For the past year, an anonymous street-level space in the neighbourhood of Mar Mikhael has been surprising passers-by with exhibitions of contemporary art.
Breaking down the barriers
For the past year, an anonymous street-level space in the neighbourhood of Mar Mikhael has been surprising passers-by with exhibitions of contemporary art. Every few months and in the midst of the areas industrial garages and ramshackle storefronts two enormous ground-floor windows have offered fleeting glimpses of paintings, photographs and videos by artists such as Hubert Fattal, Nadim Asfar and Lamia Joreige, who exhibited her interactive installation Je 'dhistoires at the 2007 Venice Biennale.
Last month, however, this unnamed art space simply disappeared. The entire building was demolished over the course of two days (built at a time when zoning laws were stricter and demanded structures to be shorter, it was reduced to rubble to make way for the construction of a taller and more financially lucrative residential tower). But then something even more curious happened. Just as quickly as it vanished the art space reappeared, this time in the neighbourhood of Clemenceau with an accomplished exhibition of paintings and drawings by Jean-Marc Nahas on display.
The force behind this intriguing exercise in transitional space is Naïla Kettaneh Kunigk, a respected patron of the Lebanese art scene who has been running a commercial gallery in Munich for 35 years and counting. In two years time, Kettaneh Kunigk is establishing a Beirut branch of Galerie Tanit, which specialises in contemporary art from Europe and the Middle East. In addition to a name, the new gallery is to have a fixed address. But until it opens, Kunigk is playing with temporality and taking advantage of the fact that Beirut is riddled with spaces that are shuttered, abandoned, left derelict or paralysed by ownership disputes spaces that are, in other words, perfectly suited for provisional rehabilitation.
"I like the idea of art on the street," says Kunigk. "I like that notion of contact. Its very important. It gives a sensitivity to people who are passing by. It makes them curious." Although Beirut's contemporary art scene has earned international recognition, its visibility within the city itself is not, as yet, self-evident. Say the word gallery to most Beirut residents and they will probably assume you are talking about a furniture shop. It is worth noting that none of the most active arts organisations in the Lebanese capital Ashkal Alwan, the Arab Image Foundation, Beirut DC have permanent exhibition spaces of their own. Whenever they present their work to the public, they tend to rely on renting or borrowing venues that otherwise function as theatres or cinemas.
This nomadic approach to art is linked to several factors. The first reason is financial real estate is expensive and prices are still going up. The second reason is a reluctance to commit to long-term planning there might always be another war, so why invest in building or massively overhauling a space? The third and perhaps most intriguing reason is that there isn't any consensus on what a proper gallery space would be, especially as the white-cube model is seen as a western import.
Many of the city's traditional art galleries look more like converted apartments. Take, for instance, the personal-library vibe of the Agial Art Gallery in Hamra, the heavily gilded decor of Galerie Alwan in Saifi Village, or the labyrinthine rooms of Galerie Janine Rubeiz in Raouche, which really is a converted apartment that once belonged to the owner and director Nadine Begdaches mother. Beirut does have one white-cube-style gallery, Galerie Sfeir-Semler, but it is situated far from the city centre and is all but impossible to reach on foot.
Kunigk's streetwise strategy is not only a useful link; it is also a clear indication of an aesthetic sensibility. All of the artists with whom she works from Asfar, Joreige and Nahas to Gilbert Hage, Zena al Khalil and Fouad Elkoury are concerned with the city, its visual culture and its material texture. Also at issue are the ways in which one moves through Beirut, where physical roadblocks periodically rise and fall but where psychological barriers prove stubbornly persistent. By taking her gallery from one space to the next, one neighbourhood to the next, Kunigk amplifies the meaning of the work that travels with her.