Intimate Geographies – in conversation with Charbel-joseph H. Boutros and Stéphanie Saadé

In October 2019, I traveled from Amsterdam to Beirut to visit the eighth edition of Home Works, a biennial on cultural practices in Lebanon, organized by Beirut-based institution Ashkal Alwan. As the opening reception drew to a close, the streets filled with protestors who demanded political reform, the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the improvement of Lebanon’s failing public infrastructure, and solutions to the country’s soaring debt and ongoing economic crisis. At the moment when the protests filled the city of Beirut, on October 17, I was visiting the solo exhibition The Distance Between your Eyes and the Sun by Charbel-joseph H. Boutros at Beirut Art Center. Back then, no one could have predicted that this was the only day the exhibition could be open. During the week’s protests, Ashkhal Alwan postponed the exhibitions, public lectures, and performances, and eventually, they canceled the entire edition of Home Works. In their public announcement, they stated that cultural institutions are not isolated from “civic, political, economic, and ideological contexts, but rather shaped as a result of and in response to historical events and their repercussions.”

Now, in June 2021, a lot has happened ever since. For longer than a year, our daily life has been disrupted by the pandemic, as we experienced life from the confines of our homes. The notion of home has transformed from an intimate space, a place to rest, eat and sleep to a home-office, studio, university, library, restaurant, bar, etcetera – all between those four walls. I’m visiting Charbel-joseph Boutros and Stéphanie Saadé at Marres in Maastricht, where they currently live and work. Over the past months, Boutros and Saadé have worked on their duo exhibition, Intimate Geographies, turning the exhibition space into a home. They created different rooms in which they reflect on the precarity and fragility of our current time and the notion of exhibition-making in these challenging times. 

Installation view Marres 'Intimate Geographies', 2021. Photo: Gert-Jan van Rooij.

The exhibition, Intimate Geographies, is conceived as a work itself. During the opening of the exhibition, two protagonists occupy the space. The artist couple, mimicking Boutros and Saadé, live here and perform the preparation of an exhibition. Boutros: “It reflects on how we make exhibitions nowadays: you will see all the different steps and layers that make an exhibition appear. For example, the artist's relation to the curator, phone calls from their gallerists, and the time they spend in their studio.” Saadé: “The works in the exhibition – even though they were conceived in 2019 before the events in Lebanon (including the pandemic) – can be read through the lens of everything that happened. They adapt to the political events and history of the region.” 

We sit down in the landscaped garden full of plants that Boutros and Saadé had in their former house in Beirut. After the explosion, on August 4, they gave their plants to friends and family. Boutros: “We wanted to restage all the plants that we have lost in Beirut at our house. We had two times more plants than you see here.” The winter garden, installed on the ground floor of Marres, is conceived as a place where one could read and discuss. Gradually over the time of the exhibition, the protagonists will add plants. When you enter the exhibition, you may find one of the protagonists sitting in the garden. “We want to play with this thin line where you don’t understand if they are a visitor just like you.”

Installation view Marres 'Intimate Geographies', 2021. Photo: Gert-Jan van Rooij.

The dining room consists of works by Saadé. Curtains that belonged to her family’s home in Lebanon hang in the room. These ten curtains are embroidered with 37 routes that she traversed in Lebanon from 1995 to 2001. The title of the work is The Encounter of the First and Last Particles of Dust, which is the title of several works that she made. Saadé: “The basis is a material that carries history. You can see where the windows were: they have stains, folds, and other physical traces of their use. For each of the works, I take the timespan when the material was installed in the house. Here, it’s from 1995 to 2001. This period corresponds to the aftermath of the Lebanese civil war: the reconstruction of the city, the (re-)development of new roads and many areas that had previously been inaccessible.”

The number of embroideries corresponds to her age when she made the work. The lines of the embroideries depict the roads she traveled to see friends and family, to the cinema or the beach. “My memories of this period are attached to the trajectories. There is no cartographic information on the curtains: it becomes an abstracted space where you can project your own memories on. At the same time, it tells the story of what was going on in Lebanon. For example, the south of Lebanon became a place where we could only go to after the war because it was too dangerous to go there during the war.” 

Installation view Marres 'Intimate Geographies', 2021. Photo: Gert-Jan van Rooij.

The painting hanging on the wall is signed by Boutros, Saadé, an unknown painter and the civil war: Becoming a Painting (1950s-2019) is a landscape painting that belonged to Saadé’s grandparents and got hit by shrapnel during the civil war. “The way the painting evolved over time is conditioned by the war. If it hadn’t been hit by shrapnel, it would have aged differently.” When you look closely at the painting, you can see how the paint cracked around the shrapnel marks. “It is also a metaphor of how events like that disrupt an individual’s life.”

Installation view Marres 'Intimate Geographies', 2021. Photo: Gert-Jan van Rooij.

In the living room, Boutros re-installed the installation that was shown at Beirut Art Center and later at S.M.A.K. in Ghent. Boutros: “The exhibition at Beirut Art Center was a turning point. It showed how fragile the art world is. There is a duality between art and geography with all its problems: sometimes it suffocates what is called ‘art’.” Placed under the carpet is a concrete sculpture in the exact weight of Marres director Valentijn Byvanck. Visitors are invited to take their shoes off and walk through and lie on the carpet. The body of the person that is behind the institutional dynamics is transformed in an abstract sculpture. This also relates to what is central in Boutros’ practice: using invisibility as a material. Underneath the carpet, besides the concrete, there’s also heat and darkness. “I use these kinds of obscurities as a material that may be invisible to the eye, but it is still charged with history.” 

We move upstairs to the bedroom, consisting of both their work and even a baby room (for Noa, their six-month-old baby). A lightbox with cutouts from a memory game that belonged to Saadé projects the illustrations in the baby room. Saadé: “It is part of you as a child learning and training your memory. I try to bring back elements of the past and weave them into the present and future.” Above the bed hangs a sculpture made from wax from votive candles (stolen from a Lebanese church) poured on a sleeping mask. Besides the wax, the sleeping mask consists of wishes and dreams of Boutros.

Installation view Marres 'Intimate Geographies', 2021. Photo: Gert-Jan van Rooij.

Experiencing the exhibition Intimate Geographies feels sometimes like being trapped inside one’s home. Every room you walk into unfolds into different entangled stories with multiple layers and abstractions. Boutros: “We both try to create a new dynamic, consisting of different layers: a mingling between the intimate, historical and geographical. When you dig, you will understand the different layers.” 

The exhibition Intimate Geographies is on view until August 15 in Marres, Maastricht

This text has been written and edited as part of het AICA-mentorschap