Beirut

Taysir Batniji, Untitled (Imperfect Lovers), 2013, neon, 41 × 19 3/4 × 41 × 2".

Taysir Batniji, Untitled (Imperfect Lovers), 2013, neon, 41 × 19 3/4 × 41 × 2".

Taysir Batniji and Anna Boghiguian

Sfeir-Semler Gallery | Beirut

Taysir Batniji, Untitled (Imperfect Lovers), 2013, neon, 41 × 19 3/4 × 41 × 2".

Anna Boghiguian is an artist with a wild style and singular vision, yet her dense, visceral drawings and scattershot installations play surprisingly well with others. In 2012, she shared a room with Charlotte Salomon at Documenta 13 in Kassel. The next year, she joined Goshka Macuga for an exhibition at Iniva in London. For her first major show in Beirut, Boghiguian (an Armenian-Egyptian nomad presently based in Cairo) was paired up with Taysir Batniji, a Gaza-born, Paris-based artist who might seem diametrically opposed to her in every way.

Along the south side of the gallery, Boghiguian’s messy, maximalist aesthetic tumbled forth in rough textures and lurid colors. A four-part installation of sculptural objects and a series of collages based on Rabindranath Tagore’s play The Post Office—a luminous allegory of imagination and emancipation—involved a mock stage strewn with paper puppets, a mobile strung with portraits of the play’s cast of characters, a pair of curtains painted with landscapes, ten suspended birds made of wax and plaster, clay sculptures of a man and his cow, and everywhere scraps of paper and fragments of text. An array of four natural beehives mounted on wooden frames, with white papier-mâché panels streaked with dried melted beeswax, delivered an inscrutable coda.

Batniji, meanwhile, filled the north side of the gallery with an orderly installation of three sculptures, five panels, twenty-six photographs, 177 silk screens, and a room-size installation, all arranged in straight lines or tidy grids. No Condition Is Permanent, 2014, for instance, is a neat stack of engraved olive-oil soaps; the delicate Untitled, 2014, consists of ten crystal keys on a crystal key ring. Emotional symbols of the Palestinian experience (keys, maps, martyrdom posters showing the faces of fallen fighters) appeared alongside cooler allusions to art history. Untitled (Imperfect Lovers, 2013, recasts Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s synchronized wall clocks—Untitled (Perfect Lovers), 1991, a beautifully simple act of mourning the loss of a partner—as a pair of neon signs spelling out the Arabic words for “revolution” (thawra) and “fortune” (tharwa). With the 2008 “Watchtowers” series of photographs, Batniji takes the Bernd and Hilla Becher approach to grain silos and water towers and applies it to the architecture of Israeli surveillance in the West Bank; that the resulting images are out of focus and off-center speaks to the challenges of making such precise and exacting portraits in a war zone.

Otherwise as different as can be, both artists evoke the lost world of childhood. Batniji’s Hanoun, 1997–2009, an installation of pencil-sharpener shavings, and Memory of Water, 2014, five resin panels of transparent text on a white ground, give solid form to ephemeral recollections about school, a field of poppies, storytelling, and a route to the sea. Boghiguian’s elaborate homage to Tagore gave the exhibition a tenderness—most apparent in her photographs of a young boy and her small paintings of birds and flowers—that might have otherwise been lost among her larger, brasher paintings and the cool austerity of Batniji’s images and objects. Tagore’s Post Office, 2013, also teases from a much-loved literary source a metaphor for the act of looking and for what art can do in the minds of viewers, bringing seemingly fanciful ideas into full-blooded being. In the original play, written in 1912 and translated into English by W. B. Yeats in 1913, an ill orphaned boy named Amal (a girl’s name in Arabic, meaning “hope”; he was represented here by the figure in Boghiguian’s collages, paints swirled onto old snapshots) is confined to the house of an uncle. Miserable indoors and desperate to live and breathe in the world, he stops people as they pass by his window, engaging them in conversation and imagining the sights they see. When Amal asks one of his interlocutors, an old man disguised as a fakir, if his inner visions (like the landscapes on Boghiguian’s curtains) bear any resemblance to reality, the old man says to Amal: “My eyes aren’t young, but you make me see.”

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie