The art of making a ruin from wreckage

BEIRUT: “There’s a project I’ve thought of many times. I get really excited about it, then leave it.” Marwan Rechmaoui takes an energetic drag off his cigarette.

“You see all the used vans driving around Beirut – from Germany or Switzerland or Belgium or wherever – with the original addresses and phone numbers still stenciled on them?

“I have this idea to take photos of the vans and their company names, then google the companies and send them the photo, to show them how their vehicles look today.”

Rechmaoui and The Daily Star laugh.

The Lebanese artist’s “see-what-your-brand-means-here” project is among those works (some corporeal, others not) that don’t obviously fit within his oeuvre – or “the main spine of the work,” as he puts it.

Rechmaoui’s best-known pieces take their inspiration from Beirut’s urban fabric.

Take “Beirut Caoutchouc,” 2004-08, a sprawling molded-rubber scale map of the city. Or there’s “Monument for the Living,” 2002, his rendering of Burj al-Murr, the unfinished tower that became an infamous Civil War-era snipers’ nest, from his “Buildings” series, a growing collection of maquettes of iconic Beirut architecture.

More recent pieces take a step or two back from the Beirut landscape. A pair of “By the sea” works offer sculptural maps of the local coastline, whose materials include concrete and beeswax, metal and wood.

Inspired by satellite images of various capital cities in the Arab world, the renderings in the series “Satellites,” 2019, emulate pixilation à la Google maps, as conjured up by a shit internet connection.

Another piece that Rechmaoui says is far from the spine of his work is “Gallery 6.08.”

Weighing in at 600 kilos, this series is comprised of 34 pieces of compressed metal, approximately 45 x 68 x 25 cm each (imagine the cubes of compressed rubbish dispensed by the hero of that Pixar movie “Wall.e,” but with the dimensions of an upright desktop hard drive). Each piece has been formed from stuff salvaged from Sfeir-Semler’s Beirut gallery after it was gutted by the Aug. 4 Beirut Port blast.

“Usually these kind of works, they fall from the sky,” Rechmaoui says. “They aren’t planned or expected. They’re not in your agenda. Suddenly something happens and you come up with a work. It may take years to see the connection between it and the work you were doing at that time.”

“Gallery 6.08, 2020” is among the new works on show in “But the trees keep voting for the axe,” Rechmaoui’s solo currently up at the repaired Sfeir-Semler Beirut.

Usually, Rechmaoui reflects, he devotes a lot of time to thinking about projects like “Buildings” and “Satellites” before he feels compelled to actually start working on individual pieces.

“It starts from elements around you,” he says. “You absorb things, then you order them in your brain’s filing system. It builds up invisibly.”

The work becomes real, he adds, when he knows how he wants to make it.

“Then you’re aware of what you’re doing. You start to calculate things, you plan, and you finish the work. It’s a success or a failure. It doesn’t matter. That’s the process.

“This work,” he says of “Gallery 6.08,” “it fell on me. Maybe in a normal case, if I found this junk, I wouldn’t do anything, but because of the emotional moment.”

He recalls walking into the wrecked gallery the day after the blast and finding people working, albeit still in shock – picking up books off the floor, sweeping up broken glass, collecting ceiling tiles. He began removing the aluminum window frames, disassembling them and putting the bars on the floor according to length and function.

“The gallery began to look like an installation,” he recalls. “It was ordered by material. I saw that but I didn’t connect it with the stuff I’d arranged on the floor. I was still thinking I should do something more complex. By late January I was more rational. One day I went to the gallery about something, looked at the piles and immediately asked Lea to please order me four boards, of this size.”

Those recuperated aluminum bars have been upcycled into two series – the wood-mounted “Gallery I-IV,” 2020, and the mobiles currently hung from the gallery ceiling, titled “Gallery V-VII,” 2020.

“Voting for the axe” devotes an entire gallery to series of works on paper – a part of Rechmaoui’s practice that would not ordinarily be exhibited.

“These drawings in the inside room are personal,” he says. “I wouldn’t show them if there were no lockdown, if 2020 wasn’t taken from us. The drawings grew out of that year, so I insisted to put them, in order not to miss 2020.

“All the drawings, they start from words. I’ll be listening to a song, or watching TV or the news or an action movie. A word triggers something – whether it’s the meaning or its relation to other words – and then you see the relation. It’s like you’re in a universe of words, floating, bewildering, you know, and it brings an image. It’s a chain [reaction].

“Those drawings, each one was done in one night. There’s a lot of whiskey in them.”

Another new work, a series of three horizon lines made of concrete, beeswax and pigment, called “Checkers,” 2021, is formally closer to the pixilated figuration of the “Satellites” series. In fact, he sees this series as a transition from “Beirut by the sea,” 2019, which greets visitors from the wall of Sfeir-Semler’s foyer, and “Satellites” – absented from this exhibition.

“It’s taking an abstract break between one concept and another,” he says of “Checkers.” “I do that a lot. The ‘Pillars’ are an abstract break between a concept and a concept. They’re totally abstract, ‘Pillers.’ They have nuances and motifs from architecture but they’re not addresses, like [the “Buildings” series’] ‘Burj al-Murr’ or ‘The Yaakoubian Building.’”

Here, “Buildings” is represented by the 2019 piece “The Coop” – Rechmaoui’s scale model of the 600-unit Raouche Market, whose derelict shell still emerges from the urban fabric. About half of “Voting for the axe” is devoted to 16 “Pillars.”

“When you see ‘Pillars,’ they remind you of some Beirut buildings. What triggered them was the Homs war, but because there was like a strange duality between a ruined future and a nostalgia for a ruined past, nostalgia connects Shiyah to Homs.”

This show takes its title from a little parable that adorns another wall of the gallery foyer.

“The forest was shrinking,” the text reads, “but the trees kept voting for the Axe, for the Axe was clever and convinced the trees that because its handle was made of wood, it was one of them.”

“It’s very normal,” Rechmaoui says of the Turkish parable. “I can’t think of a more precise word than that. It’s a recurring incident in our culture ... It’s a metaphor for our Parliament. Elections are coming. If there are any, there’s not gonna be any change. The same people are staying. So what’s the secret. Where’s the solution.”

“But the trees keep voting for the axe” is up at Sfeir-Semler Beirut through Aug. 12. For more, see:





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