Rechmaoui exposes Beirut’s complexities

Sunday 15/05/2016
Marwan Rechmaoui’s Fortress in a Corner, Bishop Takes Over Exhibition Blazon 2015 showcases 59 laser-cut brass on stainless steel shields, and 420 embroidery and appliques textile flags.

Beirut - An intricate network of cultures, religions, sects and neighbourhoods in­tertwine and often clash in Beirut. A tumultuous history of instability and intermit­tent civil war have long marked the Lebanese capital as a city of com­plexity and delicately balanced re­lationships between its inhabitants, politics, geography and architec­ture.
Such notions resounded at the Sfeir-Semler Gallery, which has re­cently hosted Lebanese artist Mar­wan Rechmaoui’s exhibition For­tress in a Corner, Bishop Takes Over.
Conceived with the same rigour and structure that recalls a chess­board and its pieces, Rechmaoui’s work is an elaborate effort that maps Beirut’s complicated neighbour­hood divisions. Inspired by the bla­zonry practices of medieval Europe, a series of more than 400 coloured flags representing landmarks drape from the ceiling, and 59 brass and steel shields representing the city’s districts line the gallery walls.
Having constructed a body of work which deals with themes of urban development and social his­tory, Rechmaoui’s latest show is a project that spans ten years, draw­ing conceptual inspiration from the perpetual state of alarm he has ob­served in Beirut’s inhabitants since the 2006 war with Israel.
“I’ve noticed that everybody is on guard and ready for something (to happen),” Rechmaoui said. “I sensed that all Beirut residents are soldiers, so I felt the need to organ­ise them in battalions.”
A lack of urban planning and poorly signposted streets that are as confusing as they are charming to navigate prompted Rechmaoui to rely on the zoning of Lebanon’s electricity company, Electricité du Liban, as a blueprint to distribute the 59 districts.
“In Lebanon [and] Beirut spe­cifically, they don’t use addresses much. The address is basically a de­scription,” he said.
References inherent in the names serve as markers to categorise each district. Some areas are named after sectarian figures and symbols; oth­ers draw on horticultural references, and architectural and geological ref­erences are used in some. The flags represent landmarks in each district and are coloured according to the political groups to which they be­long. Neighbourhoods are ranked with shields that correspond to their size, so some shields are bigger than others.
“This method,” Rechmaoui ex­plained, “activates the potential for onlookers familiar with the city to grasp another point of view of the city.
“The regular use of names, words and locations becomes taken for granted. You say them automatical­ly but you never think [of] what they mean. If you know what they mean, then you can understand how the city is structured, so you can predict how it’s going to behave.”
In a city where roadblocks, check­points and ideological slogans par­tition and distinguish boundaries between areas, a walk through Re­chmaoui’s mapping of Beirut pro­poses an alternative perspective on the divisions.
“I am aware of the demarcation lines but I see the city as a whole, as one entity, and I see the splits inside it as a whole… I’m suggesting that there are more demarcation lines than the original green line,” he said of a prominent marker of sectarian strife during the civil war, which was used to separate Muslim areas from predominately Christian ones.
Manoeuvring beneath the hun­dreds of flags, familiar logos such as those of the ABC department store and Spinneys grocery stores become apparent. Yet, beneath the surface, more crucial motivations are at play. Rechmaoui affirms his decision to include them stems from the key role they played in tracing mile­stones in Lebanon’s history.
“These are commercial logos [but they] are not for advertising,” he said. “ABC was the first department store in the Middle East that em­ployed women, in the 1930s.”
Recalling with a hint of humour, he said: “The original Spinneys that opened near the Unesco Palace had the first escalator in Beirut, so peo­ple used to visit the place just to go on the escalator, back in the early ‘70s. Later on, when the civil war started, Spinneys became a battle­ground between the warring par­ties. And, in 1982, when the Israelis invaded, there was a major battle near Spinneys.”
The placement of other flags acts as triggers that invite onlookers to draw on other associations.
Encountering a flag of the St George hotel, a symbol that harkens back to Beirut’s golden age, along­side a burgeoning construction pro­ject initiated by the private sector elicits thoughts of the struggle and debate on the distribution of public and private space in the city.
“My work usually opens the dis­cussion. It’s not about directing a discussion,” Rechmaoui said. “My advantage is that I’m an artist. I’m neither a historian nor a sociologist, so I have the liberty to play.”
Formidable in its scope, Rech­maoui’s exhibition invites viewers to draw their own conclusions on the city.
“Writing history is an issue by it­self,” he said. “There isn’t one histo­ry in Lebanon but each group writes its own history. What I’m trying to do is collect them all so that each different group would be faced with all the elements, even the ones they want to disregard.”