An email conversation between Artist Christine Kettaneh and Katharina Ehrl
What was the impulse to finally quit economics and become an artist?
I loved the theory of economics and I loved teaching it. However, I felt the theory did not capture well the complexity of our reality. I soon became convinced that our experience of life was multilayered and trying to understand it through only one angle (the economic one in my case) felt too limiting. I needed to be in a field that acknowledged and welcomed interdisciplinarity as a way of thinking. That questioning eventually led me into arts, the space that gave me the freedom to explore all that mattered to me like language, economics, systems, history, fiction, etc… and in any combination. It was also the space that accepted the attempts at understanding, rather than finding definite solutions, as a valid working method. I know that if I ever work in economics again, or in any other field actually, I would definitely carry that way of thinking with me.
Your works are always accompanied by texts. Can you talk about your own writing?
Language is both my muse and my tool; both my excavated material and my excavating technique. I am interested in language and its frailties; I like to explore the effect on language when we suspend our literalness. That’s when we may have to accept the partialness of experience and the fallibility of memory, and then allow both perception and remembering to be tools of invention rather than recording. That way, a new sense may develop not from History alone but from Fiction as well. The visual, the research and the writing in my practice inform each other. The verb ‘to essay’ means, “to attempt at”; I like to consider my art, like the essay, as attempts at understanding. So writing is an essential layer to my practice. Sometimes it is the scaffolding of the artwork; other times it ends up in the art work; or becomes the art work.
If I understand correctly, research is the basis or/and starting point for your work. Is there a way to describe how your work leads from one way of working into the next?
My work usually starts with an instance of inspiration: a certain situation, an encounter, an accident, or an invitation to collaborate… Once my attention has been caught, I start on a path of exploration in the attempt at understanding. That includes research, experimentation, writing… The research can range from scientific documents to revisiting children’s books; the experimentation may involve trials in different media; and the writing may range from analytical or poetic to something in between. But there is no specific order of how things should work. The process builds intuitively. The writing, the research, and the experimentation with different media inform each other.
Can you tell us about your choice of the materials? For Smell me, kiss me, touch me you use sugar and for Hayat and the Soap Coins soap – both ephemeral products if they come in contact with water.
My work usually engages with our everyday material, the mundane, the normal. The sugar on our kitchen tables and the soaps on our wash basins just like language on our tongues are examples of our everyday. I also like the playfulness in the ephemeral aspects of those materials and the performative rituals that dissolve them. I find them as opportunities to embed my texts in the objects. When the object is then abandoned in favor of a trace; it leaves me exploring the nature of the trace whether material or immaterial. When the Soap Coins were consumed they left behind the holes in our system. When the sugar words were consumed the underground became a mine of smells, touches and kisses.
The “Artists’ Rooms” on Sumac Space seem to be a new challenge for artists as it’s about presenting oneself, one’s practice, etc. Here, you show beside other material a video that tests the limits of the letter H. How did you choose the works for your “Artist’s Room”?
I liked the idea of the Artist Room and how you left it open ended, undefined. I took it literally as a room where I store things that might not necessarily be exhibited as final artworks. That includes mostly process works but more importantly thoughts that are on the margin of my personal life and artistic practice, and products from my ongoing trainings. For example, ‘the limits of H’ is a recent piece I did while learning how to code. The other items I selected work well as ‘code’: hand gestures, keys, and metaphors.
The art scene in Lebanon (and in most of the Middle East) is characterised by contrasts: On the one hand it is young, lively and aspiring, and on the other hand it is exposed to political tensions and problems. What is it like to act as an artist in this field of tension?
I think art comes usually as partially a response to the artist’s environment. The environment with its own set of problems, challenges, and sensorial aspects trigger the inaccessible within the artist. It is the impulse – the motivation to perceive, to act, to create. Lebanon, inspite and perhaps because of its inherent wealth, has always been a ground for conflict. The past year has been exceptionally trying politically and economically, making an artist of almost every Lebanese. Touching and inspiring photos, thoughts and essays gushed through social media by the minute. Citizens ran to the streets and made art by just being there. The recent explosion devastated many, but not all. The Lebanese organised themselves in seconds and held each other, totally oblivious of the risks of COVID-19, and swept the glass across the capital together and made art of it. So to answer your question, I think the Lebanese artist of the past year is no longer represented by the artist of the gallery, but by every Lebanese.
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Katharina Ehrl (b. 1985, Munich Germany) studied Art History in Munich and Venice. Her research focus is on the development of modern and contemporary art in the Arab world and its diaspora, with an emphasis on Lebanon. She is currently a PhD candidate at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich. From 2016 to 2018 she was assistant curator on the research and exhibition project Forms of Flow / Flow of Forms. Design histories between Africa and Europe, which was presented in Munich and later at the MARKK in Hamburg.