View of “Rayyane Tabet,” 2018. Background: Basalt Shards, 2017. Foreground: Kopf Hoch! Mut Hoch! Und Humor Hoch! (Chin Up! Good Luck! And Keep Smiling!), 2017.

View of “Rayyane Tabet,” 2018. Background: Basalt Shards, 2017. Foreground: Kopf Hoch! Mut Hoch! Und Humor Hoch! (Chin Up! Good Luck! And Keep Smiling!), 2017.

Rayyane Tabet

Opening a thick, bright-yellow-bound, German-language book about the ancient city of Tell Halaf in his grandparents’ library, Rayyane Tabet found a New Year’s card addressed in a casually elegant cursive hand to his great-grandfather. Both the card, sent from Weimar-era Berlin, and the book itself were written and signed by Baron Max von Oppenheim—the scion of a powerful German Jewish banking dynasty and attaché to the Khediviate of Egypt who went on to discover a neolithic archeological site in northeastern Syria in 1899. Stalled by the Ottoman bureaucracy and World War I, Oppenheim was able to return in 1911 and again in 1927 to excavate these remains of a neo-Hittite civilization. Suspecting him of espionage, the French, who had the postwar mandate in greater Syria, kept a close watch on him; Tabet’s great-grandfather was assigned to be Oppenheim’s “secretary.”

After the Pergamonmuseum in Berlin declined to purchase the considerable quantity of Tell Halaf artifacts in Oppenheim’s possession, the diplomat turned archaeologist opened his own museum in Charlottenburg, Berlin, in 1930. When that museum was hit by a British bomb in 1943, it went up in flames and was destroyed. Seventy-five years later, in Beirut, Tabet’s Basalt Shards, 2017—charcoal rubbings of one thousand unidentifiable fragments, leftovers from the mammoth task of piecing together Tell Halaf artifacts—covered the 131-foot-long leftmost wall of the Sfeir-Semler Gallery. Some of them are as poignantly plain as black triangles drawn on empty sheets; others boast the fury of small “explosions” on roughly handled, creased paper. Given that Tabet was allowed to spend only a minute with each piece due to conservation concerns at the Pergamonmuseum, where the fragments finally did end up, the rubbings took on an ironic performative quality. Once belonging to sculptures made of stone to last forever, the shards had been forcibly dragged back onto the stage of history by the artist’s semi-mechanical gesture, in a total reversal of the assumed permanence of the “historical” and the fleetingness of the “contemporary.” In fact, this wall of rubbings faced and towered over a row of twenty-eight low-hung Orthostates, 2017–, framed frottages from reliefs preserved at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Pergamonmuseum. A list in fine print above the frames included every single one of 194 excavated reliefs, locating the remainder of extant ones around the world (in Aleppo, Paris, or elsewhere) or declaring them missing, destroyed, or disappeared. Orthostates is an exercise in conjuring—at least in the imagination—the undisturbed ensemble of bas-reliefs that lined the walls of a Halafian palace.

Orthostates may also be read as a response to another work by the artist: Kopf Hoch! Mut Hoch! Und Humor Hoch! (Chin Up! Good Luck! And Keep Smiling!), 2017, a seventy-five-and-a-half-foot-long scroll inscribed with Oppenheim’s words of encouragement for those wanting to retrace the dispersion of Tell Halaf and put it back together. Drawn and filled in by hand with a limited-edition Montblanc fountain pen released in 2009 in honor of Oppenheim (and probably intended for much more delicate penmanship), the otherwise boastfully gigantic letters—rendered in Futura font—lay humbly flat on the floor between Basalt Shards and Orthostates; on looking closely, one was able to discern the wear and tear on the pen as well as on the artist’s patience. In its wonderfully frivolous (yet precise) choice of materials and repetitive, almost managerial, execution, the work is an honest allegory of the artist/researcher.

Tabet’s Ah, My Beautiful Venus!, 2017, had a similarly horizontal, floor-based presence. The work comprises a grid of 260 basalt tiles from Syria—weighing six and a half tons in total—arranged in a grid à la Carl Andre. These tiles support rotatable conservators’ trestles, symmetrically arranged and mounted with extremely fragile foil pressings. Made from the mold of a destroyed Halafian Venus, the pressings provide a momentary impression of the goddess who was the symbol of Tell Halaf Museum. As I walked with Tabet around the trestles to the sound of basalt letting out eerie screeches under our feet, he took great delight in explaining to our tour group how the pressings get marginally deformed each time they are transported from one place to another: “Things will be lost,” he said, smiling. “They are unconservable!”