Culture

Artists out of place in Meziara

MEZIARA, Lebanon: Amanda Abi Khalil recalls how she was introduced to this place. Meziara-born and -based artist Souheil Sleiman had wanted to collaborate with the curator and invited her to his village. “As soon as I got a look at this place,” she gestures to the mammoth limestone quarry sprawling alongside the highway en route to the village, “I knew that whatever we did here had to include multiple voices.”

Abi Khalil and Sleiman have collaborated in the monthlong Meziara International Artist Residency. Staged with the support and funding of the village municipality, its program wraps up on Aug. 31.

The residency’s interests reflect those of Temporary Art Platform, the nonprofit outfit Abi Khalil founded to develop art projects related to public space – as distinct from work made for museum display and for sale in galleries.

T.A.P accepted 50-plus applications ranging across several disciplines – writers, architects, designers and urban planners. From them they chose six artists (one a two-artist team) from Lebanon/Belgium, India, Mexico, France, the U.K. and Latvia/Spain.

For anyone used to thinking of a village as a residential cluster drawing its livelihood from resource extraction (farming, fishing, logging) or serving as a regional commercial center – Meziara seems a peculiar place. In some respects, though, it is typical of a kind of late 20th-century Lebanese village – at once rural, suburban and industrial.

T.A.P. encouraged the seven artists to apply their divergent practices to site-specific work centering on the dichotomy between “environment” on one hand, and “industry” on the other.

Located about 20 kilometers from Tripoli, in the Zghorta district of the Muhafaza of North Lebanon, Meziara sits some 800 meters above sea level. The most obvious feature of its rural landscape, aside from the mountains themselves, is its ring of mixed coniferous-deciduous woodland that includes extensive stands of oak.

Lebanese performance artist Patricia Barakat found that there are a number of narratives circulating among village residents about the forest. The most prominent of these – one officially represented in a vaguely Hellenistic roadside statue – suggests that the women of Meziara deliberately planted these oaks. The wood isn’t a feature of nature at all, this tale suggests, but a creation of local culture.

Moving between Beirut and Brussels, Barakat has worked extensively on site-specific projects in public spaces. She is concerned with creative appropriation of public spaces and in recent years has focused on the themes of women, the body and the city.

During this residency the artist collected alternative stories of the forest – intimately biographical, perhaps apocryphal, quite unconnected to any semiofficial narratives of the space. Come Aug. 28 – the closing day of the residency, when all the artists plan to unveil their work to the public – Barakat will open the evening with a “performative walk” through Meziara’s woodland, enacting episodes of the tales she’s heard.

Meziara’s year-round population is said to be about 1000 people, swelling to 5,000 when the village’s expatriates return in the summer. The village experienced two distinct waves of migration – one to Brazil, another to Nigeria.

The expatriates, particularly the Nigerians, are credited with a noteworthy feature of Meziara’s urban morphology – which echoes that of other villages with large, wealthy, regularly returning expatriate populations – a collection of extravagant building projects dominated by palatial housing developments. The oldest example of these villas dates from the end of the most-recent Civil War, but the trend continues to this day.

Curious about the rococo motifs of the more ostentatious dwellings, installation artist and sculptor Vikram Divecha noted that many (if not all) of these expat palazzos have been self-designed.

Beirut-born, Mumbai-raised and Dubai-based, Divecha typically works with construction materials and industrial production methods. His interventions seek to decontextualize materials – paving stones, asphalt, concrete – from the urban fabric in an effort to “materialize urban angst.”

Making contact with one expat family in the midst of erecting a multistory dwelling, he was able to listen in on the sometimes heated disagreements between the father and his oldest son about their house, and how their divergent tastes, needs and spatial visions make each floor of the house quite unlike the others.

This father-son relationship is at the center of his video “Meziara Architecture.” Its visual component is the son’s computer-animated depiction of a family house, which he “erects” while in conversation with this father. The artist hopes the video’s audio component will capture some sense of the creative conflict the father and son share about their ideal home.

If “typically Lebanese,” Meziara’s demographic and socio-economic eccentricities – mingling the local-parochial with international population and capital flows – the village also concretizes many of the features of “globalization.”

Among these facets is a light industrial complex – including a poultry “farm” of intensive conditions and factories devoted to concrete breeze blocks, metallurgy and limestone tiles, cut from stones pulled from nearby quarries.

These locally owned businesses employ Syrian guest workers as their labor force who, as a consequence of their country’s civil war, live on-site with their families.

Situated on municipal land, in the midst of the village’s much-storied woods, the zone is draped in layers of gray dust from the constant sawing of limestone boulders.

The artist residents note that Meziara’s residents, repatriated or otherwise, seldom, if ever, venture into this zone.

Several resident artists are making work inspired by the industrial site and two events are scheduled there Aug. 24.

In a side project, Divecha is staging a public event inviting village kids to join the artists in cleaning the leaves of one of the site’s trees, using paintbrushes. The object is to collect enough dust to make a single breezeblock, “the basic unit of urban currency,” as he terms it.

Multidisciplinary artist Andrea Garza Romero has prepared another event for the village kids: a skipping rope competition.

Romero says she was surprised to find Lebanon very similar to Mexico. “The village’s superreligious traditions and families, the mountains ... even things like the way people here drive, the heat, the color of the ground, it looks a lot like a mixture between Mexico City [where she lives and works] and Monterey [her home town].

“But [in] Mexico different sides are clearly very separate. In Lebanon,” she adds. “They’re all mixed up.”

These parallels helped inform her project in Meziara, she says, but not completely. “I’m always interested in finding alternative ways to draw,” she says. “I love drawing but I never know what to draw.”

This practice led her to devise mechanical drawing tools (from hand mixers, spintops and the like) as well as mediated drawing experiments – involving her recreating the work of another artist she’s watching on Skype, for instance.

“I’m more interested in the tools,” she grins, “than in the pictures that come out of it.”

The Meziara skipping competition has been devised because of people she met in the village and its industrial site, but Romero had been thinking about a children’s skipping project in Mexico, being interested in the regular pattern of the rope hitting the ground.

When she went to the industrial site, she says, Romero found the class differences that mark the community, as well as a perfect canvas for the project.

“There’s white dusty sand everywhere, but if you scrape through it, you find rich black soil beneath. It’s like the white dust is smothering the soil somehow.”

The “competition,” then, is a performance whose object is to have the ropes penetrate the white dust to find the black turf beneath. She will document this work on video and will also distribute disposable cameras to the kids, to photograph the soil they churn up as they play.

“I see the map as the navigation I do within the environment,” French researcher-cartographer Axel Meunier says. “Mapping has a long history and a lot of intersections with art, but I’m still trying to define it as an art practice.”

Meunier will stage his sound installation “Assisted by Birds” in a hangar on the industrial site. Rooted in the way that forest trees are disseminated, the title refers to the germination the project.

Interested in using language as material for art, Meunier was, like Barakat, attracted to the multiple narratives the villagers have told about their forest. He abandoned that project because he doesn’t speak Arabic, then returned to it in terms that, as he says, “take these translation problems to heart.”

At the core of the project are a series of forest stories published, in Arabic, by a village writer. He visited the writer and listened to her recite the various stories.

“I wanted to learn how to tell them too,” he says, “though I don’t speak Lebanese Arabic. I had two long sessions with the author and her husband and I recorded the whole process. I like it a lot because I fail, utterly, but it’s funny at the same time.”

In addition to this recorded material, he says the installation will include birdsong from the forest, as well as snippets from a paper an ecologist delivered on the forest and sounds from one of the factories.

“It’s amazing how these machines resonate in this space,” he says, “and the piece will have Arabic, English, French, Spanish [a snippet from Ariel Ram?rez’s “Missa Creola”], so no one will understand all of it. But I just like the sounds of it, actually, more than the meanings. I’d like to work it as a musical piece, rather than simply, for its meaning.”

For Eduardo Cassina and Liva Dudareva – the Spanish-Latvian co-founders of the METASITU art collective, Meziara isn’t really a village, but a suburb.

Cassina gestures to the village map hanging on the wall that the mayor gave him. “The mayor has ambitions to enlarge his town ... for those who originally came from here. He’s set up this Facebook page connecting with [the village’s expatriates].

“When we looked at the map, we saw that what he’s proposing is a suburb. No high street, no shopping centers, no schools. He’s proposing a city for a diaspora of 30,000 [people, above and beyond the village’s present population of 1,000-5,000].”

Working in video, performance and installation, this architect-anthropologist team seeks to bridge the gap between research and art.

“Meziara: the suburb of an invisible city,” the film they’re making during this residency, is part of their “Urbanography” series, examining “the life of the urban tissue.”

“Meziara,” Dudareva says, “doesn’t function like a village, except in this very romantic landscape. They value family and religious traditions, but still they want to benefit from the urban center.

“We’re interested in this connection that feeds this particular community and landscape. The region’s migratory birds are a useful metaphor. The birds come here, stay for the winter, breed, what have you, and leave again. But if they don’t have that spot where they can stay over, they wouldn’t exist.”

“If you don’t have the money transfer from Nigeria,” Cassina continues. “If you don’t have the Western Union, the Swiss Bank, the airplane, then Meziara doesn’t exist, at least not as we know it today.

“We had this talk with an ecologist who did a study of the forest. He says that basically Meziara’s forest will last only a few years because of these caterpillars that’s eating away all the pine trees and will probably move on to the oaks.

“The birds eat these caterpillars, but when you shoot the birds ... he says the number of caterpillars is growing by some huge percentage, from one year to the next.

“If you cut the networks – to the migratory birds, to Nigeria – then Meziara disappears.”

Glasgow-born Laura Yuile is a multidisciplinary artist whose recent work has explored issues like the boundaries between public and private. Yuile says “Borderline Redevelopment Disorder,” the video she’s shooting in Meziara’s industrial zone, uses the site as a material but it isn’t site-specific.

“It focuses on the idea of the boundary between the industrial site and the forest, or whatever,” she says. “The site has these walls to stop people climbing over with broken glass, which I kind of like, stuck in the top.

“Then barbed wire. And I’m also using found footage of these ribbon-cutting ceremonies, when they open something new. The screen’ll be split into different images. It’ll be moving quite fast.”

Yuile chuckles. “I’ve written a script that a friend’s gonna read. He’s got this really very untrustworthy American accent that I really like.

“And I really love all these billboards [in Beirut] advertising new apartment blocks that have these really poetic but kind of cheesy slogans. So the script is kinda in that vein. It’s also bringing in ideas of materiality and such.

“I’m gonna use some shots of the hotel [where resident artists are billeted]. I’m thinking of the hotel as a sort of afterlife for the materials coming from the industrial site. It’s also been quite interesting living in a hotel that’s not quite finished.”

For more information on T.A.P, see www.temporaryartplatform.com.

 

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