ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist Charbel Samuel Aoun as part of our Artist Spotlight series.
Charbel Samuel Aoun is an artist of Lebanese descent born in 1980 in Fanar, Mount Lebanon. He currently lives and works between Beirut and Paris.
An architect by training, he left architectural firms and planted a forest in search of natural experiences within spatial landscapes. In his work, the medium acts as a multi-sensory trigger; instigating a dialogue between the rational and the emotional, what he calls traces of forgotten languages.
Between 2007 and 2017, his work underwent a significant change: his painting turned to materials derived from plants. This research resonated with several installations that explored dialogues between humans, mediums, and social realities.
Between 2017 and 2020, he developed a master’s program in design; teaching the dynamics of social space in critical areas of Beirut and engaging in a kind of intervention-based practice featuring organic entities in dialogue with different layers of street life.
Most recently, his work is mostly site-specific; an organic discussion with the social space.
ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general and the main themes you return to in your practice?
Charbel Samuel Aoun: My work is organic in its practice and looks towards the existential relations between the “social being” and the “nature being.”
The different mediums that I work in belong to the ecological chain of experience; the atmosphere and the senses open a path towards discovering the different languages that surround us. It is a place where matter becomes a field of existence and elements become a dialogue, all while being the tools that translate the field of human experience…
Art reflects an existence which, for me, is about being alive. Alive, as in, being in relation to the space of the other, the other being matter and element.
AE: Can you speak about your ongoing work, The Refuge? What was the process of first creating the work fifteen years ago and how has the idea of “refuge” shifted over the past decades?
CSA: I intuitively started to draw this space 15 years ago, when I became faced with the aggressiveness of urbanization. First, I planted a tree, then I planted 500 trees, then I began offering trees (freetree), and today, encompasses the spirit of a forest where you can find the native and the exotic, color and smell, volume and skeleton, giant and small, fruity and atmospheric, insects and animals, dead and alive… It reflects an infinity of life within an ecological chain.
The house on this land had in fact been an actual refuge during the Lebanese war, where 25 people slept during the bombings. But war continuously changed form. The refuge today has become an outdoor space within the city (Fanar is located only 5km from Beirut), which protects and offers a multi-sensory alternative to reality. In 2023, a residency space will be ready to welcome researchers and creators who question the links between the organic spirit and the social mechanisms that exist inside the city.
AE: You recently traveled to France for an extended period of time and have produced various works in relation to your new socio-geographical surroundings. Tell us about your first performance in Bordeaux, Boue, Bois et Ville.
CSA: Since my first visit to Bordeaux, I was marked by the energy of the river: once the main nerve in the evolution of this city, the experience of La Garonne today is limited to the visual since its sound is muted by the tangent roads and tram routes. Furthermore, it can no longer be accessed by the public due to security measures.
Boue, Bois and Ville is an act that seeks to connect a timeless energy and the temporality of the city. This 12-hour performance began before sunrise at the edge of the right bank of the river. I was digging for clayish mud and collecting driftwood then, I crossed the stone bridge while dragging a large heap to reach Saint Michele Square, in the heart of the old city (Rive Gauche or the left bank of the river).
In dialogue with the economy of restoration, a table-like structure was mounted with driftwood branches, and the public was invited to connect to the land of the river: its clay.
The act that lasted 12 hours, is that of a natural being who confronts a current temporality, an economy, an urban circulation, and the industrial materiality of the city, while simply passing through. This dialogue questions the culture of the human body, the effort/comfort perception, the speed, the sound and the tactile experience of the city space, the relationship with the earth and the material within our temporality, all while proposing at the end an experience of collective sharing.
AE: Another new piece you developed while in France is Cri-nnexion. What are the main threads you connected between sound and space, as well as the socialization of language in contemporary society?
CSA: Cri-nnexion is a collective performance bringing together 45 people and manifesting a cry or yell celebrating the revival of a means of communication that was once possible and prevalent. It connects neighboring communities and renews links between them that have been disconnected by the absence of any physical experience.
The cry as a spatial language that has accompanied human evolution has now disappeared from our practices and has been crushed by noise complaint laws. In addition, our relationship to physical space tends to weaken under the influence of digital connections. In this reality, humans lose the range of possibilities offered by language, produced by the body.
The intention of this work was to set up the cry in the plains of the Oiron village, in an effort to reconnect through a natural energy that we all possess. 45 people passed the cry from Château d’Oiron to the village of Bri, located 5 km away, passing through the plain with its diversity of agricultural landscape.
The cries of the valley connected together, one by one, in this crossing, while the cries in return merged together to give rise to a geographical language made up of a symphony of cries. It was where anger, joy, fear and pleasure naturally interacted with each other on a geographic scale. Each participant experienced a version of their own extension throughout the plain as the sounds of their yells became a unanimous sound that connected and traveled through space.
AE: Between 2016-2020 you taught various courses related to Architecture at The Holy Spirit University of Kaslik. Can you speak about your experience teaching? In what ways did you push back against the frameworks set in place by the academic institution and why do you believe it was important to do this for your students?
CSA: Among the courses I taught (architecture, scenography, design and spatial atmosphere) the most impactful aspect for me was the creative form in the social space that I proposed for the master’s program in spatial design.
The course I designed focused on rural areas of Beirut and deciphered, on a limited scale, the construction of social space. It connected students to the realities of their surroundings where they were meant to be active and have the means to interact with their society. What are the strata that influence our perception of reality and what are the tools and means of interacting within these? The students researched the culture of space, the atmospheric qualities of the streets, the influence of ethnicities and ideologies on the movement of the inhabitants, the impact of political urban decisions on daily life, the possibilities of interaction, the know-how of the inhabitants, but also the dangers that communities are facing such as poverty, immigration, security, substance abuse and borders.
A gap between dream, memory, and actuality presented a challenge for young designers. By relying on a collective analysis, we elaborated on collectivity and they were able to carry out interventions and see results that exceeded the weight of reality.
This approach of training designers to be capable of having a crucial role in their societies, where creation finds meaning while relying on social communication tools, where the perception of the discipline is not limited to employment, where we are free to act against the impositions dictated by the job market.
In this course we were able to deal with the essence of design just as a social actor can be removed from concepts of consumption and production. Each intervention crossed borders and connected inhabitants by responding to critical needs that the design market could not provide.
Each person is a designer in their own life; we need to train designers who foresee the essentials, the real needs, and who consider culture and its potential. I see it more as a designer of new relations.
AE: What are you currently working on and do you have any shows or projects upcoming in 2022-2023?
CSA: I have just finished an installation that gave howling wind a voice through the use of organ pipes. Believing that the element is ultra-alive compared to our perception of the living, I seek to concretize a communication, at the level of the sound experience and the breath, to decipher the unspoken words of the wind. During this process, and while following scientific logical thinking to capture the wind, complex structures of sacred geometry appeared. This ability to engage with the invisible gave shape to a kind of geometric tree that made me rethink the evolution of all living forms into a dialogue with the elements.
Similarly, I will return to Lebanon to embark on a creation situated in the center of the archaeological site of Byblos. I intend to work within an upside-down architecture (Ain El Malak) built around a water source in the heart of the ancient city 5000 years ago that today is dried up. It is also a place where spiritual ceremonies were held for the ancient Gods. In the absence of water, yet still possessing an atmospheric presence, there is a specific microclimate that opens the way to establish a discussion between a past and a present through the element, the material, and the sacred.
By rethinking the current human relationship with the element and the material, I am planning a collaboration with some inhabitants of the city, where I look to recreate a sense of collectivity around this ancient relationship with the natural elements.
CHARBEL SAMUEL AOUN ONLINE: