Looking sideways at history

Rayyane Tabet, Steel Rings, 2013–. AR September 2019 Feature
Rayyane Tabet, Steel Rings, 2013–. AR September 2019 Feature

The French cultural theorist Paul Virilio once described the writer Georges Perec as someone who ‘looks to the side in order to reject the fixed view, the voyeur’s squint, and to drift from object to subject, from things to the general rumble of an epoch’. The same might be said of Beirut-based artist Rayyane Tabet. Taking formal inspiration from overlooked and often banal objects, wrapping them in personal anecdotes and supernational histories, he makes the kind of artworks that you don’t so much look at as drift through before coming out the other end at someplace unexpected and distinctly other than where you started.

Like history itself, many of the objects he presents or evokes exist in a state that oscillates between relevance and redundancy, and reveal both subjective and objective truths. Take Steel Rings (2013–), for example: it’s a sequence of 39 10cm-wide rolled-steel rings arranged in a line. At first glance, it’s a precise and elegant formal experiment but not a particularly novel one: the kind of exercise in seriality we might recognise from art-historical guides to Conceptualism and Minimalism. Look closer and each of the rings is engraved with a distance and location in longitude and latitude, marking a specific place along the now defunct Trans-Arabian Pipeline (Steel Rings is often presented alongside Tabet’s wider research into the structure, making that connection obvious without recourse to Googling, maps or geolocation devices). Built in 1947, by an alliance of US oil companies, the Tapline, as it is known, spanned 1,214km, pumping oil from eastern Saudi Arabia to Lebanon via Syria and Jordan, the last leg a detour from what was originally a straighter line, forced upon its builders by the partition of Palestine and establishment of the state of Israel (the line was originally planned to terminate in Haifa): proof, if it was needed, that the map is never the territory. That seemingly innocent formal experiment starts to morph into a description of global politics and economics, the circulation of resources and international trade. Tapline survived the Six-Day War (1967) and Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights (through which a section of the pipeline runs), but not the first Gulf War (1990–91), at the onset of which it was abandoned as a result of Saudi Arabia’s opposition to Jordan’s support of Iraq (the section beyond Jordan had closed in 1976 for reasons more closely connected to economic viability). Now it snakes uselessly through empty deserts and by the sides of more useful roads, rendered redundant by shifts in the very geopolitics that had shaped and enabled its construction in the first place. Tapline stands today as what Virilio would have recognised as a ‘symptom’ of history, of the time and circumstances that led to its creation. The identification of symptoms, of course, can be the result of both subjective and objective points of view.

“I’m interested in the question of whether we could create a history told by objects and materials,” the artist says, riffing off the theme of an objective truth. “A lot of the time those last longer than people and are able to overcome moments of violence and marginalisation in a way that people cannot.” When he talks about objects and materials, he doesn’t necessarily mean the kind of objects and materials that are designated as special and are collected by museums (although these form the basis of more recent works, such as the ongoing Fragments, 2016–, the latest iteration of which, Alien Object, will go on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York this October), but rather a more general material culture constituted of artefacts that tend to slip by us in the white noise of the everyday: rowboats, fonts, postcards, pulp fiction, radio reports of football matches, corporate logos, bars and brewery products have all been subjects of his art.

A 2018 exhibition at Galleria Franco Noero in Turin was titled Hidden in Plain Sight. One of the works on show was Road Trip (2018), a collection (assembled over several years) of almost a thousand tourist postcards arranged in a friezelike structure across the gallery walls so as to describe a journey from Baalbek in Lebanon to Piazza Carignano in Turin (where one of Noero’s two galleries is located) via all 20 regions of Italy. It also follows the story of the Veltro font, designed in 1931 for Turin’s Nebiolo foundry. The font became affectionately known as ‘Mussolini’ because of the formal resemblance of its capital M to that which began Il Duce’s signature. Despite the association and Mussolini’s downfall, during the postwar era and well into the 1960s Veltro was the primary font used on tourist postcards across the nation (and incidentally, the primary font used on cards published by Azione Cattolica, which has its own somewhat problematic relation to the Italian dictator) and each of the postcards on show in Road Trip.

“I never intend the narratives or anecdotes as explanations of the works, and the works are not illustrations of these texts. Maybe there’s a slippage that happens in between the two”

“It was very strange for me to think that the leading font for Italian postwar postcards is literally the handwriting of Mussolini,” Tabet recalls, “but that’s when I feel that things are able to slip out of their original context and somehow survive. My proposition is that they end up writing their own history. They are the product of a particular time and context and intention, but they overcome that by appearing innocent: it’s just a font, it’s able to survive its history and to keep circulating, so much so that its history gets completely evacuated from its form.” Although, by the time Tabet has handled those things, their history is returned. Despite the fact that he deliberately presents the narratives that frame his work separately from the objects themselves, neither descriptions nor captions, they seem to travel with you around one of Tabet’s shows, to the extent that you’re never quite sure whether you are reading an object through a story or a story through an object, whether the narrative animates the form or the form animates a concept. Although, in the present era of weaponised information, you are certain that something or someone is being manipulated along the way.

“I’m interested in that tension,” Tabet says with a seeming innocence. “I never intend the narratives or anecdotes as explanations of the works, and the works are not illustrations of these texts. Maybe there’s a slippage that happens in between the two. The texts are either very factual or very personal. On the other hand, the object is the opposite.” In this case the object is just a font, although without direction it might just be a collection of old postcards from a time before phone cameras and instant messaging that you might find today in any Italian bric-a-brac shop.

Tabet grew up in Lebanon, studied architecture at The Cooper Union in New York and then sculpture at the University of California, San Diego (where he worked closely with the British sculptor Anya Gallaccio). The process of research into the history and properties of a site (the notion that a building comes from something more than the imagination of an architect combined with the constraints of a brief) in New York has stayed with him, as has the sensitivity to the wider properties of materials that he developed in San Diego. 

“My interest in architecture started as a child,” Tabet remembers. “I came of age during the early 1990s, when Beirut was being reconstructed. In formal terms it was a very interesting time. The city had been gutted and I hadn’t experienced it before the war” – which ended in 1990 – “so I could only experience it as form without function. Different types of buildings from different eras all stood next to each other as partial ruins and all of them read as contemporary to each other. For me these forms were playful encounters that were part of the same field. But as the city started being catalogued and restored, gradually there was a clear path around the Roman baths, the modernist buildings had been renovated and they fell into categorisations that made them no longer part of the same field. To me that was kind of a shame, because in a very perverse way the war had put them in a dialogue that had not been possible before and would no longer be possible now. Previously they had displayed a form that could overcome their own history.”

There’s no doubt that one of the most intriguing elements of Tabet’s displays is the way in which they seem to assert and deny the historic context of objects at one and the same time. At times this sense is so overwhelming that you’re left wondering whether his restoration of such contexts is designed to reveal a symptom or to present a cure. 

“History is obsessed with periodisation,” Tabet explains. “At the end of a historical period everything ends. But if you look at it through the lens of objects or the history of architecture or design, these things keep on going. We are still living in buildings that were built long before the period in which we live. We adapt and modernise them, but the logic of the space is still dictated by the time period in which it was designed and built. How do we finetune our perception to be aware of those moments? At a certain point you realise it’s all around you. I always joke that whenever I’m invited to do a show I always start with what is around me at this moment. I know there’s something around this place that will help me tell a story.” He is, of course, looking with a sideways view.

“I always start with what is around me at this moment. I know there’s something around this place that will help me tell a story” 

You might well ask, at this point, whether or not, if Tabet’s sculptures are so dependent on the narratives or anecdotes within which they are wrapped, there is any real purpose to the creation of objects in and of themselves. In reality aren’t they just a series of empty forms? Another example of contemporary art’s overwhelming tendency to make something out of nothing without substantially adding to the ‘nothing’ at all? That, Tabet says, is where ‘you’ come in. 

“With sculpture and installation,” he explains, “you’re in the presence of an object, and that puts you in the present, it’s able to transcend the personal to transfer to you. Even though a lot of those stories and those objects [in my work] can be broken down to very particular narratives that stem from the personal or a precise experience, the medium of sculpture and the installation form, by spatialising those encounters, allows you, who probably has not gone through any of those experiences or moments, to be within them.” 

The Sea Hates a Coward (2015) is perhaps one of Tabet’s most personal works. It’s a pair of giant oars (almost 4.5m long), towering above you and suspended from the gallery ceiling. Their scale aside, the objects seem banal: ‘innocent’, as Tabet would put it. Then you find out that the oars belonged to a boat that Tabet’s father had hired in 1987 as part of a failed attempt to flee with his young family from Lebanon to Cyprus at the height of the Lebanese Civil War. In 2012 the family discovered the abandoned boat, complete with its original oars and anchor on the beach at Jbeil. The tale seems almost too tall to be true, and the presence of the oars in a gallery a consequence of history, chance and none of the above. “We get to where the oars come from, but this encounter with these objects hanging in the room that are so much bigger than you already puts you in that world. Even though those stories don’t relate to you, the experience has already made you connect with it,” the artist says, rather like a magician explaining his trick (although anyone who has been to more than a few contemporary art exhibitions already, even if only subconsciously, knows how the game works). “1987 – 2012 – 2019” – when the work will be shown as part of a survey exhibition at London’s Parasol Unit – “that’s my timeline,” he continues. The timeline of the object, which involves trees being felled, types of wood being carved, leisure, labour and general movement around and across seas, “is very different. The stories are located in time very clearly, but the objects are timeless.”

Friday, September 1, 2006 (2006) is a foundational work in this regard. It’s the front page of that day’s edition of The New York Times. Above a caption reading ‘A River of Rubble From the War in Lebanon’, it features a photograph of a column of rubble-filled trucks heading towards the sea following the ceasefire in the Lebanon War of that year. The story connected with the image is elsewhere (page A8), presumably because it is not that important. “That photo is not the classic from the region,” Tabet explains, “there are no people, it’s objective – just trucks full of rubble dumping their contents into the sea. The encounter with that image refocused my attention to think that maybe what I thought of previously as a nostalgic attitude to history is in fact an ever-present condition.” 

Rayyane Tabet: Encounters is on show at Parasol Unit, London, 29 September – 14 December; Alien Property is on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 30 October – 18 January

From the September 2019 issue of ArtReview 

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