Foreign artists reflect on relationships with Beirut
Beirut - Many people living in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, would readily describe their relationship with the city as somewhat complicated and shrouded with instability and uncertainty. This element of unpredictability is perhaps what has attracted a wave of international artists, many of whom would cite the city’s inherent turmoil and contradictions as driving forces for their creativity.
In an abandoned 19th-century mansion of seven rooms in Beirut’s Mar Mikhael district, seven foreign artists came together in a joint art exhibition — 7 Rooms 7 Artists — reflecting on their relationships with the city in which they choose to live and work.
The artists are German Cornelia Krafft, Lithuanian Ieva Saudargaite, Italian Marcello Carrozzini, Iranian Niloufar Afnan, Spaniard Ana Serrano and Americans Gianna Dispenza and Lee Frederix.
“I wanted to have a different eye (perception) on our city,” curator Toufic el-Zein said. “At a time when lots of young (Lebanese) are leaving the country, there are foreigners with no links to Beirut who choose to live here.
“I chose that venue because it represents the past splendour of Beirut, which is unfortunately deteriorating and probably won’t exist anymore. So the foreign artists had a conversation with the city, they explained what they had to say to Beirut through these rooms in this house.”
A faint, glowing light comes from a room that used to be the mansion’s kitchen, where Krafft’s Come Home and Eat the Moon with Me, (Part III) invites the viewer for “a symbolic meal into the oven of the family”, as the text asserts. Krafft’s work ruminates on preserving a sense of communality, tradition and memory that are threatened to disappear.
With parts of the room fashioned to resemble a traditional kitchen, Krafft achieves an authentic feel to the installation, which is offset by unusual additions to the room. At the centre, a cylindrical light structure made of overlaying loaves of bread dimly illuminates the space.
Beneath the dreamy ambience that the piece elicits, Krafft said that a harsher reality served to drive the work forward.
“I started working with Arabic bread two years ago in Berlin. The Syrian war had proceeded so much by then that daily bread was missing. It was also the link to the idea that if you have nothing left, how can you survive?” Krafft explained.
“It’s a repetition of poverty and disastrous wars and of people being left with nothing. The bread is symbolic in every religion. It is coherent in everyday life. I wanted to have a broader image.”
Having returned to Germany after six years in Beirut, Krafft observed that the city left a mark on her. “Six years in Lebanon changed me so much that I am back here fully engaged as an artist,” she said. “I think for me this is the place that shows the reality of conflict, beauty and possibilities in any way of living. I find it more inspiring. It’s a love-hate relationship for sure.”
A room that holds Frederix’s Despite All My Rage: The Lamentations of Enkidu is less comforting. Referencing the journey of Enkidu from The Epic of Gilgamesh and how he was tempted by Shamhat, the artist reimagines a map of Mar Mikhael using reclaimed pieces of wood that lead to a half-dug pit. Above the pit, a wooden cage attached to a pulley floats eerily.
Frederix refers to Beirut as an “organised mess”, much like the seemingly calculated visual chaos that extends throughout his installation.
“I am a bit of a gypsy by spirit,” he said. “I’ve lived in three different countries and 30 different homes in my life but I’ve been here for 15 years, so Beirut has sort of become a home for me.
“As I started developing this idea of home and sketching it out, the second idea began to crystallise, which was the idea of being trapped. I realise that the more I build myself a sense of home, metaphorically and physically, the harder it is to leave.”
At first glance the view of a suspended black skin of an SUV is as curious as it is arresting. Designed by Saudargaite, a Lithuanian-Lebanese artist, the installation is a powerful critique of the disruptive and corrupt nature of Lebanon’s political class. The installation refers to a controversial highway project that threatens to destroy many historic buildings in the area, including the mansion.
“These are the kinds of things that the political regime does, they decide to finance projects that are not necessarily serving citizens but most likely their own benefits,” she said.
“It also stemmed from a personal frustration with living in the city and being aggressed by these political convoys that roam and rage on the roads. They occupy a lot of space and are like big bullies.”
Photographs of tinted SUVs around the room serve to emphasise the ambiguity of these vehicles.