Art in Times of Crisis :
« Hotel Mundane or Beirut Entropy » by Yazan Halwani
The Lebanese Art Scene is Facing the Reality of the Country
On the 4th of August 2020, the tragic explosion that occurred in the harbour of Beirut made no distinction between riches and poors, housings or parkings, restaurants, shops or art galleries, and just damaged everything in a big blast leading to the death of more than 200 people, 6500 injured and a countless number of people affected by the social and economic consequences of the catastrophe.
The neighbourhoods of Badaro, Mar Mikhael and Gemmayzeh – described by The Guardian as “bohemian neighbourhoods” – were no exception. Here the swarming art scene of the lebanese capital had been developing itself during the last decades thanks to museums, foundations or small galeries. In a country where social, political and economic instability might turn art into a second-rank priority, it’s interesting to see how lebanese artists deal with their fate following the explusion by using it through their art.
In the Gouraud street for example, as you walk in front of the studio of the lebanese designer Nada Debs, you can read on the front window «Our space is broken but we are not. #keepittogether». And as you have a closer look at what is going on behind the glass, you can observe damaged objects laying on the floor in an unplanned arrangement.
Our Boutique has temporarily moved to the second floor. We chose not to renovate the space for now because we felt that we still need time to process the impact of the August 4th blast.
Some of the pieces you see inside have been destroyed during the explosion. Others are objects that have been re-created out of the debris from our Studio space upstairs. We have used our craft techniques as a way of connecting the broken pieces.
If you keep walking a few hundred meters away from the design studio and head towards the prestigious district of Achrafieh, on Sursock street, you can observe the famous modern art museum of Beirut : the Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum. As the german information media Deutsche Welle writes, “Sursock Art Museum survived 15 years of civil war, but not the blast” . Indeed, the windows were shattered, a part of the artworks inside destroyed and the building weakened. It’s just one of the many examples of historical buildings that were located in those districts, listed as world heritage by the UNESCO, and that represent the soul of the center of Beirut. The United Nations cultural organization says that some 640 historic buildings were impacted by the explosion in total, approximately 60 of which are at risk of collapse. It is a real threat for the city’s art community, and one more attack in this already unstable state that had endured civil war, revolution, regional conflicts in the Middle East, heavy economic crisis and now covid-19. Even before the 4th of August, the lebanese situation was putting the art scene through the mill: the exchange rate between lebanese liras and dollars has turned every imported product into delicacy like paper for example, which is essential for printing or producing pieces of art.
Dealing with Situation of Crisis through Art
There are no words to describe the situation in which the Lebanese population is in now. We can only pray for better days, for Lebanon to rise up again, but as Yazan Halwani Beiruti young artist says :
« […] I have been told that Lebanon’s uniqueness resides in its ability to adapt to everlasting adversity. But as a young Lebanese migrant, the tales of the regenerating phoenix, the successful expat, the widespread polyglotism, have never appeared to me as forms of resistance to our chaotic reality. I see these symptoms, which many romantically praise as the pillars of Lebanon’s resilience, as nothing but a surrender to the rampant chaos that punctuates our existence. »
These words are extremely strong considering the view of the artist on chaos. He defines it as a natural phenomenon, referring to the physics concept of entropy. The sum of movements in the world leads naturally to disorder : « System always finds its way to more chaos ». In the absence of purposeful actions, the layout of the system is just meant to head to chaos. Like a sandcastle, which is the total of billions of grains of sand : there are only a few organizations of grains of sand that can take the shape of a sandcastle. Other than that, and without intervention, the total of billions of grains of sand is just a shapeless and unrecognizable thing.
The comparison with Lebanon’s situation can be pulled out of that: Lebanese population’s so-called-resilience is a logical consequence of a system left at its own fate, where there is no other option than adaptation to other worlds in link with the process of immigration. Lebanese diaspora counts between 4 and 14 millions of people abroad, on all continents – mainly in Brazil, United States, France but also in Ivory Coast. On this topic, Halwani’s artwork is very eloquent. His exhibition in the Agial Art Gallery in Hamra district, taking palce between April and May 2021, titled Hotel Beirut or Mundane Entropy, deals with such problems. It is composed of 3 series of paintings.
The first one, “Perhaps the Moon is Beautiful Because it’s Far”, depicts sky-view images from Beirut as you could see them from a airplane while you are leaving the country. The second one, “Secondary Income”, is a series of paintings set in the crowded Rafic Hariri airport. You can see on them an entanglement of people leaving the country, their suitcases piled on trolleys about to overflow. And the last one, “Barriers to Entry”, appears as the most symbolic and memorable one.
It is composed of 8 frames of 100×100 cm where electrical plugs and their corresponding sockets can be seen. Indeed, there are 15 different types of electric plugs existing all over the world. It might appear as something anecdotic but used as a metaphor, it illustrates the matter of adapting to new systems, of “fitting in”, which is central to lebanese population considering how they have to face migration. On this subject, Halwani adds the really relevant information that « electric plugs are vestiges of the history and political economy of the world that draw spheres of influence and tell the story of the economic and political dependence of the countries based on the standards they use (e.g., most countries still use a standard made by a country that has colonized them previously) ».
The importance given by Yazan Halwani on the topic of identity is something really precious and it gives a great insight into Lebanese art. It is something even more valuable considering how hard it is to produce art in the context of crisis. Many are worried that the vibrant scene of Lebanon won’t be able to recover from the last events. In this exhibition Halwani shares his dream to see Lebanese reversing the entropy whether it would be through politics, activism or through art.