Rayyane Tabet, sculptor, Dear Mr Utzon
Before pursuing a career as an artist, Beirut-born sculptor Rayyane Tabet studied architecture at the Cooper Union in New York. He was exposed to the greats of modernism—Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, and while he studied the Opera House, it didn’t strike a chord with him at that time. It wasn’t until 2018 Biennale of Sydney Artistic Director Mami Kataoka invited him to exhibit at the building that the significance of this place and its architect were impressed upon him.
“Frankly, I never understood it,” said Tabet. “I never understood why this building was so important. When I came to Sydney I realised that the Opera House is very iconic in photographs but when you see it in person you realise why it’s a work of genius. Especially when you see the sails and how they’re tiled—which rarely comes across in photographs—you realise how genius it is.
“When I dug deeper into the history and the history of Jørn Utzon I drank the kool-aid. I’m the biggest Utzon and Sydney Opera House fan now!
“He is kind of like a vision of an architect which I think no longer exists. He is an artist, an architect and an engineer at once. Right now the professions have been so divided that it no longer operates as such but he’s really kind of one of these Renaissance men that resolves the building of the sails as he would resolve the tapestry that’s in the room, as he would resolve a detail of the staircase. The building is all of these things together.”
In March 2018, Tabet’s Biennale performance piece Dear Mr Utzon transformed the Utzon Room, one of only two Utzon-designed interior spaces, using historical and found objects to trace a connection between the Sydney Opera House and Utzon’s unrealised plans to build a theatre within the Jeita Grotto in Lebanon.
“When I did a little bit of research into the history of the site, also the life of Jørn Utzon I was very surprised to find out that two years after he was dismissed from the Opera House project he actually came to Lebanon, which is where I’m from, to propose building a theatre inside a cave in the north of Lebanon.
“Originally I was just going to make a sculpture that would be in the Opera House but would actually be Utzon’s project for Lebanon, kind of like the return of an unrealised project to an unfinished building. Slowly the project morphed from being a sculpture—which I know how to do—to a performance—which I don’t usually do.”
In researching and composing Dear Mr Utzon, Tabet met with historians, archivists and heritage experts including Penelope Seidler, architect and wife of influential architect and vocal Utzon supporter Harry Seidler. Her comparison of Utzon to Hamlet introduced a new insight to the work.
“I quoted her exactly in my text: ‘You know Utzon was like Hamlet, a self-critical and honest man struggling to do what is right under unfavourable circumstances.’ What’s crazy about this is that Utzon’s last place of residence was in Elsinore where there’s Kronborg—the castle that Shakespeare used as the setting for Hamlet. Which is insane! I ended up reading ‘to be or not to be’, which is again a text I’ve studied in English when I was a kid but never understood it. If you re-read it now and think of Utzon it makes so much sense it’s as if it was written for him.
The only physical remnants of Dear Mr Utzon are reproduced leaflets, distributed at each venue of the 21st Biennale of Sydney, which read ‘BRING UTZON BACK’.
The Biennale of Sydney runs until 11 June 2018.