Wild orchids and metaphorical
German photographer Elger Esser
curates an exhibition for a low season capturing beauty on the edge
of ruin, an apt image of Beirut itself.
By Kaelen Wilson-Goldie
The Daily Star
Interview BEIRUT: The contemporary art scene in Beirut
is famously flexible. For more than 15 years, a community
of independent artists and nonprofit arts organizations
has built an infrastructure for cultural production that
is capable of withstanding one political rupture after
another. That infrastructure dovetails nicely with the
commercial gallery system, which grows robust when economic
times are good and becomes strained when they are bad.
The dog days of August are always slow when it comes to
art. Galleries typically go on hiatus for the month, artists
and curators travel and the public seeks refuge at the
beach or in the mountains.
But few would argue that the contemporary art scene in
Beirut is currently in good health. The otherwise indefatigable
Agenda Culturel, the fortnightly French-language listings
guide to cultural events in the Lebanese capital and beyond,
put out an issue as thin as a wisp covering two weeks
in July. The subsequent issue feels a bit heftier - but
only because it covers a month and a half.
The issue for July 11 through July 24 weighed in at just
12 pages. The issue for roughly the same period last year
- which obviously went to press before the war with Israel
began on July 12 - was three times the size. As the publishers'
note in an introduction to their visibly emaciated issue,
in the summer of 2005 they listed 272 cultural events,
in the summer of 2006 they listed 355 (95 percent of which
were cancelled) and in the summer of 2007, they listed
just 55, quite a drop and paltry by any standard for a
cosmopolitan city of 1.5 million.
In terms of the commercial gallery scene, Galerie Epreuve
d'Artiste, the V&A Gallery and Espace SD have closed (though
not, in all cases, due to the situation in Lebanon). The
Agial Art Gallery in Hamra hasn't mounted a new exhibition
since last summer's showcase for Franco-Sudanese painter
Hassan Musa. Like several other Beirut galleries, Agial
is showing stock for those who care to drop by and browse.
But gallery owners know that this isn't a season of buyers.
For-profit entities with overheads that include rent,
staffing and electricity - to say nothing of transportation,
insurance, installation and production costs - are less
flexible than their not-for-profit counterparts.
So what is Andree Sfeir-Semler thinking in putting on
an exhibition - filling a 1,000-square-meter gallery with
new work by six international artists - that opens on
Thursday? "I said I'm not going to postpone because who
knows what is going to happen in the fall?" Sfeir-Semler
says ruefully, in reference to the presidential elections
that are meant to take place in September. "I decided
to go on even if only 10 people see the show ... The collectors
are hardly here," she adds. "The artists were unsure,
but I encouraged them to go on as if this were a healthy
country in happy times."
Galerie Sfeir-Semler opened in Karantina in April 2005.
Whether or not that was an auspicious date probably depends
on how local history plays out in the next few months.
Sfeir-Semler's original gallery has been in business in
Hamburg, Germany, for decades, so she doesn't depend solely
on the often arid Lebanese art market.
Two years ago, German photographer Elger Esser gave Sfeir-Semler
the last push she needed to plunge into her Beirut adventure.
"Sales of his work financed the gallery for the first
year," Sfeir-Semler reports matter-of-factly. "He came
to Lebanon and he felt it," she adds.
Esser's large-scale, labor-intensive, painstakingly composed
photographs of Lebanon - from the Enfeh salt flats in
the North to the archeological relics of Sidon and a series
of strange, serene views of Naqoura in the South - are
among the most poetic landscapes he's ever made.
Now Esser is pitching in again. The exhibition that opens
of Thursday is based on his own curatorial conceit - beauty
on the edge of ruin or at the risk of disappearance -
and is named, with intentional awkwardness, "Less Roses."
"I invited him to do a show of his own work in the space,"
Sfeir-Semler recalls. "He decided not to do that but to
invite artists and friends to join him in a group show.
All of the artists [in "Less Roses'] make works that have
to do with beauty and the danger of lost beauty."
"Less Roses" includes works by Moritz Altmann, Yto Barrada,
Peter Hopkins, Glen Rubsamen and Felix Schramm - who is
creating a massive sculpture that ruptures a room at the
entrance to the gallery and is sure to find many degrees
of unintended resonance in Beirut.
The show also includes two bodies of work by Esser. One
is an installation of 10 glass vitrines filled with souvenirs
from his time in Lebanon and focused on the country's
wild orchids, which he discovered with a guide from the
Initiative for Biodiversity Studies in Arid Regions, part
of the American University of Beirut's agricultural sciences
faculty. Apparently, Lebanon boasts 17 species of wild
orchid, only 10 of which are still blooming. The rest
exist only in historical writings or drawings.
"I've spent five very intense times in Lebanon," says
Esser. "This work is somehow a daybook of by first stay,
in 2004, for 10 days." One in a generation of German photographers
that studied with the venerable Bernd and Hilla Becher
in Dusseldorf, Esser creates works that are markedly more
sumptuous than those of his peers, such as Andreas Gursky,
Thomas Struth and Thomas Ruff. But according to Sfeir-Semler,
while all his photographs deal with traveling, few have
engaged so sensitively with place as his Lebanon pictures.
"Less Roses," says Esser, is not meant to be educational.
Rather, it is "like flowers" for the country. "Hidden,
not with compliments, but with interest, not without love,
Esser's second body of work, in a roundabout way, couldn't
be more relevant in terms of capturing Lebanon's existential
malaise in an apt, extended metaphor. It is a series of
large-scale photographs, meticulously hand-colored, each
depicting a historic shipwreck.
Copyright (c) 2007 The Daily Star