THE TITAN WHOSE ART SPEAKS TO THE WORLD
THE TITAN WHOSE ART SPEAKS TO THE WORLD
YOU HAVE PROBABLY SEEN ONE OF NADIM KARAM'S GARGANTUAN ELEPHANTS PARADING ACROSS THE SIDEWALKS OF TOKYO OR LONDON. OR MAYBE YOU CHANCED UPON A WHOLE FAMILY OF THEM IN PARIS, WHERE HIS WHIMSICAL 'TRIO OF ELEPHANTS' INSTALLATION IS PRESENTLY WARMING THE EXTERIORS OF INSTITUT DU MONDE ARABE (IMA) AS PART OF THE '25 YEARS OF ARAB CREATIVITY' EXHIBITION. PERHAPS YOU SPOTTED ONE ON THE BANKS OF THE VLTAVA RIVER IN PRAGUE, WHERE KARAM MANAGED TO LEAVE THE DELIGHTFUL CREATURE AFTER A THREEYEAR BATTLE WITH THE STATE.
A multidisciplinary artist, architect and author celebrated for breakthrough urban design and cutting-edge painting and sculpture, Karam has exhibited in galleries, institutions and art fairs worldwide. Gaining critical acclaim for his urban art projects starting in his homeland Lebanon, Karam's name has been imprinted on many largescale, labor-intensive commissions such as 'The Travelers', a permanent urban art installation that's in continuous motion in Melbourne.
Even his unrealized projects have made serious waves - one example is the 'The Cloud', an architectural plan for reconfiguring public space amidst the growing cityscape of Dubai. An antithesis to the high-rise buildings prevalent in the city, 'The Cloud' is essentially 'a dream, suspended between artificiality and reality,' says the engine and fuel behind multidisciplinary Beirut-based office Atelier Hapsitus.
Another ambitious undertaking currently making Karam's mind spin is 'The Wheels of Chicago', a project for the populous city, which consists of seven revolving wheels proposed for Olive Park and its vicinity. With also foot in Amman, where his 'Dialogue of the Hills' series of permanent urban art installations is gaining momentum, it becomes pretty self-explanatory why it is so tough to pin down the silver-haired artist for an interview these days.
Since it started its march, your Elephant has been making ripples wherever it goes. What makes it so appealing in your opinion and what is it meant to signify?
The Elephant attracts lots of attention wherever it goes perhaps because of the simplicity of its shape and the way I draw it, which makes it very cute. Another reason could be the way we are introducing patterns within it, which stems from the possibility of being able to experiment on a big surface. I have created a vocabulary of hundreds of different shapes, which I use in combinations to create stories, and I also use them in amalgamation to create an abstraction, an intricate pattern. So the elephant contains hundreds of stories, which in themselves are memories. Cities need elephants. They need memories of stories and they need the whimsicality of those childlike forms.
Where are the Elephants travelling to next?
I suppose Dubai. I would like them to reach India one day. Hopefully, there will be an even bigger elephant that needs to be studied in detail, because as the size grows bigger, all the details change, which is very exciting.
You have not rested on your laurels lately, from local exhibitions to international talks to group shows. Can you tell us what were the most memorable highlights of 2012?
I suppose [the] IMA project was powerful, because it was divided into three parts - the Elephants outside, the Closets & Closets as well as the war sketches inside. Perhaps the highlight was my visit to Chicago to present a project called 'The Wheels of Chicago', where I think the meetings went very positively. Hopefully, we will be able to realize this project, which will create its own iconic presence.
You have many titles and many lives. Some people refer to you as an urban interventionist who has been trying to beautify cities/ sites. Is that what your urban art aims to do?
My basic question is: Can cities dream? In fact, this is the manifesto of my book 'Urban Toys', where I dealt with that question and tried to explain it through six projects I have done internationally.
I think that trying to create dreams in a city and moments for people to stop, question, remember and smile is a very important part of the city; it is not only beautifying but also trying to dig into the memories of the place and create a project that is full of stories and questions that could be interpreted differently by the citizens.
What are the most seminal urban projects you have executed to the present date?
Beirut - I arrived in post-war Beirut with a series of sculptures, 'antisymbols' that were an attempt to create a new dialogue in a city that had suffered war and erasure. Over three wars, the three-meter high sculptures appeared in the city in different numbers and combinations overnight to create an element of surprise and stories between them.
The sculptures began on the ring, moved down to the square and roof of Riad el Solh Square, spread out over Martyrs' Square, moved to Starco, where I added playful elements, and then finally aligned along the Mediterranean coastline before disappearing.
Nara, Japan - It took me 20 years to convince the monks of Todaiji Temple to allow me to make this installation in homage to one of their monks who had arrived in Japan in the 8th century from the Middle East and created a temple and performance for it.
In 2004, over the course of two weeks, I installed three giant flowers surrounded by over 500 small sculptures, which appeared to float on the lake in front of the temple. It was a very significant project.
Prague - In a post-communist city, it was not easy to convince them of an art project. In the historic city, I finally managed to install 20 sculptures aligned on a bridge, in dialogue with the baroque sculptures on a parallel bridge. It was so difficult; I don't know how it happened. But when it did, it was amazing.
Melbourne - This is a permanent installation on a renovated industrial bridge, which takes part in the daily rhythms of the city, and recalls the history of the immigrants to Melbourne who arrived by boat and crossed the bridge by train. My sculptures - each representing a phase of immigration - move on rails across the bridge and back every day, three times daily. I like the way this project evokes the city's history and moves with its present.
What will be the focus of your upcoming book?
Dreams and war. It will most probably be called 'Clouds and Smoke' and will be published by international publisher SKIRA. It will deal with the preoccupations of most Lebanese who are always oscillating between the wars that constantly haunt us and the dreams they have.
Who is the artist you’d like to bring back to life and have a long chat with?
Alexander Calder. It would be great if we could just sit down together and create interesting work; I think it would be magical.
The three cities you wouldn’t mind spending five years in each are:
Chicago, Tokyo and Lagos.
The greatest thing about being an artist in Beirut now is:
There's no work, so I'm free to create!
The saddest thing about being an artist in Beirut now is:
We're caught in regional moroseness and concentrated on infighting.
What are the upcoming projects you can’t wait for?
'The Festivities Trio', 'The Wheels of Chicago', 'The Cocoons of Amman' and something for Barcelona.