Marwan Rechmaoui’s “Metropolis” at Sursock

Ibrahim Kombarji
Contributing Writer

On Wednesday, September 20, Beirut was once again at the center of the talk; “Look that’s where Karim lives!”, “And this is where the green line used to cross no?”

Marwan Rechamoui’s “Beirut Caoutchouc” (2004) was back in our city for the launching of Rechamoui’s newly published monograph: “Metropolis”. This colossal black rubber map of the city divided into different parts was laid out in front of the Sursock Museum. Under the colored arcades, a crowd of curious lovers and haters of the city met to celebrate Beirut once again.

Rechmaoui is one of the most recognized and exhibited contemporary artists in Lebanon. That night, the place was busy with friends, admirers of all ages, and curious eyes that wanted to share their thoughts, exchange a smile, and get their book signed.

It is a rather interesting exercise for such an active artist to look through his extensive twenty years of work and construct a first reading of his “oeuvre”. As such, within “Metropolis”, Rechmaoui presents some images, text, maps, and other collected data that reflect on our geography, social behaviors and culture. He has worked with different landmarks over the years – Burj el Murr, Yacoubian Building, and Nahr el Kalb  – questioning their power as “labyrinthine zones”, as described by Jalal Toufic, and a way to interrogate the symbolism and monumentality behind landmarks.

This questioning of the “whole” and the “particular” is clear in his deconstruction of Beirut’s map. Rechmaoui usually works with a variety of industrial materials such as rubber, concrete, glass, and plastic. In an earlier impromptu discussion with the artist, he  argued, “Materiality is very important, it’s what reminds us that we are all animals, we touch.”

Being close to the work and reflecting on a scale is also at the heart of his practice. In a way, the urban fabric and architecture become a poignant symbol for a place and its history in his works.

Through these monuments, Rechmaoui reads the notions of legacy and war as everlasting. During the “Serpentine Galleries Map Marathon” (2010), he mentioned that “cities are composed of words and architecture,” and a lot of his work deals with Beirut as an urban setting.

One of his latest works, “Blazon” inevitably proves his extensive research process. He deconstructed Beirut again in an “exposé” manner and produced “pockets” that constitute Beirut to look at the city’s identity through etymology, emblems and landmarks. This massive installation echoes the constant tension Beirutis live in. He organized an army of flags that reverberate through feeling and sound.

Rechmaoui, within a larger group of artists, is constantly facing the responsibility of the artist confronted with history. He explained that this rubber map was earlier placed at an event at AUB in front of Jafet Library. Rechmaoui amusingly remembered the intrigued, skeptical and entertained faces of passer-bys. This excitement was intact the night of the launching and continues to stimulate.  Overlooking our city from above, while keeping in mind the main issues discussed in his book, we reflect again and again on Beirut, its story and why we are all still so attached to it.

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