Dreams of plunging into the void

BEIRUT: Falling asleep can be a moment of great relief. It can also be one of deep terror, as we descend into the vulnerable state of the unguarded mind.

Sometimes, as our most raw selves begin to define themselves, we feel ourselves fall, and in a jolt are pulled back to the physical, wakeful, world.

“In the Middle of a Leap into the Void,” Sirine Fattouh’s multi-media exhibition at Letitia Art Gallery, embraces that moment of descent, and studies our nightly journey as a means of self-reflection and a path to understanding our waking reality.

The exhibition greets visitors with sound, specifically the percussive report of the tabbal - the figure who, during Ramadan, is traditionally tasked with walking through pre-dawn neighborhoods, drumming and calling observant Muslims to wake up and eat a light meal (suhour) before the fast recommences.

Sounding through the gallery, the drumming provides a disconcerting accompaniment for the objects and images on display, while rooting them in Beirut.

The source of the pounding remains hidden - not unlike the disorienting nocturnal experience hearing the passage of an unseen tabbal - until the end of the exhibition, when you round a corner to find the video installation “Another Night in Beirut,” showing a tabbal riding through town on the back of an electric tricycle.

For Fattouh, this seasonal figure represents the anxieties and realities that endure through haze of slumber, even as our senses are disconnected from the world. Visiting Beirut in 2005, after 17 years in Paris, the artist found herself awaking, terrified, by the sounds of the tabbals’ drums - provoking flashbacks to fearful childhood nights during Lebanon’s Civil War.

That the tabbal in this video rides in the back of a vehicle, as opposed to walking as you might expect, is a reference to the passage of time.

Fattouh returned to Beirut two years ago to find that the tabbal she’d known since childhood now did his pre-suhour rounds, calling out the names of residents he had woken up for decades, in a car.

“They will dig my grave nicely and then I can rest in peace,” the ageing tabbal says as the video begins, acknowledging that time ultimately leads up to eternal sleep.

Sitting on raised plinths at the center of the gallery are a series of metallic ovoid sculptures entitled “The Sleepers.” According to Fattouh, the 2019 works also aim to consider “deep sleep - the last sleep.”

She started to craft these palm-sized works during periods of insomnia, with each piece representing a sleepless night. Originally made with clay, now cast in silver, they’re meant to be picked up and engaged with.

Each sculpture weighs heavily in the hand and reflects the viewer’s face. They take the shape of distorted heads, eyes rendered as deep indentations, nostrils prominent, mouths open and vulnerable.

The wall facing the “The Sleepers” is hung with “Beirut Mutations,” 2015, a large photomontage of Beirut figures. Each began as a 35mm photo which was scanned and manipulated on Photoshop.

“Beirut Mutations” speaks to the self-defining experience of being displaced from Beirut, as the city has remained a part of her even while living abroad. For the artist, Beirut is something longed for and rediscovered, destroyed and rebuilt, beautiful yet wildly frustrating.

“I’m fascinated by it. I’m suffocated by it,” she explained. “I love it but also hate it.”

Her destruction of the image with Photoshop reflects the destruction of the city as well as the ways that Beirut has worked to destroy her over time, how, as she puts it, “this city is little by little eating us.”

Exhibition curator Mayssa Fattouh says her proximity to the artist (they are cousins) opened up a level of trust and understanding as the works were created.

“The approach that I took was due to shared memories and childhood memories with her,” the curator explained, saying they realized that, with the artist’s perspectives on her hometown, they could draw a connection between the semi-conscious state and self-perception.

Self-reflection seemingly lent itself to the artist’s exploring of different media. The exhibition includes “Affect Infect,” 2019, a neon light installation, and a wall of individually titled pencil and watercolor illustrations.

The neon installation spells these words “Affect Infect” in purple cursive. The work, she said, seeks to address “how night can affect you and how day can affect night,” but also “how people can infect you or affect you, and how both can be positive and negative.”

Naive in aesthetic, the drawings depict experiences Fattouh has dreamt and lived, as well as references to artists she may admire, or not. One sketch depicts a dream in which she lectures a walrus, a penguin, and a polar bear, all of whom listen intently. In another, she sunbathes at the beach, while in the next she points a bow and arrow at a purple balloon animal - a personal rebuke of Jeff Koons.

Subtly placed among the many drawings are homages to Yves Klein’s 1960 work “Leap into the Void,” an altered photograph capturing a man as he leaps from a building to the quiet residential street below. Here the artist depicts herself, limbs spread, jumping into a blue emptiness - both from above and below.

Alluding to exhibition title, and encompassing its main ideas, the image seeks to connect unconscious self-reflection with nonconformity, risk-taking, and something out there bigger than our discernible reality.

“In the Middle of a Leap into the Void” is up at Letitia Art Gallery through Aug. 10.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 28, 2019, on page 12.




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