BEING NADIM KARAM

Tim Cornwell, Art Journalist

Published in Being Nadim Karam, Selections Magazine- Special Edition # 48, Fall 2018

Like other artists of his trade, world names or brand names, like Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, he can spend months of every year conceiving, executing and placing projects around the world In Dubai, Tokyo, Yerevan and London, collectors, galleries or institutions come calling to buy or show his work.

 

At the same time, his experience is profoundly rooted to his country Nadim Karam’s journey has been a very Lebanese story; a witness to war,kidnapping, flight, and assassination. “In our region, we have internal alarm clocks enacting a sort of continuous countdown with no rhyme or reason, because nobody knows when they are going to reach zero and ring,” he writes.

 

This is my first encounter with Nadim Karam: I have come to hear about his latest, defining project, the Muse. But Beirut first encountered Nadim Karam properly in 1994, at the Sursock Museum, a project he called T-Races BSC- 4971. Up the side of the wall, along the roof of the building, a procession of lively figures, neither human nor animal, watched, walked, ran, danced an elephant, a boy and girl who reached for each others’ hands, a curious three-eared wild Cat. They were multi-legged, trumpet-headed strange, sad, happy and absurd.

The Lebanese Civil War had frozen artistic progress in Lebanon. This Sursock project was something new; a kind of art the city had not seen, neither sculpture, nor painting, but installation; standing still, but very much on the move. Karam, teaching architectural design at the American University of Beirut, was focused on bringing new stories to thetraumatised city.

 

The next summer a giant man, The Carrier, stood,arms outspread, across the facade of the barred National Museum of Beirut, as if trying to pick it up, and Karam wrote a story about carrying the museum through Lebanon’s history and landscapes to give it faith in the future. Then in 1997 came a slow parade of these same figures, across the war-torn city: the Beirut Project. Over three years, they moved mysteriously at night, from rooftops to parking lots, then finally to the sea before leaving.

 

Nadim Karam left Lebanon in 1982, on a scholarship to study architecture in Japan. He left when the airport opened after Israeli air raids at the height of the war and stayed away for a decade. He studied under the greatest professors in the country, but in parallel was already creating performances and exhibitions, and writing his first manifestos about the lives of cities; their layers, their moods, their needs. He spent a month living with Buddhist monks, visiting up to 60 temples. He presented himself at a Tokyo gallery proposing an exhibition. When they saw the work, its inspirations from Phoenicia and Mesopotamia, they offered him all four floors of their premises. From there, he went on to create strange, surreal installations-cum-performances, whose actors included a cow, walking in procession along a 21 meter long painting.

 

When he moved briefly to France, in 1992, the Archaic Procession first appeared, fully formed, on the walls of the Paris Metro. The artist, with his wife Kaya, stuck newspapers with his paintings on station walls, where they stayed a fragment of time before being carefully detached and carried off by early- morning commuters.

 

Nadim’s work has turned abstract lately; but in the Muse, his figures still dance on the walls, in stainless steel stencils.

They inform his oeuvre. For some, they are Assyrian or Sumerian – “humanoid or animalesque ideograms” in the words of critic Pierre Restany. For me they are reminders of a time spent with Native Americans, of dancing Navajo designs. In Australia, his moving sculptures on the Melbourne Bridge, The Travellers, each representing immigrants from different periods and countries, are watched over by a sculpture on a rock dedicated to the Aboriginal community. In Kuwait, the names of early settlements and civilisations are manifest in his giant, whimsical works.

 

They are not political figures, though they have been mistaken for them sometimes. His figures are a mix of absurdity and whimsicality. They keep moving, through war or ruin. They have a timeless unstoppable quality. They observe, survive, dance, and mourn.

 

There are said to be 1,001 of these shapes. “The moment I saw them, it opened up stories in my mind,” says Ramona Abdo, Nadim’s former student and a key figure in his company Atelier Hapsitus. “When you see the early forms- the wild cat- you start thinking, why does this cat have three ears?”

 

In Australia, his moving sculptures on the Melbourne Bridge, The Travellers, each representing immigrants from different periods and countries, are watched over by a sculpture on a rock dedicated to the Aboriginal community. In Kuwait Atelier Hapsitus. “When you see the early forms – the wild cat -you start thinking, why does this cat have three ears?” In time, the watchful cat and the “whimsicality and grandeur” of the elephant become familiar.

 

The couple mostly runs away together – sometimes dancing or fleeing. Sometimes separated, they reach for each other. In 99 Objects Possible to find on a Cloud at Ayyam Gallery Dubai in 2013, they ride a bicycle, a camel, a broomstick a scooter, a rocking horse or an alarm clock. They wield a whisk, dance with a rap or play a trumpet, guitar or harp.

 

Sometimes Karam’s work responds directly to events he has witnessed; his hugely powerful suicide paintings from 1992, for example, after he had to deal with an attempted suicide in Japan. In drawings after the 2006 war, when the family was evacuated, his tortured thoughts became warplanes, trees growing artillery shells and individual figures wresting with a globe and a tank. The figures dance on a mess of destruction, while warplanes drop bombs like darts into the elephant.

 

He is an international artist, with increasingly global ambitions. However, he is profoundly marked by his Lebanese experience; the desperation engendered by the war apparent in his work The Massacre, which he painted after the slayings of Dany Chamoun and Gebran Tueni. He had crossed paths with both men, and was deeply shocked by their deaths. “I was immersed in the philosophy and aesthetics of Japanese architecture, while never being able to forget the worsening sectarian violence in Lebanon, on the other side of Asia,” he says.

 

Try and write about Karam, and encounter not a single artist, but several. For someone so mentally busy, he is outwardly terribly calm and accommodating. For someone so mentally busy, he is outwardly terribly calm and accommodating. But with his Stretching Thoughts sculptures and drawings, a figure has ideas blowing wildly from the head. A sculpture from the same series grabs my eye as we walk into the garden: a tangle of scrap iron squashed into a cube. The title is Compressed Thoughts, and it is one of the newer abstract works, fashioned out of scrap steel collected by Syrian refugees. Karam’s work is both an expression of escape, and of profound engagement.