THE NEW BEIRUT

Beirut, a port city resting on a peninsula in the Mediterranean coast, is still recovering from the Lebanese Civil War, which ended 25 years ago. Basic municipal responsibilities such as trash pickup, a population census, and public transportation remain in shambles. Culturally, however, the city has continued to thrive without interruption, with artist-run and independent initiatives sprouting up between polished global collections and institutions.

In late October, artists, gallerists, curators, and much of the Middle East’s fashion world descended onto Jal El Dib, a suburb of Beirut and site of luxury department store Aishti’s seaside outpost. They were there to celebrate the launch of the Aishti Foundation, store owner Tony Salame’s collection of modern and contemporary art  that’s housed in a building designed by David Adjaye.

Those new to Beirut took a lost hour here and there to go out and see other points in the city’s art community. There’s Sfeir-Semler, one of the country’s pioneering commercial galleries, which is currently presenting the film installation The Secrets of Karbala by Egyptian artist Wael Shawky. Part of his “Cabaret Crusades” trilogy, the film features Murano glass marionette puppets that act out the Crusades of the 7th through 12th centuries from an Arab perspective.

New gallery Marfa’, translated as port in Arabic, is the name of the street on which it’s located, while also referential to Beirut’s place as a port city to Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. The pristine modern space, situated at the end of an industrial road in a shipping zone, featured Lebanese artist Vartan Avakian’s “Collapsing Clouds of Gas and Dust” for its first exhibition.

The newly renovated Sursock Museum,  opened in collector Nicolas Sursock’s home in 1961 and remaining open during the Lebanese Civil War, has finally reopened after dangling in a 15-year construction delay.

The Metropolitan Art Society hosted “The Extreme Present,” an exhibition curated by Jeffrey Deitch (titled afterthe book by Hans Ulrich Obrist, Shuman Basar, and Douglas Coupland). The survey of young Pop artists included Alex Da Corte’s distillation of “Die Hexe,” his exhibition that filled every corner of the New York gallery Luxembourg & Dayan last year. The shocking design elements (including a coffee table with glass balancing on the sculpture of a woman’s body and a searing neon wall drawing of a cat’s face) made it feel more like a side salon than a room-sized installation. A lush spread of Middle Eastern fare followed, with guests spilling out across the lawn between fountains and champagne bars. After-parties continued in pockets of the city’s winding roads, from rooms at the Phoenicia and Four Seasons hotels overlooking the Mediterranean shore to the nightclub Bardo, a haven for young expressionists in a conservative-leaning landscape.

The following afternoon, couture designer Elie Saab and his family hosted a proper Sunday lunch at their family home. Many of the guests were nursing hangovers with delicately roasted vegetables and pistachio ice cream, taking cover from passing rain showers under dense olive trees.

The early get-together left visitors with a few hours to wander, with many off to see fragments of what Beirut’s art scene had to offer outside of its most extravagant private collections. The Beirut Exhibition Center, a gleaming silver cube positioned only yards from the sea and smack in the middle of a seemingly dilapidated construction zone, presented “HEARTLAND: Territoire d’Affects,” a deeply personal group show featuring many of the region’s best-known artists, from Joanna Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige to Simone Fattal and Mona Hatoum. Etel Adnan generously set up her studio in one room, visible through slivers in the wall.

It was soon time for the grand celebration: the opening of Aishti’s foundation. 2,500 guests, among them society and pop stars, as well as Aishti’s faithful customers, drifted between the shops—Prada, Alaia, Alexander McQueen—and the sweeping patio built above the water’s edge.

The crush of black-tie-and gown-draped guests made their way up to the foundation space, adjacent to the mall but connected through a passageway on every other floor. The inaugural exhibition, “New Skin,” curated by the New Museum’s Massimiliano Gioni from Salame’s warehouse, featured a vast constellation of established global artists: a cool, subdued photographic work from Wolfgang Tillmans; a tower of glossy ceramic drips from Sterling Ruby; and a beaming series of imposing copper plates from Walead Beshty, with visible fingerprints still clinging to the surface. Lending the group a historical anchor were a number of works from Italian Arte Povera artist Giuseppe Penone. The impressive exhibition and the crowd was noticeably lacking in Lebanese and Middle Eastern artists, however.

Upstairs, an entire floor of the massive department store had been cleared to create a modern souk, with stalls offering bites of modern and traditional Lebanese fare. Fluffy little pockets of pita and falafel, fresh chickpeas with lemon, and local sweets had the crowd circling back for more.

A couple of weeks after the festivitites Home Works opened. The biennial of Lebanese art is hosted by the artist-run experimental school Ashkal Alwan. The parade of events surrounding the Foundation’s opening was beautiful, glamorous, international, and exciting, each opening radiating the famous Lebanese hospitality and warmth. However, when the country experienced its worst bombing in decades a week later, it shed light onto the city’s texture, its troubled history and frequent uprisings.

Although “New Skin” helped confirm Beirut’s status as a global art capital, the rest of the city played a critical role. Witnessing this local expansion of conceptual, political, and artistic borders is more important than ever before.

 

V magazine

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