There are 2,832 bricks that constitute Building A Home with Time, a large installation that recreates Lebanese artist Stéphanie Saadé’s childhood room. With one brick representing a single day, the number corresponds to time between her birthdate and the official end of the Lebanese civil war. But this leaves an unsealed gap in the walls. “There is a reason why you see uncut bricks at the entrance of the construction: I wished to keep the bricks, or the days, intact, not wasting any fragments—minutes—or dust—seconds—of them,” says Saadé. Letting viewers into this temporal dimension, which emphasises the process, implications and consequences over aesthetic stimulation, Building A Home with Time embodies the concept of ‘building with time’.
Saadé blurs narratives of fiction and imagination, translating complex personal and social memory into abstract, evocative artworks through appropriation of pre-existing materials. Avoiding visual cues that bind her to her heritage, Saadé’s tacklings of psychological, poetic and mythological layers that conceptually touch upon political and artistic notions of dormancy liberate her work from regional socio-political contexts. Building A Home with Time, a work which has been shown only outside of the country in which it references, “constantly brings the spectator back and forth from one scale to another: the micro-scale of one individual, a ‘small’ individual, a child, to the much broader scale of a historical context,” she explains. “Whether the viewers have shared experiences of the historical context embodied by the work or not, they still all have been through the other story that it tells, which is [the story of] being a child.”
During a sensorial walk-through, Saadé exposes the simultaneous fragility and youthful innocence that Building A Home with Time exudes. “The space is completely bare, but in a way, full of what it offers to the mind and the imagination. First, there is the feeling of entering the private, sacred space of a room, moreover a child’s room, her/his ‘own world’, which can be at the same time magical and disturbing,” she begins. “It’s important to note that the interval determining the number of bricks also corresponds specifically to the period of prime, or tender childhood. So the opposition between the two parallel events combined in this work is even stronger. Feelings keep oscillating between the spontaneous temptation to mentally reconstitute what this space could have been like, probably a haven, and the alertness that this childhood took place during a dramatic period of the Lebanese history, of which many still have memories of, from the news or from their own experiences, which might also come back to their minds.” The mechanisms at play engage the mind abstractly, an effect which is the direct result of the building process.
“The simplest possible construction, made of bricks and cement—even reminiscent of children’s games, as the bricks seem to be piled,” continues Saadé, adding that the bricks’ and room’s dimensions change, dependent on material availability in the installation location—not unlike the variance found in recollection. “This makes the construction a basic shelter—here one could understand ‘shelter’ as the place where one hides to protect her/himself, but also as any child’s shelter, whether it’s her/his room, a corner, or the space under a table where s/he hides, plays, invents. The spectator can enter the work, which somehow shelters her/him inside the show itself.”
Despite no literal indications via documentation or representation, the undertones of conflict still resonate through the materials and subject. “It goes precisely to the parallel between the Lebanese Civil War and my childhood: the number of bricks used corresponds to the number of days of war lived, and the whole work can in that way constitute an open childhood memory, not necessarily a sad one despite the context, as childhood operates as a strong filter and shelter,” says Saadé.
Interested in micro-histories, the poetry of her practice is marked by peculiarities that she suspects stem from a tendency to be mindful of the subjective minutiae that inform a point of view. In Building A Home with Time, two memories become inseparable, resting dormant in the mind. The act of retrospect on the increasingly indiscernible separation results in what Saadé describes as a strange situation: “Good memories—‘golden memories’—taking place against a dramatic background. You retain of it a general atmosphere, a blurry but very present sentiment, and that’s what’s somehow being translated and transmitted through the work.”
Rendering her interpretations—if abstractly—into universal, fact-laden creations is Saadé’s method of “erasing so that s/he can write, hiding and concealing so that s/he can project.” She cites her work with Oud as a means to further illustrate this process. “A rare prized oil—with a price sometimes surpassing the price of gold—resulting from the infection of the Agar tree, an initially odourless wood. I found it a wonderful example, as well as a possible political and artistic posture, to produce a perfume in response to an attack, to a hostile situation,” she explains. “It is a duty for the works to transcend the subject, facts or research they start with. A duty for the artist to operate as an artist, with the tools of art, but without turning into an amateur historian, archaeologist, or anthropologist. It’s also a duty for the artist to propose another dimension than the one we’re already drowned in in our daily lives.” And so Saadé’s approach embraces dreams, poetry and humour—the only way, she asserts, it can be.
Building A Home with Time is on view until 26 August at Traversée des états at Parc Saint Léger, Pougues-les-Eaux.
Stéphanie Saadé is represented by Grey Noise, Dubai.