I think Nadim Karam is as surprised as I am when our conversation about art, architecture and the links between them morphs seamlessly into the story of how he once spent weeks playing daily doses of soothing music to a cow. It was 1987 and Karam was in Tokyo, studying for his Ph.D. in architecture and experimenting with large scale installations and performance art.
“When you do a Ph.D., you have some free time, some leeway to do other things, and I used that to get into the art world,” Karam reminisces. “I did crazy performances. We brought a cow into a building, and we had to train the cow. It was not an easy process. We played specific music during the performance and we had the cow listen to it every day, so that it didn’t get shocked when it came to an urban context. We brought her from Kitakaruizawa, a faraway village.”
Karam convinced a farmer to travel with his cow all the way to the big city, where the artist’s stunning painting, depicting a funeral and measuring 21 meters long and 3.3 meters high, was being displayed. Karam had hired a team to wait on standby in order to ensure the animal didn’t make a mess of the fancy venue where the performance was going to be held.
“We had to put a bucket under her from behind, so that if suddenly the cow decides to…” Karam pauses coyly, carefully selecting a word, “pee, or whatever, it had to be controlled. If the tail goes up, it means everybody has to be ready to jump on the cow.”
He chuckles at the memory, evidently reliving an experience he hadn’t thought of for some time. “The performance was about the story of a funeral and rebirth, I asked the ambassador of Lebanon to participate. He had to know how the music went … so he was also trained,” Karam laughs.
Born in Senegal in 1957, Karam studied architecture at the American University of Beirut (AUB) before moving to Japan, where he lived for 10 years. After completing a Master’s and Ph.D. at the University of Tokyo, he spent a year in France, then moved back to post war Lebanon to teach at AUB. Soon devoting as much of his time to art as to architecture, Karam began creating what he calls urban interventions — huge public sculptures, inspired by local culture and history.
A 1994 exhibition at the Sursock Museum featured 15 human sized sculptures of stylized human and animal figures, which crossed the courtyard, climbed the façade and paraded across the roof, whispering in Arabic, French and English to symbolize the country’s multicultural identity. In 1995, two years before the war-damaged National Museum reopened to the public, a 15 meter high sculpture called The Carrier was installed outside the newly restored façade, capturing a man with one arm raised, bearing the weight of Lebanon’s history.
Karam founded his own studio, Atelier Hapsitus, in 1996. Working with a team of young architects and designers, he began entering his architectural designs into prestigious international competitions. At the same time, he expanded his repertoire as an artist, creating urban installations for cities including Prague, London, Melbourne and Tokyo.
Today, Karam works simultaneously on high profile art and architectural projects, from buildings, to urban installations, to smaller sculptures and paintings exhibited in galleries. Has he ever considered choosing to do just art or just architecture, I ask him. “One or the other?” he muses. “You’re right, this is a question that comes to my mind. Architecture or art? Or public art, or urban art, or sculpture or painting? I think they feed into each other, that’s what’s interesting. I cannot stop doing architecture, because architecture is creating my sculptures. The structure of having an office helps you create sculptures that nobody else can do.”
Anywhere between 20 and 30 different people can work on one of his enormous pieces of urban art, he explains. Like a building, each design needs to be cleared by structural engineers.
Just as Karam’s sculptures require architectural know how, his more ambitious buildings are closer to the vision of an artist than an architect. Take The Cloud, for example. A project designed specifically for Dubai, it’s a 100 by 200 meter platform, surrounded by a diaphanous glass structure resembling a cloud, and supported nearly 300 meters off the ground by a series of slanted pillars that look like falling rain. Intended to present a public space to counterbalance the exclusive high rises that define the city’s skyline, the design is finished and Karam is now waiting to present the plans to local authorities.
Another project, Elephant City, is an enormous office and apartment complex designed for a client in Lagos. The design resembles the silhouette of an elephant, a recurring motif in Karam’s art. With a waterfall in the trunk, a rollercoaster along the beast’s back and a ferris wheel in its round eye, the building is somewhere between a sculpture, an apartment complex and a theme park.
In the meantime, Karam’s experience in creating public installations has led to work as a consultant. “Now we’re becoming quite well known in the strategy of public art,” he explains. “In Doha, we’re doing the artscape strategy for the central area of the city. In Abu Dhabi, we’re doing the public art strategy for a park. In Shenzhen, we’re also trying to create a public art strategy. That’s very much my interest: how to give cities a moment of dreams.”
I think back to the last exhibition of his work I saw, at Beirut’s Ayyam Gallery last November. A steel sculpture, humorously entitled “Baby Phoenician on a Camel,” tying the diverse selection of work to Karam’s homeland. The squat figure with its rounded belly — quite the opposite of the tall, thin metal figurines sold in tourist shops across the country — was at once endearing and a little sarcastic, the ubiquitous symbol of the camel as representative of “Arabs” at odds with the image of the seafaring Phoenicians, with whom some Lebanese prefer to identify. It’s ironic, I suggest to Karam, that someone so passionate about public art should live in a city so bereft of monumental art or public sculpture. He nods in acknowledgement of the contradiction. “I think it’s time to start something new for Beirut,” he says. “I don’t know what yet, but it will come. I’m confident we’ll do something for Beirut again.”