Art Writing & Design

Simone Fattal:
Work and Days
at MoMA PS1

This article first appeared on

Start with the legs: thick, long, bowed, and unwieldy with texture resembling crusty cement on an unfinished sidewalk, or trunks of trees hemmed and ringed by time. Man and Companion(2004), one of Simone Fattal’s glazed terracotta and stoneware figures currently on view in “Simone Fattal: Works and Days” at MoMA PS1, bares the marks of the human hand—raggedy surfaces locked under a glistening coat. It is the case with most, if not all of her figures that their impurities engender a freedom in expression, a letting go of perfection akin to the waters of a torrential rainstorm leaving sudden and ravishing traces on sodden earth. The retrospective, curated by Ruba Katrib, is the artist’s first solo museum exhibition in the United States.

Fattal’s work is influenced by the myriad ways history shapes individual lives and desolates landscapes, and her practice is informed in part by her own diasporic experiences. Born in 1942 in Damascus, Syria, she was raised in Beirut, Lebanon, where she studied philosophy at the École des Lettres before moving to Paris. She continued her philosophical studies at the Sorbonne until 1969, when she returned to Beirut and began producing visual work, exhibiting paintings and watercolors locally until the onset of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975. “In 1980 I realized that the civil war was not going to end, so I decided to leave,” explained the artist during a recent talk at PS1, of her decision to flee Lebanon and settle in California. There, Fattal gave up her painting practice and launched the Post-Apollo Press—a publishing house dedicated to innovative and experimental literary work. In 1988, with the publishing house thriving, she enrolled in a course at the Art Institute of San Francisco, which prompted a return to her artistic practice—only this time in a newfound medium: sculpture and ceramics.

Simone Fattal: Works and Days, on view at MoMA PS1 through September 2, 2019 (Artwork courtesy of the artist and kaufmann repetto, Milan / New York; Balice Hertling, Paris; Karma International, Zurich / Los Angeles. Image courtesy MoMA PS1. Photo: Matthew Septimus)

“Works and Days,” which opened March 31st and continues through the summer, brings together a selection of over 200 abstract and figurative ceramic sculptures, paintings, and collages Fattal has created over the last five decades. Drawing from a range of sources and themes that resonate across the artist’s multifaceted practice, the body of work she has produced touches on geopolitical conflicts, landscape painting, ancient history, mythology, and Sufi poetry to explore the impact of displacement as well as the politics of archeology and excavation.

The show opens with Fattal’s first sculpture, Torso Found in Today’s Downtown Beirut, (1988), a marble torso that resembles archaeological objects native to her region of the Middle East. Deliberately choosing alabaster stone for this first sculpture, the artist said she felt guided by her senses and she worked on it gently, allowing its natural forms to direct her process. Her partner, poet and artist Etel Adnan, has written about Fattal’s encounter with this stone that:

“The pink alabaster, luminous, almost sensual, had become the bust of a statue one would have found on an archeological site, only this time the archeology was of a contemporary site. It was as if the war, which was still ravaging Lebanon thousands of miles away, was fusing with this unique piece.” [1]

Simone Fattal. Man and his shadow. 2009.
Courtesy of the artist and kaufmann repetto, Milan / New York;
Balice Hertling, Paris; Karma International, Zurich / Los Angeles

Standing characters are a recurring theme in Fattal’s work. At the beginning they were small, and she used Adam, the first man, as an early reference point. In the late 1980s, Fattal had immersed herself in Sufism, and Islamic mysticism, and as Adam was known by Muslim mystics to have been very tall. She soon started creating taller sculptures, with very long legs and disproportionate bodies. This prototype informed the works that followed. Her Standing Man(2012) is an example of the imprint that her first sculpture left: the atrophied heads and textured bodies makes these figures look as though they’ve weathered a great storm. Since she considers many of her standing figures “warriors,” they are rendered in a way that shows that they’ve survived. In her figurative sculptures, clay figures are rendered with just enough detail to be recognized as human attuning the viewer to the body’s fragility.

While working at Hans Spinner’s workspace in Grasse, France in 2006, Fattal had access to a large garden space, allowing her to create pieces of increased size. She made figures as tall as she could; characters who seem to come out of the mythology deriving from the Mesopotamian region in Syria. An ancient culture founded in the Mesopotamia region of the Fertile Crescent situated between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Sumerians are considered the creators of modern civilization as we understand it. But her sculptures, while reminiscent of ancient times, are simultaneously of today. For Fattal, history is continuous, and her practice involves a process of recovery. However, it is not only recovery but also a protest against forgetting.

Fattal’s influences come from epic historical texts as well as poetry, rather than a sculptural lineage. While in Grasse, Fattal made two works, The Guard (2006) and The Wounded Warrior (2008), two characters from the epic of Dhat al-Himma, each one-and-a-half meters high. The Dhat al-Himma is a little-known Arabian epic from the seventh or eighth century that depicts events that occurred under the Abbasid Caliphate of Harun al-Rashid, a period made legendary by Scheherazade’s One Thousand and One Nights. The heroine of the epic, Delhemma, is a “woman of noble purpose”—a knight and warrior who dedicates herself to her ambition and wishes to remain unmarried, although it is against custom. A female djinn (a mystical spirit) falls in love with Delhemma and attaches herself to the heroine until she is eventually killed off. Fattal has depicted characters from this long and adventurous narrative in several sculptures, such as Djinn and Zhat el Himma (2010-2019), a glazed terracotta sculpture that represents two joined figures, and Rider on Mizna the Fabulous Horse (2009), which memorializes a horse celebrated for its beauty within the epic. The warriors in this series reflect Fattal’s reverence for archaeology and lore. Their sturdy arch-like formations become symbols of resilience and fortitude in the long history of struggle in the Middle East. The choice of this epic can possibly be understood as Fattal’s attempt to excavate hints of feminism in old Arabian epics—where chivalry and strength were only attributed to men. Perhaps she saw some parallel between herself and Delhemma: a woman who dedicated herself to her ambitions and who decided walk down a path different than the common one inscribed for an Arab woman.

Fattal’s work creates a microcosmic universe, an all-encompassing temple riddled with totem and ritual. It constructs a world emerging from history and memory, grappling with the losses of time. Grounded in the earth, her practice can be read as an unfinished project coming to form each time in a different medium. Straddling the contemporary, the archaic, and the mythic, Fattal’s work is at once timeless and specific.

Simone Fattal: Works and Days remains on view through September 2, 2019 at MoMA PS1, 22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, NY 11101.

[1] Nayla Kettaneh Kunigk, Simone Fattal, (Beirut, Lebanon: Galerie Tanit, 2016). Accessed as .pdf file.


and The Tyranny of Hope

This article first appeared on

In the music video for her song “Paper Planes” (2007), the rapper M.I.A. delivers a kebab sandwich from a New York City halal food truck to a passerby as she sings: “All I want to do is [three gunshots] and take your money.” It’s a play on xenophobic fears of the immigrant—represented here by the halal food truck, and the paper plane, a metaphor for a travel visa—who arrives in another country and takes the job of a native who supposedly deserves it more. But her lyrics clash with the image: Selling street food is quite different from holding someone up at gunpoint. M.I.A. hands over the sloppily wrapped sandwich and the viewer is left wondering about the tyranny of hope, about the way certain stories are expected to achieve a particular resolution, and about the painful act of reducing oneself to a narrative worthy of consumption.

The tyranny of hope lies in the sadistic comfort we take in the idea that the mind-numbing motions of day-to-day life are worthwhile. We tell ourselves that it is why we keep going, why we write, why artists produce, why they continue to push these things out of themselves. We say that hope is what drives us to define ourselves, in spite of the stories that others may tell about us.

Still from MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A. (2018). Courtesy of Cinereach / Abramorama.

M.I.A., born Matangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, is the daughter of Arul Pragasam, a founding member of the Sri Lankan guerrilla organization the Tamil Tigers. While her father remained in the country, M.I.A. fled Sri Lanka in the mid-1980s with her mother and siblings, all of them arriving in the United Kingdom as political refugees. The long-awaited, Sundance award-winning documentary MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A. (2018), released in September and now screening widely, is a personal profile—and a defense—of the acclaimed but controversial artist. The film attempts to tie together all the different parts of the pop artist’s identity: Matangi, daughter of an armed Tamil resistance leader and the woman who would have potentially become a fighter, too, had she remained in Sri Lanka; Maya, the precocious and creative immigrant teenager, newly arrived in London; and M.I.A., the world-famous rapper and pop star who created a cut-and-paste identity drawing from every aspect of her life’s journey. Directed by Steve Loveridge—M.I.A.’s art-school peer from Central Saint Martins in London—the film rallies against the idea that M.I.A. embodies just one experience or one identity and instead makes a compelling argument for the collective existence of all three women. Hers is a story of complex personhood, full of contradictions.

Loveridge’s documentary relies on a mixture of media footage and extensive, almost obsessive, home videos that M.I.A. herself shot over the past twenty years. Through this mish-mash of film clips, it becomes clear that Loveridge has struggled to reconcile the rapper’s contradictory and expansive history. The narrative rarely relies on voiceover, but in one of the few instances where it is used, M.I.A. tells the audience: “As a first-generation person, I’ve lived through a war, came as a refugee, that is now a pop star. What are the goalposts? It’s amazing that in one lifetime you have to come and figure out so many things, but I’ve made it all fit together.”

M.I.A. troubles the mainstream media because there is no convenient format to tell the story of a refugee-turned-pop star. Hers is the story of a self-made artist, whose unapologetic and at times abrasive rap tunes, compelling political lyrics, and DIY guerrilla style challenges a global cultural moment. It’s a simultaneous tale of a teenage immigrant dealing with culture shock in a new country, the drama of her troubled lineage, and learning to survive with this dual existence. “If you come from the struggle, how the fuck do you talk about the struggle without talking about the struggle?” she protests in the film. It is also the story of the activist M.I.A., who utilizes her position as a famous pop star to shed light on the ongoing violence and turmoil in her home country, and the plight of immigrants and refugees worldwide. Still, none of these storylines or angles manages to capture the full picture of the fearless, defiant, self-described “bona fide hustler” who has continuously challenged pop culture. Throughout her musical career, she has been shunned by the press for reimagining real-life film footage of children being shot in the head in the video for her 2010 song “Born Free” (trading in kids from Third World nations for ginger-haired boys, and blood for ketchup), having her consumption of truffle fries be read out of context1, and upstaging Madonna by flipping her middle finger to the cameras during the 2012 Super Bowl halftime show.

Why do we tend to repudiate artists and their struggles as soon as they become rich or famous? Must an artist continually suffer for his or her plight to be validated? Why can’t we accept one’s need to express and appreciate the beauty and heartache this contains? Sociologist Avery Gordon examines these problems in her book Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (1997), in which she discusses how historically marginalized people are denied the concept of complex personhood:

Complex personhood means that even those called “Other” are never just that. Complex personhood means that the stories people tell about themselves, about their troubles, about their social worlds, and about their society’s problems are entangled and weave between what is immediately available as a story and what their imaginations are reaching toward.

In his film, Loveridge half-jokingly asks: “Maya, why are you such a problematic artist? Why don’t you just–” She cuts him off. “Shut up? Why don’t I just shut up and make a hit?” This is the act of a self, adhering to the tyranny of hope and conscious of wanting to be expressed, while also being aware of the limitations society is trying to force upon her. Her fierce, overwhelming, furious need to say “I’m here, I have something to tell you, and you will listen” is a statement of ownership of her presupposed victimhood—a victimhood that has legitimized both her struggles and her successes. M.I.A.’s complex personhood, and her need to be read outside of the margins, to be conceived of outside of categories, and to remain open-ended, is in and of itself powerful, political, and revolutionary.

It is very much unlike M.I.A. to let others speak on her behalf. After all, she has always authored her own image, aesthetics, and the style of her music videos. Perhaps it is for this reason that Loveridge decided to stitch together footage of a young Maya speaking directly to the camera. Because of his resignation from full authorship of the documentary, instead allowing for the artist’s own words and images to prevail, we can begin to peel away the layers of her complex story. While Loveridge’s film shies away from being a typically constructed documentary about an artist’s musical career, it instead sheds light on the human need to express oneself, in whichever way, shape or form, and to use whatever platform necessary in order to voice that expression. The film shows a rare instance where one person’s victimhood is blatantly owned, making Matangi, Maya, and M.I.A.—in her own words—“interesting.”


[1] In Lynn Hirschberg’s profile “M.I.A. Agitprop Pop,” published in The New York Times Magazine on May 25, 2010, the author took one of M.I.A.’s actions during their interview, eating a truffle-flavored French fry (which Hirschberg and the newspaper had provided to the artist) and erroneously described it as having taken place while the singer spoke about being an outsider: “Unity holds no allure for Maya — she thrives on conflict, real or imagined. ‘I kind of want to be an outsider,’ she said, eating a truffle-flavored French fry. ‘I don’t want to make the same music, sing about the same stuff, talk about the same things. If that makes me a terrorist, then I’m a terrorist.’” This mischaracterization of her words and actions resulted in critical backlash at the time and is discussed in MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A. as an example of how the mainstream media set out to portray the rapper as a hypocrite: someone who talks about being an outsider while enjoying the comforts of wealth.
The Weight Of The World
/ A Conversation with Etel

Etel Adnan, The Weight of The World (2016), Serpentine Galleries, London

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I read Etel Adnan’s latest book: “Surge.” My friend told me that it was

darker, more morose, “less Etel.” “It’s still romantic, though” she said so as to comfort me. What prompted her to think that that would comfort me remains beyond my knowledge. Etel Adnan’s work never comforted me. I never felt that I fully understood it. It made me uneasy—a kind of unease I only feel when I read her work. It is a particular one that I never managed to put my finger on. The work is beautiful, a term often deemed to be pejorative. Frowned upon when used. But it’s beautiful in a way that terrifies you, “shocks [you] shitless.”[1]It’s beautiful in a way that only Etel Adnan’s prose can be. Take, for example:

"And of white butterflies the sea is inundated. A fabulous verse, for one needs trillions of butterflies to fill this image-equation, Gerard having seen at once the power of the infinitely small when it agglomerates. There's no denying it: in Beirut, it is the sea which calls for intimacy because it often resembles people's eyes. It is she who gives us the desire to live at the dimensions which are ours: taking walks, running into someone, wanderings, amorous ornonchalant, despair annihilating us because the sea's green is even more translucid when it appears behind the cactus bushes, it's a tear in a solar plant. The ocean pushes you to absolute solitude." – Etel Adnan, Life Is A Weaving.

In 2016, Adnan created a series of prints titled “The Weight of The World / Le Poids Du Monde.” The series consists of 20 paintings, all featuring at least one circle. No one knows what the circles are really meant to represent. Whether they stood for the all-seeing eye, the sun, the moon, or the tension between forms and the canvas, is anyone’s guess. Did they stand for the weight? This weight is supposed to be invisible. It cannot—physically speaking—be perceived by the naked eye. The weight was the invisible tension between the canvas and the world.

- Etel Adnan, The Weight of The World (2016), Serpentine Galleries, London

Some conversations can be invisible —wait, can conversations be invisible? I’m not entirely sure whether that’s physiologically possible.

(Conversations are audible, they are something that we listen to, or partake in; but they cannot be perceived by the naked eye, hence they are invisible.)

Is the weight of the world invisible? Is it quantifiable?

I had never seen any of Adnan’s work in real life up until this past summer, when, on a visit to the Sursock Museum in Beirut, I happened to stumble upon one of her large-scale tapestries. I’d been taken by photographs I’ve seen online of her paintings and tapestries, but it was something else to see a creation of hers in real life. A very specific radiance emanated from it, a certain light, a semblance of a memory.

Writers always say that they are in conversation with their predecessors, the writers and thinkers who influenced them. Am I in conversation with Etel?

Degradation followed display, reified and emptied. The circle was treated like the loneliest of things. It lived within the confines of the canvas, the confines of sharp corners, and lines that break.

There is more work in interpreting interpretations than in interpreting things.

Of Mount Tamlpais, Etel explains: “It was my point of reference, it was like a pole, that when I saw it I felt like home.” In Surge, she did away with possessive pronouns: “During a darkest night I did away with the word “I” on my way to being just a being. The land was of the past. We will soon return to inhabiting trees (if any are left).”

Sometimes, I don’t know where to take and what to do with this body of mine: this body that needs to be constantly fed, washed, hydrated, scrubbed, clothed, informed and taken care of. Can I do away with it on my way to being just a being?

How do we construct being? How do we construct that which we cannot perceive?

The multiverse is composed of a quantum superposition of infinitely many, increasingly divergent, non-communicating parallel universes or quantum worlds. All outcomes exist simultaneously but do not interfere further with each other. Each single prior world had split into mutually unobservable but equally real worlds. The others are invisible to the one and the one invisible to the others.

12. a.
Every lie creates a parallel world: the world in which it’s true. It is a frequent habit when I discover several resemblances between two things to attribute equally to both points in which they are in reality different.

“Combined with this was another perversity – an innate preference for the represented subject over the real one: the defect of the real one was so apt to be a lack of representation. I like things that appeared; then one was sure. Whether they were or not was a subordinate and almost always a profitless question.” Henry James, The Real Thing

Now I have asked this question before: how do we construct becoming? 

I am yet to excavate an answer.

Existing is in and of itself a form of breakage, consisting of a series of schisms: the first one happens in the womb, when chromosomes split and take either the form of XX or XY. How does the subject construct a form of becoming that emerges from within these schisms? How does it seep through the cracks and thread itself into a web of (invisible) synapses that make one what they are (becoming)?

This place had been arranged to be ready for some particular event. It had already attained the embarrassed silence of recent obsolescence. The time of its purposeful operation had dissolved and pooled into the containers of many living memories.

It had already attained the embarrassed silence of recent obsolescence.

Planned obsolescence is a policy of producing consumer goods that rapidly become obsolete and so require replacing. It is achieved by frequent changes in design, termination of the supply of spare parts, and the use of nondurable materials.

“We witness night as the result of high-jacking of light, a home for despair. A thousand souls in one body, in one soul… body and soul dying at different times, different speeds.”[2]— Is the light of day a daily planned obsolescence? A trick played by the multiverse?

[1] Anzaldúa Gloria, and AnaLouise Keating. The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader. Duke University Press, 2009.

[2] Adnan, Etel. Surge.Nightboat Books, 2018.

(Revisiting) The Earth Room
Walter De Maria

Walter De Maria, The New York Earth Room, 1977. © The Estate of Walter De Maria. Photo: John Cliett
“Look, look, the emperor has no clothes”

The room was quiet. This was Walter De Maria’s Earth Room, located on Wooster Street, in the Soho district of Manhattan. It’s hard for one to think of the concept of an Earth room in relation to an artist. We refer to it as Walter De Maria’s “Earth Room,” as if this stretch of soil, or any stretch of soil, could ever belong to a man. In the Dia Foundation funded white-cube gallery, where De Maria’s 1977 permanent installation resides, I shared the space, in 2018, with the room’s keeper. For the exception of the faint distant sound of the Fire Department truck, howling at the traffic, nothing could be heard but our unsynchronized breaths. I was instructed not to take any pictures, and to remain within a safe distance of the Plexiglas facade that separated my body from the Earth’s. In that instant, the Earth, much like art, suddenly felt highly privatized: collected, claimed and deposited on the second floor of a nondescript building somewhere in lower Manhattan. Something didn’t feel quite right about all of this. Perhaps, as city dwellers, we are not used to experiencing the Earth in the quiet atmosphere that is harbored here. When I think of soil, I think of Land, I think of belonging, and what it entails to demand for the right and ownership of a Land. When I think of soil, I am also filled with the sensation of my feet coming in contact with the Land, the Earth, the planet. In De Maria’s “Earth Room” there exists no such sensation.

The viewer is asked to observe it from a distance. Perhaps this is why it has stayed in pristine shape, something that can strike someone as completely unnatural. Perhaps, this is why vegetation started to sprout discreetly, outside of the existence of man. Some critics have dubbed the “Earth Room” as an escape [1] from the unforgiving streets of this noisy city; others called it “The Emperor’s New Cat Box. [2]” In the midst of contemplating the extremely dark manure-brown of the soil in contrast with the white walls of the building, one can’t help but wonder about the origins for the need of such an “escape.” The 280,000 pounds of moist Long Island dirt –in the spirit of mysticism and undeniable ties between Dia’s founders and Sufism– is meant to provide an avenue and space of transcendence. In the late 1970s in New York, Dia’s selection of artists and the commissioned work presented a sort of austere and seemingly ascetic new approach to contemporary art. This was quite alien to the art scene at the time.

Walter De Maria, born in 1935, was an American artist, sculptor, illustrator and composer who lived and worked in New York City. His artistic practice is most widely connected with Minimal art, Conceptual art, and Land art of the 1960s.

Like many of his installations, but most specifically his “Lightning Field,” De Maria, who died of a stroke at the age 77, was a figure of mystery. What is known is that he was born in Albany, California, to an Italian-American restaurateur. He studied the piano and later majored in art history and painting at the University of California in Berkeley. His move across the Bay to San Fransisco proved to be quite influential. He joined the city’s fresh new scene of cross-disciplinary avant garde artists, forming a friendship with the composer La Monte Young, with whom he would later collaborate.

However, the real breakthrough in De Maria’s career happened in 1960, when he moved to New York, slightly shy of twenty-five years of age. Manhattan, with its dazzling lights and very happening art scene, offered De Maria a taste for performance art that took other forms.

Steering away from labels such as minimalist, conceptual artist or even a land artist, De Maria’s work incorporated aspects of all three approaches to making art. It is evident that his multi-disciplinary background feeds into his later works. His involvement with the music scene creates a vibrant image of an artist who was dipping his fingers in many different alleyways. Sometime between 1965 or 1966, De Maria joined a rock band called The Primitives (it later went on to become The Velvet Underground). By then a percussionist, he soon tired of dragging his drums around the New York bar scene. In a 1972 oral history interview with the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, speaking of his decision to not go down this path, De Maria ponders “I thought, are you going to play or are you going to do the sculpture? You know, are you going to be an artist or a musician?”

In 1966, he created a tall, thin stainless steel sculpture entitled Cage, named for the composer, John. Situating De Maria next to the likes of John Cage, creator of 4’33’’, models a scenic vision of artists working on and around the transcendental experiences of art and silence. This early piece of Minimalism led directly to the polished steel poles of The Lightning Field.

De Maria, one of Dia’s protégés, specialized in pinning human perfectability against natural imperfection. Land art expanded the boundaries of art by the use of unorthodox materials. These materials were often extracted from the Earth, including soil, rocks, vegetation and water found in relevant sites. The art movement centered on a rejection of the commercialization of art making. De Maria’s Earthworks felt both monumental and apocalyptic. As if he was in on a secret that no one else knew. As if knowing and anticipating the day when humankind’s enterprise has led to its extinction. This phenomenon, however, was reversed in The New York Earth Room, which contrasted with the hard metal of his earlier pieces. Standing near what is essentially an inside-out mudflat, remains, forty-one years later, a disquieting experience. Harboring a certain sense of circularity, it literally brings earth art to the city.

The ties between the Dia Art Foundation and Sufism are undeniable. The silence with which you experience spaces such as The New York Earth Room is a prime example of this. You are compelled to speak in a lowered voice, as if not to awaken the work, or offend it. The philosopher Otto Bollnow, in “On Silence,” speaks of silence as “the ground from which all speech emerges and into which it falls back.” The use of the term “ground” is oddly apt. The elevated stature of a second-floor loft on Wooster Street – which houses The Earth Room – is reminiscent of a space-time-continuum of silence from which all speech would emerge.

De Maria’s Earth Room exemplifies the ascetic formalism that distinguishes several of Dia’s artists. The Dia Art Foundation, launched under various aliases and in near-secrecy in 1974, is a nonprofit organization that initiates and preserves art projects. Its founders were Philippa de Menil, daughter of Houston arts patron Dominique De Menil and youngest scion of the Schlumberger oil fortune. and her husband, German art dealer and visionary Heiner Friedrich. They envisioned Dia as a space that would support artistic endeavors "whose nature or scale would preclude other funding sources."

The name "Dia," taken from the Greek word meaning "through," was chosen to suggest the institution's pivotal role in enabling artistic projects that might not otherwise be realized. Alternatively, and perhaps more fittingly, the word Dia’ in Arabic translates to “shine,” most commonly used in Islam for its reference to “light” or the “light of God.” The kind art put forth by Dia in the 1970s represented a radical departure in artistic practices. It was often large in scale and occasionally ephemeral or site-specific.

Together, De Menil and Friedrich created a refuge from the speculative art market then taking shape in New York, and a new standard of monumental and spiritually charged ways of experiencing art. Take, for instance, a SoHo gallery floor buried permanently beneath black earth, its layers suggesting a duration spanning epochs, reminiscent of a cross-section reference drawing from a geology school textbook.

A few years after commissioning The New York Earth Room, the enigmatic Friedrich left New York and disappeared; Philippa de Menil, on the other hand, had long since ceased to exist. In 1980, she had shed her western identity and had become a Sufi dervish, going by the name of Fariha al-Jerrahi. When the austere house of Dia fell – due to financial difficulties– Fariha moved on. The Sheikha now splits her time between a hilltop in Yonkers and retreats with dervishes in Turkey.

Hermann Minkowski, Albert Einstein’s college professor in mathematics, arrived at a new way of thinking about space and time in 1906: “space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality." Sufi mysticism is characterized by asceticism, and the renunciation of material possessions. It is, in essence, an understanding that space by itself and time by itself will fade away, but their union will preserve a different reality. In the quietude of The Earth Room, such a renunciation of time and space is overwhelmingly present, creating the space-time-continuum of silence from which all speech could emerge.

[1] "Escapes: 'The Earth Room' and Other Art by Walter De Maria in New York." The Washington Post. May 20, 2009. Accessed January 16, 2018.

[2] Hess, Thomas B. “The Emperor’s New Cat Box.” New York Magazine, October 31, 1977, 102-105. 

    In Conversation with Gogy Esparza

This interview initially appeared on Degree Critical

I first met NYC-based, Ecuadorian-American artist Gogy Esparza through mutual friends, and the first time we hung out we ended up walking down Madison Avenue on a Thursday afternoon. On that walk, Gogy told me that he gets his inspiration from the shop windows on this street. This surprised me, because I never took him for an Upper East Side aficionado. My vision of Gogy was that of a warm-hearted individual, who spent the last ten years or so hustling in the gritty art scene, as far away as can be from Madison Avenue. I was living in Beirut in 2016 when he was there shooting for his Beirut Youth project (2017), and though we did not cross paths, the word of his visit spread like wildfire in such a small city. The project, initially tackled the globalization of subcultures, but ultimately showcased the juxtaposition of a diverse culture, where different religions, classes and opinions breed both its chaos and its charm. It later gained a sponsorship from Adidas Originals for the exhibition to tour worldwide.  Gogy and I squeezed this conversation between two haircutting appointments at his Chinatown studio. I arrived right after he had finished giving his first haircut of the day. As he sat comfortably in his barber’s chair, we discussed his path as a barber and artist working across film, photography, and fashion.

The following text has been edited for clarity.  

Sahar Khraibani: You just came back from showing Beirut Youthsin Tokyo. Did that trip change your perspective of the project? How was it perceived there?

Gogy Esparza: Really well. I mean, I don’t want to generalize, but the creative culture in Japan is very curious and anything they find exotic they want to know about. They tend to explore outside cultures and they go all the way: they do all their homework, they ask a lot of questions, and I think they’re very respectful and genuinely curious. That’s why I love it there. And it was great to see their reactions cause they were like “wow, the conditions in the [refugee] camps are really crazy, the history is so complex.” They were willing to ask the right questions, and eager to educate themselves.

SK: I was watching the Beirut Youths videos again, and I was thinking about their content. You know, it’s home for me, and I was thinking of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp especially because I’ve been there so many times for different reasons. So I have a different relationship to the camp in a way, but I normally don’t like it when people other-ize and exoticize it. Your video didn’t do that. You know, it’s a very specific culture they have in the camp: it’s their own little world, kind of like Chinatown on a smaller and more condensed scale. So I was curious, as someone who had never been to Beirut before, what was your perception of Beirut before going and after going, especially visiting the camps and then areas like Raouche, which is really a mishmash of people from all classes.

GE: Before going to Lebanon you try to cover the history. I’m Latino and I grew up Catholic, so this culture is very different from mine on the surface—at least that’s what I thought. I mean, yeah, the country is 47% Christian, but the Muslim and French influences are felt just as much, if not more. The mash-up of everything over the years—you want to be privy to that before you walk in there. I think a lot of people sensationalize war and conflict and I’m not going to say that I didn’t do that.

SK: But you didn’t.

GE: But I was really naturally attracted to that. I was there when Trump was about to be elected and then there were a couple of documentaries that came out that talked about U.S. relationships with the Middle East. One of our big goals was visiting Mlita in the South and the Hizbollah Museum. There you see the other side, because in the U.S. you only get the U.S.-Israeli side. So a lot of my focus was initially on the history of war. As you know, I’m an immigrant from Ecuador who came to the U.S. with my family. We grew up in the inner city, in the hood, so naturally I kind of gravitate towards these stories of conflict and displacement because I relate to that.

SK: So you’ve been through a form of displacement?

GE: Exactly. And also assimilation, right? Palestinians here are refugees but in Lebanon they somewhat have no identity. And in Lebanon I think they remind you of that.

SK: Definitely. As a Palestinian, you don’t have a passport or a citizenship. You only have a refugee card, and you’re not allowed to work in certain places or even buy a house. You’re constantly reminded that you don’t belong. I mean unless you’re very rich, there are a lot of class rules that play into this game as well. What was interesting to me was that you went to Beirut at a very specific time: the garbage crisis was at its peak, and the summer was rough, politically and culturally.  

GE: I guess initially that was my concept. Beirut is a very progressive place in the Middle East, so there was going to be more free spirited energy there than obviously in Saudi or even Dubai, but what I found there was very different. Inevitably I started realizing that I couldn’t tell people that I was from New York. I couldn’t tell them I was American. I preferred telling them that I’m Ecuadorian because there was a big wall put up, rightfully so, toward the United States. But once you get through that wall with people in Lebanon, it felt just like Latin culture to me: very warm, very giving, inviting. The hosting culture is really beautiful. And also, the Mediterranean Sea. I think the sea had the biggest impact on me. It felt cleansing, calming, almost omnipresent.

SK: The sea has always been the biggest mystery and inspiration for Beirut. Ultimately, being here in New York and now so far from it, I’m starting to realize why it has such a hold on people. I mean it’s the only place where you can breathe: an open space in a city with no public spaces. It’s the only escape, really. And then people lost their lives in the Mediterranean while trying to migrate and we carry that shame around. 

GE: I didn’t think about that…

SK: I mean you see it everyday. What I appreciated in your videos, especially the one about the private beach club Sporting (Raouché, 2017), was that you showed the public beach right next to it.  I think you hit on a specific synthesis of Beirut, a non-cliché way of showing what the city is and what it means to live there.

GE: I just tried to be honest because of course I got love at the cliffs of Raouché, but I wasn’t fully down with everybody there. They knew I was an outsider. Like “hey, I went to Sporting too, I was at that private beach,” and I think I showed that. I wasn’t trying to lie. I was eating fish at Sporting and also looking across the bay. I think I was trying to be very objective and factual and just to tell the truth. I wasn’t lying about the conditions in the camp, I wasn’t lying about Raouché. And for me, I always go in both worlds. Even in New York, I like to see every scope of every place. You can come from two different worlds and exist in both at once. Some people can only exist in one world and that’s very sad, but it’s real.

SK: I really appreciated the honesty. I’m very wary of someone coming in from the outside and wanting to apply their own vision to what the place is.

GE: Being a Catholic Latino for me changed how I saw things. We hide behind this veil of conservatism and prayer. People have this fascination with the virgin or the whore, It’s very prevalent throughout the Bible and the years of culture that have come from it, but at the end of the day this strict idea of “right and wrong” creates so much infidelity and so much distrust. You know, I talk about that in my work. I show you the ugly side. I show you the truth, and then I also show you this idealistic vision. I don’t lie. My personal work is very crude and very raw, and you know, it’s not for everybody. I think if you pay attention to the nuances of what I’m trying to say, you understand that I’m very honest about it, and anywhere I’m going to go, I’m going to do that ‘cause that’s who I am. We need to have a dialogue about the truth and our perceived notion of what we feel should be true.

SK: Do you feel like you have a duality in your perception of things? In your art?

GE: Definitely. Being in Japan was amazing and beautiful. It’s like: okay, it’s very clean and pristine and everything is incredibly orderly. All the trains are on time, but at night—or if you go to Shinjuku, the party district—essentially they sell sex dreams there. You as a foreigner cannot go into these places. You cannot document these places, because the Japanese government wants the outside world to only see the pristine side of Japan, to perceive it in a specific light. But Shinjuku is the underbelly of the city, completely run by Yakuza (members of transnational organized crime syndicates originating in Japan). This is the contrast I like to show. In Lebanon, it’s more out there, but the tradition of Arab culture is still very conservative.

SK: Depends where you are geographically in Lebanon.

GE: For sure. And I can’t assume this American standard is the same everywhere else. I can’t. It’s arrogant.

SK: But you also come from a dual identity, I mean you’re from Ecuador, then you moved to Massachusetts, and then to New York. You saw different sides of the world and had an interesting trajectory, and that’s why I think you even see New York in a different way. I mean the first time we hung out, we walked down Madison Avenue, which is an uncomfortable place for me cause I always felt it was for the rich. But you didn’t feel that way.

GE: The thing is, my father was a doctor in Ecuador, and he fought and earned his education coming from nothing. And then he came to the States and his title wasn’t recognized, the only work he could find was in a factory assembly line. He was reduced to that kind of labor. But this guy was a doctor in his culture. Every immigrant has this story. To withstand and remain yourself and assimilate only to a certain degree is respectable and admirable. In Ecuador, he’s able to walk in the poor neighborhoods that he’s from, but he’s an educated person that willfully fought for an education, and he should be entitled to the same levels of consideration as every other person. In New York, or anywhere I go, I feel the same way. I always go to the hood wherever I am travelling, but then I will go to the more expensive neighborhoods and have a drink. I will go to the Louvre and appreciate art. I will challenge myself like that, and I will challenge the environment that is in place. I’m willing to take that risk. I have to dress like them. I’m fair skinned, but I have a shaved head. I have tattoos. I have my mannerisms and a character that let them know I’m not bourgeois. and if you’re unable to accept me, then I will challenge you. Because these people, they tend to stay in their world. They don’t come to my world, or if they do they consume it, from hip-hop to street art.

SK: Or sensationalize it in a way?

GE: Absolutely.

SK: They want to put you in that category and don’t expect of you more levels of culture or integration.

GE: For me, it’s like cutting hair. I know how to give you a fade or a tape up, a line up, a shape up; these are like cuts you get in the hood. But I know how to cut all different types of hair, and also you need different types of techniques to do that and there is a cadence, a layering process. There’s an understanding of how things fall into place in the act of cutting hair. I know how to give a good haircut because I’ve been giving them for so long, but I’ve challenged myself to learn what I don’t know. I should be entitled to appreciate the complexities of any type of world that I choose. You have these creatives challenging themselves by the exposition to a whole new culture, and assimilating the traditions of the pre-existing culture. That’s what New York is, that’s what the infrastructure is. The city was built on a grid system from the very beginning, and it was meant for ease and flow of commerce and culture. That’s embedded in the design of the city, so who am I not to take advantage of that, you know what I mean? In Lebanon, it was important for me to go to Mlita, to go to Dahieh, to Shatila and then yes I was at the trendy Decks On The Beach, and yes I was eating at Restaurant Casablanca, because I wanted to see it all.

SK: It’s part of the culture somehow.

GE: To be honest with you, I understand classism because it exists in Ecuador as well. It’s very classist, and it’s based on the color of your skin. But I don’t agree with that, and I don’t partake in it at all. I’m very vocal about that, and I show that in my work. I chill with all different types of people because I truly believe in that spirit. I believe in the human race. I want this universal prevailing message of struggle and of acceptance.

Beirut Youth showing in Los Angeles at HVW8 Gallery on February 22nd, 2018. It will be the fourth installment of the exhibition. The exhibition was shown in New York City, Dubai, and Tokyo thus far, and planning to close out the tour with an exhibition in Beirut this coming Summer.

Image courtesy of Gogy Esparza
New York, Beirut