Taking a Stand
As long-running art and trade fairs become established institutions in their own right, there’s the challenge that these annual shows become much of a muchness. Not so with the Beirut Art Fair, which, in its sixth edition, proved that it can stay fresh and relevant.
On the opening night of the Beirut Art Fair, crowds of well-dressed visitors gathered in the lobby, exchanging greetings and air kisses before filing slowly into the main hall. Amongst them, in a piece of superb incongruity, roamed a live sheep, most of its torso shorn of wool, its bald pink flanks inscribed with a mysterious pattern of black dots. Faro, as the sheep was named, was the centrepiece of a performance artwork by Lebanese artist Ghassan Ghazal. Curated by the fair’s French artistic director Pascal Odille, ‘Virtual/reality’ was the main non-commercial undertaking and the highlight of the sixth edition of the fair, which ran from September 17th to 20th. Featuring work by nine contemporary artists, the exhibition explored the coexistence of the real and the virtual in the digital age. Set in the centre of the hall, amid booths by 42 art galleries and 10 design galleries, it provided an effective counterpart to the work on show elsewhere, which was dominated by paintings (but also included plenty of sculpture, photography and some work in less traditional formats.) “We have reached a moment in society where we interact a lot more via social networks than through direct contact,” Odille told me in one of those rare face-to-face meetings in a quiet café in Sursock. “There is this sense that the lines are blurring between what is real and what is virtual in our day-to-day lives. So I began asking myself how to depict this process from the beginning, in a way that is playful and interactive, and allows for a measure of reflection. I set out to discover where the notion of real versus virtual began, with regards to art.” Odille’s starting point was 17th century Flemish perspective boxes, in which a convincing illusion of an interior was created inside a box, using truncated perspective and a strategic placement of walls and floor. The works on show at the fair included a contemporary perspective box by South African artist Vivian Van Blerk, which gave visitors a glimpse into Lebanon’s cultural history, inviting them to peer through a peephole of a house full of figures set against a landscape of marvels housed in the National Museum, from tiny Roman mosaics to artefacts. Ghazal’s Faro juxtaposed the reality of the animal, out of place and afraid in a sea of people, with the persona carefully constructed around it. “Faro exists, as a sheep, but Faro has a whole virtual