Joining the ranks of several non-commercial and experimental spaces that have popped up in Beirut in recent years, such as ArtLab and STATION Beirut, comes a new venue to the capital: Ayyam Projects. It is the sister space to Ayyam Gallery, a leading cultural hub in the region which celebrated the 5th anniversary of its Beirut location on October 30.

And the aim of Ayyam Projects is groundbreaking; this is the first time a commercial gallery in Beirut has opened up a space dedicated to highlighting experimental artists in the Middle East. It is a challenge in the face of conventional mechanisms through which art is exhibited and supported, especially in a community like this where patronage is a rare exception and few serious opportunities exist outside the gallery circuit for those less well connected or who lack significant experience and exposure in the market. Shifting away from their more recent focus on painting from the Arab world, the family of Ayyam galleries (with operational branches in Dubai, Beirut and London), the space will be open to practices that might not have a place in commercial circles.



The project is an attempt to subvert established norms of art collection and the perception by institutions of what is considered the art market. Ayyam Projects, while clearly more focused on conceptual art and new media - something still quite new to Lebanon - still has not clarified what the program of the space might be like, and in principle it will be open also to artists who are not represented by Ayyam, on a case-by-case basis. While several Middle Eastern artists have made their careers abroad based on more contemporary forms such as video and installation, the visibility of those practices in the region is still poor.



The inaugural exhibition, "Postponed Democracy", by Abdul Karim Majdal Al-Beik, a Beirut-based Syrian artist, consists of a central installation and a number of accompanying pieces in which the boundaries between photography, painting, and installation become blurry and merge into one other.

The exhibition also marks an aesthetic departure for the artist who was has gained a reputation for semi-abstract paintings replete with social content. In the same spirit of the new space it's helping to inaugurate, the sculptural installation tackles the lack of political participation among the youth in the Arab world where, in spite of the tides of social change, citizens are still marginalized from the public domain. They've retreated into the private sphere where invisibility reigns supreme as a political and personal principle.

"Exit to Light (Democracy)", Al-Beik's central work, speaks to the viewer about the political mechanisms of democratic elections in which people are addressing not only the need for leadership and rule of law, but the desire for individualism in a communal setting. To live in a community means not only to enjoy the commonalities enhanced by the group's comradery, it also leaves open the possibility for disagreement, discussion and reform.

In the second installation, the artist creates a metaphor for the dissipation of the ballot box into a complaint box found in public offices around the Arab world. But this complaint box is meant to look invisible - just like the citizen for whom it was designed. It is a translucent structure through which we can see the finger prints of the voters. It begs the question: "what new mechanisms can we find to make our voices heard in times of turbulence and revolution?"

Al-Beik's work is perhaps not a finished project, and while conceptually very ambitious and charged with concrete political questions, it seems rather open-ended and somewhat experimental, doing justice to the nature of the space where it is installed. Time will tell if the new Ayyam Projects space will provide a truly open space for contemporary art to test the limits of its practices, or whether it will function more as an extension of the gallery. Khaled Samawi, the owner of Ayyam Gallery, insists that there is little difference between non-profit organizations and commercial galleries, in that their purpose is to showcase the best art from the region.

The majority of art institutions would disagree with Samawi, but regardless of the particulars, for a city in constant growth like Beirut, with a vibrant art scene and influx from abroad, it is more pioneering project spaces that are needed.

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