A conversation with Catherine Cattaruzza

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From the series: "Liban-Israël, l’Infranchissable Frontière", 2016. 

(Copyright © Catherine Cattaruzza, 2020)

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From the series: "I can't recall the edges", 2016 - ongoing.

(Copyright © Catherine Cattaruzza, 2020)

Catherine Cattaruzza (Toulouse, 1968) is a Visual Artist and Photographer based between Lebanon and France. 

Since 1993 She has participated in solo and group exhibitions around the world, across the Middle East, Europe, and the USA.

Her work explores themes around territory, trace, the falsification of national identity, the fragmentation of political culture and post-war conditions.

In the spring of 1994, Catherine Cattaruzza was invited in residence by the Lebanese Ministry of Culture and became the first post-war artist to intervene in the public space of downtown Beirut. She created ephemeral installations entitled No Man's Land. Her work was supported by the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia. Her video installation Body was acquired for the permanent collection of the Vehbi Koç Foundation in Istanbul, Turkey, by curator Emre Baycal.

Her project New Worlds presented in Belfast, as part of a double research residency Radius, art-based research, took her from Beirut to Tangiers via Lisbon. Her last two works in 2018 are: The Thin Lines Between the River and Me - Geography - Cartography - Photography - Radiography is a photographic series for the Lebanese Pavilion of the 16th Venice Biennale in Architecture, commissioned by Hala Younes. Beneath my Skin, Home is a permanent installation for the American Hospital in Beirut, commissioned and curated by Amanda Abi Khalil.

She is currently preparing, in collaboration with director Jean Michel Vecchiet, an essay film Hatha Houwa el Shaytan based on the story of the Lebanese writer Yussef Bazzi, Yasser Arafat looked at me and smiled at me, where images of war sites filmed 40 years later are superimposed on the story of a teenage soldier enlisted in the civil war. 

 

Since 1992, She has been pursuing a photographic work on Beirut. Her photographic project Lebanon-Israel, l'Infranchissable Frontière (Uncrossable Frontiers) earned her an 8-page portfolio in M le Monde, as well as a publication in the reference book Sur la photographie au Liban (ed. Kaph). This series on impassable borders is part of a long-term project on conflict zones and the representation of latent wars: China and North Korea (2017) and Nagorno Karabakh and Azerbaijan (2020).

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Catherine Cattaruzza, "I can't recall the edges", 2016 - ongoing. (Copyright © Catherine Cattaruzza, 2020)

Chambre Fluide: Network, non-places, liquid modernity, de-territorialization are some of the terms that have accompanied the emergence, on a sociological level and beyond, of the topography of globalization, theorized as an overcoming of the border topography, which has characterized modernity and its political creation par excellence: the State. A world without borders, s-confined, is the common trait of the different expressions that want to describe the topography of globalization. However, the immaterial s-confinition of telematic technology and the financial economy is counterbalanced by a renewed materiality of the border: the Wall. But is it a border in the true sense of the word? In your work the frontier’s theme is crucial. Could you please explain to us what frontier and border mean to you?

Catherine Cattaruzza: I grew up and lived most of my life in Lebanon, where two boundaries were traced.

One of them in Beirut, called “the green line”, worked as a mental and physical border, which had a great impact on everyday life during the war in 1975. This is not a simple line but the symbol of division, not just of a city, but of its own population as well, exacerbating its fractures and breaking its balance, the Muslims in the west side and the Christians in the east side.

The second border was situated in Southern Lebanon, with an inner boundary established by the Israeli occupier in 1982 until 2000. This territory remained inaccessible and fantasized for a long time.

The theme of “borders” crosses my works and creates sensitive maps where landscape and history, trace, memory and intimacy are intermingled. These can be found in my “Beirut Year Zero” photographs, taken at the end of the war in 1992 and found 20 years later; or again in “No Man’s Land” in the ephemeral installations in situ, in the spring of 1994, which made me the first artist intervening in the emblematic public space of Beirut city centre.

In this territoriality of my own history, blended with the History of this country, I use pigments and salt to trace lines echoing the green line.

In my last work made for the permanent collection of the American University of Beirut hospital, "Beneath my Skin, Home" (2018), a photographic installation shaped like a light box of 6 meters long where images of MRI of the venous networks of diseased bodies are linked to the mapping of the city of Beirut on the way out from the port; a city sick of itself as a disaster announced from the explosion of last August 4th.

Now I take into consideration the photographic series “Infranchissables Frontières, Liban-Israël”. In 2016, old photo films dated to the outbreak of the war in July 2006 and not returned to the border between the two countries, were found. The trace of the border line between Lebanon and Israel, this "blue line", is not based on an understanding between the two countries. Following the Israeli occupation, in 2000 the ONU drew a dividing line between the two belligerents. A highly flammable buffer zone where the apparent calm of these landscapes hides a latent state of war. Between Lebanon and Israel there’s no peace treaty, only a ceasefire maintains a fragile status quo.

The notion of borders is vast and complex. I’m interested and concerned about borders of areas that have never been fixed. Where the geographic and deep territories are blended and collide, there are spaces in-between, unifying and dividing spaces, spaces that bind and untie.

These in the making fragile territories are crucial in my work.

Calling to mind the thought of the philosopher Edouard Glissant, I would say that “the world trembles” and when the transformation of landscape reaches the intimate, it upsets the limits.

When we talk about borders today, it is difficult to ignore the Covid-19 crisis. It arrived suddenly generating many questions that fuel my creations. This Covid-19 crisis has redefined the numbers of our visible and invisible spaces.

We are arbitrarily witnessing a new trace of the physical and mental geography of each person. During the different phases of the lockdown, new everyday life boundaries have been drawn by the geographic limits of our movements.

Visible and invisible boundaries. Redrawn borders. Impenetrable borders.  

This is a global event. This global and social issue leads us to reconsider our lives, our movements, our relationship with the other. Our bodies, hindered by masks, and our prevented gestures become for us unknown boundaries. Political boundaries are no more those of the planet. Our spaces have been suddenly redefined. Our social relationships and our daily territory are changing.

Our everyday life has been hit, affecting intimate gestures and spaces. The health crisis forces us and leads us to conceive in a new way the boundaries issue, considering it from inside as well from outside.

This health crisis shows us the multiple manifestations of the boundaries: closing borders, interaction spaces, points of powers, geopolitics tensions, demarcations. Boundaries generate fantasies as much as illusions.  Sometimes there are impenetrable walls but they are porous to viruses.

Suddenly, the omnipresence of the border came to inhabit all discourses, it occupied the space, it transformed it and made it to be seen and heard again.

Boundaries have taken possession of our spirits.

The virus Covid-19 has occupied all media contents, leaving a trail, a cortège of expressions, “hindered gestures”, “social distance”, all of them have transformed our known spaces, our daily closeness, our promiscuity. This kind of untouchable and intangible borders are anyway real. These new boundaries are risky, more or less uncrossable.

But I’m examining the layers and the “tremors” of the territory more than the notion of boundary.

Catherine Cattaruzza, "Beirut, Year Zero", 1992 (Copyright © Catherine Cattaruzza, 1992)

CF: We would like to know if in your work you want to show a fact that happened, as in a mere reportage, or do you want to tell something more? What’s your artistic approach on this?

 

CC: The fact that my work is anchored in reality, it doesn’t mean that I give to it a journalistic approach. My work is tied to reality, it is my way of inhabiting the world and learning about its latent or effective instability. Once my photos, regarding the uncrossable boundaries, are exposed, they are not associated with descriptions. Rather than  giving information, I am interested in the fact that in Lebanon History could be constantly written, a History that is made continuously. It is for this reason that I decided to come back to Beirut to live my life. It is not by chance. Lebanon is an epicentre, my personal history is tied to this country.  I was almost born there, I was only a few months old when I arrived in Beirut. 

Even if the immediacy of information is not related to my work, it reaches us consequently. My work can be understood through the experience of current events. This is not surprising if you are living in the Middle East, in Lebanon. That brings you to deal with geopolitics issues. 

I work by different layers. If I represent something directly, in an abstract or figurative way, it doesn’t matter, what matters is that my work is structured on multiple levels. The frontality of the images allows to take a distance from all of that could fall into the narration such as the spectacularity. In this way it is possible to reach the narration of these politics and poetics landscapes. 

CF: The relationship between life, art, and politics is recurrent in your work. Is your work as an artist a decisive addition to your political struggle or does it remain a “realistic outline” and what would you like to say with your images besides showing political scenarios and local realities?

CC: The artist Christian Boltansky said: "in each artist's life there is a  first trauma and the work is generated around it." 

War has irremediably marked my life, but if I want to identify my trauma I would recognize it in my forced departure. It happened when I was just a child, but I experienced it just like a real exile. This violent break-up has scarred my life forever. It was like an invisible wall was traced between what was vital for me and myself.

My first artistic gesture would have been to come back to Lebanon at the end of the war. 

I could not conceive to develop artistic projects without living in Lebanon. 

I was totally aware that I wanted to be there when the history was being written, so that my work could be part of this specific historical, political and geopolitical context.

Reality and concrete experiences are evoked in my work, but the poetic and tactile dimension too me they are important too.

I am a visual artist and I am interested in translating things I'm interested in, into something else as an artist can do. My passion for geopolitics is fruitfully related to my artistic practice, it fuels my work which changes formal and factual data in poetic images

CF: Let’s talk about your project “I can’t recall the edges”.

CC: I started working on this series in 2016. Last photos are dated 2019. I’m going to work on it for a while longer. Will perhaps become something different, we will see it is a work in progress. 

Vacant lots, abandoned sites, ruins left by the war are like urban landscapes that have remained imprinted in my mind since I was a little child. Now I have just memories approximately precise. Memories about photos destroyed by war, fascination for urban spaces in and of transition, territories continuously changing.

First photos of this series were taken in a disputed territory of Beirut. I’m talking about the embankment of the ancient Normandy landfill, situated in front of the sea, in the city centre. Here there are the demolished buildings, destroyed just after the war. In particular, those buildings in the souks of Beirut were used to cover the landfill in a state of emergency, without any planning, but just as an accomplished fact, under the cover of a political and financial scandal. 

These landscapes that I photographed cannot be considered as white page landscapes. They compare an action to the whole. This action can be approximately dense, regarding traces and tendencies of resistance that make it up. 

My work develops thanks to the issues related to the territory and because of the identity and memory traces.

I show spaces in the making. Sometimes they witness the passage of the time and the presence of history. In these territories in continuous  evolution, the  presence of contemporary archaeology talks about untouchable traces that I explore in my photographic work. I show the non-lieu of Beirut as a recurrent motif.

These photographs question the bond between apparences, the landscapes in front of us, what is invisible, the narration of the transformation of these places. The usage of expired films is connected with the process of disappearance of these places. Beirut is a city that is constantly changing. We saw it recently with the explosion of its harbour on 4th august 2020. Thanks to the fragility of the image, the cancellation of the texture, the grains, the colours, these expired films tell us about the vulnerability of the territory, the presence of physical and mental barriers not only in Beirut but in the entire country, the intangible, the uncontrollable. 

In this series there is the idea of vernacular photography that allows the representation of memories, establishing a bond with my childhood pictures.

Nowadays analogue photography dates the picture. Its usage in contemporary projects causes a juxtaposition and a discrepancy between the pictures. It confers a timeless dimension and a mise en abyme of the time.

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Catherine Cattaruzza, "I can't recall the edges", 2016 - ongoing. (Copyright © Catherine Cattaruzza, 2020)

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Catherine Cattaruzza, "I can't recall the edges", 2016 - ongoing. (Copyright © Catherine Cattaruzza, 2020)

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Catherine Cattaruzza, "I can't recall the edges", 2016 - ongoing. (Copyright © Catherine Cattaruzza, 2020)

CF: Tell us about your artistic practice. How does your research develop?

What brings you to choose one technique instead of another? In particular, since you work with the photography medium and you went back to analogue again in 2016, what kind of potentiality do you think it has?

CC:  My artistic practice does not have any temporal constraint, unless there is a commitment to be fulfilled in a specific time.

I like to leave me time to reflect, to produce and to conclude a project. 

As I have already said. My work is anchored  to a multiform reality, my personal reality, that one of my past, that finds its roots in my childhood, in the political, geopolitical and social reality that surrounds me.

My research develops as much at visual level as conceptual level. One feeds the other through constant back-and-forth. 

 

The technique never guides my work. Methods and media impose themselves as a consequence of the themes I want to develop and of what I want to say regarding their representation. 

I don’t follow specific rules, the technique does not interest me so much. I don’t know exactly when it will be defined. It is by my work developing  that the media impose themselves in an organic way. 

Regarding my work in analogue, I decided to return to this process after I was wondering about the physical relation with the image during its own creation and about the temporality of image fabrication and profusion. It concerns photos and paintings as well. After I found a batch of black and white outdated films in 2016, I decided to work again with this medium. The expiry date corresponds with a significant event.

I’m talking about the war between Israel and Hezbollah, July 2006. Therefore I decided to go back to the 80km boundary so much coveted. I wanted to question and analyze the tensions between political and poetic spaces. The usage, I made, of these expired films supported even more the relation between what is visible and what is invisible. When I started working with these films I didn't make any preliminary tests and I didn't know the conditions of these films, so that it was impossible to predict the results. I couldn’t even know whether the image could impress the film. Once I used the entire batch, I decided to develop the films. Working with expired films let chance to operate as a full-fledged conceptual vector.

CF: Who are your favorite writers?

CC: The list  would be very long, but if I have to choose authors I would mention André Malraux, whose “La Condition Humaine” left a great mark. I am just completing the reading of a short essay: “Voyage, guerre, exil” by Etel Adnan, whose brilliant thoughts touch me closely.

CF: Why is art important today? What do you think its role is? 

CC: Considering our current situation, defined by: the violence of political, economic and financial crisis asphyxiating Lebanon and its population, the destruction of a great area of Beirut after the harbour explosion, the Covid-19 that deprives us of fundamental freedoms, maybe irrecoverable, the economic collapse provoking the arrival of a mass of uncertainties, and provided that we are not at the verge of starvation, I think that art and culture are the only ones that can allow us to avoid to be adrift.

I’m thinking about a text that I’m adapting to film-essay together with  the author-director Jean Michel Vecchiet “Yasser Arafat looked at me and smiled” written by the Lebanese writer Youssef Bazzi, it is the crude story of the author’s involvement in the war in Lebanon as a child soldier. The war gripped him for 5 years. It would have been a lost man if he had not found a library in a safe place where he spent several weeks. He discovered poetry and literature and they saved him.

Art and culture must fight against obscurantism.

Catherine Cattaruzza, "The thin lines between the river and me", 16th Venice Biennale of Architecture, Lebanese Pavilion - 2018.  (Copyright © Catherine Cattaruzza, 2020)

You can find more about Catherine's work here