BEIRUT: The Beirut Art Fair is celebrating half a decade this year. The fifth edition of the fair launched in 2010 as the MENASART Fair held its VIP opening at BIEL Thursday night, featuring its now standard mix of art and design galleries.
Once again the fair is dominated by local fare. Twenty-one of the 34 art galleries featured at this year’s edition list addresses in Lebanon, as do all 14 of the design booths. The commercial booths are partially offset by “The Cultural Journey Program,” the collective name given to Fabrice Bousteau’s Indian pavilion, Silke Schmickl’s video project “Body Politics” and an interactive engraving stand run by gallerist Fadi Mogabgab.
Stands by returning, long-established names Agial Art Gallery and Galerie Janine Rubeiz are located close to the fair’s entrance. Mark Hachem Gallery, Galerie Tanit-Beyrouth and fledging Gemmayzeh galleries Art on 56th and Artlab are also in attendance, as is Emmagoss, the Zalka-based exhibition space dedicated to showcasing work by famous modernist painter Paul Guiragossian and his children Emmanuel, Jean-Paul and Manuella.
Missing from this year’s roster are Art Factum Gallery, whose display was one of the strongest at last year’s fair, and Ayyam Gallery, who last took part in 2012.
Local highlights include Agial’s booth, where Lebanese-Senegalese artist Hady Sy has been given a solo showcase, featuring his latest series “Loving Kills or the game or Eros and Thanatos without Frontiers.”
A departure from the fair’s catalogue, which suggests gallerist Saleh Barakat was planning to exhibit work by 11 local artists, Sy’s series of screen prints play with pop art inspired images of packets of cigarettes, their health warnings altered to refer to love, rather than smoking.
Under a brand logo modeled on Lucky Strikes, bearing the legend “Love Strike,” the cartons bear messages such as “Loving is highly addictive, don’t start,” and “Loving kills,” in English, Arabic and French. The playful works evoke the French appellation of orgasms as “little deaths,” as well as darker themes.
Galerie Janine Rubeiz has chosen to go the same route as last year, displaying a selection of small works by a broad selection of artists, loosely themed on the topic of war and peace.
At Emmagoss, a solo show featuring work by Jean-Paul Guiragossian was coming together in advance of the VIP opening Thursday morning.
The artist, busy applying gold paint to the twisted branches of a dead tree, calmly explained that he had intended to display completely different work but had been forced to alter his plans at the last minute due to a back injury.
A swathe of lesser known galleries are showcasing a mishmash of rather uninspiring work, packed haphazardly into the more cramped booths. Unusually for an art fair, a couple of spaces are dedicated to independent artists.
Under the name L’Atelier 85, artist Elly Kanaan is exhibiting a series of indifferent oil paintings, while London-based Lebanese photographer is exhibiting her “Teal” series of photos and videos centering on water in Lebanon.
International highlights include the work on display at Bangkok-based Adler Subhashok Gallery, which is exhibiting one piece guaranteed to appeal to local audiences opposite the entrance. An installation made of neon lighting, the work consists of tube lighting that flickers between two Arabic phrases: “rahit al-kahraba (the electricity’s gone) and “ijit al-kahraba” (the electricity’s come back).
Multilayered works by Uttaporn Nimmalaikaew are also among the more interesting pieces on show, featuring delicate paintings of women overlaid with tangles of fishing line.
At a nearby booth, China’s Island6 is also displaying works using light by collective Liu Dao, who combine traditional mixed-media works using acrylic painting and collage with light projections, allowing moving, electronically generated imagery to interact with static forms.
Several international galleries have chosen to display work by local artists, including Singapore-based Sana Gallery, showcasing photographs by Roger Moukarzel and Jack Dabaghian (both of whom featured in last year’s “Generation War” installation). Meanwhile Séquence Graphique, a gallery space due to open later this year in Paris, is holding a preview featuring work by Paris-based Lebanese artist Diana Kahil.
Wandering this year’s fair is a mixed experience. The impact of the more sensitively curated booths is offset by the lack of imagination evident in others, and the quality of the work varies enormously. As is the bent of most art fairs, the focus is on selling. The thinly disguised commercial emphasis is offset somewhat by the Indian pavilion, as well as the video art and engraving stand.
French critic and curator Bousteau’s showcase of work by Indian artists, entitled “Small Art is Beautiful – Dharma,” is designed to recall an old-fashioned cabinet of curiosities. Miniature works by 17 artists are located inside a dimly lit central space, its four walls and low ceiling insulating it somewhat from the frenetic activity outside.
Bousteau has used tiny pin lights to spotlight the work, some of which adorn the walls while the rest are laid out on a series of central platforms. While the concept of dharma is not necessarily in evidence, the focus on smaller works is well-suited to the intimacy of the space.
Particularly striking is Sachin George Sebastian’s untitled series of four framed paper cutouts, miniature cityscapes with trailing electricity or phone wires, carefully cut and folded from a single sheet of paper. Shilpa Gupta’s untitled piece made from a traditional curved Indian knife with a wooden handle, neatly sliced into eight pieces and displayed in a box is also an arresting sight, as is Sunil Gupta’s stunning series of photographs “The New Pre-Raphaelites.”
As in previous editions, the nonprofit work is most interesting. Silke Sckmickl’s “Body Politics” stands to appeal most to those not guided by the siren call of the easily transportable. Bizarrely located in the far left corner of the hall, surrounded by design galleries and a laughable out-of-place Goliath of a stand advertizing the work of Plus Properties, it’s well worth seeking out.
Consisting of a program of 16 art films from the MENASA region, “Body Politics” focused on the ways in which contemporary artists are using their bodies as vehicles of sociopolitical critique. From Indonesian artist Lucky Kuswandi’s sensual short film, “Black Cherry,” in which a woman is seduced by a piece of fruit, to Zoulikha Bouabdellah’s humorous “Dansons,” in which a belly dancer moves to the tune of La Marseillaise, the program includes a wide range of experimental cinema, documentary and performative works.
Also worth a visit is Mogabgab’s “Zaarura Edition.” Mogabgab has recreated his workshop, located in the Chouf, in the middle of the hall, covering a huge expanse of wall space with dozens of framed etchings, beside which stand shelves of artists’ materials and table covered with tools and machinery.
Visitors to the fair are invited to try their hands at creating their own designs, using a machine that will engrave their drawings ready for printing. Engaging, fun, nicely conceived and ably executed, Mogabgab’s space provides some heart to a fair that – now unencumbered by the poorly attended series of roundtables intended to provide an intellectual element to the first few editions – runs the risk of becoming coldly commercial.
The Beirut Art Fair continues until through Sept. 21 at Hall 2, BIEL and is open daily from 3:30-9:30 p.m. For more information, please visit www.beirut-art-fair.com.