THE REFUGEE SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS
30 October 2013, Beirut
Last night, I had a couple of beers with Anayis, a refugee from Syria. Maybe she doesn’t represent our image of a displaced person – she is from a wealthy family and works in the family business which was destroyed by the war but now they are starting again from zero in Beirut. Anayis said that she deleted her Facebook account because she couldn’t see anymore photos of the destruction of her beloved Aleppo.
There are over a million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Very few of the children go to school. In theory, schooling is free until 15 years but in practice the parents must pay a registration fee, books, uniforms and transport. Most of the refugees can't afford this, they are not like Anayis. On the other hand, Lebanese farmers and sweatshop owners love refugee children – you can pay them a half of an adult’s wage and they never complain of verbal and physical abuse. A child worker can earn up to three dollars per day. Just to compare - a bottle of beer in the bar yesterday cost six dollars.
I never saw kids working in Syria which had a universal, obligatory and free schooling as a part of its social democratic society but Anayis said that the same boy who sold flowers to car drivers in Aleppo, sells now flowers to car drivers in Beirut.
Anayis' great grandparents fled the Armenian genocide, and now she and her parents run away from a new genocide of Armenians and other minorities in Syria. One generation in between could live their life without escaping anywhere. I just realized that I’m a third generation refugee - in the World War II, my grandparents fled from Carelia, the Eastern part of Finland, occupied by the Soviet Union. My grandmother never forgot her home and talked about it every time we met.
THE MIDDLE EAST WITHOUT THE MIDDLE CLASS
26 October 2013, Beirut
The loneliness and boredom make me to do things I’d never do at home. My normal life is working and then cleaning, washing and cooking. Now I have nothing else to do than my drawings and my daily gym exercise. I’ve been never interested in video gaming but I downloaded Real Racing 3 for my smart phone. The game consists of driving luxury sports cars, most of them totally unknown to me until I arrived in Beirut. Here I see the same vehicles on the screen and in the street. A Mercedes or a BMW are nothing, roughly a half of the automobiles are premium class and then there are the real posh cars but they are also so common that a Maserati or a Bentley don’t turn any Lebanese heads. This can be interpreted only in one way – people have or they don’t have, nothing in between. The rich drive their dreams to the top brand boutiques and the poor walk in total misery to work or beg. It’s the Middle East without a middle class.
This morning, I walked to the gym passing crowds of shoe-shining and sandwich-begging Syrian refugees at Hamra Street. I’m already used to them and they are becoming as invisible to me as they are to the local people. Then I saw a mother with her son that had all the symptoms of malnutrition. It’s the first time I see a starving child. And what did I do? I sped up to the gym to lose fat from my body. I looked to the mirror and the figure resembled Jabba the Hut, whose appearance has been described by film critic Roger Ebert as Dickensian.
LOSING MY ORIENT-ATION
24 October 2013, Beirut
Iante gave me a lesson how to cab in Beirut, which lacks public transport. You stop a taxicab in the street, tell where you are heading to, and then ask for service (pronounced in fake French). This costs 2000 (about 1€) per person and means that the ride can be shared with other passengers going to the same direction. Cabbing is a good skill in this city that has no street lights and becomes dark at six. Zena says that we believe this is the Earth but actually we are the condemned souls in the hell. It makes sense living in Beirut without basic infrastructure.
We took a service to The Running Horse Art Space to listen an experimental electronic music performance and then we continued to an opening at Ashkal Alwan, an institution funded by the West and the Gulf. Claudia Bosse and Günther Auer’s installation about the Arab Spring was described colonialist by a local visitor.
Can you imagine Lebanese artists showing in Europe and telling us how the things are in our continent? That would be labelled as stupid, joking or both. Westerners are the only people who have the right to speak about anything anywhere and mostly we like to do it in a way that looks impartial and objective, like having a deeper understanding of everything. I try to avoid that in my art by making my points of view, that might be inaccurate, tangible.
The next service took us to the bar district of Mar Mikhael, where people drink in the streets and the cornershops sell beer. The Christian East Beirut is very different to the Muslim West Beirut where I live and work. My alcohol consumption has been very low. Maybe I need more East in my life - before I lose my Orient-ation.
ANNOYED BY THE POLICE AND THE MILITIA
20 October 2013, Beirut
Yesterday, I was like any tourist when Zena took me to see the wonderful Beittedine Palace in the Druze stronghold of the Chouf Mountains, south of Beirut. During the car trip she gave a lecture of Druze secrets that she can't reveal to anybody. Their beliefs incorporate several elements from Abrahamic religions, Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, Pythagoreanism, and other philosophies.
Today, I did different touring. I walked around the city instagraming people enjoying the weekend, army tanks and posters of martyrs. In the morning I was stopped by a heavily armed police officers because I had photographed a "Pikasso" billboard without knowing that it was a wall of the residence of an important politician.
This afternoon I went to Bachoura, which is a Shia area, and was stopped by militia men of Hezbollah or more probably Amal, which seemed to be the dominating organization in that quarter. I decided not to be conflictive and deleted a couple of photos. I was interrogated briefly and they made clear that I wasn't welcome in the neighborhood.
BATTLE OF THE HOTELS
18 October 2013, Beirut
I still have the taste of the goodbye kisses of my family on my lips. I’m watching the Holiday Inn’s war skeleton from my balcony and listening to the remix of fireworks and calls for prayer. The streets of Beirut are a seaside cocktail of Ferraris cruising and Syrian refugees begging. I don’t know what I’m looking for here. Maybe the global zeitgeist. Maybe some visually overwhelming packages of potato chips. Maybe I’m just escaping my safe, beautiful and small life in Cervera. The happiness can make an artist numb. A good artist must be unsure and alert.
My main project for the residency is to get rid of my beer belly. I got today a two month membership of the Fitness Zone gym at Crown Plaza Hotel. I'm waiting for my personal trainer's call for my first session. Maybe getting fit is not enough and I should do some art too. Two months is too long to just collect material, ideas and impressions. I need to set up a routine and do serious studio work. The mornings will be dedicated to the Fitness Zone and the afternoons to the Studio Line.
The Battle of the Hotels was a subconflict within the Lebanese Civil War which occurred in the Minet-el-Hosn hotel district of downtown Beirut. This area was one of the first fronts of the war that opened up in 1975. The battle was the first truly large-scale confrontation between the Christian-conservative Lebanese Front and the Leftist-Muslim Lebanese National Movement militias and PLO fighters. The battle was fought for the possession of a small hotel complex adjacent to the gilded Corniche seafront area on the Mediterranean
NEXT STOP BEIRUT
14 October 2013, Cervera de los Montes
It's a busy day before traveling tomorrow to Beirut for a two-month residency. I'm going to concentrate there in local themes but meanwhile Virginia and her team are painting in Talavera my new series of ceramic plates that will be exhibited next February at Arco Madrid. Today I'm going to see the first finished plate.
As an artist I'm filled with enthusiasm for going to Lebanon but as a father of a family it's sad to be separated from my kids so long time. Living in a small village but working with global themes requires me to travel and extend my horizons periodically. I don't want to be too dramatic because there are millions of people in the world that must work always far away from their families. And I'm going to back home for Christmas!
DYSTOPIA IN MADRID
08 October 2013, Cervera de los Montes
Yesterday I had a meeting with Alexis in Madrid to talk about our future projects but it seems that the future of the city is darker than any dystopia I have imagined. I took the metro from Principe Pío to Atocha and passed by Puerta del Sol, the station at Madrid's emblematic homonymous square, the kilometer zero, the conceptual center of Spain where all the roads begin. Astonishingly, the metro stop had been renamed and now it's called vodafone Sol (sic, with the lower-case letter). The ruling conservative party is privatizing the symbols of the nation. What's next? Maybe the capital city of Spain is going to be called Santander.
TEN YEARS IGNORED IN SPAIN
02 October 2013, Cervera de los Montes
I’ve lived ten years permanently in Spain but it has been difficult, if not almost impossible, to penetrate the Spanish art world. In 2003, I thought I was going to be a Spanish artist but that has never happened. I have had some shows here but my presence as artist in Madrid has been anecdotal.
I hope the situation changes, when I show my works in February at the Arco Madrid art fair. Actually, I hate art fairs but Arco has a very special meaning in Spain. Unlike other fairs, it’s something very popular, the only art event that my parents-in-law know. Many Spaniards go to see contemporary art only once a year and, absurdly, they don’t head to a museum but to Arco.
Ironically, I’m not presented at Arco by a Spanish gallery but Korjaamo Galleria that represents me in Helsinki. Finland is a the invited country of the fair and Korjaamo is one of the eleven Finnish galleries participating. After ten years, I’m showcased in Madrid in a context of exotic art from Finland. At least, I’m making sure that my work is 100% Spanish, made in Spain, about Spain for the Spanish public.