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A dream halfway between a happening and a situation.

Byline: Daily Star Staff

Summary: BEIRUT: It's a February afternoon and Gebco, a steel workshop in Dora, is a hive of activity. In the middle of the room a many-armed metal man squats on a wonky chair. His hands grip poles that reach up to an overlapping array of metal plates, which will eventually be cut to form filigree clouds. Around the sculpture clusters a team of workers, testing

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Matthew Mosley

Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: It's a February afternoon and Gebco, a steel workshop in Dora, is a hive of activity. In the middle of the room a many-armed metal man squats on a wonky chair. His hands grip poles that reach up to an overlapping array of metal plates, which will eventually be cut to form filigree clouds.

Around the sculpture clusters a team of workers, testing the movement of the arms and the clouds. Amid showers of sparks, they file off an edge here and round off a corner there.

Presiding over the disciplined chaos is artist, architect and designer Nadim Karam. Along with Khouloud Salman, a member of Karam's Atelier Hapsitus, he is checking a complicated schema that shows how the many parts of "The Fisherman and the Cloud" are attached to form a serenely kinetic installation, the arms waving back and forth and the clouds bobbing in an ever-changing kaleidoscope of patterns.

"We're behind schedule," Karam says with a rueful grin. "But it's technically a very difficult piece." He points out supporting struts that look spindly and homespun but that bear the weight of the intricate, four and a half-meter-high construction.

Karam's distinctive style is easily recognized. He's famous for the sculptures that sprang up around Downtown Beirut during its post-Civil War reconstruction, the fantastical creatures and emotive characters switching positions by night to form an intriguing, open-ended narrative. A series of Karam's paintings were on show at Hotel Al-Bustan during its recent festival, and he unveiled his largest sculpture to date, the spiraling "Desert Wind," at this year's Art Dubai.

Although instantly identifiable as one of Karam's works "The Fisherman and the Cloud" is something of a departure. The artist's figures are usually drawn from a "lexigram" he constructed of more than 1,000 characters -- some resembling human-animal hybrids, others resembling flowers, yet others unclassifiable aliens. His newest sculpture doesn't embody any of these figures. Instead, they are cut into the body of the fisherman and his clouds, giving a lace-like effect.

This is also Karam's first sculpture to be automated. Although some of his public pieces contain fans that spin in the wind -- for example an elephant that stands in London's Notting Hill -- the fisherman begins to wave his arms electronically whenever a spectator approaches the work.

"The Fisherman and the Cloud" is now being installed in Washington DC as part of the exhibition "Convergence: New Art from Lebanon." The first outing of the newly-formed Association for the Promotion and Exhibition of the Arts in Lebanon (APEAL), "Convergence" will open at the American University Museum's Katzen Art Center on April 8.

Over the past year or so, the venerable curator Amal Traboulsi has worked alongside Jack Rasmussen, director of the American University Museum, to assemble an array of recent art from these shores. Alongside Karam's fisherman, the exhibition will feature paintings from Chaouki Chamoun, photographs from Jocelyn Saab and a canvas from this year's Abraaj Capital Art Prize-winner Marwan Sahmarani.

"This is extremely good for Lebanon," says Sahmarani. "There's not one public contemporary gallery or grant to help artists. Everything must be done by private individuals. This exhibition will help give a more rounded picture of the Lebanese art scene."

"Convergence" also provides the occasion for a cycle of films about Lebanon, including Samir Habchi's middle-brow genre flick "Beirut Open City" and "Bosta," Philippe Aractingi's tale of dabkeh dancing, love and friendship. Topping off the roster of events is Karam's opening night lecture about urban art.

In his introduction to the exhibition, Rasmussen highlights Karam, alongside Chamoun and Ayman Baalbaki, as one of the artists "whose work most clearly offers a way forward."

"Nadim Karam," Rasmussen enthuses, "is an artist and architect who understands both the conflict at hand and the importance of dreaming."

A visit to Karam's nerve center, Atelier Hapsitus (a hybrid word of "happening" and "situation"), confirms the importance of dreaming to the artist. It's a concept that often drops into his conversation as he describes the many and varied projects upon which he and his team are engaged.

Discussing a project he is developing that will adorn the seven hills of the Jordanian capital with a series of sculptures that periodically emerge from the mountainsides, Karam describes how the finished work will give Amman "residents the space to dream and create their own narratives."

Speaking of the filigree form of "The Fisherman and the Cloud," Karam says that the lightness of touch will convey "a dream-like experience" in contrast to the artist's normally bold creations.

There is something fantastical, too, about his colorful atelier. Like Willy Wonka without the chocolate, Karam bounds around the maze-like series of rooms, all full to the rafters with maquettes, drawings and mock-ups. Never sitting still for too long, he enthusiastically expounds upon his ideas, all of which are wonderfully mad.

Karam's recent design for a car showroom, for example, re-creates a highway in a downtown basement. He digs out a scale model of a giant metal man that is planned to be installed off the Persian Gulf coast, ejaculating jets of sea-water. Turning on a tap, powerful streams of water spring from all over the little model, causing Karam to leap backwards.

"These ambitious projects create a feeling of such joy," Karam says.

"They are so tough to do that, when you pull them off, people really appreciate that they're seeing something special."

Karam has recently struck a deal with the Ayyam Gallery, which last year opened a branch in Downtown Beirut with a show of his works. Ayyam's financial backing has set Karam's fizzing imagination on an even looser leash, allowing him to be "experimentally directed rather than commercially directed." The deal also gives public access to aspects of his work that weren't previously seen, especially his paintings.

"I've always painted -- it's a way to play with ideas," says Karam. "It's a new experience to show them, however."

The colorful canvasses, featuring hugger-mugger pile-ups of Karam's fantastical characters (elephants standing on cars or figures romping on clouds), frequently serve as a starting point for his creations. "The Fisherman and the Cloud" began as one such brainstorm, a quirky sketch that, in other hands, might not have been seen as material for a sculpture.

With the help of the expertise of the Gebco steel workers, Karam has translated the spindly lines and free-form design into the sturdy steel structure that is about to go on show in DC. A distinctively handmade feel permeates the sculpture, combining with its monumental size and steely solidity to create the solid lightness of a dream.

"Convergence: New Art from Lebanon" is on show at the American University Museum in Washington DC. For further details, call +1 202 885 1300. For further information on Nadim Karam, visit www.hapsitus.com

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Date:Mar 30, 2010
Words:1218
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