When people talk about their country, they primarily mean the nation-state or social entity to which they feel attached. However, hardly anyone refers to the terrain itself. But isn’t the ground we’re standing on more than just an area? In her installation works, which are currently on view in her first solo exhibition in Germany RED IN TOOTH at Kölnischer Kunstverein, the Lebanese artist Dala Nasser tries to restore the lost connection to the earth’s surface through which we are rooted to our home country. For Nasser, the soil is a reservoir of memories and forces that is closely linked to the fate of a country and its citizens. In Nasser’s philosophy, the return to the earth and the contact with its elements are explored as sources of healing for political conflicts, injuries and traumas that her country-of-origin Lebanon has experienced due to the economic collapse in recent years. Nasser, who has long studied and lived in London and the US, has developed a unique artistic methodology of recording and cartography. In applying these methods, she tries to extract the essence of the Lebanese earth untouched by the disasters. It is a persistent and body-intensive struggle against and with the collective pain of the loss of identity, which threatens to slowly eat up the country.
Dala Nasser works primarily with found and used fabrics. Since the medium of fabric is closely linked to questions and conflicts of identity in the context of art, her choice is probably not coincidental. Used as a traditional costume, flag or banner, fabric either conveys messages or absorbs them, especially when worn as a garment. These two fundamental functions of textiles in artistic use intersect in Dala Nasser’s works, composed of different fabric sheets. Like stage sets, these installations of large-scale textile fragments in ochre and earth colours pile up in the exhibition hall. Their surface appears heavily worn out and brittle. On closer inspection, one discovers that natural weathering forces have left the bleached-pink shimmering structures on the fabrics, reminiscent of grains of marble and granite rock. Traces of earth, dust and ash give a partly plastic appearance. Silver adhesive strips, which connect the fabrics with each other, reinforce the impression that what we encounter is only a temporary constellation of impressions and messages that are now frozen in the fabric sheets. In this alienated condition, nothing reminds of their original context of use.
By blurring their original function, Dala Nasser’s fabric collages appear decontextualized, yet they seem deeply animated by something that is not determined by man, especially in their ruggedness. This strange impression is intensified by spherical sounds and background noises from nature created by architect and sound artist Mhamad Safa for the installations that echo through the space. In a way, the pieces of cloth carry within them the essence of an area in southern Lebanon far away from civilization, through which the Wazzani River passes. In this territory on the border with the Palestinian Territories, to which very few people have access, the artist has produced her works by burying the collected textiles for several weeks in the earth on the riverbank and washing them with salt and rainwater. In this process, which has strong ritual features, the cloths have absorbed hidden voices under the ground. Now, after extraction, they are brought back to the surface into the human world. Nasser’s peculiar approach, however, is not merely symbolic. In her perspective, the earth and the soil are real constants of connection to a country. As a matter of fact, soil speaks of (man-made) environmental changes such as erosion, pollution and water loss, just as it experiences and records the deeds of people through violence, land grabbing and wars. It is precisely this soil to which suffering and hopes are left and which, from the artist’s point of view, is therefore inseparably linked to the past and future of its inhabitants.
Dealing with its elements, the stones and the dust, as Dala Nasser impressively teaches us, has a meaning. The artist’s video work, which is shown apart from the patchwork works in the studio of the Kunstverein, consists of a road trip out of the city into that remote wilderness on the border and yet does not arrive at any concrete place. What is presented here with deep, atmospheric sounds is not a journey to paradise, but a sequence of partly trivial images and sights that rush past from the car window during the journey which leads through an area characterized by exit roads. Although the vegetation on the wayside increases in the course of the journey, the face of this nature is raw and cruel, with plastic garbage lying around everywhere and stray dogs that cross it. Views of a huge concrete wall winding through the hills testify to the occupation of an impressive and peaceful landscape by man. At the very end of the film, the camera penetrates deep into an impenetrable thicket that reminds a little of an enchanted forest, an idyllic river covered by branches is rushing somewhere close by. Is this the desired place?
Both in her film work and in the installations, Dala Nasser incorporates the idea of a refuge, a kind of healing place for collective wounds, which, as her film seems to convey, is eventually nowhere to be found. As in the road trip into the wilderness, the artist’s works are based on the social reality of her country. Empty billboards, which are no longer provided with advertising due to the economic crisis, but an even stronger presence of illusory election advertising for political leaders as well as neglected regions point to the tense situation in Lebanon, from which there is no escape. Her work with the fabrics is also deeply connected to this situation. For the artist, a place can only bring healing if it is not approached from the outside. In Nasser’s philosophy, following and listening to the earth completes a circle between people and their environment, in a previously unknown place. Giving this passage a form of expression is the aim of her works, in which she draws a new map of both the trauma and the hidden forces of her country.