Exhibition Shows What America Looks Like From Beirut


Beirut is a 5,000-year-old city, or series of cities, each layered over another on the same site, living with the previous era’s ghosts. Today, it can feel like a place steadily, and in certain ways, heedlessly devouring itself to meet the various needs of an uneasy and unevenly affluent now, the ancient souks rebuilt as a series of covered outdoor shopping malls — Zaha Hadid designed one — and Miami-style starchitect-luxe condo towers (by the likes of Herzog & de Meuron and Norman Foster) coexisting side by side with pocked concrete high-rise ruins, legacies of when the city was divided between Christian and Muslim sections during the 1975–1990 civil war, and snipers would nest in the upper floors, keeping watch on the borderline between them. It’s a city crowded with Syrian refugees in a nation itself overrun and undergoverned, all within commuting distance to the frontiers of the Islamic State. It has problems with the basics of municipal functionality — the power supply and garbage collection — even as developers extend its borders out into landfill in the Mediterranean. And yet, through this, life goes on: It remains a city of beguilingly romantic cosmopolitan complexity and potential.

Last fall, Aïshti by the Sea, a high-gloss luxury mall, was built in an industrial waterfront area of town, a futuristic spaceliner moored between the highway and the sea. It feels a bit like it’s at a wary valet-parking remove from the city itself, and solidly within what was the Christian zone during the civil war. It was designed by the British architect David Adjaye, who is better known for his museums than his upscale retail, for Tony Salamé, a Lebanese retail magnate who wanted to be better known for his collection of contemporary art. And so there is a museum in this mall, too. By bringing an outpost of name-brand art to a place which didn’t have much — even if it is in the same building as a place to buy luxury name brands — Salamé has tried to elevate his own and his city’s position as a outpost for the transnational art elite. Still, its opening last fall ignited a certain amount of knowing eye-rolling in the art press about Salle and Gucci cohabiting.

As Salamé points out to me, there is a separate entrance in the building for the Aïshti Foundation, which occupies four well-proportioned floors at the end of the building, overlooking the waterfront industrial gas tanks next door. In any case, he didn’t invent this hybrid real-estate beast: There are art collections in the Iguatemi shopping centers in Brazil, and Shanghai has its K11 Art Mall. Luxury fashion brands and contemporary art are self-advantageously allied these days: Don’t forget the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, or the Fondazione Prada in Milan.

Salamé, who comes from a prominent Beiruti family, has been collecting art in a serious way for a decade, after dabbling in collecting stamps and traditional rugs in his youth. “I bought randomly this art — I don’t want to say bought, that is for the stores. I collected in a way what I liked. I visited many galleries, because I am an impulsive buyer,” he says when we meet up in the the restaurant on the ground floor of Aïshti, which is decorated with a couple of Doug Aitkens and a pair of Richard Prince Instagram paintings, and protected from the sun’s glare by a golden scrim over the windows. “I went from one painting to another artist to another.” But when it came time to open the museum he contracted the New Museum’s Massimiliano Gioni, whom he’d met when the curator was working on a 2014 exhibition of contemporary art from and about the Arab world,  to make some sense out of his collection. Salamé is an agreeable, solicitous man— an impresario, clearly used to holding court amidst these polished surfaces. He shows me the books which accompanied the opening exhibition, and the new one. “I realized when I did the books and saw them that the collection made sense; it is in a way a collection.”

Salamé's collection is focused on the West, as if to digest it. In that, he’s not unlike a number of collectors in the new global art market, continuing a process of cultural-prestige transfer which harkens back to when American robber barons (see: Henry Clay Frick) bought up the aesthetic trophies of Europe. He’s always liked Pop artists like Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Roy Lichtenstein because, growing up in Lebanon, their references held some talismanic appeal, exalted, mysterious, and familiar all at once. It was a way to mainline the cultural power of the USA, to both read it and in various ways interestingly misread it. (It also faces outward, across the sea to Europe and America, not inward, toward the Lebanese art scene, and for that is criticized locally: One day, wandering down hipsterish Armenia Street, lost trying to find a friend’s hotel, I stopped into a shop called Zawal, where the woman there was openly dismissive of the idea of Salamé’s foundation as being for a disengaged “nouveaux riche.")

And so appropriately enough Aïshti’s second show ever, which opened last month while I happened to be in Beirut, is titled "Good Dreams, Bad Dreams — American Mythologies." Gioni assembled it out of Salamé’s collection of art about the USA — “I didn’t go shopping,” he told me, with his usual knowing half-wink, given that the foundation shares a building with a mall. The invitation (as well as the banner outside of the museum) is a Richard Prince Cowboy — one of the famous rephotographs the artist took of Marlboro advertisements. At the opening, which looked a bit like a July Fourth corporate picnic on the promenade out back of the seaside mall, they served “American Dream” burgers ("hand-pattied with love"), “Pop Culture” corn on the cob, “Mythology Merguez Dogs” and popcorn, out of a cart. Oh, and lots of Budweiser and Jack Daniels.

Salamé says he grew up sympathetic to the United States, or at least some idea of it gleaned through the movies. He remembers watching the American flag being burned during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 and thinking “Oh my God, why are they always insulting America? Because maybe we are pro-Western in our country and our school.” During the civil war, Lebanon even lacked for Coca-Cola. “We knew the myth, even before getting to know the real thing,” he says. He finally went to the U.S. when he was 24, in 1991, and stayed for three weeks, visiting New York, L.A. and Dallas.

“So it was this dream, I remember, from watching the movies, I remember 9 1/2 Weeks, or Wall Street — what was his name, Gordon Gekko, and you‘d see all the greed, that American lifestyle, was it too much?” he says.

Meanwhile, he’d been doing more research on America. “I always liked business, and I bought many books, about Ford, Richard Nixon, Domino’s Pizza; I bought Trump’s first book, The Art of the Deal.” He went to Trump Tower first when he arrived in Manhattan (and also Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman.) “I had this whole idea of Pop art,” around this time, he remembers. “This show was maybe born then.”

Since Pop Art is a transformative riff on American pop culture, then you at least have some of the context no matter where you are in the world, from movies and advertising. “Part of the collection is always related to the business, of fashion, of graphics,” he says.

“Americans are very good marketers,” he says, even to ourselves— he remembered, when he first visited, being surprised at how many American flags Americans hang all over America. He gives a nod to the Richard Prince Instagram pictures on the wall, which depict the new technology of self-marketing while being something of an example of that itself.

The Aïshti Foundation is a big bright place to look at art (and certainly more flexible than Gioni’s home base of the New Museum.) Before Salamé and I spoke, he’d been deep in conversation with one of his art dealers, Massimo De Carlo (Milan/London/Hong Kong), who, along with several other well-regarded gallerists (Stuart Shave, Kathy Grayson, someone from David Kordansky, among others) had flown in to attend the opening of "Good Dreams, Bad Dreams." Many hadn’t been to Beirut before and were curious as to where all this work he was collecting had ended up.

He’s known De Carlo since around 2008, around the time when he decided that he wanted to create a foundation. Two years before, he’d met the dealer and art advisor Jeffrey Deitch at Art Basel, and was inspired by a man Deitch had worked with for years, the Greek collector Dakis Joannou, as well as the American idea of your-name-here philanthropy: “Everyone has built a museum or has a room in the museum,” with their name on the wall, he says. “This encouraged me also to  make the museum.”

The title of the show comes from a 1996 installation by Allen Ruppersberg listing off, on a series of hand-painted signs, various books he owns, and its idiosyncratic system captures some of the way that that Salamé’s voracious collecting seems to work: He’s trying to capture something. “Raymond Pettibon, I always thought he should do every single American icon from Superman to Wonder Woman to the cars to a surfer,” he says. “He just did some of the new works for me as a commission.”

A lot of the work in the show will seem familiar to a New York gallery rat who has seen his share of Longos and Wileys and Uoos and Lowmans and Ligons and Alex Israels and then some. To this hard-to-impress cohort, the show can seem more like a cozy sampler of blue-chip insights or provocations — artworks which grabbed Salamé for whatever reason — than what seems like, at least to this American, a more rigorously assembled take on America. Still, it has its satisfactions even on those terms — an enormous 2006 Julian Schnabel of a surfer on a wave, Amanda Ross-Ho’s Pregnant Again and Again quilt hanging; Duane Hanson’s droll Man on Mower; Rashid Johnson’s BAADASSSSS wall unit; Richard Prince’s 1987 Buick Grand National covered in a vinyl wrap of seductive ladies; Sam Durant’s mirror tagged with the words I Don’t Believe in Nothing, I Feel Like They Ought to Burn Down the World, Just Let It Burn Down, Baby. Though when you take a step outside of the art-world bubble, what makes it interesting is seeing these works in this particular context, to try to imagine seeing it through a local’s eyes, in a city where most of these artists have never been shown before, and where Alex Israel is simply called “Alex” on the wall text, to avoid needlessly antagonizing the wrong sort of visitor (and, I’m told, customs officials.)

“Even this show, here, to talk about America, some people would say you’re crazy,” says Salamé. “In the whole Middle East, you can’t see a show like this: people wouldn’t know about this artist or the nudity.”

The foundation’s first show, titled "New Skin," focused on abstraction, and, Salamé tells me, local visitors “liked it but it was maybe a bit, for them, too abstract. This show I think is more their visual aesthetic. It’s easier. The relation of love and hate.”

Salamé is, in his way, an idealist. Yes, these are trophies, but they are something more: As the world becomes more global, and more threatening, it’s an attempt to gain some sort of understanding. “Two summers ago, I couldn’t sleep at night,” because of ISIS, he says. “You see what they did with the minorities, even the Muslims. They were an hour away from here. I couldn’t sleep: your kids, your investments, your art, everything. Everyday it was a different kind of nightmare.”

For a secular Lebanese — just as for secular Americans, faced with a revanchist Republican party — it’s not clear that anything is necessarily getting better any time soon. “What is going on now is just weird,” he says. He recently saw a show of Palestinian artwork in Berlin, and it brought him back to the '70s, when there were artists from Cuba showing in Beirut, and “everyone was in miniskirts and nice haircuts and no scarves. It all started with the Iranian revolution. And now everybody is a bit fanatic and closed. Everybody is becoming closed in his own world.”