Etel Adnan: The Weight of the World
by Georgia Phillips-Amos
In London’s Hyde Park, in the bend of the Serpentine Lake, the late architect Zaha Hadid built the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in 2013 from two separate elements: a repurposed brick gunpowder store from 1805, and a woven, glass-fibre tensile structure. In her eulogy celebrating Hadid, Lebanese-American artist, essayist and poet Etel Adnan praised the architect’s curved constructions, writing that each of her buildings “has a poetry, a spirituality such that in sheltering us, it makes us dream.” Two months after Hadid’s death in March 2016, the Serpentine opened The Weight of the World, Adnan’s first-ever solo exhibition in the UK.
Born in Beirut, in 1925, Adnan has spent her adult life between California, Paris and Beirut. She has written more than a dozen books of poetry and prose in English, and with her writing, she confronts war, destruction and despair in the Arab world and beyond. With her painting, she offers a different perspective: a refuge against that severe reality. The humility of her practice and her earnest appreciation for beauty are rare among contemporary artists. Critic Negar Azimi calls Adnan’s success “a corrective to exuberant art-world bling.” Within the Serpentine Gallery’s walls this corrective is at work; with each piece Adnan creates a meditative space moored by brilliant colours, in hues ranging from Helen Frankenthaler’s landscapes to Fra Angelico’s monastic cells.
Three woven tapestries cover the wide wall at the gallery entrance. They were designed by the artist and made by hand at Ateliers Pinton, in the Commune of Felletin, in France. One of the tapestries, Acrobaties Printanières (1967-70/2015), calls attention to itself by containing the only trace of a white background in the room. Adnan often begins with a red square and piles on other colours. In this composition, her square is distinct but roughly hewn, bleeding into a larger yellow square below. These squares float above a splash of red – in the shape of a buffalo or a Lynda Benglis polyurethane pour – set between a dashed foliage of greens and brown. A web of black lines is woven over the colour, connecting a constellation of dots scattered over the wool, and echoing the black dots and lines in the paintings of Joan Miró. To complete the sense of entropy, a black moon stands alone over the bare white wool. “Images are not still,” Adnan has said. The balance in this tapestry slid every time I looked at it.
A long wall left of the tapestries includes 13 untitled oil paintings from 1964–1987. They are patchworks of thick colour scraped into bands by Adnan’s palette knife, raised from the surface and set in contrast to each other. This surface work creates the effect of weather that escapes reproduction in photographs. Adnan is a master of depicting the margins of the day, sunset and sunrise, when colours burn brightest. In Night, her latest poetry collection, Adnan writes, “We have to break the absolute into prisms that distort perception.” These remarkable early colour studies can be read as prismed landscapes. Without titles I could not tell where they were set, but each painting made me forget where I was. Adnan’s partner, Simone Fattal, wonders if they are “formations that can be seen on the moon.”
Twenty new paintings form the title series The Weight of the World (2016), and each contains at least one full moon. Flatter than her early work, and painted more thinly, these orbs rest flush against empty skies. Lacking the layered and craggy texture of her earlier paintings, these are closer in form to Ellsworth Kelly’s colour cutouts. The series is displayed in its entirety on a single narrow wall, in a 2 × 10 grid, making it impossible to take in one work without the others. The horizon line of each canvas is not absolute but knocked off kilter by neighbouring horizons.
A break from colour awaits in the two transepts that slice across the width of the Serpentine. Narrow and high-pitched, these separate rooms stand hushed in low natural light from the skylights above. The floor of one room is filled with squares of carpet, and a film is projected onto a screen in the room’s centre. Adnan’s film Motion (1980–89) is all washed out greys, shot on a Super 8 in New York. A collage of images, it shows the city’s refracted light, smoke stacks, seagulls and barge boats, in a mash-up of nature and industry. The second transept holds a series of black-and-white folded cityscapes: the leporello book San Gimignano; and two shoji, Japanese screen doors, their backgrounds gently aglow. Speaking of her landscapes, Adnan has said, “I want to be there,” and the feeling is palpable.
When asked about the histories of violence that underpin her work, Adnan has said, “We all breathe it. We are all in it. Nobody can say ‘I don’t know.’” At 91, Adnan’s life has been shaped by the states of crisis and war she that has lived through. She argues that all of our lives are. Her keeping of history through poetry and prose is blunt and devastating. Yet her work in all mediums contains glints of hope. “We must be happy!” Adnan insists, “Happiness is resistance.” She often describes Beirut as it was in her childhood: “It smelled of jasmine and orange blossoms, and you could look at the sea from almost any street.” In the face of perpetual war, Adnan’s visual work offers this kind of reprieve.