THE SHAPE OF DISTANCE
TEXT BY CHIARA IANESELLI, INDEPENDANT CURATOR, FOR THE SHAPE OF DISTANCE, SOLO EXHIBITION STÉPHANIE SAADÉ, GREY NOISE GALLERY, DUBAI, 2016.
“There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The
third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.”
David Eagleman, Forty Tales from the Afterlives, 2010.
In his book Forty Tales from the Afterlives the neuroscientist David Eagleman describes the scenario that people experience while
waiting for their names to be pronounced for the last time: a passageway where you can hear the persistent steps going back and
forth. Suddenly you hear a name and that man leaves the waiting room; he died. We are callers; in the moment when we pronounce
the name of someone for the last time we allow or condemn her / him to die. But Stéphanie Saadé is not: she acts in a more subtle
way, as she doesn’t emit a single sound; her mouth keeps safely closed. Nevertheless, she is able to name without naming, to touch
without touching, to remember without remembering. She holds tight many substances and traces, identities not yet disappeared,
because she doesn’t allow anything to leave her. The materials she generously shares with us in the gallery hardly make steps, they
perhaps float, sometimes swim and mostly sail. We could argue that Twelve Tales from the Afterlives are presented in Stéphanie
Saadé’s exhibition The Shape of Distance.
In her work Golden Memories, she doesn’t pronounce the name of a person, but addresses herself. We can read in her carefully
written notes that accompany the exhibited artworks: “A photograph from the artist’s childhood is covered with gold leaf. The past
memory is no longer accessible, but now mirrors the present reality”. A relation is established with childhood, this golden period in
life, whose end cannot be determined by universal factors: it varies indeed, according to countries and cultures. In the case of the
artist, her childhood ended at the same time as the Lebanese Civil war. Her earliest memories are closely associated with this
political event, and are inseparable from it. Strangely in the title, they have been tinted with more sweetness, but nevertheless
remain invisible to us, who become visionaries by the mirroring golden veil.
Modern science proves today that our body constantly renews itself, except for the cerebral cortex cells, the inner lens cells of the
eye and perhaps the muscle cells of the heart. These components constitute the “present reality” - the continuum Saadé is
addressing in her sentence: an on-going part of the human being that stays unaltered. But if that part is not subjected to
metamorphosis we understand that even a date can age, as is clearly visible in Down to Earth: “The artist looks for her birthdate in
three drop-down menus, at ten years intervals. In thirty years, the date has aged, and doesn’t appear anymore”. How can we face
these issues? By building extensions on pupils’ chairs and tables, as in The Shape of Distance? Or by representing time in circles
instead of linear ways as in Moon Pills, considering how time cycles function in other planets or eras?
As said, the Twelve tales presented are not written in words, they rather constitute signals that a cosmonaut could easily grab and
convey in the darkest space, to imagine distances among interstellar particles:
This world, as it is, is not bearable. So I need the moon, or happiness, or immortality, something that would sound insane maybe, but
that is not of this world.
Albert Camus, Caligula, 1944.
In the exhibition, Saadé suggests the existence of other scales, showing the unexploited potentials of human geometry. In The Day
in Order a ruler conveys visions and not centimetres or millimetres: wherever it points the land will merge with the horizon. According
to her vision, and that of Georges Schehadé, “the sky is a village” 1; densely populated. Why? The sky, which constituted the
background for many portraits of the artist’s childhood, had mostly served as a backing, as useless atmosphere. Still, it contains so
much. Therefore Saadé decided to bring it to the foreground: she reframed the pictures in a way that the sky would become the
protagonist, and printed them at the size of her actual studio’s windows, then exposing the prints to the weather elements. Can a
printed particle meet its own twin
that has been floating in the air or is it, as Saadé proposes, that: “The blue sky doesn’t betray all that it has
witnessed?” We are left to make up our own minds.
Processes of change, metamorphosis, are also witnessed in the work Graceful Degradation, where a ladder is constituted by iron,
stainless steel and brass. The material’s value - according to human standards - increases with the height. But, as has been
whispered, we should commit to the memory of the Allegory of Alchemy sculpted on the middle pillar of the portal of Notre-Dame in
Paris - same is the number of rungs of Saadé’s ladder: 9; Lady Alchemy reminds us that metals can be transformed. Graceful
Degradation can perhaps take us closer to the sky to better see the moon. Isn’t it that the artist used both alchemy and the ladder for
Moongold where the moon is gilded with Moon Gold leaf?
She is showing us many possible directions coexisting in the gallery space: “On an intricate map, arrows are pointing towards the
East or the West, the Right or the Left, while others indicate the North or the South, the bottom or the top”. The intersection of all
these references points allows the visitor to experience the layering of the artist’s exquisite visionary worlds: a process of
synaesthesia might arise in the moment when we are hypnotized by the rainbows of Re-Enactment LB/ Taxi and we smell Re-
Enactment LB/ Jasmine where “A pile of jasmine flowers drying seen in a house in Beirut is reproduced”. In a conversation,
Stéphanie told me more about the flowers:
They have 5 petals, so they are referred to as star-shaped flowers. Re-Enactment LB/ Jasmine will be a triangle of fallen stars on
the floor. Stars which would have stayed, after falling, at the tiny size they have when they are at a distance from us in the sky. The
fragrance of the flowers is localized on the internal side of the flowers petals.
They exhale their most delicious perfume at night.
Re-Enactment LB/ Jasmine might be seen, like Artificial Nostalgia, as a monument to her private memory: the key opens the door to
the house in which she grew up as a child, in Lebanon, although the sand is from Dubai; the flowers, seen in a state officer bureau in
Beirut, might have disappeared by now or they might still be there, in the position that is now visible in the gallery. The artist is
showing modest, unpretentious memorials, where visitors are apparently invited to be part of her most intimate life. But her Artificial
Nostalgia reveals us a deeper sense of the diaspora, where citizens, no matter where they are, regularly become foreigners, in an
on-going alienation. Perhaps the only solution is to keep breathing close to each other, inflating the same balloon that has flown for
thousands of miles landing there, in the gallery Grey Noise2.
1 Georges Schehadé, Monsieur Bob’le, 1951
2 Souffles d’Artistes - work by Stéphanie Saadé and Charbel-joseph H. Boutros, 2016, inflated balloon, breaths of two artists in love.
Exhibition View from The Shape of Distance.