In an attempt to delve into the private universe of artists and art collectors, Selections is exploring the sanctuaries of various men and women, some living and others who have passed away, and shedding light on places that remain out of bounds for the majority of people. We examine how these artists and art collectors live, what surrounds them and how they go about thinking, dreaming and creating. In order to get as personal as possible, we came up with customised questions that we then presented to each of these men and women (and in the case of those who passed away to their children), tailoring our queries to the way each of them lives and goes about creating his or her work. In parallel, we shot a short film, which you can view on our website, that navigates each artist and art collector’s sanctuary. The film allows viewers to get up close and personal with artists and art collectors who seldom open their personal space up to the world. A fascinating artistic journey into the hearts and minds of some of the region’s most intriguing people.
Young Lebanese artist Charbel Samuel Aoun was born in 1980 and started out as a conceptual designer for various architectural firms, a career path he chose after earning a Master’s degree in architecture in 2004. A great lover of nature, the artist created his own idyllic garden, which eventually grew into a miniature forest and which provides him with a refuge and respite from Lebanon’s contact busyness. His powerful, expressive paintings and his great installations have been showcased in various locales, including Tanit Gallery in Beirut, Lab 44 in Paris and MAC International in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
You hold a Master’s degree in architecture, when did art find you in the first flush?
Art is part of human nature. To be able to generate an artistic experience started as part of a self-discovery during my studies.
We’re exploring the concept of journeys, whether artistic, spiritual, practical and/or material. Out of all of those categories, which has been the most important one in terms of your own life?
Spiritual I say, as it may group art but also a life experience, where you sometimes lose your own spirituality to come back with a deviation. I think life and art both seek a spirituality.
Is this journey in art a purposeful act or a journey of discovery?
Art follows life, and even it is inferior to life as value, from my ethical perspective. As we are always open to the experience one can get through his track, sometimes joyful but mostly difficult specifically when the emotional is allowed to exist, one’s life is re-created, which could be considered a higher art form, that of a human being, whether rational or emotional or both. In that sense one’s journey is complete when open to different possibilities. And creativity follows.
You’ve created a wild garden, combining hundreds of varieties of plants and trees. Is your studio the centre of your art universe?
To say the centre is a very general term. My art universe combines many elements and different experiences at different stages. One of them is my garden, where my studio mostly exists, but the concept of a studio with a specific geographical location doesn’t really suits the variety of the self. I believe that today one can have a movable studio, especially since we belong to an era of constant movement, and during these fast movements we get to connect to different spaces and beings whom may affect our journey.
Is your studio itself a sanctuary, a place of inspiration?
Most of the time yes, but there are phases where it’s also a sort of prison made up by my own dreams.
Do you seek solace in your studio? And thus reflect it in your art?
My studio is my land, it’s composed of trees plants, insects and birds. It is a sort of organic form in perpetual place. First, I was planting trees driven by the love of life, now, 11 years later, what I planted ended up as a forest. My role among these green creatures ended, I’m the smallest in 2018, those trees offer fruit as a physical expression, and a lot about life behaviour and spirituality. This forest/studio provides solace, but there are moments when you seek to free yourself from your own nature, and that is when your most intimate space becomes a burden.
Speaking of art, how has your cultural background affected your experiences as an artist?
I obviously discovered years later, when perceiving my works, that a man who works with the land but also trained as an architect is having a self-discussion about life using two different languages. Aesthetics, materiality, causes, belong differently to a gardener than to an architect, so I think these two cultural backgrounds were exposed either with the organic aspect of the works or with the structural one.
What is the spark or creative spur that sets the process off?
I think it’s more like a long permanent process of thinking and contemplation that switches to a concrete form when it’s either unbearable or incomplete in the thought process.
“I seek the poetics of the medium through its tragic story.” Tell us more about your quote.
I think it’s a quote capable of grouping both dimensions I work on, the social and the environmental, both containing a lot of poetry but also with a tragic potential and conditions. It’s interesting to explore the potential of a medium as per the physical and scientific reality – lived stories (spatio-temporal conditions) – and also the relation to the mental space of the viewer (either evoking memories or offering a space for imaginary interpretations). As per the medium I use, it’s mostly relating to a reality that affects my sensitivities at first, in another phase rethinking its nature and affecting the perception of the medium. Forgetting about the creative person or eye, each medium by itself holds a big poetic potential for offering dreams, reflections and also realities.
Your work talks about the effect of industrialization and urbanization. It also portrays social tensions. How do you think art can affect mainstream thinking?
Art is a silent form of expression. Mediatizing art is something else. So if we talk about media we already know its potential for social manipulation. In that sense, we get in touch with art as a famous form of knowledge. These days art is used as a tool without eliminating the fact that’s a timeless language.
What do you want your art to evoke in people?
It’s about sharing one’s sensitivity and point of view in life. If that matters, I would like it to evoke more spirituality in social behaviour.
What is the role of art in your estimation? Is it an accumulated process, a sort of cultural evolution?
I think that art is a sort of unspoken language with which one seeks to express a different form of communication. Its logic has no functional aspect and doesn’t necessarily integrate in the economic drive of a society, even if nowadays it plays a huge economic value. It seems to me to be a way to manipulate the creative process.
Has there been a principal influence behind the evolution of your art?
Life experience in general and maybe becoming a father.
Would you say that your art is there to explain or to indulge the viewer’s senses or intellect?
First, I thank the viewer for his curiosity. For me, depending on the cultural background of the person, it’s always intriguing to understand their interaction with the work. Through these few years of exhibiting, I’ve found that there are universal human behaviours when interacting that give life to a work. What remains is the capacity of the work to affect someone’s perception.
Finally, would it be correct to say that contemporary art challenges social norms?
Contemporary art is something we can’t define at this stage. It varies from being a pleasure for those who may own it, to an invisible form in a space where no one would look. I don’t see it as challenging the lifestyle of art collectors, but it does challenge the norms of ancient powers.
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, Sanctuaries #47.