BRUSSELS: Beirut-born and based Karen Chekerdjian is showing her work in an experimental carte blanche exhibition at the Institute du Monde Arabe Museum within the framework of D.Days in Paris. Titled “Respiration,” the show marks a first for the museum in which a Lebanese designer provides a profound and comprehensive survey of her 19-year body of work – groundwork for which has been laid by her recent participation in the biannual Design Miami fair with the Carwan Gallery. It kicked off on May 31 and runs until Aug. 27.
Hinting at an introspective journey – in which she likens designing to breathing – the exhibition required Chekerdjian, much like her work does too, to take a deep breath and adopt a perspective that would establish an engaging dialogue between her creations and the scenography.
“I was thrilled at the prospect of curating a carte blanche exhibition. It was an incredible opportunity for introspection and I discovered this cohesion and continuity in my body of work, which I hadn’t immediately noticed over the years, yet it has always been something I strived for when designing individual pieces,” Chekerdjian said in a phone interview with The Daily Star.
Unfolding over a quintet of themes, Chekerdjian proves herself a masterful storyteller: adept at imbuing a sense of ambiguity in her creations – jewelry furniture, decorative objects – which are a palimpsest of patterns and symbols embedded in our collective consciousness.
In “Temporalities,” the first of the five themes, a 13-minute biopic takes us on a journey through her “Beirut.” Shot by Lana Daher, the documentary intimately details some of the artist’s daily musings: jogging on the Corniche, having breakfast with her family, visiting craftsmen.
Meanwhile, Chekerdjian invites spectators to sit on stools she has designed (Elephant, Papillion, Grande Vague and Pouf) to explore the links between the city and her work. Yet one quickly learns that her version of Beirut is one of perennial contradictions, and the ambivalent relationship she endures in the city is one many can identify with.
“I wanted people to understand what I do and get to know me a little bit before looking at my work,” Chekerdjian explained of the montage. “Beirut, with all its beauty and brutality, is the city that drives me and my work is but a by-product of this paradox.”
The following four themes include “Archetype,” a vast collection of handmade objects such as a flint, hammer, and flower bowl redolent of their prehistoric connotations; “Transform,” revisiting and reinventing objects and their functions from her past such as Iqar (a mirror polished aluminiumpaper plane); “Transpose,” a selection of jewelrymade out of scarab beads, stones and ancient nails; and “Transcend,” which include objects from her Ceramics, Spaceship, Foundations, Mobil, Hiroshima, Object and Totem collection.
Much of Chekerdjian’s creations have been an exercise in discovery and metamorphosis – guided by the notion that everything can become something else.
Take her “Hiroshima” table lamps, which were transformed from “Rolling Stones”; “Platform” which became “Platform Rainbow” and then just “Rainbow”; and perhaps most impressive, “Rock Formation” which became “Terra Continents.”
While the narrative is deeply intuitive, Chekerdjian relies on collaboration with anthropologists to cement her ideas.
“Much of my work draws on symbols and objects from our past. Take the flint or hammer, which have always been part of our history, we just find ways to reinvent it,” she explained.
“I like to understand where an object and its function comes from and what it means in a contemporary context. If I have to design a sofa, I want to know its etymology, its connotations and how its functionality has evolved over time,” she added. “It’s a very organic process. “
In parallel, Chekerdjian works closely with local craftsmen to produce her furniture and objects, which makes for a complex, but rewarding relationship. “I came into my profession quite unconventionally – Chekerdjian studied film and graphic design – and so I never formed these preconceptions of what is and isn’t possible when working with different materials,” she explained.
“The craftsmen I work with are usually more mature and have an established skill set, so it is always exciting to push the envelope and challenge each other’s limits and perception,” Chekerdjian added.
This liberality in choice of material and design is a remarkable point of differentiation, though not one that has always been received with open arms. Implicit challenges are inherent to this sort of integrative relationship, which aside from resuscitating a dying craft, can include a second generation of craftsmen less passionate than the first or one that is more interested in contemporizing and commercializing the production process.
Additionally, the ambiguity in her work makes sourcing for the right materials an adventure on its own.
“For me functionality is just an excuse, that’s why in my work the function isn’t clear because I want you to interpret and decide whether it’s a stool or a bench or sculpture and while I don’t care what the function specifically is, it has to be there,” she said.
In parallel to the exhibition in the Institutedu Monde Arabe in Paris, France, from May 31 to Aug. 27, Chekerdjian will exhibit her works for sale at the Dutko Gallery from May 11 until June 11, 2016.
For information about visiting hours visit the Institute du Monde Arabe website at http://www.imarabe.org.