June 19, 2019
By Áine O’Brien
There’s lightness to Manaf Halbouni’s work that belies a serious underside. Halbouni’s playfulness draws you into critical questions about global displacement, the politics of belonging and what it might mean to be perennially uprooted.
Rubble Theatre – installed in St Enoch Square Glasgow as part of Refugee Festival Scotland – has this mix of play and profundity. You’ll find a beaten up old car – filled with books, suitcases, toys and other objects – balanced precariously on piles of ‘rubble’ made from broken breezeblocks. This haphazard arrangement is skillfully conceived by Halbouni, following his preoccupation with cars, roots and routes: ‘With the car, a symbol of mobility, I try to reach a place that I can call home to take root again’, he says.
Halbouni’s cars appear overloaded with personal possessions, resembling mobile living rooms. In installations across Europe – in cities like Graz, Vienna, Zürich, Valetta and Milan – his cars are like ‘impossible houses’ offering moving tributes and testaments to loss, resilience and hope for more than 50 million displaced people around the world. In some cases Halbouni drives the car to its final (exhibition) destination with little fanfare about the need for a white cube gallery – in fact Halbouni’s work sits best when on the street, in public view, in direct conversation with passersby.
Born in Damascus, Syria, the son of a Syrian father and a German mother, Halbouni studied at art school in Syria and then moved to Germany a few years before the war. A regular visitor to Germany throughout his youth, Halbouni seems determined to transpose and intertwine parallel realities and identities. In Enoch Square he brings the everyday of war torn Syria to the heart of Glasgow. Most of his installations are pure artifice, meticulously constructed stage sets and fabrications – mere simulacra.
But what matters are the material realities and recent history his installations mark and memorialise. In 2017, far-right groups in Germany protested against his anti-war installation, Monument, which erected three life-sized upended buses at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and the Frauenkirche in Dresden, in homage to a barricade of buses that protected civilians from sniper fire in Aleppo in 2015. In response to his detractors, the Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) in Dresden – who accused him of being a ‘rootless wanderer’ and his work an ‘abuse of artistic freedom’ – Halbouni replied: ‘I am rootless, in the sense that the war has taken my childhood away from me, by killing or scattering the friends of my youth all over the globe… Since then I have been in transit, because I still feel that people here struggle to take me seriously as a German’.
‘Monument’, Dresden 2017
The beauty of Halbouni’s work is not simply his mixing and challenging of identity, home, displacement and belonging, or even his deep sense of play, provocation and the haphazard. It’s also in his insistence that understanding the ‘local’ might simultaneously make the politics of the ‘global’ more tangible and comprehensible. Halbouni has an uncanny knack of narrowing the cognitive gap between ‘here’ and ‘there’ – bringing the unthinkable reality that is happening elsewhere closer to ‘home’. Instead he urges us to collectively and creatively connect and bridge these realities.
The theme for this year’s Refugee Festival Scotland is befittingly ‘Making Home, Making Art’ echoing many of the concerns evident in Halbouni’s work. Themes that often resonate for artists with first hand experience of displacement and relocation. But the sheer precariousness of ‘home’ takes on an urgent local dimension in Glasgow, with the most recent news of the housing agency, Serco, threatening to implement a ‘change the locks’ policy – potentially evicting hundreds of vulnerable people who have ‘no recourse to public funding’ having been refused asylum. Rubble Theatre it would appear is the backdrop for a pervasive breakdown of humanitarian policy – instigated by the Home Office – impacting on housing and basic shelter in Glasgow.
One of the other local and collaborative aspects of Rubble Theatre can be literally found in the materials for the Glasgow installation: the ‘rubble’ breezeblocks courtesy of the Hillhouse Group, Troon; the car from Carntyne Vehicle Dismantlers; the higgledy-piggledy contents of the car salvaged from local Barnardos Shops; and other parts from Jewson Rutherglen and Polmadie Recycling Centre. These materials have been collected and navigated by Glasgow-based producer, Kate Hollands of ‘Kate Hollands Events’ in the lead up to the launch.
Reminiscent of Joseph Beuys’ notion of ‘social sculpture’, the slow construction and performance of Rubble Theatre will take place in public throughout Refugee Festival Scotland, requiring engagement and participation of its audience for its completion. In the spirit of Beuys, this is art for everyone and not merely the few. It is also imbued with a sense of hope and transformation – a utopic notion, to be sure, temporary in its implementation, but, nevertheless, powerful.
Rubble Theatre epitomizes the audacity and courage of artists like Halbouni who repeatedly remind us of the pressing need to practice creative and social solidarity across (or despite) our real or imagined borders.
Rubble Theatre was co-commissioned by Counterpoints Arts and Refugee Festival Scotland and funded by Creative Scotland.
Áine O’Brien, Co-Director of Counterpoints Arts.
Main image credit: Manaf Halbouni