News / Miscellaneous


The mechanics of beauty before design


In this age of high consumer capitalism, form and function have mated to make “design” an integral part of how machines “work.” In days of old – when manufacture was more likely to be heavy, and local – machine design was more utilitarian, industry uglier. Or was it?

That’s one question that you may take away from “Toxicity,” an exhibition of work by Lebanese artist Nancy Debs Hadad. The show features 17 photographs and eight mixed-media sculptures, which have an air of industrial obsolescence about them.
This article was originally published on the Daily Star News website ( on September 15, 2011, written by Chirine Lahoud.
The message the artist wants to deliver is that the things that at first blush appear harmful and toxic are not, at least not in all situations. Her exhibition is centered on antique machine pieces, which she treats like human subjects, from which she invites her viewers to draw stories.
The photograph entitled “T 13” (73x110 cm) draws the onlooker close to world that, in a different context, would be merely mundane but is, in today’s post-industrial world, esoteric, even exotic.
Although it’s just a piece of old industrial machinery, the photographed item seems to speak to the spectator. As you are habituated to portrait photography, it isn’t hard to see this oval-shaped tool with its crescent-shaped aperture as a smiling human portrait, albeit mechanized.
For those with some exposure to folk art, this piece of machine portraiture might evoke anthropological photos of traditional masks in which the object is imbued with cultural significance.
In some traditional African cultural practices, for instance, crafted items like masks have been used during rituals to represent lost loved ones, deities and other mystic entities. Within the imaginary of such ritual practices, items like masks can be imbued with totemic supernatural powers.
There is a pleasant postmodern irony in projecting this sort of totemic reading, which suggests of an anthropological way so thinking to the detritus of 20th-century industrialism.
“I tried to give life to these machines,” Hadad told The Daily Star, “to bring out the person that was hidden in them.”

Hadad’s approach to obsolescent machinery and what it represents is more complex than simply using the pieces as models in her art.
“There are always emotions in what I do,” Hadad continued.
In Hadad’s black-and-white photograph “T 3” (60x90 cm), the camera’s perspective is at first confusing. The viewer doesn’t really know what she is looking at.
Are these items frames or painted pieces of wood? You don’t exactly know until the eye focuses on the shape of the items and the painted black flowers. The viewer is actually looking at a photograph from an old stocking factory, with the factory-tooled goods frozen in time, as if to suggest that the work was abandoned in the middle of a shift.
If we go further than just looking at the pieces of machinery, and the works they produced, the spectator is free to invent the back stories of this exhibition.
In “T 4” (60x90 cm), the spectator finds a representation of a machine piece shot in such extreme close-up that its function (indeed what type of industrial objects the tool produces) is quite impossible to discern.
What the viewer is left to fasten her gaze upon is the color contrast between the monochrome black of most of the machine – as if it had acquired the hue of the layers of dirt and oil it has accumulated over the years – and the bits projecting, ear-like, from the top of the machine – where the black appears to have been worn off by friction.
The mind can meander over the meaning that may be projected upon this contrast, making up stories to explain such a photo.
“There is always a human approach to what I do,” said Hadad.
Are these three not-blackened bits actually persons who have been trapped and are unable to free themselves. Is the viewer meant to feel sorry for them?
One of Hadad’s display sculptures is directly inspired by one of her photographs. In the latter, the machine (which appears to be a door hinge) is photographed to look like an extraterrestrial creature. The bronze sculpture that derives from that photograph is two-sided. Hadad explained her intention was to represent male and female parts.
Hadad’s works denote a world in which what seems obsolescent can still be of some aesthetic use, if you look at it from the right angle.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 15, 2011, on page 16.

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