Beirut is scattered with abandoned buildings, slowly and quietly crumbing back into the earth that supports them. In the peaceful gardens and courtyards of many of these buildings, rubber trees make their exuberant way towards the sky, their roots digging beneath concrete and stone, undermining the foundations of the houses for whose occupants they were planted to provide shade.

Lebanese artist Abed Al Kadiri is fascinated by the relationship between these trees and the abandoned houses they are slowly overwhelming. In his first solo show at the Sursock Museum, The Story of the Rubber Tree, he dwells on one particular old house which was abandoned after a family feud.

“Every time the tree will have a different metaphor,” he says. “Here, it represents the conflict between two brothers, which was the main reason this house became abandoned, but in other artworks the tree will have different connotations.”

The Blacksmith and the Rubber Tree is a series of three diptychs, resembling illustrations in a book, executed in black and white using a mixture of oil paint and smudgeable, impermanent graphite and charcoal. In the first, a man plants a rubber tree sapling outside a house with arched windows and a neat little balcony. In the second, he is inside, toiling with a hammer over an anvil, surrounded by metal chairs. Outside, the rubber tree has grown until the page can no longer contain it. In the third, the man has gone. The chairs lie bent and twisted in a heap and the rubber tree has insinuated its way within the house, now abandoned.

In Dreams: Branch is the Brother takes the metaphor of the blacksmith whose hard work built the house he intended to be his legacy, only for it to become the catalyst for the fight that would forever divide the family, to its tragic conclusion. An enormous sculpture of a rubber tree is cast in solid bronze, its thick, matte leaves hiding polished, deadly looking spikes. Beside it on the ground slumps a misshapen chair, made not of metal but of white rubber.

“The tree represents the skill of the blacksmith who built the house,” explains Al Kadiri. “He made so many chairs and then he died and the house was left empty, so I made the tree out of bronze and the chair from rubber, because when I saw the house it was full of chairs but nobody was sitting on them – they were empty chairs. Cold chairs.”

The final work is a six-minute video entitled Where There Is No One: A Tree. Accompanied by an eerie, dissonant score, the camera pans slowly through the abandoned house, caressing its scarred walls, panning up to show the towering tree that has found life in the building’s slow death, lingering on the faint trembling of an abandoned wire lampshade. A man slowly detangles a heap of rusty chairs and the frame of an old coffee table. In the courtyard, he arranges the chairs carefully around the skeleton of the table, settling them amid the dead leaves that lie thick upon the ground.

The Story of the Rubber Tree continues at the Sursock Museum’s Twin Galleries until June 4

Featured image: Abed Al Kadiri, In Dreams: Branch is the Brother (detail), 2017-18, Installation: bronze and rubber sculptures.