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Mazen Zahreddine 16 Jul 2014

Life is Beautiful: A ‘Brainwashed’ Worldview in Beirut

There’s something almost ironic about having a Mr. Brainwash exhibit in Beirut. The artist, whose real name is Thierry Guetta, was a little known figure who popped up in the street art world after his appearance in the 2010 film, Exit Through the Gift Shop. Since then, he has become as prolific and well-known as he has controversial. Some critics have even claimed he’s a hoax conceived by the famously anonymous British graffiti artist, Banksy, in a real-life critique on the vapid artificiality of the art world.

Indeed, the style of his work would seem an amateur reproduction of Banksy’s original street style archetype. And despite the fact that his work has been completed by a team of graphic designers since 2008, Mr. Brainwash’s pieces continue to be sold at five and six figure sums. Herein lies the irony: an exhibit called “Life is Beautiful,” mocks the mass production of art that our gullible culture readily eats up. Beirut, too, is a charade; the so-called “Paris of the Middle East,” an arguably poor imitation for what a real cosmopolitan city should be.

Using pop culture imagery, neon colors and iconic figures, Mr. Brainwash’s “Life is Beautiful” exhibit, now on display at Gallery 169 in Saifi Village, introduces small alterations to famous images in ways that are meant to evoke a change in perception for the viewer. One particular work shows an Edgar Degas’ painting of ballerinas masked with Charlie Chaplin doing pirouettes. There’s also a General Gaddhafi with Marilyn Monroe-platinum hair and makeup, and a Jackson Pollock painting with Mickey Mouse on top. It should be noted that much of Mr. Brainwash’s work is copyrighted, but the Brainwash experience is less about the artistic effort behind the work than the ideas he intends to orchestrate.

Alongside the “Life is Beautiful” installation is Patrick Rubenstein’s kinetic art installation. Unlike Mr. Brainwash’s work, Rubeinstein’s installation is more of a visual feast, with stunning attention to detail, and offering the baffling realization that even the smallest piece looks as though it took an incredible amount of effort and time to make. Rubenstein’s obsession with argentic photos (which contain silver) and kinetic art works, which depend on movement for effect, compelled him to mix both mediums into a novel form of art that has the effect of changing in form as you walk past it.

Reminiscent of street billboards, his work is made up of triangular strips, with each side of the strip exposing just a piece of the picture. So as you walk past a Mona Lisa painting, for instance, Mona Lisa slowly starts morphing into something else entirely. It’s truly a remarkable interaction between art and the motions of the viewer, and you’re strongly advised to check it out.

Both artists – Brainwash and Rubenstein – are part of the Bel-Air Fine Art group, an international art group based in Geneva and run by Francois Chabanian, a mild mannered, multi-lingual art mogul who has seven galleries spread across Europe and more than 30 artists under his belt. Their works are paraded across the world, from Shanghai to New York. Mr. Chabanian visited Lebanon in 2010 and came away from the trip believing the untapped Middle East market is full of potential for art lovers who are not usually given the chance to experience firsthand the works of international artists. Well, that is no longer the case, thanks to his efforts. The works of these prominent artists are available for you to see in person and even buy, if you are obscenely wealthy.

Two artists, students of pop art, obsessed with icons and expressing their admiration for them in very different ways. The exhibition ends this Saturday, July 19. For more information, click here.