Through Polaroids of the Mediterranean, artist Lara Atallah questions what happens when we draw manmade lines
On a steamy August day, I meet artist Lara Atallah at Wallplay on Canal, a popup art gallery in a storefront on Canal Street. Along with another artist, her show “Threshold” is currently on view until September 1.
Moisture hangs in the air and alights on my face, my arms. I immediately want to jump into Atallah’s Polaroid photographs of the Mediterranean. I hear the sea crashing against the rocks and the spray of saltwater, but there’s more at work here than a simple summer escape.
Within the first 30 seconds of each Polaroid’s development, Atallah purposely damages the image, taken in Milos or Barcelona or Beirut or Marseilles or another Mediterranean city. A photograph of a serene cliff now bears the weight of destroyed chemicals, its colors forced out of its intended boundaries, a splash of white where the sea once used to be. Every image is purposely devoid of people. The ocean slaps against the coastline against chemicals against paper against glass, skies turn green or pink, the sea navy and purple and rippled with current.
Untitled, MilosWhile a closeness to water is regularly said to be healing and the Mediterranean in particular is known for its beauty, it is also known for its unpredictability. As much as it plays host to tranquility, it also becomes a locus of fear, especially in our current moment as refugees flee war zones and attempt to brave dangerous waters in hopes of seeking asylum. Survivors see the Mediterranean only through the eyes of trauma, if in fact there are any.
Atallah sought to duplicate this duality of the sea in her work. “Being by the sea makes you feel grateful because it’s just this beautiful landscape to be in, but then a lot of this gratitude comes with a bit of guilt or a sense of responsibility,” she says. “You ask yourself, what am I doing, what is my place here, how am I part of the problem, how am I unable to fix the problem, how are we unable to address things that should not be so hard to address?”
Atallah regularly asks herself questions like these in her work, which is also concerned with the arbitrary nature of how manmade lines are drawn across the earth and how that affects people who exist between their lines. What makes land belong to one place and not another? What makes people belong to one place and not another, to the point that they’re excluded from entering? Accordingly, it was important to Atallah that viewers not be able to place the locations in the Polaroids, to have any geographical relationship to them beyond the sea itself. She also refrains from ever mentioning a country name and only refers to the Polaroids by the cities in which they were taken because the city’s lifespan is longer, constantly transient, their lines regularly redrawn even if such a redrawing crosses generations, she says. They’re sometimes so similar in appearance that making deliberate reference to their differences seems fickle.
A native of Lebanon, Atallah started the project in 2016 and returns to Beirut once a year, usually including in her time abroad another trip to a coastal city. For her, it feels both like a pilgrimage of sorts and a way to negotiate control and chance, traveling and leaving her vision in the hands of her Polaroid. She can tell your the day or the smell of each one, she laughs, and has a personal involvement in each image. None are duplicated. Working on the project had her “questioning a lot and going deeper into this idea of walking on continuous terrain while knowing that it is not continuous. That it is interrupted by these imaginary lines,” she says. “Each trip reinforced this idea more and more and more, especially in the current climate where these questions are of course pressing but made all the more absurd.”
In these small square images, Atallah queries not just our relationship to the sea, but to the lines that led to its crossing in the first place. “Going back to these places and encountering certain people who’ve had to do these crossings, it just made me feel like we’ve failed as a species in a way,” she says. “Like we’ve really failed each other, and over what? This idea that I will not welcome another human because this human is an ‘other.’ What is the ‘other’?” The lines are imaginary. The people are real. This is something she hopes to impart to viewers as they pass through the space.
And this is one of the most rewarding parts of the process for Atallah. A tourist-heavy street at all times of the year, Wallplay on Canal’s open doors and distressed interiors beckon people from all walks of life into the space, some of whom have very different political beliefs than she does. The discussions her images inspire are important to her. “What’s nice is that everybody here walks out with something to think about or ruminate on,” she says. “While it does not have an immediate change and an immediate timeline in an immediate time frame in the foreseeable future, the idea [is] that you can get to plant a seed in one, two three ten people’s heads if you’re lucky, you’ve already done something.”
This particular project got her thinking about how we define ourselves by our geographic heritage, an idea she’ll continue to examine in her work moving forward. What does it mean to be Italian or French, and what are we defining of ourselves with these categorizations? What do we become in a diaspora, and what does it mean to return those places? How does it affect how we view ourselves? How does it affect how we operate in these unfamiliar settings? How does time spent in another place change us? Atallah moved to New York in 2012 and since then has seen herself differently. “It is obviously something that came about as a result of lived experience but it also became about wondering how that affects people on a larger scale,” she says. “Does a place on a map really define who you are?”