THE LEAF ONCE PILGRIM
TEXT BY CHIARA IANESELLI, INDEPENDANT CURATOR, FOR THE LEAF ONCE PILGRIM, SOLO EXHIBITION BY STÉPHANIE SAADÉ, AKINCI GALLERY, AMSTERDAM, 2016.
“In entomological literature, which soon began to fill the house on the island, he quotes a Finnish scholar, Olavi Sotavalta, whose
only interest was to calculate the frequency of the wing beats of insects. In particular, he studied midges, a kind of stinging gnats
that, as it turned out, reach the astounding rate of 1046 beats per second.”
Fredrik Sjöberg, L’arte di collezionare mosche, Milano, Ierpborea, 2015, pp. 18-19, translated by the author.
How many times do you blink in a year’s time?
Welcome to The Leaf Once Pilgrim, Stéphanie Saadé's first solo show in the Netherlands. What we experience in the gallery is the
artist’s path of pilgrimage through growth, accompanied, from time to time, by a leaf: the years at school, her travel diaries, a map
still being drawn, skies not yet fully explored, departure and arrival schedules on uncommon transportation systems… Though very
personal, the exhibition includes and absorbs the spectator, whatever provenance and millennium he/she is from. The frequencies
Saadé transmits on are definitely uncommon and they can be heard if only we walk on the same traces left by the ballerina that was
the first visitor of the show, and is, after that, always on her toes.
Wall Piece sets a shifts in perception, indicating what happened when the ballerina came: a wall moved to the floor, from vertical to
horizontal, willing to support her delicacy and kindness, maladjusted to just be watching, standing. It could not prevent itself from
making that extreme gesture. A wall that might remain untouched for the time The Leaf Once Pilgrim is given: only the ballet slippers
can float on its side, never actually touching it. The smooth surface allows a subtle investigation to take place in the gallery entrance:
why isn’t the wall reported missing? Two works nearby remain suspiciously silent, mirroring each other in a guilty way. Golden
Memories, a photograph from the artist’s childhood covered with gold leaf, addresses Identity in Change, a recent passport
photograph of the artist covered with silver leaf, and vice versa. They stare at each other, while time continues to interrogate them
about what they have circumspectly witnessed, oxidising the surface of one of the two, to better read the hidden expression
Perhaps a clue for this mystery, of the provenance of Wall Piece, can be found in N-S-E-O, clearly indicating where everything once
originated. It shows four cardinal points in four chained, linked pearls, that leave no space for doubt. Another trace of where Wall
Piece might come from is tangible in The Four Corners of the World. Wooden beams coming from four locations in the world enclose
a map, visible to some, invisible to most, clearly reporting the pilgrimage of the artworks, how they were carried on the Amsterdam
water canals and then finally hidden in AKINCI. The four different forests definitely have met once in the past, while playing cards,
but with leaves.
Some more circumstantial evidence regarding a possible location from where Wall Piece came from can be found in Saadé’s The
Sky is a Village and Portrait of a River: works that directly address our perception of natural phenomena; shifts, moves, twists,
somersaults, and pirouettes.
In The Sky is a Village, tiny pieces of sky taken from childhood photographs are scanned and enlarged to the size of the artist’s
studio’s windows. The marks left by the rain, wind, and air reactivate them today. In Portrait of a River, a map of a part of Lebanon is
rendered waterproof, except for the river showing on it. The work is hanging from the gallery’s ceiling. Water is poured on the top of
the map and drips through the Lebanese river onto the floor. These works relate to each other not only in the weight given to their
materiality, but also for their particularly tactile dimension. Indeed, they all have been through a process of transubstantiation, the
change of one substance into another: fragments of the sky become the sky itself, while a blue line on a map becomes a flooding
Similar conditions occur in Portrait of a River, when evaporation of the water on the gallery floor feeds the humidity of the air. Again,
another shift in perception takes place at the moment in which the map, which represents the ground, is above us, upside down, and
the river, upside down, starts to rain.
Another question arises: how can the sky be captured or depicted? Saadé, regarding to that, notes:
The sky is, in general, a very abstract, hard to grasp, to define and to delimit, notion or
construction, and here it has been untouched, unaffected by the political events happening
underneath it at the same time. As in Golden Memories and Identity in Change, the
actual image disappears. In Golden Memories, the image becomes a background, the one
of icons, an abstract surface, on which new images start to appear, while in The Sky is a
Village, the background also comes forward to become the subject itself: an abstract
background which is a village, a village to be inhabited.
These maps bring the spectator to the most encrypted work of the exhibition: Travel Diaries. This series of works presents travel
related documents printed and used by the artist to leave and return home where gold leaf has been applied on the plights formed
with time. This technique allows unexpected codes to emerge. Paper transforms into a landscape where Saadé deeply studies the
topographic relief of yet unnamed mountains. Deleuze suggests that “a ‘cryptographer’ is needed, someone who can at once
account for nature and decipher the soul, who can peer into the crannies of the matter and read into the folds of the soul.”
Deleuze, The Fold. Leibniz and the Baroque, The University of Warwick Library, 1995, p. 3.
Later, he specifies that he considers cryptography an art for inventing the key to an enveloped thing; exactly what we witness in
Travel Diaries. The key is metal as in the case of Home Key – the key of the home of the artist in Beirut, plated with gold. The
occurrence of leaving and returning home are registered in the material of the key as the gold slowly wears off. A similar condition of
ephemerality becomes more tangible in The Shape of Distance: do all materials grow? How can a pupil chair and table cope with the
growth of the child? How do they relate to the natural, perhaps, magical phenomenon of a child’s expanding antennas?
How is growth measured?
Saadé responds to these questions by clearly sharing with us two little lines, corresponding to the size of the artist, and her size
when she is standing on the tip of her toes, presented side by side in a frame. The title? Double Altitude. As we can see in The Leaf
Once Pilgrim, a new language is set; made by signs, a ballerina’s toes, hidden, unnamed mountains, giants drops forming rivers,
and subtle particles of sky. There is no space for sophistication, rather a full immersion in nature and its fortunate codes.
Saadé shares an anecdote that introduces an essential work in the show; The Rose is Without Why: “Biology class back at school…
The topic was cockroaches. A question was asked, whether we were to measure them with their antennas or without? The teacher
answered with another question: do you measure yourself with arms up?”
The idea of being composed by different entities, shapes, elements, becomes indeed tangible in The Rose is Without Why: a rose is
dismantled into its main parts to understand the logic and the musical chords it was composed on. What is released in this dissection
process and why could perhaps we understand where beauty lays? This region of investigation is also at the centre of the
performative work Sub Rosa by Estelle Delesalle.
The search for the essence can be visible in the piece Oud: the string of a Oud is smeared with Oud oil. Perhaps we can still listen to
the musical chord, while we accidentally step on Thin Ice: a diamond that has been hidden for millions of years, while we were
looking at the sky, which, by the way, is a village.
Chiara Ianeselli, 2016
Exhibition View from The Leaf Once Pilgrim