Lebanese Lara Zankoul meditates on the nature of human interactions.
Beirut-born artist Lara Zankoul’s latest body of work is on show at Ayyam Gallery in Dubai until 17 November 2016.
Lara Zankoul and conceptual photography
Artist Lara Zankoul (b. 1987, Beirut) studied economics. Speaking to Art Radar about how her education may have informed her conceptual photography practice, she explained:
It is how I learned to be pragmatic. When facing a project, I break it down into smaller tasks and progressively make what seemed difficult (or impossible, at times) more realistic, more approachable.
Her practice can be characterised as conceptually and practically ambitious. The artist mixes modes of production borrowed irreverently from conceptual photography, performance, scenography and cinematography, in works that propose complex and critical rereadings of art history. In her work, Zankoul will typically construct an elaborate scenography and insert a character. The resulting image will play to the spectator’s habits of seeking a narrative concerning the emotional life of the character by weaving together any information contained in the landscape chosen.
In its completeness, (costumes, scenery, lighting, hair and props are well attended to) the photography of Lara Zankoul evokes both a contemporary fashion shoot and the curious mix of performance and painting that is the 18th century European tradition of the tableau vivant. Historically, the “tableaux vivants” were works of drama, performed for aristocratic audiences before which figures posed silent and immobile, for 20 or 30 seconds in an imitation of a well-known work of art or dramatic scene from history and literature. The living picture, the pose plastique, the pregnant moment, the costumed tableau (but also the film still) are all names for the kind of scene-setting that is at the core of Lara Zankoul’s conceptual photography practice.
Online bullying and “As Cold as White Stone”
Tableaux vivants are a corporeal appropriation of art history, which keeps traditional images alive through a permanent process of transformation. The artist first deployed this methodology for her solo exhibition “Depths” (2013) also at Ayyam Gallery (from their Beirut base), in which the characters from Northern European fairytales (and therefore dominant representations of femininity) were re-performed before the camera, but with some anomalous detail that gives her critique away. In Excess (2013), for example, a woman dressed in white stands knee-deep in the sea, her elbow raised as she pours water from a watering can in an image that compounds associations between the vengeful floods of some divine wrath, and the more meditative economies of care that is gardening.
Perhaps balancing the width of emotion with the quiet dedication that an art practice requires, is an art of its own. Zankoul has recently written about the difficulties of developing as a young artist in an environment as competitive, and even abusive, as the art world, a topic to which she dedicated a series of blog posts. In a blog entry blog dated 12 October 2015, the artist writes:
Lately I’ve been exposed to a lot of negativity from people around me. […] I’ve realized it’s quite easy to criticize, accuse, blame or disrespect, especially in the art field, which is rather subjective and related to taste. But hiding behind a laptop, identified or unidentified, to bully someone just for the sake of it is no way to give constructive criticism, and to spread unfounded gossip has only the purpose of hurting someone.
The exhibition “As Cold As White Stone”, as well as being an erudite arts research project exploring Italian art history (from Michelangelo to contemporary Italian photography), is also a fierce meditation on what Lara Zankoul describes in the exhibition’s press release as “the nature of human interactions in a world dominated by individualism, virtual life, and ego/selfishness”.
“As Cold as White Stone”, Italian Art History and the cold of the digital age
During a recent artist residency in Italy, Zankoul spent the first few weeks researching the surrealist images of Italian contemporary photographer Matteo Basile (b. 1974, Rome). During her exploration of Basile’s portfolio she came across his “Pietra Santa” (2016) series: photographs all shot in the marble quarries of Carrara, a landscape which Basile uses as a blank canvas for the unfolding of various dystopian nightmares in his photographs.
Drawn to the ravaged setting of the quarries, Zankoul also chose to stage her photographs there, inserting anonymous and withdrawn figures who wander aimlessly and ominously around the white marble cliffs. The lines in the stone in the landscape are of course man made, reminding us that this landscape is the huge fossil of redundant industrial processes that were once at the centre of modernity and its rhetoric of progress.
As stated in the press release, “As Cold as a White Stone” explores what the artist describes as “the coldness, resistance, and numbness of human relationships nowadays”. For Zankoul the quarries are a place-holder for any experiences of alienation, or relationship problems, that one might encounter navigating the digital age. Just as the figures pause in the white expanse of the quarries, so Lara Zankoul hesitates before the idea that contemporary technological, scientific and artistic innovation is somehow automatically positive, progressive or liberating.
Talking to Art Radar, Zankoul illuminates an important detail regarding her interest in Italian art history in terms of materials and production:
In As “Cold as A White Stone”, I chose to reverse the traditional approach to Italian marble sculpture: instead of taking a block of stone and carving it into a figure, I took a figure and decomposed it into its minimalist lines.
She refers here to her decision to have her figures dressed in dark colours, which has the effect of making them appear as a kind of negative space against the white background. There is, therefore, a quite potent question that may at first appear superficial in the work of Lara Zankoul: to what extent are our current behaviours, beliefs and desires informed by our environment? To what extent are we, as users of the internet, the negative space of our online avatars?
A self-taught artist
Since her first solo exhibition in 2013 “Depth”, her work has become more nuanced and the construction of her conceptual scenes increasingly careful. Speaking to Art Radar she explains:
I used to rely mostly on the display of props and their symbolism to transmit messages; whereas now, I am working towards making my pictures subtler, more indirect. I am putting more research, thought and time into my concepts rather than the execution.
Life as an artist began in 2008 when Zankoul first began experimenting with photography. After three years of informal art education participating in workshops and residencies throughout the Middle East and Europe, in 2011 she was awarded the Shabab Ayyam Photography Competition and began showing her work in group exhibitions globally. Asked what other communities or spaces have informed her art practice, Lara Zankoul told Art Radar that aside from art residencies and artist studio visits,
the online photography sharing websites were very important. People share knowledge there and I learned a lot of things from them. These exchanges have also been very enriching.
“As Cold as White Stone” is a project that in its hyper-referencing of Renaissance, modern and contemporary art, is in many ways a tribute to the kind of knowledge sharing that social media has made possible. At the same time, her figures that wander as negative space in the white landscapes of a marble quarry offer a sober critique of the scale of shifts in behaviours and habits that the internet may have introduced into interpersonal relations. In the aforementioned blog post Zankoul talks of “speaking from vulnerability”. In her most recent work, Zankoul seems to ask of her audience the simplest things: first, that we are more conscious of where we are (or what landscapes we have been inserted into) and secondly, that we articulate how we feel.
- Challenging tradition through colour and form: Iranian calligrapher Mohammad Bozorgi – interview – July 2016 – innovative calligrapher protests contemporary themes with stunning scripts
- ‘Silsila’: Sama Alshaibi on art, beauty and resistance – interview – January 2016 – Palestinian-Iraqi artist Sama Alshaibi speaks a unique language of resistance
- Emerging Syrian artist Noor Bahjat at Ayyam Gallery in pictures – August 2015 – Dubai’s Ayyam Gallery showcases first residency programme graduate in a compelling solo show
- Egyptian artist Khaled Hafez’s “A Temple for Extended Days” at new Ayyam Gallery Dubai – December 2015 – Ayyam Gallery celebrated the opening of its new location in Dubai and the arrival of its newest artist, Khaled Hafez, with a solo exhibition of his painting and video work
- 13 Lebanese artists at Singapore Art Fair – November 2014 – Lebanese contemporary artists are in the spotlight at the inaugural Singapore Art Fair
Subscribe to Art Radar for more on Lebanese artists