrates an expert grasp of how to juxtapose old and new in a series of exhibits that may inspire enthusiasts of experimental interiors.

The artwork, however, suffers from the crowded design displays. Works by eight contemporary artists – Kerstin Braetsch, Nikolas Gambaroff, Sam Falls, Reto Pulfer, Isabelle Cornaro, Alexander May, Greg Parma Smith and Neil Beloufa – are scattered throughout the space, co-existing uneasily with the furniture, rugs and lamps that hang from ceilings, cover floors and in some cases also adorn the walls.

A large oil-on-mylar work by German artist Kerstin Braetsch is one of the more effectively deployed artworks. Hung in the gallery’s main hall, the piece – a series of abstract black strokes resembling a column of swirling smoke – holds its own in the large space.

A series of minimalist, black-dominated pieces by young American artist Alexander May are, by contrast, lost in a room dominated by dark, office-style furniture, the blocky Jakobsson lamps and the seemingly random addition of a distinctive monochrome Yan Pei Ming – left over from “East of Eden,” the venue’s previous exhibition.

While folders in each room provide details of the design pieces of show, the exhibition tags for the artwork are displayed together by the entrance to each room, making it difficult to identify each piece. The confusion is exacerbated by the addition of unsold works from “East of Eden” which are hung at intervals, without exhibition tags or explanation.

Further problems are introduced by the unusual decision to allow buyers to take pieces away from the show before the exhibition closes on Jan. 31. When The Daily Star visited, several pieces listed on exhibition tags and in the design folders had already been removed. A gallery attendant remarked that many more were due to be collected and would be replaced by other pieces.

Buyers may find this retailer’s approach advantageous. But as the fabric of the show is altered purchase by purchase, it risks upsetting the delicate balance of periods and styles achieved by Yashar – a curatorial nightmare.

With its eclectic mixture of vintage and contemporary, opulent and minimalist furniture in a traditional Lebanese interior, “Squat Beirut” is more than a little reminiscent of “Guillaume a Beirut,” a pop-up shop that appeared in Gemmayzeh over the Christmas period. The take-away sales approach is also more reminiscent of a pop-up shop than a gallery.

The Beirut exhibition has undoubtedly proven a commercial success, as the missing items attest. Unfortunately, the marriage of art and design has failed to gel as successfully as it might have. The removal of certain key pieces, among them a dramatic ceiling lamp by Lindsey Adelman, mean that those interested in appreciating Yashar’s original curatorial vision have probably missed their chance.

“Squat Beirut” is up at the Metropolitan Art Society in Ashrafieh until Jan. 31. For more information please call 70-366-969.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 03, 2014, on page 15.
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