“Less Roses”

Galerie Sfeir-Semler

Of all the many students of Bernd and Hilla Becher who have gone on to earn critical acclaim in the art world, Elger Esser is arguably the most romantic. Where the photographs of Andreas Gursky or Candida Höfer are cool and clinical, Esser’s are infused with warmth. Esser has traveled to Lebanon several times and created a series of landscapes capturing salt flats in the north, archaeological ruins in the south, and strangely poetic views of Naqoura, a town better known as a political hot spot and the headquarters for UNIFIL, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, which since 1978 has been trying, often in vain, to keep the conflict between Lebanon and Israel from erupting into all-out war. His landscapes can be nearly monochromatic, yet the edges are almost always soft, the colors diffuse, and the compositions nearly gauzy in effect.

It comes as little surprise, then, that Esser’s curatorial turn (in collaboration with Andrée Sfeir-Semler) for the Beirut branch of Hamburg’s Galerie Sfeir-Semler involved a tactile rather than a cerebral approach to urban existence. “Less Roses” is a grammatically awkward title, but it captures Esser’s attempt to make intuitive rather than critical choices, and to do so using a notion as ragged and worn-out as beauty for a guide. How, after all, is beauty defined in a place characterized by the Mediterranean on the one hand, a dense concentration of drab concrete structures on the other, and political turmoil everywhere? Perhaps by seizing on the ambiguity of a city that seems to be forever on the verge of falling apart. Beauty here is perpetually on the edge of ruin—overripe, ready to rot, and too full of promises that are failing fast.

For “Less Roses,” Esser commissioned an enormous site-specific sculptural installation by German artist Felix Schramm and selected existing works by five others, including a substantial installation of his own. His choices are based on practice rather than biography, nationality, or the artists’ home base. Schramm’s muscular sculpture Untitled, 2007, which pierced the walls of a room with drywall, paint chips, steel frames, and wood, seemed both dancelike and destructive. Moritz Altmann, fresh out of art school in Hamburg, contributed five sculptures based on bowl forms, merging ostentatious baroque ceramics with grotesque shapes like creatures born from primordial sludge. Moroccan artist Yto Barrada’s wallpaper print Dejeuner sur l’herbe, 2007, reimagines Manet’s masterpiece as a chronicle of the unemployed in a derelict Tangier park. American painter Glen Rubsamen, who lives in Cologne, was represented by three hyperrealist paintings—It’s an Escape into Truth, All of a Sudden, and Pathways to the Primitive Brain, all 2007—that layer gangly electrical wires and television antennae over groovy, 1970s airbrush–style sunsets and skylines. Peter Hopkins, also an American, showed six works that appear sumptuously colored and textured but are, in fact, made from mundane materials such as detergents, cosmetics, and industrial lacquers.

Esser’s own installation, Lebanese Day Book (4th–13th Dec.), 2004–2007, retrieves the little-known history of Lebanon’s seventeen species of wild orchid, only ten of which are still blooming. The flowers are handpainted on wood and nestled into glass boxes with other visual ephemera, like exhibits in a natural-history museum attesting to a world that has long since disappeared. Esser’s flowers are certainly a long way from the Bechers’ blast furnaces. But then again, the younger artist’s melancholy in the face of third-world urbanism and modernization gone awry may not be much different from his teachers’ mourning for Europe’s industrial age.