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Dec / Jan 2016
The Polymath

WRITER: Stephanie d’Arc Taylor

Lebanese painter, sculptor and architect Nadim Karam breaks down the barriers that divide his trades. His visionary approach to using space transcends traditional thinking. 

Nadim Karam’s conception of architecture might strike some as counterintuitive. Rather than build a structure in the space allotted, Karam builds his edifices around space. Architecture, he says, is only possible through understanding of space, its resonances, histories, and the many ways in which people use it. With his art, whether it’s a building, an installation, a sculpture, or a painting, “you want to create a relationship, a story, an amusement, a feeling of festivity,” says Karam. “My architectural background allows me to create these interventions.”

As one of Lebanon’s most prominent artists and architects, Karam has many opportunities to express his unique approach, a fusion of his Lebanese heritage and Japanese training. In 2017, his atelier Hapsitus, based in Beirut’s Mathaf district, will complete large-scale installations in Japan, Wales, Kuwait, Sydney, and Doha. Another project due next year is The Muse, a renovated 110 year-old Lebanese house, with an attached subterranean exhibition and gallery space in the scenic mountains of the Keserwan region – “an inverted architecture to be embedded in a terracing system under the house.”


59-year-old Nadim Karam is a multidisciplinary Lebanese artist, painter, sculptor and architect.


This hometown project is somewhat of a departure from his public art installations, the work for which he is perhaps best known. In keeping with his Buddhism-informed philosophical outlook, Karam takes as much pleasure from the process, and its inherent challenges, as he does from a finished product. From drawing, to paper cut-out, to model, to metres-high metal construct, it takes his 10-person atelier staff several months to realise the city-sized sculptures.

“When it comes to public art you are constrained by the context, whether that’s the city in question, or how to render the vision with the materials at hand,” he explains. “But the transformation from drawing to sculpture has a fluidity and freedom,” says the artist.


Karam’s winning design proposal for the Banque Libanaise pour le Commerce (BLC) features a design in which the new headquarters straddles the old. 


Karam was born in Senegal, went to a French high school in Beirut, then the American University of Beirut. It was here that his interest in the Japanese aesthetic was sparked: “I had a very good friend who would bring me all these Japanese architecture magazines. I was attracted to the idea of something else, something beyond the usual pattern of either France or the US.” Fatefully, he was accepted to a Japanese architecture school, with a scholarship.

His ten years as an architecture graduate student in Japan precipitated a tidal change for Karam. “Japan is my second nationality, it has influenced every part of my approach and personality,” he says with some conviction, as we chat over biscuits in his eucalyptus-shaded atelier. For one thing, Japan is where he met his wife and developed professional relationships with career mentors that are still bearing fruit.


Inspired by Dubai, ‘The Cloud’ is a huge public garden resembling a raincloud that stands 250 metres above ground. It proposes a visual and social alternative to the exclusivity of the skyscrapers in Gulf cities. 


But, of course, the influence of his time in Japan stretches beyond personal development. One temple visit, out of dozens he made while preparing his PhD dissertation, continues to impact his reciprocal attitude toward his art practice. After traveling for a few hours from Tokyo, and climbing a mountain, he finally saw Nageiredo, a temple he’d been especially excited to visit. “I found I couldn’t reach it. It was built into a cliff. I was angry at first!” he explains, eyes twinkling. “But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Not being able to get inside, it had all the potential in the world. Not reaching it was what made it special.”

It’s this idea of context, and interaction, that remains a crucial element to his technique as an artist. “A sculpture changes meaning when you put it in the context of a city, when you introduce the social aspect,” Karam says. “You hope that whoever passes by will have a moment of change, or a dream, or a question. If you put a sculpture that is meant for a city in a gallery space, you’ve imprisoned it, and I think that’s a pity.”


Made of polished stainless steel so as to mirror its surroundings, Miu is an artwork created by Karam in 2011 for the Sotheby’s Beyond Limits sculpture exhibition at Chatsworth House. It was placed alongside works by Takashi Murakami, Yayoi Kusama, Ju Ming, Jaume Plensa, Barry Flanagan, William Turnbull and Damien Hirst.


Despite his affinity for the Japanese aesthetic philosophy, Karam has chosen to make his home between Beirut and Keserwan, in his native Lebanon. He also travels frequently – when we met he was gearing up for a trip to the US to give a talk at the University of California, in Los Angeles – but finds the “crazy” pace of Lebanon to be essential to his creativity as an artist.

While he says, mindfully, that the Lebanese “like to be more decorative” than the Japanese, he doesn’t find the two aesthetics necessarily incompatible. “With the old house I’m renovating for The Muse,” he says, “I keep the materials as they are, I keep the old feeling of things as they are. This is a part of the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi – honouring transience and imperfection. I want to look at something and feel its history. I want it to tell me its age.”

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