Born in 1957 in Senegal, Nadim Karam now lives and works in Beirut. Nadim Karam’s multi-disciplinary approach incorporates painting, drawing, sculpture and writing, but he is renowned for his work in urban regeneration. In 1996, he established Atelier Hapsitus, creating large-scale urban art projects for cities throughout the world.
You were born in Senegal, grew up in Beirut and left during the civil war – how did the change of coun-tries and the civil war affect you growing up? Did it have any influence on your career?
I was very young when I left Senegal, but I have returned to Africa several times as I find the landscapes and creativity in craftwork inspiring. War became a part of my life as a teenager in Beirut, and I think it has never really left me, it is always nearby. I think that my feelings about war in Lebanon have been responsible for many of my works and exhibitions and my concept of multi-pluralism. There is a difference within society as a source of enrichment rather than a source of conflict, which manifests itself in the hundreds of forms I use as a visual alphabet.
We know you have extensive professional training, with a Bachelor of Architecture from the American University of Beirut, and a PhD in architecture from Tokyo University, how has this contributed to where you are today?
The Eastern philosophy of space, which I encountered in Japan, has influenced much of what I do. I would not be able to create my urban sculptures and projects without the specialised knowledge that my archi-tectural and engineering background has given me. The study of space and light has also given me my perception of cities as living, breathing organisms that we animate with our own energy.
You are best known for the public sculptures and installations that you have created for various cities around the world, what was your motivation for these large-scale creations?
City life can be stifling; the tension of transportation and communication networks, the densification and standardisation of space, time and experience leaves little room for dreaming – something which is reflected in the physical environment. With the sculptures I call ‘urban toys’, I try to bring some anarchy into the rigid normative systems imposed on society by introducing lapses of fantasy and rebellion. These take the form of narratives from my own universe, which build upon the stories from the city’s memory.
You talk about creating art to help cities dream. Tell us a little bit more about this.
Bombs used to rain upon my city when I was a child, and I fantasised about turning them into ‘dream bombs’. As an adult, these dream bombs concretised into large-scale urban art projects for cities. After September 11 and the wave of attacks in European cities, I published a manifesto called “Can Cities Dream?” in which I wrote that we should produce dream bombs while the world is threatened with terrorist bombs. Dream bombs are planned for years in advance, probably requiring as much energy, financial backing, organisation and know-how as the terrorist kind. They might fail to happen, but when they do, their vitality permeates the city. Cities need to dream – they were built up slowly on thousands of small dreams and in a world full of wonder and danger, cities should still dream.
You’re an architect, sculptor, painter and an urban artist, but what are you most passionate about?
They are all means of creation for me. The difference is mainly that sculptures and paintings I create on my own terms, how and when I wish, while public art and architecture are projects requiring management, team-work, important budgets and negotiations with different individuals and groups. I enjoy working most at the nexus of art and architecture; engaging with a city’s history, cultural identity and collective memory and introducing the new and unexpected within it.
One of your most prominent projects is “The Cloud” in Dubai; is this the biggest project you’ve ever done?
It is probably the largest conceived project. I first presented it at the International Design Forum in Dubai in 2007 and left it as a theory, but recently I have gone back to developing studies on it with ARUP’s Advanced Geometry Unit in London. The Cloud is a public dream space; a horizontal landscape elevated 300m above ground, supported by a cluster of slender slanting stilts. It embodies the essence of Dubai, while at the same time providing a social and visual contrast to the sum of exclusive skyscrapers spreading over the city. The largest realised permanent project is probably “The Travellers”, commissioned by the State of Victoria and City of Melbourne in 2006, an urban art installation of ten 9m-high sculptures for the Sandridge Bridge in Melbourne, Australia. Nine of the sculptures are a metaphorical re-creation of the major waves of migrants who travelled on the train from the port of Melbourne to the central Flinders Station for more than a century. The sculptures go out on the bridge along a railway and return morning, noon and night daily, participating in city life and functioning as an urban clock. “Gayip”, the tenth sculpture, represents the indigenous aboriginal community and stands high on a nearby rock, watching the travellers coming and going.
What has been your most challenging project to date?
They were all challenging for different reasons. Beirut, because after the civil war, it was difficult to justify why a Christian should do a large project and not someone from another religious community, which I resolved by making it itinerant for three years, then removing it entirely. Also my brand of absurdism and anti-symbolism caused controversy, considered refreshing by some, and irreverent by others. Prague, because of the post-communist ambiance, which drew me into a Kafkaesque world of bureaucracy, and “The Three Magic Flowers of Jitchu” for Todai-ji temple in Nara because the Japanese monks put my project proposal to the vote and refused it every year for 19 years, finally accepting it on the 20th anniversary of my first proposal.
Atelier Hapsitus has created some extraordinary pieces, what has been your favourite project to work on?
Always the next one!
What is your future vision for Atelier Hapsitus?
We would like to walk on a Cloud.