Neue Luxury - - News - By Shirine Saad

Le­banese busi­ness­man and col­lec­tor Tony Salamé stood on an es­ca­la­tor above a crowd of some 2000 lav­ishly dressed so­cialites, art world im­pre­sar­ios, politi­cians and jour­nal­ists. They joined him for the much an­tic­i­pated launch of Aïshti, the enor­mous $100 mil­lion mall and art foun­da­tion set along­side the pic­turesque Mediter­ranean, 20 min­utes from Beirut. Around him ev­ery­thing glim­mered: the pat­terned mar­ble floors and pol­ished steel fit­tings re­flected the neon lights of the lux­ury bou­tiques ar­ranged around the cen­tral atrium. Se­quined dresses, em­bel­lished bags and patent pumps pre­ciously dis­played, re­minded ev­ery­one that the space was as much about art as it was about com­merce. Salamé stood ra­di­ant, his glow­ing skin and grin be­tray­ing noth­ing of the apoc­a­lyp­tic storm that had hit Beirut that same morn­ing.

De­spite the non- ex­is­tent gov­ern­ment, tragic Syr­ian refugee cri­sis, dys­func­tional elec­tric­ity and wa­ter sys­tems, Salamé set out to build a 35,000 square me­tre mall and art foun­da­tion in two years. Salamé cham­pi­oned his am­bi­tious pro­ject aided by the con­tri­bu­tion of an ex­pe­ri­enced team of cre­ative thinkers from around the world in­clud­ing: New York art dealer Jef­frey Deitch, artis­tic di­rec­tor of the New Mu­seum Mas­si­m­il­iano Gioni, ar­chi­tect David Ad­jaye and Ce­cilia Ale­mani of the High Line Art pro­ject.

Salamé has over­come many ob­sta­cles since com­ing of age at the dawn of the Le­banese Civil War. As bombs and check­points punc­tu­ated the daily lives of Beirutis in the 1980s, and de­spite the loom­ing chal­lenges of shut off air­ports and phone lines, Salamé be­gan im­port­ing Euro­pean brands to cater for the fash­ion savvy. Salamé’s per­sis­tence re­sulted in the ex­pan­sion of his bur­geon­ing chain of bou­tiques, quickly es­tab­lish­ing him­self as one of the savvi­est en­trepreneurs and art col­lec­tors in the world.

At the Aïshti four day long open­ing ex­trav­a­ganza, Salamé flaunted his gen­er­ous hos­pi­tal­ity to 400 VIPS from around the world. Bring­ing to­gether lead­ing fig­ures in the art and fash­ion worlds, in­clud­ing his close col­lab­o­ra­tors and art deal­ers Si­mon de Pury, Thad­daeus Ropac, Gavin Brown, artists Dan Colen, Daniel Buren and Mau­r­izio Cat­te­lan. The guests dined on a ter­race un­der the at­mo­spher­i­cally lit Sur­sock Mu­seum, en­joyed hip-hop tunes in a jas­mine scented gar­den at Salamé’s Metropoli­tan Art So­ci­ety, viewed Richard Prince In­sta­gram prints and fi­nally en­joy­ing the new, al­beit un­fin­ished, Aïshti Foun­da­tion on the wa­ter­front high­way.

They marched into the ma­jes­tic en­trance and gath­ered in the grand mar­bled lobby, snap­ping glasses of cham­pagne from roam­ing servers. They as­cended on es­ca­la­tors to­wards the Cé­line, Dolce & Gab­bana, Prada and Chloé bou­tiques. In the ad­ja­cent art space, four floors were filled with mostly mon­u­men­tal pieces by prom­i­nent con­tem­po­rary artists in­clud­ing: Ster­ling Ruby, Urs Fis­cher, Ger­hard Richter and Wolf­gang Till­mans. Fi­nally the guests met on the pi­azza nes­tled below the brick-red steel façade, en­joy­ing Le­banese snacks while tak­ing in the sa­line whiffs blow­ing in from the sea. They bro­kered deals, shared the lat­est gos­sip, and dis­cussed their re­la­tion­ships with Salamé. “I met him when he bought one of my sculp­tures, and asked me to cre­ate a sculp­ture for his home,” ex­plained a giddy Daniel Buren. “I ac­cepted his in­vi­ta­tion be­cause I wanted to see his home coun­try.”

As for David Ad­jaye, the pro­ject’s ar­chi­tect, he was both pen­sive and proud. Star­ing at the hori­zon one sunny af­ter­noon be­fore the press pre­view, he re­called the dark mem­o­ries of his early days in Beirut, where he moved with his fa­ther, a Ghana­ian diplo­mat. “I’m very sad be­cause this place has so much more than this hor­ri­ble cri­sis,” adding that he had con­ceived the build­ing as a peace­ful, al­beit com­plex oa­sis in the chaos of the den­si­fy­ing ur­ban space.

The façade it­self mir­rors Le­banon’s her­itage, its red­dish tone rem­i­nis­cent of the brick roofs of the coun­try’s old houses. Shaped like a mas­sive tilted con­tainer it carves a strik­ing fig­ure on the in­dus­trial high­way fac­ing the sea. Its laser cut pat­tern refers to the clas­sic mashra­biya of Is­lamic ar­chi­tec­ture, fil­ter­ing the warm Mediter­ranean sun and cast­ing tex­tured shad­ows through­out the space. Ad­jaye is renowned for his work with artists like Chris Ofili and Ola­fur Elias­son and fash­ion de­sign­ers such as Ozwald Boateng and Chrome Hearts. He cre­ated two dis­tinct en­vi­ron­ments for the mall and art foun­da­tion. “Tony’s ap­pre­ci­a­tion for art comes from his back­ground in fash­ion,” ex­plains Ad­jaye. “The two spa­ces I cre­ated have in­tegrity and coexist. In the art space you have pro­por­tion, ge­om­e­try, per­fect light­ing, per­fect cli­mate. In the re­tail space it’s about voyeurism, re­flec­tions, en­joy­ment and sen­su­al­ity.”

The pro­ject is ground break­ing and con­tro­ver­sial for two rea­sons: its seam­less blend of shop­ping and art, and the scope and con­tent of the col­lec­tion, which brings a high con­cen­tra­tion of con­tem­po­rary art by lead­ing West­ern artists to the re­gion. Salamé in­sists that art and fash­ion are linked in his mind by a tire­less pas­sion for aes­thet­ics and new ideas. “I worked in fash­ion for over 20 years and re­alised fash­ion and art could be com­ple­men­tary,” ex­plains Salamé, who was al­ways drawn to col­lect­ing, “in a way this foun­da­tion is the con­tin­u­a­tion, the pro­gres­sion of my jour­ney. Fash­ion is all about col­lec­tions and mount­ing an art col­lec­tion is sim­i­lar in its logic. Fash­ion has helped me hone an eye and a ra­pid­ity of de­ci­sion. I am in­ter­ested in pow­er­ful ob­jects and in the idea. I like pure con­cepts, like Richard Prince’s monochromes or Lu­cio Fon­tana’s spa­tial­ism.”

The col­lec­tion re­flects this sen­si­bil­ity, with a ma­jor­ity of large scale works fit­ting into the fig­u­ral, ab­strac­tion and pop con­cep­tu­al­ism. Salamé has built his col­lec­tion in less than 10 years, tour­ing art fairs and artist stu­dios to snap up the most de­sir­able works on the mar­ket. Salamé tends to fo­cus par­tic­u­larly on a few artists he loves, own­ing sev­eral works by Giuseppe Penone, Urs Fis­cher, Richard Prince and Ger­hard Richter. He has de­vel­oped a par­tic­u­lar fond­ness for Arte Povera since a sem­i­nal en­counter with Ital­ian col­lec­tor and men­tor Dino Fac­chini, who ad­vised him in his 20s to be­gin col­lect­ing in a rig­or­ous man­ner.

“Salamé buys in­stinc­tively,” ex­plains Mas­si­m­il­iano Gioni, who cu­rated the foun­da­tion’s in­au­gu­ral ex­hi­bi­tion, New Skin, which fo­cused on for­mal and con­cep­tual re­ac­tions to new me­dia in con­tem­po­rary art. “He buys art that al­lows him to look be­yond his home coun­try and its trau­matic his­tory.”

Pri­vate ini­tia­tives such as Salamé’s bring more voices to the conversation, fur­ther bridg­ing the city with other scenes and draw­ing at­ten­tion to its thriv­ing and rich art scene. Since open­ing his first bou­tique, he has de­fied wars, bomb­ings, strikes, elec­tric­ity cuts, gov­ern­ment shut offs and fi­nan­cial cri­sis. Now he wants to share his pas­sion for art with his coun­try and the world, spark­ing new con­ver­sa­tions and ideas in a land­scape where per­spec­tives are of­ten bleak. While he is just one among many other pa­trons, he is bring­ing en­ergy and fresh ideas to the re­gion, in­spir­ing in­di­vid­u­als and of­fer­ing a glim­mer of hope dur­ing a tragic time.

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