BEIRUT: Among the simplest looking figurative works at Marfa’ these days is Omar Fakhoury’s acrylic-on-canvas piece from 2021, “Corn Plant.” “I was walking through a crime scene,” its accompanying text explains. “There, I saw a solitary corn plant. I went back to the studio and painted it.”
You might read this as a description of an unpretentious practice, but its “crime scene” reference lodges Fakhoury’s work in contemporary experience, specifically the Beirut Port blast of August 2020 – which issued from criminal negligence so pervasive that, a year on, its wreckage remains largely unrepaired, its perpetrators unpunished.
Three painters have contributed work to “Water,” the exhibition currently up at Marfa’. A pair of astringent landscapes by Talar Aghbashian (“Volcano Soup,” 2015, and “Statue Island,” 2018) are complemented by three more by Tamara Al-Samerraei. “Fissure,” 2019-2021, “Rocky Shores” and “Tunnel,” both from 2020, have an element of contingency ejected into them by Samerraei’s question: How are the tangible properties of a site effected by an unseen event?
“Water” is Marfa’s contribution to Galleries Curate: RHE, a collaborative exhibition and online platform involving 21 international galleries. Gallery founder Joumana Asseily says the initiative contacted her in January.
“With lockdown and everyone being at home, and galleries closed, they wanted to come up with a project. They came up with this idea of doing something on water. Each gallery is showing in its own space ...
“This is great for us. It made a lot of sense to have this as a way to relaunch our space. We’re not alone. We have a community with us and most of the artists have worked on water ... So voila.”
“Water” draws on the work of 11 Lebanese artists, all variously allusive of the fluid that conventionally pours from your tap when you turn the faucet, assuming the water utility still works.
Though clustered about one of the four elements of antiquity, the exhibition’s works are highly varied. Media range from canvases and objects to photos and videos. The show’s figurative works are offset by conceptual pieces. Some gesture to Lebanese history and society. Others engage with the materiality of their media as much as their subject.
One gallery of Marfa’ is devoted to two works from Lamia Joreige’s Beirut River project. A drawing from the artist’s “The River” series accompanies her 2013 video “The River,” in which Joreige’s reflections on changes to land use practices along the banks of the river accompany her footage of the terrain.
A parking garage across the street from the gallery is hosting a projection of Vartan Avakian’s 2010 work “Short Wave, Long Wave,” in which a narrator reflects upon his youthful perceptions of Beirut rising out of the sea nearby, as he was growing up in another part of town.
An artifact of Lebanon’s history is the stuff of Ahmad Ghossein’s 2017 piece “The Point or One of the Government’s Secrets.”
The work draws upon the artist’s research into cadastral surveys French mandate administrators carried out on Lebanon’s territory and territorial waters. Among the mapmakers’ tools were metal rods they’d insert into the ground at various elevations to mark the topography of the newly acquired territory. Ghossein has cast several reproductions of the head of such a rod, upon which he’s embossed the phrase “Another of the government’s secrets.”
“During his research for this project,” said Marfa’ Projects director Laetitia Zalloum, “Ahmad learned that no topographical measurement has been made of the sea since the mandate years.”
One of two pieces here by Stéphanie Saadé, “Second Nature,” 2014, is a broken water glass, whose shorn edge has been covered in gold leaf.
“Stéphanie says every living thing has two natures,” Zalloum said. “The first is the one everybody sees. The second is the one you see when you open them up. The second nature of this broken glass is its brokenness, which devalues it, so she added gold leaf to the edge of the break, making the broken part the most valuable.”
Raed Yassin has also contributed a pair of works to “Water.” One of these is looped on a computer monitor sitting on the floor of Asseily and Zalloum’s former office space.
“Final Destination,” 2009, works with a secondslong clip from an unnamed 1980s-era Egyptian film, showing a man running into the sea. Yassin has digitized a VHS recording of the film clip and here plays it back in really slow motion, so the clip takes over eight minutes to loop.
The point of such a work is to forefront media (especially low-fi media, and the nostalgia with which it’s freighted) over clarity of image. Such mediation is among the interests driving Rania Stephan’s 2017 diptych “The Sea X 3.”
The origin of these images of the Mediterranean is Stephan’s 1999 film “Train-Trains 2,” which juxtaposes archival footage of an abandoned railway system that once linked present-say Lebanon with Palestine, Syria, and Turkey, and the cinema that made use of it, mingled with late 20-century interviews with surviving rail workers.
As Stephan recounts in her notes to the diptych, the images mix a black-and-white Egyptian film with footage of the sea the artist shot in 1999. They bear traces of the different formats and media that conveyed them over time: 35mm archival film transferred onto Beta-Cam, then digitized to DVD, which she ripped into a digital file along with footage she shot on 8mm video. The resulting images were edited, superimposed, extracted and printed.
“The Sea X 3” nods to the influence of critic and writer John Berger, with a quotation from “A Seventh Man,” his 1975 collaboration with Jean Mohr, which notes how photographs resemble trains in their capacity to transport people.
“A friend came to see me in a dream, from far away,” Berger writes, “and I asked in the dream: Did you come by photograph or by train?”
Vartan Avakian has two more works at Marfa’, “Residual Histories,” 2018, “The Book of Books,” 2018-2019. Both explore his interest in how, over years, a printed book – a reproducible and therefore generic object – accumulate intentional and incidental residues of use that make it a unique archive. These works separate such layers of use from books, distill them and convert them into new sculptural fossils.
“Residual Histories” takes the form of 12 plastic capsules – the sort of thing that might be packed with a pharmaceutical product, distributed, sold, and consumed – mounted in series on the gallery wall.
For this work, Zalloum said, Avakian “took 12 books from his library [“Weird Tales and Bizarre Myths,” say, “Capital: Volume II,” or “Armenians in Lebanon: Volume V”], some of which were damaged in a flood ... The process of distillation and fossilization [left him with] a complete residue of each specific book ... Each pill contains a very small drop of water, book debris and sugar, which constitutes the fossil of each book.”
“For ‘The Book of Books, 1-12,’” she continued, “he took a book with blank pages, placed it inside this wooden box and immersed it in the distilled liquid from 12 other books. When the exhibition opened in May, the water level was above the book itself, which has been absorbing the residues of the 12 other books ever since.”
Paola Yacoub’s “Overlappings,” 1994-2021, and “Crayons dans l'eau” (Pencils in water), 2021, are fresh iterations of a project she first undertook to earn her architectural diploma in 1994.
“Water,” as she writes in her accompanying notes, “only exists in relation to solids, from which it takes any shape or form ... In this work, sometimes solids give shape to the water; and at others, water gives shape to solids, like the currents that, for example, polish pebbles.”
“In the black-and-white images” of “Overlappings,” Zalloum said, “we find makeshift fountains that she made in her home with objects she had at hand in which you can see the object giving shape to water.
“To make the project more interesting, she created a whole new type of fountain, in which, instead of the object giving shape to the water, the water gives shape to the object. It was more of a photography project than an architecture project. So to turn it into an architecture project, she did several tests (which you can see documented in these photos) in which she threw random objects into the water to see how they react.”
To make “Crayons dans l'eau,” she decided to work with wax, because it provides a workable analogy with water.
“It has the same consistency when it’s wet,” Zalloum observed. “The difference is when it solidifies.”
The most transparently titled piece on show here may be Caline Aoun’s 2021 ink-on-paper work “Cyan, 3 Hours 54 Minutes and 12 Seconds.”
Aoun is interested in harnessing technology to creative ends. “Cyan” was made with an inkjet printer, which was made to apply ink to the medium until its absorptive capacity had been reached, though the machine has also left its traces on the page. The title documents the work’s color and how long it took the artist to complete it.
Also from 2021, Aoun’s “The Kinetics of the Invisible” addresses the show’s theme more deliberately, insofar as its “medium” is water, specifically the humidity in the gallery’s seaside air.
A copper pipe protrudes from a ceiling-mounted refrigerator compressor, which freezes any moisture condensing on the pipe. A timer switches off the refrigeration unit from time to time, allowing the ice to melt and drip into a circular tub set on the floor beneath. The water eventually evaporates, condenses, freezes, melts and so forth.
Aoun’s interest in water isn’t figuration, but a more performative sort of mimesis. Her work doesn’t represent the substance, but arranges an apparatus to manipulate it. “The Kinetics of the Invisible” is a managed mimicry of our biosphere – whose natural regulatory cycles are being thrown so desperately out of whack by a species that makes, and may appreciate, art.
“Water” is in the air at Marfa’ through Aug. 13. See https://marfaprojects.com/exhibitions/group-exhibition-water/