A mind map of a mental Beirut

BEIRUT: One of the standard shots of Beirut included in any glossy Lebanon travel feature is Place de l’Etoile’s four-sided clock tower, set in its pedestrian oasis in the heart of whitewashed post-war Downtown. It has doutless been photographed from every possible angle, but a new perspective on the landmark is afforded to visitors to Saifi Village’s SV Gallery this week, in the form of a drawing by Lebanese artist Etienne Bastormagi.

The young architect, urban designer and illustrator is exhibiting a series of works under the title “Mental Landscapes.” Among them is a small sketch entitled “Unrooted,” in which Bastormagi has outlined the distinctive clock tower in black ink, filling in the body with garish colors. The tower is surrounding by a colorful network of webbing and stands on a circular platform, from beneath which protrude thick tree roots, decorated in pink, red, orange and blue stripes.

“Mental Landscapes” consists of a broad variety of works. Some, like Bastormagi’s metal sculpture with its ring of LED lights, are evidently the result of hard work and meticulous planning. Others, like “Unrooted,” look like the kind of meandering doodles someone might draw absentmindedly while chatting on the phone.

It’s a juxtaposition that fits well with the aim of the exhibition, which is to showcase the controlled chaos and lack of urban planning that characterize Beirut.

“The works exhibited within this gallery stem from my personal experiences with the city,” Bastormagi states in a short text pasted onto the floor of the gallery. “If Beirut was a person it would have been diagnosed with bipolarity as a mental disorder. Hesitant, abandoned, and lost in time, Beirut is indecisive whether to belong to a glamorous dream or to a scarred reality. ‘Mental Landscapes’ reflects the frames of mind of a man amidst his built environment.”

The artist has played with the pun inherent in the exhibition’s title, creating a number of multilayered works in which crisscrossing strands could represent a tangle of winding roads or a complex web of connections in the human brain. These literal “mind maps” form abstract patterns onto which the viewer can project their own visions of the city.

In “Interdependence” I, II and III, Bastormagi places layers of thick black, neon pink and orange card, cut into curving shapes, atop a bright yellow base. The resulting overlapping forms have a visceral feel, conjuring up something a surgeon might expose on an operating table, but the black designs printed on the pink and orange card reveal fragments of urban scenery – office blocks, arched windows and rows of pillars.

A series of black-and-white ink drawings depict mind-boggling conglomerations of mismatched buildings, some contemporary, others classical, which come together to form a single, perspectiveless mass, bristling with satellite dishes and the arms of cranes. The result hovers somewhere between the trickery employed in meticulous drawing by M.C. Escher and the illustrations in a Dr. Seuss book.

A single sculpture in the center of the gallery consists of several layers. A sheet of metal in the shape of a brain is punctured with regular holes and a pattern of cut-out lines, creating an asymmetrical grid like a map of a city viewed from above.

Behind this, vivid pink and yellow sheets of plastic are lit up by a circular LED light placed in the center of the work. Entitled “Burj El Murr,” the sculpture is one of the more solid and confident works in an exhibition that consists predominantly of sketches. Although framed, Bastormagi’s felt pen scribbles have an unfinished feel, resembling studies for something more concrete, rather than works in their own right.

Exhibited in the pristine, film set-like streets of Saifi Village, Bastormagi’s works evoke another Beirut, the city that frames most residents’ day-to-day lives. The city of Bastormagi’s “Mental Landscapes” is dirty, claustrophobic and schizophrenic in its design, but beautiful in spite of itself.

Etienne Bastormagi’s “Mental Landscapes” is up at SV Gallery in Saifi Village until Sept. 29. For more information, please call 01-975-655.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 25, 2014, on page 16.




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