On models, sketchbooks, uprising

SHARJAH/BEIRUT: Gerhard Richter was in Lebanon for the opening of his 2012 solo show here, at the Beirut Art Center. It mingled recent work with a few decades-old pieces and the paper asked the renowned artist whether showing these works at that time, in the unfamiliar setting of Beirut, might affect how they were read.

“No,” he replied after a second. “Absolutely not.”

Marwan Rechmaoui feels place and passed time can invest art with extra layers of meaning.

“It’s true,” he mused with The Daily Star last week. “It’s what people want to see in the work. It’s the meaning, but what’s this meaning? It’s how you read it. With different spotlights, it’s like seeing the work from different perspectives.”

The Lebanese artist is best-known for his miniature sculptural depictions of facets of Beirut, like “Beirut Caoutchouc,” 2004-8, his sprawling scale map of the city, in rubber. He has an ongoing series of maquettes of iconic architectural ruins - “Monument for the Living,” 2002, for example, a rendering of Burj al-Murr, a Civil War-era snipers’ nest. Since 2015, he’s worked on the “Pillars” series, his most concise reflection upon urban decay as an understated metaphor for the Lebanese condition.

Sitting in a Gemmayzeh cafe to chat with The Daily Star about “Slanted Squares,” his current solo at the Sharjah Art Foundation, Rechmaoui briefly mused about what his works mean now, starting with “Untitled 12,” his 2017 rendering of the Lebanese coast in 12 mesh panels, with a brass coastline separating beeswax above and concrete below.

“When we were hanging the work in Sharjah [for ‘Slanted Squares’],” he recalled, “Lebanon had just done the human chain from Tyre to Tripoli to Akkar. I added that to the exhibition tag because I saw the beautiful coincidence, that you can see the human line that was formed here, in this brass line.”

The SAF show also features scale models of three structures Oscar Niemeyer devised for Tripoli’s international fairground, arguably Lebanon’s most high-profile derelict public space.

“One of the most common demands I hear people make concerns the Rashid Karami fairground,” he smiled. “So what I’m nagging about for the last 20 years isn’t from space, you know. You see things and you choose to talk about it or work on it. So I was very happy with this show in Sharjah.

“Its timing with what’s going on [in Lebanon] now gave me a buzz.” He paused. “Eight months ago I was working on the abstract checkers in order to move away from this kind of obsession, from a certain kind of thinking, but what’s happening now made me rethink again.”

Among Rechmaoui’s most recent work his checkers, titled “Tapestries,” is also his most abstract. Comprising colored beeswax cubes arrayed upon mesh in a mathematically derived design, the works in the series resemble three-dimensional depictions of pixilation.

That series (along with a selection of his “Pillars,” the Niemeyer models, and the large series of models that includes “Monument for the Living”) debuted in the first iteration of “Slanted Squares,” at the Bonnefanten Museum in the Dutch town of Maastricht.

Curated by Zeynep Oz and produced in collaboration with SAF, the original exhibition (along with a book and a cash prize) came about after Rechmaoui won the prestigious 2019 Bonnefanten Award for Contemporary Art.

The SAF version of “Slanted Squares” lacks the colorful “Tapestries,” making it more monochrome and figurative. The color in the Sharjah show derives from a quite different source, a series of pastel drawings.

“We were trying to break the roughness of the urban atmosphere,” the artist said of the drawings, “with the hard materials of gray concrete, and trying to show another side of what I do usually.

“Most of my work in the studio has to be preprepared,” he reflected. “If I want to cast a pillar, I have to think about the mold, how to make the negative beforehand. So when you cast ... you open and it’s done.

“At home, in the evening, I have a large sheet of paper on the floor and I do a different kind of work. I’ll be listening to music, or television if it’s on. Or I’ll be talking about something and a word clicks. ... It’s not only what’s said. It’s how it’s structured and what it means and how it is used. ... It becomes a different word.

“I start playing, without any pre-preparation. I’m drawing on paper. So it’s a different process, which I like. This is why we wanted to show that - the extreme playing.”

“Zuqaq al-Blat,” as one of the six drawings is titled, is an impressionistic art naif-like map of the Beirut neighborhood of Zoqaq al-Blat, highlighting Burj al-Murr and the Batrakiyya school. It also includes an elementary school-style hanging man, a reference, the artist said, to Sanayeh Garden, where the Lebanese state once hanged a man.

Rechmaoui said the drawings weren’t just about doing something different from his elaborate models.

“It is that but it’s ... a must-do. It’s like a sketchbook. You get ideas and you want to register them. The fun thing is you don’t have to prepare for it. I usually use pastels and a pencil. Anything can be covered or reworked. There’s no worry about putting something you’re unsure about. You might put things, then wake up the next day and say, ‘Naw. That’s bad,’” he laughed, “so you take it out.”

Marwan Rechmaoui’s “Slanted Squares” is up at SAF’s Al Mureijah Square spaces through Feb. 2, 2020.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 20, 2019, on page 8.




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