There are few people in the world who can claim they hold a higher position than that of a country’s foreign minister.
Said Baalbaki is one of them – sort of. The Lebanese artist has literally gone over the head of German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel for the past three months in a studio up on the roof of the Foreign Ministry building in Berlin. Baalbaki was there on a three-month grant called AArtist in Residence – AA being the initials for the Auswaertigen Amt, or foreign office. “This has been a very intensive period,” the 43-year-old Baalbaki said. “I have met incredibly many people and made many contacts.” After the civil war in Lebanon, he arrived in Berlin in 2002 to study.
An independent jury earlier this year chose him for the artist-in-residence grant, calling him a “mediator between the Orient and the Occident.” The programme, launched in 2016, is an initiative in response to globalisation and the need for greater networking, internally and externally. “A modern foreign cultural policy serves to overcome national thinking,” Gabriel says. “It seeks confrontation with the things that move other societies, in turn sharpening one’s own view.” Baalbaki used his rooftop period on a work called “Cookwar(e) 101,” in a wordplay linking warfare with the kitchen. Using everyday utensils such as pans, pots and spoons, he created an amazingly genuine-looking tool of war: a knight’s armour.
As children we played with plastic soldiers and made wooden rifles. This left its stamp on me.” Now, in times of never-ending war, his aim is to create “survival tools” – with an ironic wink. “This increases your chances of survival,” he deadpans about his hand-crafted knight’s armour. The conceptual artist had to cart in crateloads of eyebrow-raising materials past the heavy security at the Foreign Ministry – everything from assorted-by-colour cleaning sponges to tin cans collected by his buddies back in Lebanon. “I was always amazed that with my building ID card I could so simply get through the controls,” Baalbaki said with a laugh. What was particularly inspiring was the great view from the rooftop over the centre of Berlin, which has now become home to him. The studio’s large windows face towards the Berlin Palace, the cathedral, the Unter den Linden boulevard and on to the Alexanderplatz square.
The idea of the rooftop artist programme came from the former foreign minister and now German President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, according to Anemone Vostell, of the Association of Berlin Galleries. Along with the association’s head, Werner Tammen, Steinmeier “discovered” the junk-filled 100-square-metre room on top of the old building. They saw it as an ideal spot to convert into a studio for an artist-in-residence.
“The ministry lets us have a completely free hand.” For the grant recipients, the period in the studio involves receiving public visitors, making an artistic presentation and having an exhibition in a gallery. Baalbaki is planning a show in the C&K Galerie in October, returning to his original metier, painting. “First, however, I need a break,” he said, looking back on the past three months crafting his “Cookwar(e) 101” creation. “With all the hammering, scissorwork and sewing, I’ve come down with tendonitis.” -DPA Artistic inspiration from the roof of the German Foreign Ministry