As a child, Beirut-born artist Rayyane Tabet found a postcard addressed to his great grandfather Faek Borkhoche from German diplomat and ancient historian Max von Oppenheim. On asking his mother how such an item had come into their family’s possession, she answered, “It’s all a spy story.” This ‘spy story’ is retold by Fragments, the latest exhibition by Tabet.

Tabet leads the crowd through a series of drawings, sculptures and personal belongings, delivering the narrative as he goes, in the manner of a detective gradually revealing his clues. The piece is poetically and intriguingly delivered, as the story of Von Oppenheim’s dig becomes a thrilling tale of espionage and adventure with global repercussions. The interactive format lends itself perfectly to the piece, as Tabet leads us quite literally through an intriguing maze of narrative plot twists, allowing the audience a total immersion into the world of the story.

The backdrops are similarly arresting. One entire wall is filled with 1000 charcoal-on-paper rubbings of basalt fragments, representing the destroyed remains of the artefacts Oppenheim took with him to Germany and which were bombed during a nightly raid. Another installation consists of single soldier tents, a powerful reminder of the various colonial interventions in North Africa, the Levant and the Gulf that took place during the 20th century.

Rayyane Tabet
Ah, My Beautiful Venus!, 2017
6.5 tons of basalt, wooden trestles, foil pressings, shipping documents
200 x 1300 x 500 cm
Courtesy of the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery Beirut/Hamburg

The project stemmed from a performance presented at the 2016 Marrakech Biennale and evolved through a residency at the DAAD Artist-in-Berlin Program, and a show at Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam. No two performances are alike, as Tabet experiments with different pairings of the reading and objects, making each performance unique and site-specific.

The story of Tell Halaf, in Tabet’s own words is “a minor history, non-canonical.” Yet through this small, personal narrative, global issues of heritage conditions, colonial interventions and museological practices are questioned. “Tabet opens a way of breathing new life into new ways of archaeological telling,” says Bettina Steinbrügge, director of Kunstverein in Hamburg, where the completed project was first presented in November 2017.

Sfeir-Semler Gallery April 26-August 4