In conversation with Nadim Karam, a multidisciplinary Lebanese artist and architect, famous for his large-scale urban art projects across the globe. His often absurdist approach is used to narrate stories in urban settings, using a vocabulary of forms.
Nadim Karam is a multidisciplinary Lebanese artist and architect, famous for his large-scale urban art projects across the globe. His often absurdist approach is used to narrate stories in urban settings, using a vocabulary of forms. Recently, Karam created The Gesture (2021), a debris-based sculpture marking the one-year anniversary of the deadly explosion in the Port of Beirut. For topos West 8 founder Adriaan Geuze spoke with Nadim Karam about the importance of public space for art and encounter, why the city must be a place for the human senses of touch, sight and hearing and about the fascination of creating shapes and designs that are understood by everyone.
Adriaan Geuze in conversation with Nadim Karam
Adriaan: Hello Nadim. It’s lovely to speak with you! In both of our practices, I believe we share the attitude of working across disciplines and wearing different titles: landscape architect, architect, engineer, artist and poet, but as you know, the boundaries between disciplines can get hazy. In my opinion, the final outcomes and the processes behind a project influence their classification as art, infrastructure, or architecture.
Nadim: True. As an architect; I look at the city as an organism with systems, structures and spaces which need to function. As an artist, I want to interact with the soul and the energy of the city. I see myself as an artist who can do projects of the scale of an architectural work, of a building. Like an architect, my work is related to context, so I study things like surrounding elements, climate, topography, history and culture, which artists do not always need to do. The artistic side of my work is the dialogue with the city, and the poetry and dreams that come out of it. As an architect, I make sure that the technical details and final outcome is a presence that speaks to the city.
Adriaan: Many of your art projects are situated within the public realm. The pieces confront us in the common space – where we live, work, and meet. Public space can have many definitions and manifestations, especially from an artistic perspective. Cities and urban design often use art to help define these spaces.
Nadim: Public space provides a way to address the city as a whole. Suddenly, everyone is interconnecting with your work within the public realm. As long as a public art work represents a challenge for the city, it echoes the energy of the city. I have always thought of public art as a dream in the city. I also think that it projects its future. It helps to understand the stories of the place, and by injecting our own stories, we create a new challenge or a new perspective on things. When this happens, it means that public art has done its job in the context of a public space.
Adriaan: Why is public space important, to you?
Nadim: We need to feel public spaces through our five senses, and be aware of the way we react to our surroundings. It is extremely important these days, when we spend hours and hours in front of screens. We have to compensate with being part of the life of our public spaces: sitting on a bench, riding a bicycle, seeing people, cars and gardens. We all grew with the feeling of a place that was made for us, with us, and by us. Public space is in our essence; it is what binds us together, says who we are; it is the starting point. We should not lose it.
Adriaan: Planning and infrastructure affect how public space is created. In landscape architecture and urban design, we are constantly giving form to that space itself. As an artist introducing work into those forms, in a specific place, you can participate in the public space, or not. I feel that your work helps create it physically, politically, and even radically.
Nadim: In my work, apart from needing to understand the context, and as you said: the infrastructure of the place, I try to search for its memory, and the stories the space has generated. What are the limitations of the space? How do you define the stories and memories that were created by the space? What is the history? My work emerges from that place. This is why, in each city, each project has a different dimension that belongs to and is inspired by the components, database and configuration of everything that is there. Of course, I use the elements of my own ‘alphabet’ or vocabulary, but they react differently to each place.
Adriaan: Public space is not a neutral place. People go there to express freedom, to protest, and to meet up with others. These are political acts. Public art can also give political ambiance and be debated from a political point of view.
Nadim: Yes, and these spaces of freedom are important: all public space is a space of expression, where people come together. Everything inside a public space takes on the dimensions of its surroundings. The Gesture, my latest project in Beirut, is a good example. Its intent is apolitical but it received a lot of attention because it is positioned in a public space with so many power connotations and emotions. I think anyone who is involved in creating spaces wants minimal involvement of politics and the authorities; though of course sometimes the client is the city authorities themselves. The more you can create a free space within your public realm, the more you are trying to oppose a political control of that space. The landscape architect can also oppose that and reverse it completely.
Adriaan: Tell me more about the attention around The Gesture. When I saw the explosion in Beirut, I thought ‘what a catastrophe!’ and half a second later, my thoughts turned to you, that you would produce a monumental memory and the phoenix of Beirut would come rising from the ashes. I am very moved by the project, it is fantastic.
Nadim: The Gesture caused a lot of shouting. People are shouting at me, at the sculpture, but actually the city, the citizens, and the sculpture are all shouting in the same direction. You want the truth – I want the truth! You want the justice – I want it too! I created this work because I want those answers, so why are we shouting? Just by creating and placing something in a territory in tension, it created a debate, a huge kind of energy that tells you what the city is about. The Gesture is an example of a sculptures reflecting and echoing the city; bringing to the surface what the city has been silent about for a long time. In Lebanon, I’m glad that the debate could be generated through culture and the arts. Receiving criticism like that is a healthy process.
Adriaan: This brings us back to the role of public space, and what it means today.
Nadim: It offers the opportunity to debate, change, create, and rethink a city. I like the concept of ‘re-‘: re-evaluating, re-challenging – all the things that you might have made assumptions about, but can see in a different way just by taking another look. By generating new energy in public space and new forms of identity, we’ll make you re-question your city. That’s important: if there is no re-questioning, I don’t think a project has been successful. It has to stimulate the energy to debate the place, until it becomes the new normal. When public space has managed to throw the city in havoc and create a new norm, we are ready for the next space. In a way, this kind of rebellion builds the layers of identity of a place.
Adriaan: Today’s public space is dominated by signage; stealing the public space, telling you that you can only follow the signs and do what you are being told to. The public space is manipulated, with commerce and brand identity, with cameras recording every face and movement – day and night. The program is literally painted on the floor.
Nadim: Yes, absolutely; these can become suffocating if we let them. Recently, the authorities of Chelsea Borough of London sent me plans of a space for which every centimetre was completely pre-planned. In response, I’m trying to do the opposite by creating a bouquet of wild flowers there, to resist the whole process somehow, replacing the measurements by slightly chaotic flowers of different colours and shapes. I’m also working on a project called ‘The Cultural Warriors’; a series of sculptures that are there to “fight” for cultural power within cities. They are a group of two figures; one placed upon the other, such as a Rhino with a Diva on top. There could be hundreds of these invading a place, and it would say a lot about the place. By invading a place with their dreams and poems, it could create some friction, but challenging the status quo is the whole idea. If a flower grows beyond the limitations they are given, we can accept it because it’s a flower, but this doesn’t apply to a building. When you add poetic expression, you defy the structures and rules already imposed within a place.
Adriaan: Like your flowers and Cultural Warriors, many of your projects consist of more than one object. To me, these “series” make them bigger than ‘traditional’ sculpture and is related to the position of infrastructures and streets. They begin to take on a life of their own.
Nadim: If you have a series of sculptures, in the shapes of humanoids, creatures and plants – you are demonstrating the diversity of life. Literal diversity, but also different thinking processes. Clusters can make a city. Put them in one line, and you have a singular sculpture. The element of surprise is also important and gives a different dimension to your imagination. For example, imagine a linear sequence but then suddenly, you go to another street, and find one of the elements hanging on a building there. If you see one element like that, out of place, does it mean that there could be more? You start searching within the city and asking yourself questions. At the same time, it becomes a critical game, through which you start to interrogate your own city. The boredom of going to work and back, the same journey every day, is suddenly interrupted and for a moment you will ask yourself ‘what is happening here?’.
Adriaan: The scale is very important.
Nadim: The more the world goes digital, the more there should be sculptures in a city to challenge the senses. That’s what we are lacking in cities.
Adriaan: In your work, you often use a so-called vocabulary of forms. Fantastical creations, icons, that form an alphabet. The alphabet creates a new universal language.
Nadim: The shapes can be understood by all people, beyond their age, language or culture. They communicate with all, and I think their diversity is important for people. Different shapes can be interpreted differently by people in different cities. Sometimes I walk past my sculptures to hear what people are saying about them. It happens that a wild cat with three ears becomes a donkey, or a dog becomes a crocodile. These ways of seeing change depending on a person’s imagination and culture, yet they are also archetypes that bring the notion of diversity to cities.
Adriaan: What are the shapes telling us? What story is or narrative is the alphabet claiming?
Nadim: The shapes tell us to open up, to stretch our souls beyond the boundaries of the context in which where we’re living. Celebrate diversity, and accept the other who is different, so that we can relate to each other. In nature, we are losing some of our precious diversity of species every day due to loss of habitat. Diversity is what keeps us and our environment alive and vibrant. Movement and temporality are also important. I try to make my works flexible, kinetic or ephemeral where I can. In Melbourne, the kinetic procession of huge, 9-metre high sculptures gives form to the people who migrated to the city, and tells their story as it travels across the bridge every day. In Nara, I placed small, humble sculptures, only 45 centimetres high, but there were a thousand of them in the lake in front of the oldest Buddhist wooden temple of the world. Their scale, meaning and shape change contextually.
Adriaan: To me the shapes tell me they are part of a strategy to humanise the city. They bring a smile, a human touch to the wild infrastructure, a smile in the bureaucracy and the commercial dominance of cities.
Nadim: They add a human aspect, but they are not intended as part of a strategy. It is more innocent than that. The approach is more poetic than strategic.
Adriaan: Yet some of them to me are very rioting, like the movements of the hippies, the constructivists, and the futurists taking to the streets. They fit in relation to the strong energy of these types of movements.
Nadim: The shapes do have a caricature quality to them. When you draw a caricature, you do so to either comment or critique, and the sculptures are also a little bit like this. When you create a series of ten sculptures of about 9 meters tall, the equivalent of three storeys each, and you place them on a bridge, you’re creating something that is almost a city of its own. This ‘street’ of figures, each with their own shape, tells its story to the living inhabitants.
Adriaan: So the work cannot exist without context.
Nadim: Yes, for me it is not about conceiving a work and then seeing where it could be placed – which is also valid and can be very powerful. I prefer to learn about and get into a conversation with the city, generating something from our dialogue.