Located in the heart of an industrial zone in the Quarantaine district, the Sfeir-Semler gallery clashes with the surrounding environment, with its smooth concrete floors, neon lights and white walls. This space with the aesthetics of white cube will be adorned with the works of Ania Soliman until January 7, 2023. Taken from the world of science-fiction literature, the title of the exhibition, “Terraform” (“terraforming” in French), refers to the layout of an extraterrestrial environment to make it suitable for life and habitable by man.
This is the first exhibition in the Middle East of this protean artist, born in Warsaw in 1970 to a Polish mother and an Egyptian father, now based in Paris. With a research-driven artistic practice, Ania Soliman makes large-scale drawings, while also working with text, performance, video and installation. After spending a month in Beirut, she is exhibiting a series of works, some made there and some not, that look at the connections between nature, technology and humans. This residency was an opportunity for this conceptual artist to experiment with painting on canvas and spray paint. Meeting with an artist who uses nature as material and a source of inspiration in her artistic practice.
What is your background ? Did you grow up in an environment where you were encouraged to express yourself through art?
Encouraged is perhaps not the word, because my parents did not really need to encourage me, art has interested me since I was very young. I did not study art but I have been drawing since childhood. As a child, I lived in Cairo with my parents but we moved to Baghdad, where I grew up. Even though I am not Iraqi,”Iraq is my home”. I then went to the United States to study there. After the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2003, living in New York as an artist was very difficult for me. I was revolted by the events, but since I am not Iraqi, I did not feel entitled to make art about the war. How to make art about war? How to make art in times of crisis?
I now live in Paris, but I really wanted to come to Beirut and exhibit here, to participate momentarily in Lebanese cultural life. The situation in Lebanon being very difficult, I thought it would be important to work there and spend time here before exhibiting my work. It was a way for me to express my solidarity.
Tell us about the works you are currently exhibiting at the Sfeir-Semler gallery. What techniques were used to make them? What were your inspirations and what is the message they carry?
I started thinking about the notion of “terraforming” during the pandemic. I began to fantasize about the fact that humanity could be exported to other planets. In reality, all forms on Earth, whether natural or man-made, are part of nature. These forms are “terraforms”: they constantly produce new forms, they are constantly regenerated. Humans are part of this continuum between the different orders of life. With the effects of climate change, we can realize how much they influence the creative flow that emanates from the Earth. I also wanted to reflect on the interactions between nature and technology. Life is structured by technologies. For example, before coming to Lebanon, where everyone experiences daily power cuts, I didn’t realize how addicted we were to electricity. My work stems from a questioning of what we must do to move forward as a society in the face of obstacles. I wanted to make works that express this idea without being too didactic.
This monochrome artwork in phthalo green color depicts a rainforest inspired digital aesthetic. She transforms a computer screen into an immersive experience by encouraging the viewer to search for the tree, the leaves or the tiger hidden in the landscape. Marked by an absence of linear perspective, the work comes to life in the spaces left empty thanks to an annotation system specific to the artist.
The hanging canvases of blue color particularly attract our attention. “I have wanted to work on canvas for a long time. I put the canvases on the ground on the roof of the building where the gallery is located and sprayed natural and artificial plants and disassembled machine parts on them. It was my first time working with spray cans. I also saw a link with the city’s graffiti. Plants are sources of all values, they create everything. I wanted to pay tribute to the generosity of this form, which is perceived as beautiful, but which is above all practical, and to the creative force present in nature and in us”.
The bamboos in fluorescent cadmium yellow imitate the botanical illustrations used in the industrial production of artificial bamboos. This series reflects a paradoxical situation: our need for nature is met by plastic plants that threaten the Earth.
The exhibition also features a series of drawings, a sort of Beirut logbook that includes drawings of insomnia, banknotes and exploding galaxies. “These drawings come from a reflection on the way we consume photos online. Most of the images we see, we see through a screen. In response to this addiction we have to screens, I thought it was important to create images through a purely manual practice and that these are physically embodied in a place”.
Do you think art should always convey a message? Can it not only be a question of beauty?
I’m not against the idea of beauty and anyway, every object has meaning. However, with art, that meaning has to be complex or it’s boring. Nowadays we are addicted to the images of beauty broadcast on the Internet. For my part, I do not like immaculate things. I’m interested in things that are a bit damaged and not in the “right place”.
Speaking of which, tell us about the series Divan from 2022 to 2200.
Arriving in Beirut, I wanted to connect as much as possible to the city and its creativity. So I did a lot of walking. While walking through the gallery district, I came across this series of seats, which are old oil drums recycled. I liked the fact that they constitute a discrepancy with this immaculate space that is the gallery and the idea of composing with forms that already exist.
Resurrecting Light (kahraba), Chemical Emotions (kahraba), rain forest, The Witnesses, Bamboo… How did you choose the titles of the works?
The question underlying this exhibition is: how can one make art by collaborating with technology and machines? Some titles of works have therefore been created using an algorithm that generates random words. For others, I reused machine translation errors from Arabic. I look at the image, let the machine decide and often it’s compatible.
In addition to being visually very appealing, Ania Soliman’s works are the product of an artistic practice based on in-depth research, which encourages the viewer to reflect on the issues of modern times.
By Amaya Singh
This article was originally published on the Cultural Agenda website
ANIA SOLIMAN: ART TO RETHINK OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH NATURE AND TECHNOLOGY