Beirut

Marwan Rechmaoui, Blazon, 2015–, embroidery and appliqué on 420 flags, fifty-nine laser-cut-brass-on-stainless-steel shields. Installation view. Photo: Agop Kanledjian.

Marwan Rechmaoui, Blazon, 2015–, embroidery and appliqué on 420 flags, fifty-nine laser-cut-brass-on-stainless-steel shields. Installation view. Photo: Agop Kanledjian.

Marwan Rechmaoui

Sfeir-Semler Gallery | Beirut

Marwan Rechmaoui, Blazon, 2015–, embroidery and appliqué on 420 flags, fifty-nine laser-cut-brass-on-stainless-steel shields. Installation view. Photo: Agop Kanledjian.

A clocktower, a lighthouse, a mosque, an aerial view of a public park, a racetrack, a forest of pine trees, a branch of jasmine blossoms, a disused cinema, a derelict hotel, a Ferris wheel, a cemetery, another mosque, a newspaper building, statues of a former president and a poet and a painter, the logo of the first department store to employ women in the Middle East, the fortresslike headquarters of the Druze community in Lebanon, and a stacking sculpture by the inimitable modern artist Saloua Raouda Choucair, one of the few public artworks of note in Beirut: All of these things—and many more besides—are illustrated, either stitched into cloth or cut into brass on stainless-steel shields, in Marwan Rechmaoui’s recent exhibition “Fortress in a Corner, Bishop Takes Over,” which draws upon the rules and vocabularies of chess, heraldry, chivalry, and warfare to consider how the layered complexities of a given place are known and experienced in the here and now.

The show’s single work fills a long, looping gallery, a former factory, with 365 flags hung at various heights from the ceiling and fifty-nine shields running evenly along the length of one wall. Rechmaoui has been working on Blazon, 2015–, for nearly a decade. At one point, he had planned to make the shields in stained glass or vitreous enamel. The flags went through multiple stages of illustration, translation, and design. In their final rendering, they are lusher in color and texture than anything else in his oeuvre. An entire lexicon of references to the names and landmarks that define specific neighborhoods (and divide them from one another) has been sewn into sumptuous banners of red, purple, burgundy, mint green, pale blue, silver, and gold. Rechmaoui may have revised the forms and materials of Blazon several times, but the central premise of the work—mapping out a psychogeography of Beirut as a ruminative and sustained act of investigating, organizing, and perhaps forestalling a war to come—remains unchanged.

Blazon is in many ways a sequel to Rechmaoui’s magisterial Beirut Caoutchouc, 2004–2006, a city map carved into tough black rubber and pieced together like an enormous jigsaw puzzle on the floor. That work invited viewers to walk all over the city and at the same time to perceive it as an object, whole and comprehensible, something that is nearly impossible to do in day-to-day life. Beirut is nothing if not chaotic, always changing, and forever overspilling its borders and blurring lines of demarcation. Blazon flips the perspective: The city hangs over your head, both literally and, depending on your familiarity with the place, psychologically. For both works, Rechmaoui used the official municipal division of Beirut into fifty-nine sectors as a framework. Basing his research on books by historians such as Samir Kassir, Fawwaz Traboulsi, and Kamal Salibi, he has tried to understand the long, tangled history of the place by stripping away narrative, and by distilling landmarks, architecture, plant life, geological features, and the meaning and genealogy of names into a color-coded system of symbols that borrows its logic from board games, competitive sports, and armed conflict.

In fact, there is something disturbing about Rechmaoui’s attempt to systematize such a wild, resilient, and improvised place. When conflict erupts and Beirut’s residents take to the streets, flags representing Lebanon’s ever-more-numerous sectarian splinter groups inevitably appear. In proposing another set of divisions, based equally on ancient history, is Rechmaoui setting the stage for a future act of violence, and in doing so embracing, even ushering into being, the prospect of another war? Or is he offering a warning and a way out, a means of escaping the country’s viscous cycle of civil strife? While the piece depends on an abiding affection for Beirut, a city not everyone can love, Blazon also extends outward, touching on how we relate to the world around us, and how we come to know, celebrate, and ultimately suffer from the knowledge that is carried in every name, hill, building, and statue that marks our surroundings and colors our days.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie