BERLIN: On a quiet street northwest of Alexanderplatz, a series of ad hoc works by Lebanese-born artist Mazen Kerbaj hang in a gallery window.
Prominent in the series, titled “Oil and Vinegar on Paper,” is a self-portrait, rendered on a map of Bologna below the hand-drawn heading “am I Lost.” The depiction is slap-dash cubism, approximating a figure refracted through a fractured prism.
Typifying the irreverence of Kerbaj’s practice, these works on paper – all made since 2015, when he first relocated to Germany – have been drawn on whatever media were at hand – music festival programs where the improv musician’s performed, menus and cardboard coasters from restaurants and bars where he’s imbibed.
“When I’m on the go, I draw in notebooks, though for a period I stopped. Sometimes I don’t have my notebook but I always have a pen. This is my new thing,” he nodded at “am I Lost,” “drawing on a map of the city where I am.
“Since Google, you don’t use paper maps anymore but hotels still hand them out. The map’s something you only relate to for the two days you’re in a city. You usually use just one centimeter of it – showing your hotel and a few things around it. Most of the ones I draw, I’m half drunk,” he smiled, “so yeah, I’m lost, and the map is here to reassure me somehow.”
Through early May, Berlin’s ifa-Galerie is hosting Kerbaj’s first solo show in his adopted country, curated by Beirut artist and designer Hatem Imam. It’s comprised of nine discrete works, recent and less recent, all of them variously engaged with filling time.
“How you show time or how you give time to people is the core business of all my work,” Kerbaj reflected. “You can never know how much time it will take for one person to read a page of comics. It could be 10 seconds; it could be an hour ... It’s really interesting seeing how time passes in your storytelling, which is completely different from music. Music is the most direct way of dealing with time. In improvised music, it starts here and finishes there, and there’s no before and after.”
“In the Presence / Absence of Mazen Kerbaj,” the show’s title, has acquired heightened resonance since ifa-Galerie joined the ranks of international institutions to shutter in the wake of this coronavirus’ random virulence.
Shortly after his show opened – back when stoical Berlin pharmacists were informing customers that disposable biohazard masks were out of stock, and unnecessary anyway, unless you were sick – Kerbaj walked The Daily Star through “Presence / Absence.”
In the center of the gallery, and the heart of the show, is the latest work.
Suspended from the gallery ceiling, “We Are the Blinded of Tomorrow,” 2020, is an installation of nine videos that the artist made during a live drawing performance.
Kerbaj’s “live drawing” isn’t drawing on a wall before an audience. It involves sitting at a table with an overhead camera capturing and live-streaming the work to an onstage screen as it’s being made. He works with fluids (India ink, water, solvents) exclusively, creating ephemeral pieces that, at their best, fleetingly form and diffuse from the transparent to the opaque.
It could be a visual echo of free improv music, and it’s no coincidence that Kerbaj’s adventure with the form began with “Wormholes,” an onstage collaboration with experimental musicians Sharif Sehnaoui and Tony Elieh. Here, the movement of the nine fluid drawings was recoded and, ranging from one to nine minutes in length, are looping on screen.
The series title derives from the most figurative work, a sketch of a human eye that diffuses over 60 seconds.
“I didn’t want this work to be totally abstract,” he said. “The idea of working on the eye comes from what’s happening in the whole world [a that point, when popular demonstrations against corrupt political classes dominated the headlines], where people are being shot in the eye – lately in Beirut, before that in Chile, in Hong Kong, in France, in Israel.”
Kerbaj’s creation of these nine works was itself filmed and the performance is also being shown in the gallery. The apparatus he uses for these performances – table, chair, overhead camera, ink, solvents, etc – is itself on show.
“I think these movies, as nice as they are, are pointless without knowing how they’re done,” Kerbaj said. “Whenever we finish a gig, I always wish there were a way I could leave everything. People think the effects could be digital or something, when in fact it’s just ink. I see them coming up afterward and looking at it, shaking their heads, like, ‘What is this mess?’”
Admirers of Kerbaj’s illustrations know him for his diary-based work, whether printed or published online. The former “Kerblog,” for instance, began as a chronicle of Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon. Those entries remain an archive of one artist’s struggle to sublimate the various traumas of that monthlong assault, and the site includes a link to an excerpt of “Starry Night,” the performer’s trumpet solo, improvised against the concussions of an Israeli bombardment of Beirut’s southern suburbs.
“Presence / Absence” includes three of Kerbaj’s diary-based works.
One wall of ifa-Galerie is devoted to the pages from his 2012 project to devise one work a day, each contained by a page of a cheap daily planner. Tamyras Editions published the project in 2014 as “One Year – Diary of a Year Like the Others.”
For those accustomed to his Picasso-riffing self-portraits, “One Year” shows something of Kerbaj’s range, stylistic and otherwise. Here depictions of crowded ensembles mingle with portraits and, though pen-and-ink dominates, there are also traces of watercolor and charcoal.
“There’s some wine also,” he smiled, “some coffee and olive oil stains. There’s collage sometimes, with flyers. Sometimes I allow myself to be totally abstract, which I never do in my work.
“You can find a lot of trash things here. It looks nice, but ... under all the family things and travel things there’s lots of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. It’s a game, seeing how much can I reveal without revealing.”
One of the constraints of diary projects, he said, is that he never feels completely at peace with the work that emerges from them.
“In these 380 drawings, there must be 300 that I hate,” he laughed, “and 20 that I love. The rest are okay. In a book I usually redo what I hate or remove, or change or rearrange. This is a more improvised thing. You have to live with it.”
For many in the MENA region and without, 2012 was the year the Arab Spring rolled across the Middle East. There’s no sign of it in Kerbaj’s year.
“I didn’t see it happening,” he said. “I don’t think it happened, actually. I think I’m too cynical, too pessimistic. I was as skeptical then as I am now about [the civil disobedience campaign that commenced in mid-October 2019] in Beirut.
“I’m completely with [the demonstrations], of course. I hope with all my guts [that something changes], but my brain sees less that 0.1 percent chance ... Of course it changes mentalities in the long run, but I think real change is impossible in Lebanon, like anywhere else in the world.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed quite a lot since “Presence / Absence” opened. These days Kerbaj is at his Berlin home, confined with his wife and kids. Like many people nowadays, he’s practicing social distancing.
It’s an unnatural practice for the gregarious improviser, so, like many restless performers grounded by coronavirus, Kerbaj has a new online project. “Corona Diaries” takes its cue from his past graphic memoires, reflecting upon being locked down with his wife and kids (whose drawings are sometimes drawn onto the site). Open-ended social distancing is less (or at least differently) traumatic than a monthlong military siege, say, so there’s a gentleness about the entries’ banal humor.
Here too the entries have a performance aspect. To allow the ifa-Galerie show to embrace his performance practice, he’d programed a series of concerts with his favorite local improv artists. As dates have come and gone for gigs canceled by the lockdown, Kerbaj has filmed and posted a number of trumpet solo performances.
The artist performs another number, “Your hand is the only hand I can still touch,” on crackle synth with Racha Gharbieh, his wife. Kerbaj says it’s his first love song, and it’s tough work finding any of the sentimental trappings you might associate with that form.
In addition to the diary-based paper works, “Presence / Absence” is showing 2019’s “The Double Selfportrait and its Double,” a pair of pieces from Kerbaj’s yearslong four-hand collaboration with his mother, artist Laure Ghorayeb.
There’s also “My Cloud,” 2012, eight light boxes showing a series of 48 ink-on-acetate pieces that conflate figuration and abstraction. Like all his work, this series has a personable tale behind it. Created for a 24-pages-in-24-hours comics jam, which saw 10 other comic artists descend on his Beirut flat, these works grew out of Kerbaj’s experiments with live fluid drawing.
“It’s done exactly the same way as [“We Are the Blinded of Tomorrow”], but the technique is the exact opposite,” he blinked. “The live technique is always in movement. Here I have to try to stop the movement at some point and then let it dry.
“This was published as a book and it’s one of the rare books I don’t hate. It’s closest to what I really wanted to do. When it can’t be changed any longer, it’s terrible. With music it’s the same. Listening to myself recorded is always a pain in the ass. I do it with a lot of passion, playing it, mixing it. Once it’s mixed, I listen to it again, then I can never put it in a CD machine again.”
Less familiar to audiences accustomed to stumbling upon Kerbaj’s work in bookshops or the behind the bar at Gemmayzeh’s Torino Express, may be the multimedia installation “Antoine and the Arab Marseillaise,” an archival work documenting the art historical episode inspiring Kerbaj’s graphic novel “Antoine.”
A dark comic satire of the Arab condition, Mohammad al-Maghout’s play “The Arab Marseillaise” featured the artist’s father, Antoine Kerbage, who had commissioned it from the playwright in 1973. Scheduled to run at Beirut’s Orley Theater in 1975, the production was suspended when Lebanon’s 1975-90 Civil War erupted. Maghout and Kerbaj’s play was never seen again, though the stage design remained in place at the Orley through the mid-’80s.
As Kerbaj’s graphic novel alludes, the artist (born 1975) has a special relationship to his father’s play. So this installation, like his collaboration with Ghorayeb, can be seen as tapping an autobiographical motif running though the exhibition – and Kerbaj’s work generally, much of which is dedicated to situating the artist and his cohort in spacetime.
The image of the stage decor of “The Arab Marseillaise” sitting onstage for a decade, inert yet undisturbed, gestures to the ghost-like transience of all performance. This gesture has an afterimage at the center of ifa-Galerie – in the apparatus of Kerbaj’s live art performances, a mechanism waiting to be reanimated.
“In the Presence / Absence of Mazen Kerbaj,” curated by Hatem Imam, is up at ifa-Galerie Berlin through May 17. For more information, see: www.ifa.de
Kerbaj’s Corona Diaries can be found at: https://kerbajdiaries.com/