Stéphanie Saadé

Stéphanie Saadé on the Beirut explosion and an artwork lost to the blast

Preparatory sketch for Stéphanie Saadé’s A Discreet Intruder, 2020 (digital rendering).

Stéphanie Saadé often traces her nomadic upbringing in her installations—spare and evocative meditations on memory, movement, and space. Like that of her “home” city of Beirut, Saadé’s past year in the Lebanese capital has been turbulent: The birth of her first child was closely followed by the explosion last month at the city’s waterfront that left 181 people dead and an estimated 300,000 homeless. Around the time of the blast, Saadé was developing a project for “A Few In Many Places,” a collaboration between artists and local shop owners from Montréal, Philadelphia, Berlin, Istanbul, and the Lebanese capital that aimed at eliminating the need for travel during the pandemic. Scheduled to be unveiled on September 26, Saadé’s proposed work—for which she would use a gun to pierce thirty-eight holes into a metal curtain, their positions corresponding to “endpoints of routes taken during childhood”—acquired new, tragic significance after the events of August 4.

AT THE TIME OF THE EXPLOSION, I was home with my partner, Charbel-joseph H. Boutros, in our apartment near the harbor. In one instant, our building was reduced to a skeleton. Nothing remained from it other than its initial concrete structure. It contrasted greatly with the chaos inside. We left right away, without being able to close our door—there was no door left—and took the car.

A few months before, around the time Covid-19 struck, Mari Spirito approached me for Protocinema’s new project, “A Few In Many Places.” Artists would realize their work in their own neighborhood, engaging with it and its inhabitants directly. Straight away, my idea was to do my intervention in the Marfa’ (port in Arabic) district, which is very close to where I live, and to involve Marfa’ Projects, the gallery that represents me in Beirut. I had been quite shaken by all the postponements, cancellations, and shutdowns ensuing from the lockdown. So I planned to site my work at a closed, mostly empty private storage space owned by my gallery’s landlord, and to make my intervention on its metal security gate.

The August 4 explosion blew that metal curtain away. Also blown away was the new gate on which I was going to make my intervention, and that had already been ordered and stored inside this property in preparation for the project. In fact, every metal curtain in the neighborhood—including some beautiful bullet-riddled specimens dating back to the war—was carried away, including that of Marfa’ Projects, whose interior was devastated. The gallery’s roster was being featured in a summer group show, and much of our work was completely shattered.

Light filtering through bullet holes created during the Lebanese Civil War, in a metal gate near the port in Beirut. Photo: Stéphanie Saadé.

As we fled our apartment building, we noticed that the parking lot’s metal curtain—offering the possibility of closure, and supposedly of protection—had burst into pieces and that its blades had fallen onto our windshields. As we drove away, we realized the scale of the damage. There was nothing but broken glass, torn up aluminum, smoke, trees, and people on the ground. For “A Few in Many Places,” I planned to puncture precise holes into the metal curtain corresponding to the departure and endpoints of thirty-seven routes—walks taken to see loved people and places—that I followed in Lebanon between 1983, my year of birth, and 1990, the official year that the Lebanese Civil War ended. The work would encompass a part of my life that I shared with the country’s tormented history and retrace it on Lebanon’s map. Including the departure point of my family house, there would be thirty-eight incisions in total, the number matching my age. The shutter was going to be perforated using a gun, but this time, the shooting would happen from the inside out, to suggest a reversal of the cycle of violence. After August 4, I was curious to see how my pristine new metal curtain, stored near the harbor, had been sculpted by the seemingly random force of the blast. It was, in a sense, another way for the work to be realized. . .

For as long as I have lived here, the bullet and shrapnel holes from the civil war allowed light to enter this city’s closed or forgotten spaces, enabling, during certain hours, secret ballets of sun and shadow to take place on the street. But these dances do not take place anymore in Beirut.