Dala Nasser Builds a Grief Temple in Chicago

CHICAGO — Of all the places in Chicago that feel right amid the horrendous wrongness of the world today, Adonis River at the Renaissance Society feels the rightest. That is not to say that Dala Nasser’s monumental wood-and-fabric installation feels good, except insofar as it provides a space for grieving consonant with a planet awash in bloodshed, fire, and the kind of polemics that deny the basic humanity of one group of people versus another. No one attends a funeral, a wake, a shivah, an Antyesti, or a Janazah for the fun of it but rather because mourning is a necessary part of marking and processing loss.

Adonis River consists of many lengths of cloth draped around simple wooden scaffolding set up in the cathedral-esque gallery of the Ren, a 108-year-old Kunsthalle that extends high into the eaves of a neo-Gothic building on the University of Chicago campus. The raw cotton, secondhand household linens, and black flags (from the Shia mourning holiday of Ashura) have all been flecked with dark marks and dyed somber shades of mud red and ash gray. Their supports, built from two-by-fours and stretcher bars, are of three types: pillars that rise from the floor; modular rectangles that form a corner wall; and horizontal bars of different lengths, suspended from the ceiling like a partial roof. The textiles are arranged accordingly, wrapped around the full columns for architectural solidity; veiling the broken ones like small figures; pinned to the geometric structure to form half walls; slung over the beams like drying laundry or tent shelters, but also scrunched and peaked across them to create a cavern. There is music, too: an hour-long four-channel piece made in collaboration with Mhamad Safa, of muffled prayers and silent interludes. 

If I knew nothing else about this artwork, it would be enough. The spatial suggestions range from natural to classical to modernist to refugee, all of it crumbling. The fabrics look washed in blood, soil, filth, and the remains of fire. The sounds, when audible, suit a space that feels out of time, out of place, and full of grief, with ample room for my own.

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Dala Nasser, “Adonis River,” detail (2023) 

But as its title suggests, Adonis River in fact has great specificity. Today called the Ibrahim River, its source is a spectacular waterfall that rushes with snowmelt from the mouth of an immense limestone cave located 44 miles northeast of Beirut. Legend has it that it was in this cave where Adonis, the lover of Aphrodite, bled to death from the wounds of a wild boar sent by Aphrodite’s jealous lover Ares. Every spring, the waters of the river run red with Adonis’s blood — though really with minerals washed into the stream from the mountain slopes. Nearby are the columnar remains of an ancient temple. 

Last summer, Nasser traveled from Beirut, where she lives, to record the grotto and the ruins. A short video, viewable on the Ren’s website, reveals the beauty of the natural environment and its use as a local leisure and pilgrimage site; the neglect of the temple, unprotected and covered in graffiti; and the palpable physicality of the artist’s process. Indeed, she was forced to scrap two of her six planned days of work when she broke her foot on the cavern’s slippery rocks. Nasser was primarily making charcoal rubbings of the cave walls and temple surfaces, traces that show up as stippled marks on the installation fabrics, later stained with local clay and washed in the river.

Nasser, who was born in 1990 in Tyre, a coastal city in the south of Lebanon, grew up in Abu Dhabi and Beirut, and went to art school at Central Saint Martins and the Slade, both in London, and at Yale. In just a few years, she has developed a practice of painting that bears witness to infrastructural failure, colonial theft, and disregarded histories not by depicting traumatized bodies and desecrated landscapes but by registering them indexically. She has imprinted the orientalist symbols of a Yale secret society building and mapped the toxicity of Beirut’s tap water by mixing it with dye and rock salt before introducing fabric. For the 15th Sharjah Biennial, she dyed, buried, and rinsed textiles along the Wazzani River, which runs back and forth across the militarized UN Blue Line demarcating Lebanese from Israeli territory. She has tended to the flint stone terrace walls and olive trees of her great-grandparents’ home in the village of Souaneh in southern Lebanon, where the bomb shelter was recently put back into regular use, with charcoal etchings on stitched-together household textiles, dyed with local wildflowers and cleansed by the rain.

None of these complicated histories and realities can be directly understood through the abstractly patterned and hued textiles that Nasser generates, whether they are hung on walls or, more recently, arranged in towering sculptural configurations, as done to such extraordinary effect at the Ren. And yet her artworks are quite literally made of the actual materials, in the very real places that have been affected, often for generations and generations, by war and colonialism. People witness these occurrences but so, too, do nonhumans. In Nasser’s artworks, the water, rocks, plants, animals, insects, and even fabric give nonverbal testimony, representing not facts and figures but what cannot be so neatly described. There is no oversharing here, but there is ample care.

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Installation view of Dala Nasser: Adonis River at the Renaissance Society
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Installation view of Dala Nasser: Adonis River at the Renaissance Society
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Dala Nasser, “Adonis River,” detail (2023) 
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Installation view of Dala Nasser: Adonis River at the Renaissance Society
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Dala Nasser, “Adonis River,” detail (2023) 
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Installation view of Dala Nasser: Adonis River at the Renaissance Society

Dala Nasser: Adonis River continues at the Renaissance Society (5811 South Ellis Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through November 26. The exhibition was curated by Myriam Ben Salah.

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