The Human in Material, a Fleeting Encounter with Rayyane Tabet

by Lara Morrell
October 7, 2019
Lara Morrell

We had a quick chat with Rayyane Tabet at Parasol unit foundation for contemporary art on his first major solo exhibition in the United Kingdom, with eight works from the past 13 years installed together for the first time, curated by Ziba Ardalan. Tabet’s works offers alternative perceptions of political and personal events within the parameters of sculpture and found objects. He unearths hidden narratives in experiences and materials, narratives with layered dimensions that go beyond the purely factual and teeter on the emotional.

Lara Morrell: The show begins with the piece ‘The Sea Hates a Coward’, hung oars belonging to a boat once rented by your father in 1987 when trying to escape the Lebanese Civil War, this boat was then re-found twenty-five years later. The piece appears to oscillate between collective and personal experience, could you tell me what sort of feelings came to the surface upon re-finding these objects?

Rayyane Tabet: When we found the boat during a family meal on the coast in Jbeil, this was the first time my father ever told us the story of the attempted escape. At the time we were young and until then I had always thought of it as a fun sea adventure. When we were told what had actually happened, this memory was completely transformed. So upon encountering this object and being able to re-appropriate and re-purpose it, it was a way of transforming and thinking about the memory of the object itself, a memory similar to ours, that had also witnessed that event. The object had been through the same and the object could stand in and be re-purposed for that moment. It came at a time when I was becoming more and more interested in the idea that objects telling an alternative version of history that is not only subjective, history happens to things, not only to people.

Lara Morrell: Yes, your work tends to make things/materials more human, highlighting the personal and emotional, transforming the material through the role of storytelling. Where did this approach come from?

Rayyane Tabet: I think it started with the first encounter with The New York Times piece (‘Friday, September 1, 2006’*) which ends up being one of the first works in the show. I stole the copy from a coffee shop on Third Avenue and 7th Street in Manhattan, shortly after having to evacuate Lebanon back in 2006. The front page showed an image of these trucks full of rubble going to dump their content to the sea, the rubble a result of the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon. So much of that war had been described through the experience of people, yet in that image I was looking at the material remains of that act of destruction. That image opened my eyes and transformed my way of looking at things, so I think it was then that I started refocussing the attention to finding the personal and the emotional within material.

*Friday, September 1, 2006 is a framed copy of the New York Times newspaper from that day. The front page depicts a line of loaded dump trucks that stretch to the sea, signaling the end of the military conflict between Lebanon and Israel earlier that summer. 

Lara Morrell: In ‘Colosse Aux Pieds D’Argile‘*, the large-scale installation across the entire first-floor gallery, emphasis is place on thinking through the past in relation to our present by bringing together two different materials spanning a 100 year history – what is the significance in bringing these two histories together?

Rayyane Tabet: This work came about from the discovery of a nineteenth-century house that had been destroyed in Beirut in order to be replaced by a concrete skyscraper. The house was owned by a large family where not all members agreed to sell the property to the developers. In order to accelerate the sale, the developer hired workers to break the columns of the house so that the roof would fall in and they would be forced to sell the property. So I bought back those columns and then got in touch with the developer and asked if I could buy the sky scraper’s concrete core samples (used to ensure they abide by the structural rules). So I started accumulating these columns in my studio and suddenly I was confronted with these two materials, from the same place, across one hundred years of history and belonging to two different logics, but what is interesting is that they have a lot of very similar formal qualities. This project starts confronting these two materials in a very organised grid, the idea borrowed from the language of ruins or archeological grids, but also graveyards or minefields. I have always felt that the discourse around urban environment has been caught between preservation and development and I think maybe there is a space in between where these moments have more in common that one might expect.

*Colosse Aux Pieds D’Argile is a large-scale sculptural installation composed of reclaimed marble columns and concrete cylinders that transforms the gallery into a field. 

Lara Morrell: Could you tell me about the title of the show – Encounters – to unexpectedly be faced with or experience (something hostile or difficult)? Also when was your first encounter with Parasol unit and Ziba Ardalan?

Rayyane Tabet:  A lot of the works in this show were entirely generated by accidents, like the encounter with the boat – something I didn’t have any idea about until we went to have dinner with my parents, or finding these columns while helping a friend look for old tiles. Many of these encounters have shaped my way of thinking through, I don’t sit in my studio and say to myself ‘today we are going to start making work with marble columns’, the studio is my world and it’s about finding those moments to look out for and listen to, sometimes it takes years before anything happens with them. I stole that New York Times copy in 2006 and I am showing it here for the first time 13 years later. It’s about making twists in these encounters.

My first encounter with Ziba was in 2016 in Berlin, when I was doing a residency there and this is actually my very first time in London!

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