BEIRUT — Levantine summers are stifling, Beirut’s sticky Mediterranean heat alleviated only by the occasional cool sea breeze. That breeze often carries the mellow umami stench of human effluent, the hot plastic tang of trash. Water is purchased in bottles, the Lebanese preferring not to play Russian roulette with the liquid sputtering from household taps. Vast sections of the country’s seas, lakes, and rivers — a preferred method of cooling off — teem with chemical and bacterial pollutants.
In a refurbished mansion on a Beirut hill, crystalline vials of this tainted water hang from the ceiling: engorged teardrops tinged the delicate yellow-green of elderflower cordial, set against a monumental print of a fossilized Levantine sea-creature (now extinct), and suspended above hexagonal flagstones of recycled paper. “Amor Fati” (2016), a work by American artist Claire Pentecost, interrogates humanity’s relationship to our ecological present: the problems and potentialities of our carbon-driven world.
The piece — delicate, toxic, elegiac, and redemptive — dominates the first gallery of Let’s Talk About the Weather: Art and Ecology in a Time of Crisis, a group show at the Sursock Museum. Dedicated to exploring questions of climate change, ecological imbalance, and human culpability, the exhibition features 17 artists, whose wide-ranging works put the lie to prevailing notions that the weather is a soporific subject, that environmental issues cannot be made engaging. A mix of video, photography, sound installation, sculpture, print, and paint, Let’s Talk plays out like a series of interesting conversations — a textured, innovative take on various ecological questions that places people (via economics, culture, history, and geo-politics) at its core. While the exhibition is by no means parochial — ecological challenges, after all, are inherently global — the strong regional focus of many of the contributions allows pressing concerns to crystallize around particular environs.
The Gulf is a logical locus of competition and exploitation, and several artists imaginatively engage with its murky depths. Dakar-born, Netherlands-based Monira Al Qadiri’s opalescent “Spectrum 1” (2016), a series of shimmering oil-drill sculptures, is an eerie exploration of the Gulf’s history of extraction, aesthetically linking the pearl divers of yesteryear to today’s oil barons. Design Earth, led by duo Rania Ghosn and El Hadi Jazalry, turns the crucial waterway into a monochromatic game of strategy in the “After Oil” series (2016). Each finely detailed digital print schematically renders a specific location, mapping out these contested spaces with real information and speculative metadata — at one stage envisioning the Hormuz Straight as an elaborate chessboard. Sophia Al Maria’s “A Whale is a Whale is a Whale” (2014) is a mournful tribute to the Arabian whale, a beast that may soon be gone. Over stuttering images of relentless glittering ocean and mammoth roiling bodies, we hear static whistles. “They hears us they eyes us they knows us,” a child’s voice whispers and crackles through the headpiece. “The ones who burn, the ones who build. They who believe there is no end.” A whale tail sweeps across the screen into the blue. “We are alone. And this is the last we will hear from them.”
But Let’s Talk, as its title suggests, is cautiously constructive — more enamored of creative problem-solving than melancholia, offering other ways of seeing and being. Jessika Khazrik’s school project-style collage of “All the Flowers that Were Thrown on My Head Come Back Panting” (2016) and “Waste Eats Your Histories” (2016) takes over one large electric-blue wall, exhuming the work of Lebanese eco-toxicologist Pierre Malychef, whose decades-long investigation into toxic waste malfeasance was dismissed in 1995, with the scientist accused by the government of supplying false testimony. Khazrik’s work, resurrecting Malychef’s photographs (which dwell both on Lebanon’s dumping grounds and its natural beauty), celebrates his dedication, proffering an alternative narrative to the official smears.
Likewise, environmentally hazardous materials are resurrected in more practical ways. Painterly benches scattered around the galleries are manufactured locally from 1,318 supermarket bags each. Marwan Rechmaoui’s “Waste” (2016) — four blocks of recycled, compressed products (plastic bottles, aluminum cans, rubber tires and corrugated cardboard) — is oddly compelling, pointing unsettlingly at the endurance of our throwaway goods, but also at their unlikely beauty, their potential utility.
Even as pieces like Rechmaoui’s skirt close to a science museum’s instructiveness, Let’s Talk avoids obvious didacticism. Informative works are leavened by imagination, even humor, and left open to interpretation. More crucially, perhaps, the show’s curators have ensured that people remain central to this creative ecological inquiry, as drivers — and victims — of the changing climate. Our relative smallness and disproportionate destructiveness is elucidated again and again. Tiny humans labor to alter the face of the earth in Sammy Baloji’s photographs of Congolese mines. Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s “Unconformities” (2016) includes photographs and exquisite, lapidary sketches of core samples taken from Beirut locations. The material — centuries of human detritus — is then mined for “possible narratives.” We have shaped the earth, the artists’ conjectural tales suggest, through conquest and accident, industry and commerce. Having shaped it, I found myself thinking, optimistically, we can surely reshape it?
But the exhibition ends on a sober note, with a monumental image of destruction. Emeric Lhuisset’s “The Last Water War: Ruins of a Future” (2016) looks both forwards and back: his stark photographs of the ruins of Girsu, in Iraq, gesture towards the chaos wreaked by past resource wars (Girsu was caught up in a drawn-out conflict over water circa 5,000 years ago). But these moonscapes, in all their desiccated barrenness, are also uncomfortably pertinent to Mesopotamia’s present-day instability, in which increasing pressure on dwindling water supplies (driven by conflict, population growth, and ambitious irrigation and hydroelectric projects in Turkey) make the control of dams a central strategic consideration.
We may have termed our age the “Anthropocene,” but human history has long been a product of man’s negotiation with his environment. How to transform that relationship from combative to symbiotic is the problem — and it’s one that artists aren’t tasked to solve. In the meantime, getting people to really talk about the weather, and not just shoot the breeze, is a good start.
Let’s Talk About the Weather: Art and Ecology in a Time of Crisis continues at the Sursock Museum (Greek Orthodox Archbishopric Street, Ashrafieh, Beirut) through October 24.