“We don’t see more, we see less”
Caline Aoun in conversation with Hou Hanru

Caline Aoun’s sensual, conceptual works subtly speak of current feelings and states: oversaturation and excess,scarcity and depletion. Her solo exhibition as Deutsche Bank’s “Artist of the Year” 2018/19 is now on view at MAXXI in Rome, and next year will be shown at the PalaisPopulaire. In conversation with Hou Hanru, the artistic director of the MAXXI, the lebanese artist talks about the port in Beirut, visual noise and the materiality of images.
Hou Hanru: Caline, your work shows how much you intimately connect yourself and your thinking with global change. And this global change also takes place in the harbour of Beirut.

Caline Aoun: That’s true. The Port of Beirut plays a vital role in the economy in Lebanon. It’s a major point connecting different parts of the world as it was the centre of trade and naval activity linking Asia to Europe for centuries. This is a place that attests to excess, to an overload of information and goods. In my work I deal with urbanism, advertising space, and image making, but also what these things produce in terms of environmental noise. I am interested in the feeling we get out of the saturation they produce, or the exhaustion they create. And I have always tried to find ways to subdue that noise or increase it. How can I introduce resting places in that environment of highly peaking visual noise? The port of Beirut was the perfect location for me to collect as much information as I could.

HH: Your work "Datascape" is also referring to the port. We see a landscape of graphs that occupy an entire wall. What are the graphs based on?

CA: I’ve collected the data of 52 different types of goods that are handled in the port - the tonnage, the weight of goods from natural produce to animals, from cars to construction materials. I was keeping track of the tonnage of every product per month and per year from 2004 to 2015. The graphs transformed into these muted landscapes. I transformed the data into a very sensual and physical mass on the surface of the paper. But at the same time these graphs would tell a story, a narrative of Beirut.

Another aspect of your work is a very physical exploration of information.

CA: I am interested in the materiality, the physical reality behind our consumer behaviour, or the images that you consume and see in advertising. I really like to return to the materiality of it all. Lucky enough I got access to the inside of an empty shipping container. I looked at the floor, which bears so much weight, so much tonnage. I wanted to do a kind of topographical study, engage with it materially, maybe transform it, and see where I can go. So I poured silicone rubber into the container and casted its floor with carbon copy paper pulp. The result is a paper cast of the container floor, which is not only light but also very fragile. But it stems from something that has endured and borne a lot of weight. I have an affinity for carbon copy paper because it’s a paper that we used to make copies. Even in your email, the “CC” comes from carbon copy.

HH: On the other hand you work with digitalized information.

CA: Yes, for the installation Fields of Space of 2016 at the Marfa' Gallery in Beirut, I installed a camera on the seashore in Lebanon and placed a screen inside the gallery that showed a 24-hour live screening of the sea. In fact, the sea was just outside in front of the gallery. But by digitalising this image, by streaming it and having those pixels appearing on the screen, it automatically politicises the sea. I will also show a similar live-cam transmission in Rome. The camera in Lebanon will be pointed towards the location of the underwater internet cables on the seabed. The live video brings the exhibition back to the circularity of the project, the idea that data circulates like water. When we look at the actual sea, we often forget about oceans full of plastic waste, fuel fossil industries, the migrant’s crisis, and so many things. For me, this work was important because it also shows indoors something that is very much outdoors. It also addresses the gentrification of the coastline in Lebanon and the accessibility to one of the most natural resources, which still are available to us.

HH: There is also a very intimate kind of reflection in your work, of how the use of new technologies and digital images are changing our perception.

CA: I am really interested in images in the digital age, how they have gained so much accessibility, how they travel so much via the internet, gain speed but lose matter and substance at the same time. The more images are being appropriated, circulated, ripped, uploaded, or downloaded, the more things happen to them. This is where I became really interested in the materiality of an image. I asked myself if there is a way not to work so much digitally and on the surface but really go back to the materiality of the image coming to being. I started to experiment with the printers in my studio. I forced them to print an image even though the ink was running out. This work was part of an online exhibition. The idea was that the viewer would download some kind of virus and that this image would appear as your desktop image. But I took the desktop image of my computer, printed it with no ink while it was trying to print a black and white image. While the printer tries to produce a black and white image with barely any ink left, it goes through any colour possible in order to reach that black. For me this work is about exhaustion, about the image struggling to appear through the process of its own making. This idea is also reflected in my installation of inkjet prints at MAXXI, showing the ink gradually and colourfully receding from the surface of the paper due to a shortage of ink and the clogging of the printer’s ink heads. Hence one side of the walls is covered with prints of dense black matter, which is fading out and the other side covered with prints barely showing any traces of ink left.

HH: This seems to be a general theme in your practice.

CA: I continued making this work, using my empty cartridge. I just kept on printing until I further dissipated my image and reached a state of complete whiteness. With this practice I refer to what happens when my digital file goes through the computer to my printer, that moment when the ink drop travels from the ink head onto the paper, how it carries a vision of so many things. So this is where my work happens, in this timeless space, before production, before reception, things emerge in that space.

HH: It’s all about the moment in this artistic process when the paper and the ink merge and create something else.

CA: I am really interested in how the digital can draw from a very physical and analogue, very physical object. It’s not about the technical differences between analogue and digital, but rather the theoretical and philosophical implications, the idea of how we live nowadays. How does the digital change our consumer behaviour? How does it change the way we perceive images? I didn’t want to make digital works in particular but make the materiality of the digital tangible through the materiality of the work. For one of my video works I installed a circular aluminium disk on the rooftop of my London studio that would reflect the sun. While the sun set the disk lit up like a lamp. No editing was involved. It was purely a very physical, material gesture to represent the sun. You can never even get close to representing the sun but it was a video about time and repetition, and how we live in a world where we always want to make something hyper-real.

HH: I think it’s really all about the desire of perceiving the world as a comprehensive picture and the impossibility of doing so. At the end of the day, it is about the destiny of human beings facing this world, the fact that it’s so close and so far at the same time.

CA: This reminds me of Concrete Layers an installation I did 2015 in Dubai. I had never been to Dubai, but only seen it from a plane. What you see from up there is a model of how the city works. I was really intrigued by the accropodes, these very well designed fake rocks, that break waves and expand the land into the water.

HH: The land is constantly fading because of the ocean. These little artificial rocks show a very strong desire to create a utopian place. At the same time they also are a tools to delay the collapse of this utopian world. For me your work has the incredible aspect of turning the invisible into something visible and poetic. Another work reflecting this idea is Pine Needles, produced in 2015.

CA: My studio is located in the mountains where there are a lot of pine tree forests. Every year at the same time the pine trees let their needles fall. One year I had to show at Art Basel. I started thinking about the model of an art fair. For me an art fair is like a temporary space. It takes place every year and works from all over the world go there. My idea was to make something very local; something that comes from my direct surroundings. So I looked at these pine needles and had this idea of casting them in copper. I took only one pine needle and reproduced it four thousand times. It was very interesting, a bit like my works on paper which are based on the same way of thinking. The more you repeat something, the more it dissipates. And this also happens with my casts. My first pine needle was very detailed. But after four thousand replicas, it lost all its details during the reproduction process. But there are so many aspects to it: the cyclical nature of the process, the very thin, brittle status of the pine needle and how transforming it into copper makes it so more substantial.

HH: At the same time the copper needles form a very abstract and fragile sculpture.

CA: The abstract nature of my work is a way to think about how we are exposed to an overload of information and representation of the world around us. We don’t see more, we see less. It’s almost like there is a breakdown in the overall system of representation and this is when the abstraction comes in. This is why I go back to the material because I try to see a new potential.

28 September - 18 November 2018