PRINT January 2013


Postcard for Trans-Arabian Pipeline Company (Tapline), 1960. Found material for Rayyane Tabet’s series “The Shortest Distance Between Two Points,” 2007–.

DURING THE FIRST DECADE of the oil age in Saudi Arabia—after the royal family granted the first concessions to American companies in the 1930s but before a wave of labor protests surged through the Eastern Province in the 1950s—petroleum was being exported through a short pipeline from the drilling fields of Dammam to the port city of Dhahran. It was barreled there, then carried by ship in a grand arc around the Arabian Peninsula and through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean Sea. In the aftermath of World War II, however, a group of engineers and oil executives, fearful of maritime closures by the region’s newly independent states, decided to replace that sweeping curve with a ruthlessly efficient straight line. This direct shot from desert to sea materialized in the form of a steel tube, just thirty inches in diameter, which ran for roughly 750 miles through what would soon become some of the most contested territory on earth.

For the past six years, the Lebanese artist Rayyane Tabet has been obsessed with the causes and consequences of that deceptively simple mark on the map of the Middle East. His most ambitious project to date, an ongoing series titled “The Shortest Distance Between Two Points,” 2007–, delves into the tremendous social and political transformations instigated by this pipeline passing through an increasingly troubled region and ending, by an accident of history and geography, in South Lebanon. He combines multiple layers of research, crisscrossing lines of inquiry, an onslaught of archival materials, and an undercurrent of rumor and intrigue to yield six smooth and paradoxically streamlined sculptural installations. For Tabet, the pipeline, the company that built it, and the infrastructure that rose up around it are all metaphors of a kind: a means of tracing a familiar history in a different way. But for an artist trained equally as an architect, they are also design problems that demand formal solutions in turn dependent on one’s ability to reconcile views of the pipeline’s section (a steel ring, drawn as a circle) with the project’s plan (in which the pipeline’s nearly fifty thousand pieces are rendered as a single line).

The Trans-Arabian Pipeline Company, known as Tapline, was established in 1946 by the American oil companies later known as Esso, Chevron, and Texaco. Originally, the company planned for the pipeline to reach its terminal station in Haifa, Israel. But with trouble erupting in Mandate Palestine, Tapline adjusted its mark and angled the line up to Sidon, Lebanon. It still ran through politically unstable terrain, but until the pipeline was bombed, burned, and sabotaged in the 1970s, causing the collapse of the company in the 1980s, the oil flowed undisturbed through Lebanon. For three decades the pipeline greatly enriched the country as the government collected lucrative transit and terminal fees, which were pegged to market prices. Not only was the pipeline the world’s longest at the time and America’s largest private investment abroad, it also produced, in part, the now mythical golden age when Beirut was the Paris of the Middle East, and Lebanon an example to the world of how a modern Arab democracy—streaked to its core with cosmopolitanism and entrepreneurial spirit—could emerge and thrive, until the moment came when the sea route was once again safer than the straight line through the land.

TABET, BORN AND RAISED in Lebanon, was a student of Walid Raad’s at the Cooper Union in New York. He shares with his former teacher, as with other Lebanese artists such as Akram Zaatari, a tendency not only to scope out long-term, multifaceted projects with an institutional and archival bent but also to collect, synthesize, and restage historical documents that are imbued with madness and melancholy. Where his work differs from that of his Beirut-based peers and predecessors, however, is in the curious tension he creates between two seemingly contradictory strands in his practice, which is both broadly literary and sharply focused on the making of objects. “My father is Marwan Rechmaoui and my grandmother is Saloua Raouda Choucair,” Tabet told me during a studio visit late last year, situating himself in a self-styled lineage of modern and contemporary Lebanese sculptors. Yet he also plays with the well-worn idea that because of Lebanon’s 1975–90 civil war (fratricidal by definition), Beirut’s contemporary art scene is lacking an essential Oedipal drama, which would allow a younger generation to rebel against—and displace—the one that came before: “I am still ordered around like the son of Walid Raad,” he said, “but I’m really not. Love him, owe him, but no.”

Many of Tabet’s works are explicitly narrative, based on memories, dreams, and stories. Fossils (The Suitcase), 2006– (part of the series “Five Distant Memories: The Suitcase, The Room, The Toys, The Boat and Maradona,” 2006–), consists of luggage covered in concrete, stemming directly from Tabet’s recollection of keeping his bags packed, ready to go, during the late, manic stages of the civil war. Another work in the series, 1989 (The Room), 2012 produced for the second New Museum Triennial, is a replica of the artist’s bedroom accompanied by a short story conveying the dream of a boy navigating the exposed spaces of a war-torn city. Home on Neutral Ground, 2011, commissioned for Sharjah Biennial 10, includes two videos and hundreds of pencil drawings, but the linchpin of the piece was an informal performance in which the artist invited viewers to a rarely used cricket stadium, where he told them stories about the teams that had played there.

Rayyane Tabet, untitled, 2011, 2,000 found mail tags, steel rod, monofilament, 4 3/4“ x 2 3/8” x 42' 7 7/8". From the series “The Shortest Distance Between Two Points,” 2007–.

Yet Tabet’s literary impulse often inverts the usual relationship between objects and the narratives they trigger. Instead of collecting historical materials to fulfill a mnemonic, catalytic, or truth-telling function, Tabet insists that he is after forms more than facts and that objects are the endgame of his practice. In the case of “The Shortest Distance Between Two Points,” which is the subject of his first solo exhibition, opening at Beirut’s Sfeir-Semler Gallery in April, he has filled his studio with boxes of old photographs, telexes, company letterhead, mailroom tags, magazines, architectural drawings, ledgers, and logbooks. What appears in the work, however, is not the intelligible content of those materials, but their shapes, textures, and physical supports. For one of his six installations, Tabet has framed blank pieces of decayed Tapline stationery like a suite of fragile drawings. For another, he is creating a scale drawing of the pipeline from three dozen folding rulers, color-coded to represent the different countries it passed through. For another still, he is arranging forty steel rings in a long, single-file line to emphasize, again, the rift between the section and the plan, the point and the line, the frontal image and the side view—all of which represent the difficulty of grasping linear history in a moment.

Tabet discovered the story of Tapline by accident. In the summer of 2007, he was driving in the south of the country and took a detour off the main highway—which had been bombed by Israel during the war that had broken out the summer before—when he caught sight of the company’s strange, spherical holding tanks, which are still standing, abandoned, on a hill above Sidon. He stopped, found a shepherd, and asked him about these intriguing structures. From there, Tabet worked his way back to the main Tapline office in Beirut—also abandoned—where he began gathering material. (He negotiated access to the office by befriending first the owner of a nearby newspaper kiosk, who was the caretaker of the building, and then a former employee, who was still dressing for work every morning and spending his days in the ground-floor café.)

Simultaneously archival, structural, narrative, and resolutely material, Tabet’s pipeline project approaches history from an oblique angle and builds an argument through infrastructure, thereby touching on the ways in which artists of his generation have been doubly silenced on the subject of Lebanon’s recent history: They came of age too late to speak about the civil war firsthand, and they work in the wake of an older group of artists who have arguably said too much already, even though they are no less shaped by the conflict and probably no less shocked by the ongoing destruction of their city. An earlier title for “The Shortest Distance Between Two Points” was “Fragments from a Story Waiting to Be Told.” Tabet discovered a way not only to tell this story but also, on some level, to describe the full breadth of his experience—by distilling everything down to a single line.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a critic based in Beirut.