I recall a visit we paid to Baron von Oppenheim in Berlin when he took us to the Museum of his finds. Max and he talked excitedly for (I think) five solid hours. There was nowhere to sit down. My interest, at first acute, flagged, and finally died down completely. With lack-lustre eyes, I examined the various extremely ugly statues which had come from Tell Halaf, and which in the Baron’s view was contemporary with the extremely interesting pottery. Max was endeavouring to differ politely on this point without contradicting him flatly. To my dazed glance, all the statues seemed strangely alike. It was only after a little while that I made the discovery that they were alike since all but one were plaster reproductions. Baron von Oppenheim stopped in his eager dissertation to say lovingly: “Ah, my beautiful Venus!” and stroke the figure affectionately. Then he plunged back into the discussion and I wished sadly that I could, in the old nursery phrase, cut off my feet and turn up the ends!
– Agatha Christie, Come, tell me how you live, Williams Collins, 1946

In this latest edition of the Para | Fictions series at Rotterdam’s Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Lebanese artist, Rayyane Tabet presents an iteration of his wider project dealing with Max von Oppenheim’s excavation in Syria. Tabet creates narrative threads based on the figure of the “Tell Halaf Venus”, a commemorative grave figure from the Neo-Hittite period. The installation part of the exhibition titled Ah, my beautiful Venus! follows a particular sculpture through cycles of ‘unearthing, violence, and display traced through literary sources including Agatha Christie, Max von Oppenheim and André Malraux.’

Oppenheim was given permission to excavate the site, known as Tell Halaf, between 1911 and 1913. The finds of this were stunning statues of gods and animals, sculpted in basalt divided between the National Museum in Aleppo and Oppenheim, who took his share home to Berlin, where he created a private museum displaying his antiquities in an old iron-foundry. This Venus find was originally excavated by Oppenheim from the Tell Halaf dig on the border of Turkey and Syria, and one that has gone through a cycle of destruction and restoration over several millennia. A cast of the original was then housed at his Halaf Museum but smashed to smithereens as a result of the British bombing of Berlin in November 1943.

Tabet’s installation brings together fact, fiction and myth in an abstracted sculptural fashion that consists of several fragmented and recast facial parts of this mysterious Venus. Grey (phantom-like) forms displayed on an assembled pedestals emblematic of the current unknown fate of this reproduction now entwined in art history. Tabet’s approach is archaeological in that he deconstructs the material form of historical artefacts in order to inform what eventually translates into abstract but poignant sculptural installations. His works, as demonstrated here in Ah, my beautiful Venus! continues his ongoing concerns of researching hidden histories that are transformed and retold through objects and installations.

Rayyane Tabet, Ah, My Beautiful Venus! runs through 8 October 2017 and is part of a cycle of sustained investigations at Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art exploring the relationship between literature and visual art through the practice of ten contemporary artists.


by Jareh Das