BEIRUT: Long the downfall of criminals careless enough to forget their gloves, in the information age, the fingerprint is becoming a symbol of mass surveillance. Used for everything from clocking employees into and out of the office to unlocking smartphones, computers and private residences, fingerprints are an easy way to link citizens to an identifying feature that will remain constant for life. In “Postponed Democracy,” Syrian artist Abdul Karim Majdal al-Beik has created an entire series of work focused on the tip of the index finger. The work is currently on show as the debut exhibition to grace Khaled Samawi’s Ayyam Projects, a new space next door to the existing Ayyam Gallery, intended to showcase work by up-and-coming young artists working in experimental media.
Beik, who has begun experimenting with installation art after years working on mixed media paintings, chose the fingerprint as a symbol with which to question the status of democracy in the Arab world.
“I belong to a generation that did not, in its entire life, participate in any free elections through which we could say that we helped plan our country’s future and policies,” the Syrian artist writes in the statement that accompanies the work.
He describes coming across a complaints box in a government institution, which included a slot for papers to be dropped in, but no door by which they could be retrieved. “The scene was akin to a dark comedy,” he writes, “a form of insanity! How is it that no one noticed this mistake? ... The incident was, without any doubt, a strong indicator of the flaws in the structure of democratic practices ... What is the difference between it and the ballot box, for instance? Isn’t it also empty?”
Without Beik’s written statement, the connections between the work itself and the subject it aims to explore might elude the casual visitor. The links between fingerprints as identifying features, surveillance culture and voting might not be immediately clear, but the work on show makes admirable use of its single symbol.
Opposite the entrance, a triptych of textured paintings captures the enlarged whorls and swirling lines of a fingerprint in blue, white and black. Two framed black-and-white photographs show disembodied human hands with their index fingers extended. In one, these appear to spout from the ground like fleshy plants. In the other, the straining fingers point to a pattern of cracks in a concrete wall, as though in condemnation. Close examination reveals that the hands are plaster casts, which appear to be identical copies.
Installation pieces transpose the concept into three dimensions. Hidden in the back corner under a spotlight is the most interesting and evocative piece. Human fingers protrude from the bottom of a Perspex ballot box. Painted a variety of vivid colors and grouped haphazardly, the digits resemble a crowd of robed figures, gathered together for a debate or demonstration.
For a respite from the heavy themes of Beik’s work, head to the next-door Ayyam Gallery, which displays art by Lebanese architect and multidisciplinary artist Nadim Karam and Syrian painter Safwan Dahoul. The joint exhibition marks the fifth anniversary of the Beirut branch of the gallery and features three metal sculptures by Karam, along with seven of Dahoul’s black-and-white paintings.
The works go together remarkably well. Dahoul’s long-running focus on dreams here takes the form of angular white women, captured in contorted positions against featureless black backdrops. The smooth curves of his subject’s bodies and the play of light and shadow give his paintings a sculptural element, which is echoed in the lines of Karam’s pieces.
Known for his “urban toys,” large metal sculptures intended for exhibition outdoors, amid the bustle of busy cities, Karam has produced three steel sculptures as part of his ongoing “Hap-situs” (happening plus situation) series.
The humorous works “Diva on a Rhino” and “Baby Phoenician on a Camel” pair silver stainless steel figures with animals in a matte, gold-colored finish that from a distance looks like rust. While the animals will be immediately recognizable to those familiar with Karam’s work, the figures atop them seem to indicate a more humorous bent for the artist.
The “diva,” a four-armed figure that calls to mind a Hindu goddess, poses casually on one leg while the “baby Phoenician” is the opposite of the tall, thin statuettes sold in tourist shops across the country, a squat figure with a curved belly, protruding rear and enormous domed head.
Karam has also included an elephant in the show, created from a stainless steel mesh, in which animals and vaguely human figures cavort. The piece represents the fruits of a long labor to engineer a three-dimensional version of similar sculptures the artist has previously exhibited as flat sheets of metal.
Close by is a similarly impressive feat of technical mastery by Dahoul. “Dream 71” measures almost two meters square and captures a woman’s face drawn on what look like a sheet of crumpled paper. It’s a masterfully executed feat of trompe l’oeil. From a distance, it’s impossible to believe that the work is not a relief. Visitors approaching the painting may be shocked to find that Dahoul has painted every highlight, crease and shadow.
Running until mid-January next year, this double-bill of contemporary work should appeal to a broad audience. Although independent, the proximity of the two exhibitions encourages a mental comparison of the work, with interesting results.
“Fifth Anniversary Exhibition” and “Postponed Democracy” run at Ayyam Gallery and Ayyam Projects until Jan. 10, 2015. For more information, call 01-374-450.