The Lebanese artist Nathalie Harb lives and works between London and Beirut, and develops consideration of the notion of shelter, but also how what is private/public is structured in the urban space. A work designing settings fed by changes in the contemporary world.
You are currently in residency in Paris via the programme of the Institut français at the Cité internationale des arts. Why did you want to benefit from this programme?
My desire to take part in this programme stems from recent events: the pandemic, then the explosions in the port of Beirut. I spent part of my life in London and part in the Lebanese capital, two cities which have experienced situations with varying degrees of precarity. I felt like I was caught in the middle, not here or there, and a residency seemed to be a perfect setting. It’s an approach where an artist is always in transit, but in a form of reflection, observation which perfectly suits the frame of mind I’m in today.
What impacts have the pandemic and the explosion in Beirut had on your life?
I experienced the pandemic in London, at a time when Lebanon was in full revolution, with economic conditions and political conditions that were becoming tougher. I had a vague feeling of not being able to take part in anything: on one hand I was in lockdown in a city where life with other people stopped, on the other I watched my country disintegrate on a screen. The explosion in the port intensified this feeling. I went back to Lebanon to understand the trauma in person, the new stage being undertaken in the city. All that naturally influenced my approach, especially as it concerned themes at the heart of my work: the idea of refuge, shelter, the fragility of what the English call “home”. The pandemic and the explosion completely questioned these notions and the residency project allows me to redefine them.
Fittingly, how can the concepts of home or shelter be reinvented after such an upheaval?
There’s something intriguing in the contradiction that we’re currently experiencing. We are witnessing a movement of global solidarity even though everyone has remained isolated in their space, because distance has become synonym with safety. Today I’m less interested in designing solutions than by the possibility of rethinking the world. The notion of “home”, for example, is pretty blurred. It’s living somewhere, feeling at home. It’s also belonging to a place that can be a house, the home we grew up in, a city or even our body. At the Cité Internationale des arts, I’m developing a project around this notion by gathering fragments of stories of people whose private space has been called into question. These true accounts will make up a theatre play that will not happen, but will allow me to return to setting up a space, my work as a set designer.
Back in 2017, your installation Silent Room was already a first foundation in this reflection. What was your ambition?
This project was first of all the response to another form of sensory aggression, what was referred to as the waste crisis in Lebanon, in 2015. At that time, I realised the extent to which our senses were saturated in a city like Beirut, where the noise is constant, very loud, and therefore dangerous for its residents’ health. My reflection stemmed from this need for emptiness. The public space caters for several vital needs. Toilets, water fountains, food shops are found in it. In the same way can silence not be devised to be public property? When such spaces exist, it is often the well-off population that benefits, those who have access to spas or the private carriages of trains. The others, who are the most exposed to noise pollution, do not have the right. The Silent Room represents a contemporary shelter that allows you to get out of the frantic rhythm of life, information, speeches. A porous envelope where the city recedes and where you give yourself time, rest.
Next to that, Urban Hives (2018) proposes to consider mass urbanisation and a more resilient city...
When looking for a space to install the Silent Room in Beirut, I realised that there we very few public spaces, but a lot of parking spots. There’s a reason for that: for a long time the urban fabric was made up of houses with gardens that have gradually been destroyed. As you have to wait two years before a ground can be reused, parking is a good way to make money from the space before rebuilding. Faced with that, I wanted to do almost archaeological work, to unearth the gardens that had vanished. Urban Hives gets around the question of urbanisation by creating platforms above cars to install gardens. The notion of a resilient city came afterwards. We worked with various experts in design, architecture or permaculture and the artistic project became a response to urban problems like food independence, heat islands and the circular economy. Just like the parking spots, which are often temporary, our hanging garden is not intended to remain permanently. It can be taken down, recycled or re-installed as much as you want to. And it lets you reconnect with the need to wake up the community.
In coming to Paris, you’re confronted with other types of spaces and relationships. What do you expect from this “encounter”?
Maybe one of the nicest rare consequences of this lockdown is that we are more available, show more solidarity, and are able to have more genuine exchanges. Being in this moment, here, with other artists in the same state of mind is particularly stimulating. It’s a slower time for reflection where I have the impression to get closer to the core of my research. My obsession remains to use space to give accounts, to question the influence a place can have on us. It’s not just an aesthetic or cosmetic question, it’s about developing an approach for the collective good. And, maybe, to inhabit our private or every day spaces better.
Nathalie Harb is in residency in Paris, at the Cité internationale des arts, to work on her new project.
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