023. Leah Capaldi and Stéphanie Saadé

Leah Capaldi, Surveilance, 2014 (Video still). Image courtesy of VITRINE.

London-based artist Leah Capaldi and Lebanese artist Stéphanie Saadé were brought together, by curator Alys Williams, for their two-person exhibition ‘Witness Matter’ at VITRINE Bermondsey Street. The process of developing the exhibition began with a dialogue between the two artists, remotely between London and Beirut. Continuing this conversation here, they interview each other about their exhibition, which explores the performativity of objects and display, and is on until 22 February 2014.


LC Stéphanie - our dialogue surrounding the exhibition focused on the role of the viewer, the watched, the watcher. Do you think the viewer in London is different to the viewer in Lebanon? Does your work depend on a different level of audience participation…if so what is that level?

SS I wouldn’t say that the viewer in Lebanon differs much from the viewer in England. In my series ’Re-Enactment’, I appropriate objects fabricated by others, through a process of reproduction; These objects are originally mere answers to practical necessities; still, they denote of aesthetical and logical choices that I could not have made, and form potentially meaningful assemblages, which justifies that I reproduce them. When a Lebanese viewer recognises an object issued from his own environment, such as ’Re-Enactment LB/ Taxi’, he is probably more amused than a viewer from another part of the world. Nevertheless, his relation to it is the same: the object presents itself to him in a different way than usual, it actually appears to him for the first time. So he has as much chance to be surprised by it than other viewers that see this kind of object for the first time.

Concerning audience participation, I believe it is a necessary element to viewing any piece of art. The members of the audience have to engage actively with the work in order to break its muteness. The viewer has to have a desire to understand what is in front of him, but the work, and the way it functions, also plays a role in that.

Stéphanie Saadé, Re-Enactment LB/ Taxi, 2013. Image courtesy of VITRINE.

SS Leah - In ‘Chorus’, the installation you conceived for this exhibition, the videos you showed, like the one where we see a hand in an aquarium, were sculptural; The support you used to show them –screens affixed to wooden beams-, was also sculptural. What role does the display mechanism play in your work, and what does it add to your films?

LC I was interested in the built-structure taking up the space in the gallery. The flat screen and the structure were one and referenced an information language but they also took up the same footprint as a person. I want the structures to feel familiar but awkward.

I chose to use 2X3 pre-planed pine because I wanted to talk about construction and armature and all those traditional sculptural concerns. I don’t see the work as individual videos; they are all part of the ‘Chorus’ installation so I don’t consider them videos in that sense. I am using the media of video as a tool like I would a drill. I’d like people to think about their own mass in relation to the mass of the structure, the audience become objects in the space in the same way that the structures do. I’m interested in the passivity of viewing and the activity of being viewed.

LC You subvert the object by dissecting it physically but also conceptually, how much does this position depend on the boundaries of the gallery space?

SS In 'Scarred Object’, I cut a metal bar in equal pieces and then later weld them back together in order to reconstitute the original shape of the bar. The “dissection” here does not aim at understanding the object - which is very simple - better. It only aims at re-stitching it, which leaves scars on it, and deforms it. These slight alterations function in parallel to what an individual could go through in life; to the way he could be affected by specific situations. This process establishes metaphorical similarities between a metal bar and a person, or a country, which enable this obtuse metal bar to provoke an emotion. 'Strange Parts’ function in the same way, but following a different process: old and rusty parts of metal furniture are cut so that every time only two parts, originally strange to each other, but holding together by a point of welding, are kept. The “dissection” here attempts at putting forward these welding traces, which keep the parts permanently united, and to lead to an analysis of the implications of this union. It is in the gallery space that all of these elements are allowed to operate.

Stéphanie Saadé, Stolen Material, 2013. Image courtesy of VITRINE. 

LC Do you think a sculptural practice has to involve making ‘things’ or is it more about approach? If so what is that approach?

SS Using materials, and materializing my approach, plays an important role for me. My choice of material is never random; I use metal, for example, in some works, because when two pieces of metal melt together, they become one object, whereas two pieces of wood glued together do not. They don’t have the same meaning. Each sort of metal also reacts differently and has different connotations. 'Scarred Object’ is made of aluminum, which is rather soft, and keeps the marks of shocks, almost like a skin. But even though my work involves material, I try as much as I can to avoid “making things” with it, by using pre-existing shapes, found objects, or generic construction units that I do not construct with, but rather alter. Underlines has the size of an already existing book, 'Shy Painting' is based on found configurations of nails and plugs that form compositions, and 'Stolen Material' is a sculpture made with whatever materials I managed to subtilize. ’Re-Enactment’, in a way, attests to the uselessness of creating any “thing” at all, while objects such as 'Taxi’ or 'Column Meter’ already exist. My intervention on objects has to be the slimmest possible, but it has to lead to a completely different object, on the level of meaning.

Leah Capaldi, Chorus, 2014 ('Chorus’ Installation). Image courtesy of VITRINE. 

SS A big part of your installation revolves around ‘Chorus: Tank’; in ‘Chorus: Ab Rider, Power Pro’, we can see its making of, and the aquarium that you filmed is also on display in the gallery. Why did you choose to show them? Does the aquarium also function as an independent piece of sculpture?

LC With this show, I realized that there was lots of dissection, mostly of the image of the viewer but also of the process of performance. I was interested in reflection, construction, surveillance, presence, and memory. When the viewer walks around the corner and sees the aquarium they enter into their own stage set. I wanted to expose that process. 

Even with the door handle piece, as they walk in I want to pull the viewer apart and make them aware of their position as a looker which is also being looked upon in the gallery. The work doesn’t exist without the viewer taking part in it so they become as much of the installation as the structures are.

SS In your third video, you surprise the viewer by showing him his own self while he is concentrated on watching your video. What is the role of this repetitive element of surprise?

LC I wanted to jut people out of their own image. There is something abject about seeing your body and not being in it, unlike a reflection, more of a divorce or a deadness from image and habitation. The surprise helps this jarring, as we continue to be involved in the work the other bits of bodies and machines in the background, we become more comfortable with the severing of our own image.

SS When the visitor arrives at the gallery, he can see, while he is still outside, a door handle on a screen. When he comes in, his own hand is filmed manipulating the same door handle, and projected outside while someone else watches it. In another video, you film a scene taking place in the basement of the gallery. How do you understand the notion of displacing spaces, and establishing an off-beat time, in relation to these elements?

LC I think about it again as an abject reference, the “Unheimliche”. Feeling like something is wrong and not being able to put your finger on it. In a gallery you are complicit so it’s quite difficult to rupture that complacency. I want to seduce the viewer into an uncomfortable world where they feel on show. I want to choreograph their experience. Obviously, I hope that there is more than one way to read the work. It is also about the movement in the space, the growth of the structures but also the finer detail of constructing what’s happening in the viewer’s mind.

Leah Capaldi, Ab Rider, Power Pro, 2014 ('Chorus’ Installation). Image courtesy of VITRINE. 

LC Can we still make art politically? Do you?

SS When you are a Lebanese artist, people usually approach your work looking for the side in it that relates to your background and the political situation in your country. There is an expectation, that I have always refused to fulfil. From another side, if you are a Lebanese artist, and you live in Lebanon, you can hardly escape certain political or historical issues, because whatever you choose to work on - whether it is architecture, landscape or goldfish - you always fall back on them. I choose not to deal with these subjects in a frontal, or obvious, way but prefer to dissolve them in the “dough” the works are made from, which also contains wider subjects, such as psychology, that allow the works to transcend them. The sculpture or installation is built the same way that its subject is, its structure is the same, so it doesn’t need to evoke it or refer to it, nor does it need to show it directly through images. Most importantly, in each work are enclosed many layers of meaning, that can lead to many related possible understandings, and the political one is only one of them.


Interview by Leah Capaldi and Stéphanie Saadé.

‘Witness Matter’ runs until 22 February at VITRINE Bermondsey Street, 183-185 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3UW. For more information, visit http://www.vitrinegallery.com