Artist Spotlight with Dalia Baassiri Documentation of Vesuvius Exhibition at Espronceda Institute of Art and culture, Barcelona in 2018. Courtesy of the artist

Artist Spotlight with Dalia Baassiri

Posted: Jul 20, 2022

ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist Dalia Baassiri as part of our Artist Spotlight series.

Dalia Baassiri is a Lebanese visual artist born in Sidon in 1981. She graduated in 2003 from the Lebanese American University in Beirut with a BS in Graphic Design and obtained an MA in Fine Art in 2012 from Chelsea College of Arts in London.

Her multidisciplinary work has been showcased in both national and international platforms among them; Galerie Janine Rubeiz (Beirut); Beirut Art Fair; Art Dubai, Abu Dhabi Art Fair; Menart Fair (Paris); the Ayyam Young Collectors’ Auction (Dubai); Galerie Odile Ouizeman (Paris); Stand4 Gallery and Community Art Center (Brooklyn NY); Arsenale Nord (Venice); OXO Tower Wharf (London) and many more. 

Residencies and prizes include a dual fellowship at at Kempinki (Berlin) and Siena Art Institute in Italy granted by Kempinski Young Artist Program (2015); a dual residency at Residency Unlimited in Brooklyn, NY and Sculpture Space in Utica, NY sponsored by ArteEast (2016); a Residency at Fallani Venezia in Venice and at Espronceda Institute of Art and Culture in Barcelona, both awarded by Arte Laguna Prize 12th ed. (2018).

Her sculptures have been finalists for the Celeste Prize 9th ed. (2017) in London as well at the Arte Laguna Prize 13th ed. (2019) in Venice.

ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general and the main themes you return to in your practice?

Dalia Baassiri: I was born, raised, and still live in an unstable country. Growing up during the civil war in Lebanon, I question belonging to a country in continuous conflict. How does one identify with the land while having spent the majority of childhood indoors? In my interdisciplinary work including drawing, painting, and sculpture, I find refuge and answers within the parameters of my own home. The world of the domestic, from dust to walls and everything in between, has become the most familiar fertile ground for an artistic discourse. 

I believe that one eventually starts resembling their environment. Inhaling and exhaling crises has shaped my life. Thus, every inch of my practice delineates the pulse of vulnerability.

AE: Talk to us about your Residency at Barcelona’s Espronceda Institute of Art & Culture in 2018, awarded by Arte Laguna Prize 12th ed., and your exhibition Vesuvius that you had there. How has this experience influenced your recent practice?

DB: I had one month to prepare and gather an incredible amount of ash for my solo exhibition at Espronceda Institute of Art and Culture with the help of their amazing supportive team of curators and technical specialists. In Vesuvius (2018), I explored living close to volatile territories. Inspired by Pompeii, I created ash sculptures to manifest my inner dialogue with St. Elias Hill, the launching site of the missile that burned half of my house in 2013. Accordingly, while my hands were building the hill out of half a ton of ash and paper maché, my mind was recreating my burnt curtain. The 8 meter wide sculpture St Elias Hill simultaneously became two interrelated things: a hill in the shape of a curtain and a curtain in the form of a hill. The world of the domestic infiltrated the exterior world.

The project took me on a dual archeological journey of excavation. The first part was an outer exploration where I was digging into the history of the hill. It also consisted of the destruction of the temple of the Phoenician God Baal by St Elias. This Saint is known for performing the miracle of bringing fire down from the sky.

The second part was an inner exploration where I was excavating living in a home that was in a state of ruins. By incorporating daily objects in a paste of ash and glue, I question the accountability of a house. From one end, a home signifies intimacy and shelter, yet from the other, it is prone to sudden ruin and infiltration.

My current practice is an extension of Vesuvius. Instead of ash, I am using soap as a primary medium. In alignment with the Lebanese saying: “History repeats itself,” my sculptures are reborn in foamy forms to manifest the same fragile reality. 

AE: Many of your installations consist of assemblages of objects that you find in the various cities you are working in. What does the act of collecting mean to you and your overall approach to making work?

DB: An act of collecting is an act of nesting. When my studio is full of objects, the heavier and stuffier it becomes. In turn, it’s harder to move to another place, and the attachment only becomes bigger. In other words, collecting accentuates my territorial instincts. An instinct I have been keen on developing over the past years when I felt that my country undertook all kinds of measures to push its people away. 

Like me, I see objects as stubborn entities. They stay around long after their owners are gone. I have no interest in new objects, but rather those that are scratched or in poor condition, abandoned in a random place, or resold in some antique market. The value of a second-hand object lies in the possible narrative it carries within.

As soon as I acquire an object, I clean it to get acquainted with it and then assemble it with a fragile medium. For instance, in Almost Gone (2016), I wrapped 121 discarded objects with translucent white wipes to tackle the relationship between people and their belongings. As soon as people let go of them, it’s as though the memories are wiped away. Subsequently, working with wipes inspired me to incorporate dust into my work. For instance, 7 artists (2016) embodies portraits made of glue and dust gathered from 7 artists, whereas Dust Migration (2017) is a painting of the sea created from ripped wipes, acrylic primer, dust, and glue. Later in Near Vesuvius (2018), I simulated a volcanic eruption by covering daily objects with a mixture of ash and glue. In regards to my current practice, it consists of ephemeral sculptures made of foam and daily objects. I document them by intricately drawing them.

AE: Two materials that have been central to your recent work are ash and foam. Talk to us about the parallels and differences in approach to using these materials, and what you seek to convey in your work.  

DB: What I like about foam and ash is that they are unsettled materials. A simple breeze can blow them away. Their momentary quality is very appealing and reminiscent of a familiar environment. While they both help me articulate the delicacy of the socio-economic-political situation, my approach differs between the two. The language of foam is much blunter than the language of ash. For instance, ash can be confused with concrete once solidified with glue, whereas foam is unique. Foam is simply foam, a soft, frothy material produced at home via soap and water.

The difference between Fork (2018) and Fork (2022) lies in the base. The first consists of ash, glue, and small leaves collected from St. Elias Hill. The viewer must read the components to experience the narrative. Otherwise, he might think it is a fork dipped in concrete. Paradoxically, the resemblance between ash and concrete adds a lot of layers to this body of work. It creates tension between 2 poles. Ash is an end whereas concrete is a beginning. 

The second fork sculpture stands still due to a ball of aluminum foil hidden underneath a cubicle mass of foam. It is an ambiguous setting I assembled during the rapid devaluation of the Lebanese currency. Working with the foam is very challenging. Just like money, it dissipates quickly, leaving little room for decision-making.

AE: Sinks as object and as metaphor have been the focus of your most recent project Sink-ronized? Can you elaborate on this project and the symbol of the “sink”? 

DB: During the lockdown, I was invited to take part in Cities Under Quarantine; the Mailbox Project by Dongola Books. I was asked to create an artist book among 57 other artists around the world. Back then, I was spending long hours at the kitchen sink to wash all grocery items in response to the Covid safety measures. I was of course excessively using soap at a time when the whole world stopped. This is when the Sink-ronized project was born.  

The kitchen sink has become the platform where I make ephemeral sculptures in synchronicity with my perception of reality. In between mundane dishwashing sessions, a form made of foam pops up. For instance, Mount Neverest (2022) is a graphite drawing of a mountain on the verge of collapse. When a country is bankrupt, everything in it is prone to unsettlement and fragility, from its inhabitants to its landscapes. My Glasses (2022) is a self-portrait that embodies the feeling of nothingness in an environment saturated by loss. When my city no longer resembles me, I find myself in soapsuds, so soft and delicate, they dematerialise into the void while emitting a tender, subtle sound. When one feels like an alien in their city, they hide in the shadows of their loneliness just like foam recedes into the strainer.    

The cleaning routine has triggered my suppressed desire to clean my city. I have always felt trapped in a small land buried under the rubble of the past, and there is no room for anything new to happen. Is cleaning Beirut possible? Smoke has been engulfing the city since the outbreak of the civil war in 1975. One does not know if we can clear this thick dust accumulated over the years. Can we wipe away the residues of the past when they are so rooted in our memories? 

AE: What and who are some of your major creative influences, and why?

DB: Among many artists, I am fascinated by the work of the Colombian artist Oscar Muñoz who has a witty approach to exploring the theme of disappearance and loss. His project Aliento [Breath] (1996–2002), is the most breathtaking of all! The viewer has to breathe on the surface of the highly polished metal disks to reveal pictures of victims of political violence. Thus, the value of his work lies in the state and fragility of the photographs. Their visibility is dependent upon the proximity of the viewer.

Another moving artwork is Al Flor de Piel (2012) by the Colombian artist Doris Salcedo, which I had the chance to see and smell at the White Cube in London. The delicate sculpture consists of an enormous shroud made of real rose petals, which have been intricately stitched together. Salcedo’s way of referencing the victims of violence is very poetic. From afar, the artwork appeared to me like a giant beautiful carpet. Then as I got closer, it almost looked like human flesh. Hence, this piece stimulates all senses and evokes a stream of feelings.

At my studio, I am inspired by the sound of water drops dripping in the sink. Water signifies abundance and it is fertilizer to my work.

AE: What are you currently working on and do you have any shows or projects upcoming in 2022-2023?

DB: My drawings are currently on view in the group exhibition Garage Band by HATCH in Paris, in collaboration with Nomad Utopia Gallery. The venue is at an abandoned Garage in the Goutte-d’Or neighborhood and it will be demolished once the show ends.

This September, I will be taking part for the second time in the LAU fundraising auction, Art to Live Art to Learn, which will take place in New York, to support the students. Later in November, my artist book, which is part of the collective project Cities Under Quarantine; the Mailbox Project by Dongola Projects, will be on view along with all the 57 books at Abu Dhabi Art Fair 2022.

Regarding my upcoming solo exhibition, I am exploring coffee grains with foam in the sink. Together, they are generating aerial views of fragile landscapes.