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BEIRUT — The walk from my house to Sfeir-Semler Gallery is less than a mile, but the 20 minutes it takes are reliably nightmarish. Crossing the highway via the pedestrian bridge, the fumes of a thousand choked-up vehicles mingle with the stench emanating from beyond the “river” (a trickle of effluence garnished with plastic bags). This waterway — perhaps once a natural feature but now clad in cement — can’t be blamed for the smell, though; the sweet, sickly scent is a result of the “garbage juice” that is being unearthed in efforts to landfill trash dumped for months in a distant parking lot.
The final stretch through Karantina, a neighborhood that is currently fighting the potential installation of a waste incinerator, is bleak and industrial, with a fancy furniture store, empty lots and crumbling buildings, no sidewalks, and rubbish on the verge. Beirut’s is a hybrid landscape, the greenery that pushes its way through breezeblock cracks and climbs across bullet-scarred façades is inseparable from the plastic that embeds itself in corners, the sodden cardboard that floats off the corniche.
Thus, Gerda Steiner and Jörg Lenzlinger’s central installation in their exhibition les extrémités de notre univers at Sfeir-Semler Gallery, located in a nondescript building that I access via an unpaved parking lot, is not unfamiliar, despite its whimsy. Nodes of trash and organic matter rotate lazily in the nonexistent breeze, against the gray backdrop of the city. While in Lebanon, Steiner and Lenzlinger collected detritus — both organic and otherwise — from the gallery’s surrounding area, as well as from the far-flung Bisri and Bekaa valleys, arranging this flotsam and jetsam into delicate, spidery mobiles. Hung together, they form a surreal landscape, their intricacy, precarious equilibrium, and interwovenness suggesting some kind of symbiosis.
“The whole ecosystem is a fragile balance,” Lenzlinger told me via Skype, from the artists’ current residency in Rio de Janeiro. “So we thought for this project it is good to do these kinds of mobiles that are in this balance, and to make this very light, and to transform this garbage into a poetic space.”
The artists introduce the installation with a quotation from Emanuele Coccia’s Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture: “We call ‘atmosphere’ this radical mixture that makes everything coexist in a single place without sacrificing either forms or substances.” Within this central room — light pouring through wide windows, the insistent screech, wine and chirp of insects piped through speakers (interspersed with tinkling digitized effects) — it is difficult to discern which flowers and branches of this bizarre jungle are real and which are fake. “We don’t make a difference between natural and unnatural things,” Steiner said. “We think all objects are natural, as the human is also part of nature.”
A pitted, faded cactus paddle is connected to a dried branch; cracked egg shells are suspended exquisitely beneath a bird of paradise flower, which appears to be real, its vibrant orange and electric blue jostling with the deep, disturbing magenta of chemical fertilizer, which grows in particulate crystals on plastic plates suspended beneath sprays of dried grasses.
“When you see it pure like this it gives you an idea of what we consume with our food,” Lenzlinger notes. The artists used pink colorant to transform the usually white substance, and the gallery feeds the jagged pools with a special solution to promote growth.
Elsewhere, a plastic T-Rex hangs suspended beneath a large fake toadstool; a dried branch pierces a chunk of gray Styrofoam and merges with bright green and pink plastic plants. A solitary plastic bag hangs disconsolate by the window, and bullet casings pepper the scene. A twisted blue fishing net brings to mind ocean gyres of trash. This is an imaginary landscape crafted by humans, but the urban dweller will recognize it as scarily quotidian.
“Usually if something like this is lying around in the street you don’t pay much attention,” Lenzlinger says, “but in this context you start to look carefully at the things: is it real, is it plastic, what is it? That’s what we’re interested in: to open the senses of the people.” The query that precipitated this installation was how to make people see and re-evaluate what they usually throw away. “How,” as Lenzlinger puts it, “can we transform the value of garbage?”
Three smaller rooms around this central installation meditate on related themes: one houses a collection of seeds, inspired by ICARDA’s work in the Bekaa Valley, and by the historical importance of grains and bread in the eastern Mediterranean. Another, in a shift from the loci of potential life to the trappings of death, displays surreal shrouds and crowns constructed of jawbones (previously sold by the artists at the Totentanz, or “Dance of Death,” market, in Basel, in 2016).
In the third room, a screen shows a video of hens pecking their way through a surreal landscape — impervious to the artifice, they locate what they can eat and ignore what they can’t. They’re in a kind of Eden — a commentary on the cruel farming practices that bring the Swiss the eggs they consume in large quantities around Easter (Lenzlinger: “the whole egg production is not so funny for the chickens themselves, right?”). But here, too, culture has been grafted to nature, as the artists explore the interplay between what Lenzlinger terms “these two extremities of artificialness and what we call naturalness.”
Gerda Steiner and Jörg Lenzlinger: les extrémités de notre univers continues at Sfeir-Semler Gallery (Karantina, Beirut) through April 6.