VENICE: Inside an amply lit space in the Arsenale, one of the most prominent exhibition areas at the Venice Biennale, multimedia installations in Lebanon’s pavilion depict the beauty and chaos that has befallen the country after several years of economic and political crises.
There’s Ayman Baalbaki’s arresting 2021 work “Janus Gate” — a two-sided installation (named for the Roman god of beginnings, endings, transitions and time, usually depicted with two faces) covered in the artist’s abstract expressionist brushstrokes, which underlines the idea of a fragmented city. The vibrant front is typical of Baalbaki’s expressionistic painting style; it features the media panels placed on construction sites depicting an artist’s rendition of what the building will look like decorated with neon lights and spray-paint, imposing the lively chaos of the capital city’s present onto corporate promises of a brighter future.
Walk through a doorway to the back side and the visitor is confronted by a dimly lit olive-green monochrome recreation of a watchman’s hut, with a washing line and small table outside. From inside the hut comes a red light showing, Baalbaki explains, “the heat of a living creature.” The olive-green is a deliberate reference to the military, and how the civil wars in Lebanon and Syria turned civilians into soldiers. The red light alludes to the thermal signatures visible through night-vision scopes.
Baalbaki’s installation, like Janus, combines the past, present and future. It gracefully depicts the stoicism and resilience of the average citizen in the face of chaos.
Across from it, a haunting split-screen movie by Lebanese-French filmmaker and artist Danielle Arbid titled “Allô Chéri” (2022) plays. It is shot from inside a car driving through Beirut. The soundtrack is a woman narrating how she is constantly chasing money. That woman is Arbid’s mother.
Arbid was born in Lebanon in 1970. She moved to Paris aged 17. In 1997, she directed her first film. Since then, she has alternated between fiction, first-person documentaries, and video essays, and works as a photographer. Her work has won numerous awards and been the subject of several retrospectives.
For “Allô Chéri,” Arbid installed a recording device in her mother’s mobile phone (with her mother’s consent) and soon discovered that her mother was running her own banking system — a result of Lebanon’s financial collapse and the need for the people to access money through other means than the official economic system.
“I discovered my mother’s turbulent financial life,” Arbid told Arab News. “Secrets of debts that she hid from us, but that we (guessed at), because she was very stressed during this period. My mother’s life resembles the economic life of Lebanon today.”
The film also shows Arbid’s mother wandering the streets of Beirut. Like those around her, she looks for answers and clings on to hope, but clearly carries with her the despair and weight of the tragedies that have befallen her city.
“Allô Chéri” is one of a series of nine films that Arbid has been working on for several years titled “My Lebanese Family.” Each family member has a film focused on them, each in a different genre.
Lebanon’s participation at the 59th Venice Biennale is only the second in its history, and considering all that has transpired in the country, exhibiting in Venice is a feat that goes against all odds.
The pavilion was inaugurated one month before the Lebanese went to vote in the country’s parliamentary elections — ones which resulted in victory for some opposition candidates, spelling momentary celebration for those hoping for change. A desire and commitment to change and to Lebanese heritage and culture can similarly be felt in Venice — but through art.
The Lebanese state provided no money to stage the show; it was entirely privately funded by generous Lebanese art collectors and patrons.
“The private sector wanted to make sure that Lebanon was well-represented,” Lebanese art collector and patron Basel Dalloul, one of the pavilion’s funders, told Arab News. “The exhibition does represent Beirut’s contemporary art movement. It portrays a commentary on the two sides of Beirut echoing the ancient Roman god of Janus and his two two-faces.”
The Lebanese Visual Art Association (LVAA) organized the Lebanese Pavilion under the patronage of the Lebanese Ministry of Culture, who mandated Nada Ghandour to curate the show. The two artists — Arbid and Baalbaki — were chosen to provide two different but connected viewpoints on contemporary Beirut. Arbid has witnessed her country’s travails from the diaspora, whereas Baalbaki lives and works in Beirut.
“This year, the Lebanese Pavilion comes to life in spite of the extremely challenging times that Lebanon is going through, and the political, economic, and social turmoil that the Lebanese are facing,” Ghandour told Arab News. “By placing the Lebanese Pavilion in the Arsenale, I wanted to show that Lebanon still exists on the world art map and also to send a strong message to artists in Lebanon to encourage and motivate them; to show them that there is support for them, and also promote Lebanon’s contemporary art scene, an important sector for the country.
“The exhibition invites viewers on a symbolic journey into our contemporary world through a theme, a city, and two artists who maintain a political and aesthetic dialogue from a distance, by presenting artworks which are so far and yet so close,” she continued.
Paris-based Lebanese architect Aline Asmar d’Amman, who designed the pavilion.
“My first intuition was to express a powerful message of hope and unity from Lebanon to the world,” d’Amman told Arab News. “The circular brutalist egg-shaped envelope is a symbolic gesture, a tribute to the cinema of Joseph Karam in Beirut and the experimental theater by Oscar Niemeyer in Tripoli, both monuments that became ruins during the civil war. The structure is open like an oculus, revealing the magnificent wooden framework of the Arsenal. Ayman’s monumental sculptural installation and Danielle’s energetic images travelling through the streets of Beirut, framed in the circle, incarnate the dialogue and the deep plunge into our beloved city.”
Through their artworks, those two artists poignantly — and at times painfully — relay the beauty and decay of the city of Beirut and life as they once knew it in Lebanon.
Baalbaki, born in 1975 — the year the Lebanese Civil War started — has long been one of Lebanon’s most acclaimed artists, known for his work that focuses on political and social issues relating to Lebanon and the Arab world, particularly the conflicts that have ravaged the region.
“The city of Beirut for me is just as Foucault says: ‘A heterochronic space,’ meaning within one space there are several other spaces — utopian and real at the same time,” Baalbaki explained. “You feel like Beirut stretches forward and backward. Janus has two heads: one head faces backwards and another forward. He symbolizes the beginning and the end of time. And, with time, there is a promise of the future.”