A new monograph of Marwan Rechmaoui charts the artist’s obsessive mapping of the destruction and reconstruction of Beirut over a period of 20 years

Part landscape, part sculpture, part cartography and part documentary, the work of Marwan Rechmaoui blurs many lines, even as it returns again and again to the same subject — the urban, social, political and historical fabric of Beirut.

In Metropolis, a new monograph published by Beirut-based Kaph Books, texts by Catherine David, Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Waddah Charara help to contextualise 20 years of Rechmaoui’s work. Covering work produced between 1996 and 2016, the book sheds light on the innovations and obsessions of an unassuming artist who has played a key role on Beirut’s art scene — even helping to found Ashkal Alwan (the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts) — and yet chooses to remain on its peripheries.

The book’s introduction by David defines Rechmaoui’s work as “an ultra-contemporary hyper-cartography project”, a phrase she expounds on by exploring how his works are all rooted in the complexities of urban space. The monograph focuses on various projects including: Monument for the Living (2002), a small concrete replica of Burj al-Murr, an unfinished skyscraper occupied by militiamen during the Lebanese Civil War; Beirut Caoutchouc (2004), a sectional rubber floor mat, mapping Beirut’s neighbourhoods; Spectre (2006), a model of the Yacoubian Building, a smart housing development that housed refugees during the war; and Blazon, Rechmaoui’s most recent project. This latest piece is an exhaustive mapping of Beirut through metal shields and embroidered flags, which explores the landmarks and names that define its neighbourhoods.

A comprehensive essay by Wilson-Goldie situates Rechmaoui’s work within a context of Western and Levantine modernist abstraction. She notes that in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine, many abstract artists often choose to capture landscapes, perhaps because those landscapes “have been vulnerable, unstable, threatened, falling apart, because they have been lost, because they are gone”. Although from a younger, more contemporary generation, Rechmaoui, she suggests, can be considered a landscape painter too, one who works with the physical materials of the city itself and who often spends up to a decade on a single project. Over more than two decades, he has charted the destruction and reconstruction of the city he has made home, shedding light on its complex politics, fractured society and violent history in the process.

Although the artist often spends years reading and researching for each of his projects, he chooses not to share his documentation with audiences, instead allowing the final physical manifestations of his work to speak for themselves. “From those forms,” writes Wilson-Goldie, “a landscape emerges, familiar but reconfigured, riven in ways that are hard to see and difficult, even painful, to understand.” These landscapes are communicated through the visual portion of the book. Hundreds of colour images of Rechmaoui’s work help to shed light on his working process and the final forms his projects take, providing readers with a comprehensive overview of his oeuvre.

Metropolis is an insightful and beautifully realised monograph that illuminates the early career of an artist who doubtless has much more left to say.

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, Letters From The Past #43, pages 110-113.