Lebanese sculptor and installation artist Marwan Rechmaoui discusses his relationship to books, his act of censorship in the Istanbul Modern library and why history stimulates his imagination
Books play an intrinsic role in the work of sculptor and installation artist Marwan Rechmaoui, perhaps never more so than in his installation as part of the 2015 Istanbul Biennial. Rechmaoui visited Istanbul Modern to oversee the installation of pieces from his Pillar series, 14 large concrete sculptures resembling ruined skyscrapers. During a chat with the biennial’s curator, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, she mentioned the dilemma of what to do with the museum’s library during the exhibition period.
Rechmaoui told her about a project he had dreamt up for his personal library at home, whereby he would block off the bookshelves with sheets of glass, leaving a number of slots through which certain books could be extracted, while the rest remained visible but inaccessible. Spontaneously, the pair decided to install the piece in the museum’s library.
“I have a modest library at home — around 1500 books,” Rechmaoui explains. “I used to get a lot of books from the official Soviet publishing house. It was used for propaganda — they published books about Marxism for the masses. In the early 2000s, I started thinking that maybe these books have become obsolete… I thought I should keep them visible, but block them off in some way, because the information inside them is useless but they are an indication of a period in history, so their existence is important.”
A powerful piece of interactive art, at Istanbul Modern the installation raised questions about access to knowledge, leaving visitors to the museum able to access just 60 books from the library’s catalogue of 6000. “It took the direction of censorship of publications and the idea that censorship is always there,” the artist says. “Even if it’s not implemented by the state, you have self-censorship.”
The installation paired particularly effectively with a permanent installation in the library area, British artist Richard Wentworth’s False Ceiling, in which dozens of books are suspended from long strings, transforming them into decorative objects. Coincidentally, Wentworth’s installation also finds an echo in Rechmaoui’s newest work, Blazon. Installed on the roof of Ashkal Alwan during Home Works 7, the piece is made up of dozens of embroidered flags, fabricated according to the artist’s specifications by local designers Bokja, which hang from a metal frame a few metres above the ground. Some display pictures of well-known buildings or monuments, evoking the symbols on a coat of arms. Others display names picked out in Arabic letters. Together, they create an abstract, fractured map of Beirut, a city divided into factions, each defined by its assets.
“This work was instigated by Samir Kassir’s history of Beirut,” Rechmaoui says. “When I read Beirut, I very much liked the way he tackled more daily issues, not just the big events of history. I went from that back to all the references he used. Then, of course, from there you go to other things… I read a lot about chivalry, the history of it and how it’s structured. I read anything I could find about the history of Beirut.”
In Blazon, Rechamoui envisages the city as an army. “The idea started when I realised that we are living in a place where we are always on guard,” he explains. “We’re always ready for something to happen. This made me think that we are like soldiers.”
The artist breaks the city down into 60 neighbourhoods, assigning each landmark a colour, based on its name, which, he discovered, is always derived from one of five things: architecture, nature, geography, religion or a family name.
The work continues in the vein of earlier projects, which also focus on urban development and social history. For this reason perhaps, Rechmaoui reads mostly history and social studies books — works of philosophy or sociology. He does extensive reading before beginning work on a project. The research for Blazon alone has taken him almost ten years. “I get the idea and it’s almost complete usually — the scale, the material, the image of it,” he explains. “Usually it comes as a flash. And then I start researching, about the idea and about why I got the idea.”
That’s not to say that literature hasn’t helped to shape his sensibilities and interests too. “I was a bad student at school,” he recalls. “Every day there were studying hours after school. So what I used to do, in my late teens, is I read all the classics, but under the table, because I was afraid my father would come into the room and catch me. At that time I read Victor Hugo and Marguerite Dumas and Wuthering Heights. In Arabic I read Kalila wa Dimna, and poetry, of course. Abu Al-Ala al-Maari is someone I keep close. He was a blind poet living in Syria in the 11th century, and he’s the first existentialist… His poetry is difficult because it’s very philosophical. These are things that you keep coming back to. At each age you understand them differently.”
In the end, though, it’s the passing of time that interests Rechmaoui. “I’ve been a reader of history for at least the last 20 years,” he says. “It’s been a main interest because it’s full of images and it reconstructs disappeared worlds. I like the element of imagination involved in it. It’s similar to fiction, but it’s about things that existed at one time. I don’t read history by faith. I’m always paying attention and comparing different accounts. What interests me is how things change — the dynamics of change, that’s my thing.”
Marwan Rechmaoui is showcasing Blazon at Sfeir-Semler Gallery in Beirut until May 7.
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Interventions Issue #34, on page 98.