RAYYANE TABET, Steel Rings, 2013, rolled, engraved steel with kilometer, longitude, latitude and elevation markings of a specific location on thetapline, diameter: 80 cm, depth: 10 cm, thickness: 0.6 cm. Courtesy Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut/Hamburg.

The Shortest Distance Between Two Points

Rayyane Tabet

Sfeir-Semler Gallery
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

Lebanese artist Rayyane Tabet’s show at Sfeir-Semler Gallery, “The Shortest Distance Between Two Points,” explored the lines of intersection between geopolitics, resource circulation and historical junctures in oil relations in the United States and the Middle East, and their socioeconomic implications in the region. It featured seven sculptural installations, in which Tabet used found, ready-made and manufactured objects—from chalk lines and folding rulers to old letterheads and mail-room tags—to construct linear measurements, mappings and timelines that relay the chronicle of the Trans-Arabian Pipe Line (Tapline).

Tapline, initiated in 1946, was a joint venture between several American oil companies. It set out to supplant the transport of Saudi Arabian oil through the Arabian Gulf and Red Sea with a safer and more cost-effective above-ground pipeline running in a straight line from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, to Haifa, Palestine. In 1947, with the partition of Palestine underway, an angle was forced into the pipeline’s intended pathway, which eventually terminated in southern Lebanon. In the following years, Tapline’s state of tenuousness grew ever more pronounced with the general breakdown of interregional relations, and its operations ceased permanently in 1990.

Trained as an architect, Tabet’s exhibited work, which emerged from seven years of research, foregrounds form and its position within space. It features an obsession with materials, measurements, precision and repetition, rather than testimony and documentation, in the treatment of its historical subject matter. In Chalk Line (2013), two chalk line reels (industrial tools for marking long, straight lines) placed side by side create a two-part sculpture on the wall. Diagonally ascending lines of string stretch out in opposite directions from each reel to map the course of oil circulation before and after Tapline’s initiation. The two lines create an abstract form that captures the spatiotemporal evolution of the regional petroleum industry in an elegant, minimal gesture. 

Also on display was Folding Rulers (2013), a representation of the pipeline to scale constructed from folding rulers that ran along the gallery’s length. Different-colored rulers correspond to each of the countries the pipeline traversed. The installation ends in a bifurcated manner, with an angled line reaching upward that represents the pipeline’s actual path, and a straight shadow line of white rulers barely visible against the gallery wall, hinting at the unrealized and unrealizable. Folding Rulers highlights the fissure between theory and application—between the notion of land as virgin territory and the geopolitics that taint it— and literally encompasses, within the space of its arc, a turning point in the region’s history.

Steel Rings (2013) is composed of 40 steel rings, each 80 centimeters in diameter, that ran in a straight line along the gallery floor, correlating with the 40 kilometers of pipeline that cut through Lebanon. The steel rings are detailed replicas of the Tapline, including inscriptions of actual kilometer markers, longitudes, latitudes and elevations. They constitute an aesthetic and conceptual investigation not only of the line but also of the points along it, the tensions between each of these points and the line as a whole, and the different perspectives that looking at a line and at a point encapsulate. Another work that utilizes artifacts relating to Tapline was Letterhead (1950/2013), a collection of blank letterheads found at the initiative’s abandoned headquarters in Beirut, framed and laid out in a continuous line by Tabet. The fragile, weathered documents, which bear the material passage of time, form an abstracted timeline that embodies the memory of the venture and the ideas it once represented. Slides (2013) builds on the obsoleteness and abstraction captured by Letterhead, adding an imaginative dimension. At the exhibition, two slide projectors—now an obsolete technology—displayed one point of light after another onto the gallery wall, conjuring the path of the pipeline through the pattern of luminescent forms and the industrial sounds that they produce.

In “The Shortest Distance Between Two Points,” Tabet demonstrated that drawing a line can be at once a formal, mathematical, philosophical and political act, capable of conveying the chronological and the cartographic, as well as triggering memories and imaginings. With explicit narration conspicuous in many contemporary artworks from Lebanon, Tabet’s work stands out in its reliance on abstraction and pure form to open up narrative possibilities.