The Daily Star

Farid’s ‘Maarad Trablous’
debuts at the 32nd
Bienal de São Paulo 

by Jim Quilty 

Saturday, October 1, 2016

BEIRUT: Are there casual conversations about modernist architecture?  As they take their daily constitutional on Ain al-Mreisseh’s seaside Corniche, do Beirutis lament how the minimalist simplicity of the structure housing Astisanat du Liban come to be swathed in neo-orientalist kitsch? What does kitsch-swathed modernism mean? 

“Maarad Trablous,” the understated new work by Kuwaiti-Puerto Rican artist Alia Farid, can easily be read as a conversation with modernism, albeit without dialogue. Comissioned by the Fundaçao Bienal de São Paulo, the piece is currently on show at the 32nd São Paulo Biennal, entitled “Live Uncertainty.”

A few traces of Lebanon’s brush with modernism still dot its landscape. The best known agglomeration is Trablous’ Permanent International Exhibition Center – later renamed the Rashid Karame International Fair, Maarad Trablous.

Wedged into the urban Fabric like a booby trap, this largely disused, 10,000-hectare precis of Brazilian modernist architecture was designed in 1966 by Oscar Niemeyer, a true icon in the field, while he was in self-imposed exile from Brazil’s 1964-85 military junta. The Maarad’s principal construction was mostly completed by 1974, but Lebanon’s Civil War pre-empted it’s opening. By the time the war ended 15 years later, the project’s political impetus had been pulverized, along with any sense of public service. If the Maarad is an artifact of a past vision of urban development conditioned by the public good, it was abandoned, unfinished.

Since then, the sheer incongruity of the space has tempted artists to create or exhibit contemporary art there. In this, it’s not unlike Beirut’s City Center Cinema, a giant concrete corn kernel elevated on a boxy plinth, one of the few modernist traces to survive Downtown’s post-war reconstruction. Like the cinema, the Maarad often beggars the art it is meant to house – or which presumes to incorporate it.

Shot on the grounds of the Maarad in 2016, “Maarad Trablous” combines elements of performance and documentary film.

From “Maarad Trablous,” 2016.

From “Maarad Trablous,” 2016.

As it commences, the camera scrutinizes the site’s “gateway arch,” panning right to left, up and down its length. The fixed camera finds and unnamed young woman (Nowar Yusuf) standing alongside the structure, hands clasped and raised above her head as if to underline how the curve of the arch emulates the feminine form.

As the work proceeds, this feminine figure sometimes wanders into landscape shots of the Maarad.

Situated beneath an eye-shaped slit opening one of the site’e elevated concrete surfaces, the camera (DP Mark Khalife) finds Yusuf’s form skirting the edge of the opening.

The feminine form reappears at the top of the site’s circular helicopter pad, where she walks in circles. Later still, while the camera gazes at the domed roof of Neimeyer’s experimental theater, the female figure again appears, descending to walk a circuit around the dome.

At times it is her own form that is the subject. Laying facedown on one of the Maarad’s prefabricated stones, she idly slaps its surface to ward off a bug scurrying across it. Rolling over on her back, she gazes up at the sun, closing one eye then the other like a child.

In counterpoint to her perambulations are the piece’d documentary style interludes. Nadim Mishlaw’s electronic score falls away and the camera observes the Maarad’s mundane daytime going-ons.

Clusters of women gesture in conversation as they walk brisk laps around the grounds. A laborer navigates his riding mower over a patch of grass, whose well-maintained manicure contrasts with some of the structures’ scuffed concrete and drained reflecting pools.

Resplendent in a freshly laundered tracksuit, a senior citizen moves purposefully through the seating of the site’s outdoor theater, the stiff soles of his running shoes sounding the beat of his progress.

As if to accentuate the contrast with these rituals of light exercise, Farid has her heroine repeat certain gestures – walking across the site, returning to the top of the theater’s domed roof, again skirting the concrete concourse’s eye-shaped gash – creating the impression of a phantom haunting the forms.

In her notes to “Maarad Trablous,” Farid has said that the work sets out to create a dialogue between two spaces. One is the physically resilient, yet derelict, Trablous fairground, whose structures echo several of Niemeyer’s formal gestures. The other is Ibirapuera, which hosts the São Paulo Biennial, the bustling urban park whose public art includes Niemeyer pieces.

The notes suggest that the female protagonist’s “condition as a hollow vessel is both a symbol of hope and defeat. Past and present dissolve leaving viewers and subject alike stranded, waiting for the future.”    

Such characterization acquires considerable resonance if members of the public are aware that Yusuf, the actor portraying the heroine, studied theater in Damascus – setting the modernist project against the ongoing Syrian conflict and refugee crisis. The absence of such knowledge, however, does nothing to undermine the work.

Having established her formal affinity to the Maarad’s architecture, the narrative she enacts – wandering about Niemeyer’s modernist forms as if in search of something or someone – is one of listlessness. 

Inhabiting a derelict, formally modern space, she is a universal figure awaiting a canceled appoinment.