Marwan Rechmaoui. Beirut by the Sea. 2017–19. Concrete, beeswax, and brass on wood, 13 panels, 105 1/2 × 234 7/8 × 1 15/16" (267.9 × 596.6 × 5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Fund for the Twenty-First Century. Courtesy of the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut/Hamburg

Marwan Rechmaoui’s Beirut by the Sea (2017–19) depicts the coastline of Beirut in 13 panels made of beeswax, brass, and cement. For the Lebanon-based artist, the work not only references geography but functions as an atlas of the city’s rich and troubled history. “Each curve, each corner has a story in it,” he has said. Recently, Paulina Pobocha—the associate curator in the department of Painting and Sculpture who helped bring the work to MoMA—spoke to Rechmoaui about mapmaking, Beirut in the 1990s, and the power of stories.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Paulina Pobocha: I wanted to start by acknowledging that the extreme financial crisis Lebanon is going through makes today seem like maybe not the best time to talk about art. But then, when I was thinking about how much your own work deals with not only the history of Lebanon, but also the current economic situation, I realized that maybe it isn’t so odd. And you’ve just had a show that opened against this backdrop.

Marwan Rechmaoui: Yes, after a year of delays and postponing. And I learned from that experience that everybody needed it. Me, the gallery, the staff of the gallery, the audience that came. It had a lot of positive energy in it. I think it’s important to keep going. I mean, that is what artists do, and that is what galleries do.

I want to talk about Beirut by the Sea, the work in MoMA’s collection. I am struck by its materials. The sea is made of beeswax, and there’s a brass line delineating the coastline. But then, the city of Beirut itself, the landmass, is made from concrete. And what I feel is particularly resonant at this moment is that the concrete is cracking.

When you’re watering the concrete after it dries, you can control the cracks, so it’s deliberate. But I don’t want to add the symbolic layer to it. It’s simply aesthetic. And it keeps repeating in my work. Of course time is a factor in the work itself. When I was back in art school, the archiving and the age of the materials were very important. You know, the age of oil paint and the canvas and the paper. So it’s in the back of my mind, and it keeps coming out in an inverted way. Almost like, “Show cracks. Show decay. Show yellowing.”

Installation view of Marwan Rechmaoui. Beirut by the Sea. 2017–19

Installation view of Marwan Rechmaoui. Beirut by the Sea. 2017–19

This work was preceded by Lebanon by the Sea. That was the first work that mapped the coastline. Are you planning to further develop this idea?

One new project is a series of wall pieces, made of beeswax, but colored. They’re going to be called The Satellites. This new work depicts the 22 Arab capitals, the members of the Arab League. So, you have the Middle East, North Africa, and East Africa. Until recently, I was also focusing on a project titled If I Only Had a Chance. I started doing replicas of structures designed by Oscar Niemeyer, the Brazilian architect. He designed a cultural park in Tripoli, the second city in Lebanon, that was never completed. It’s basically a skeleton now. It was supposed to have had an experimental theater, an amphitheater, a space museum, many different things. So I started replicating those structures. So far, I’ve done three out of the 24.

Tell me about your interest in mapping. It seems to me that your work falls into three groups. In the first, like Beirut by the Sea or the new project that you’re working on, Satellites, there’s an almost literal form of mapping, documenting the topography and, within that, the history of the city. And then there are works that are smaller scale models of buildings, like Spectre or Monument for the Living. And then there’s a third kind of work that you’re making, like your Pillars, where there is a one-to-one scale representation of a city, but one that is imagined, or seems imaginative. How do all these pieces fit together? How do you go from one to another? Because they’re not only about shifting scale, but really about shifting perspective, too.

For me, a map is travel. Even when you are sitting at home and looking at a map, studying it, and imagining the situation, you’re traveling in your mind. This is my interest in maps, the innocent interest. You will notice that with my colleagues of my generation, archiving and mapping is part of their work because we were trying to create a base of historical documentation. You know, all these things that will make us understand how and why the war happened, because it was not given much thought. The two sides decided to stop fighting in the early 1990s, but nothing was resolved. This is why the situation now is very complex. And we’ve been without a government since around 2005. So we’re back at point zero. You know, all the work we did in the ’90s and early in this millennium is gone. And that’s part of the destruction of the cultural scene here. You know, to start again, that’s a bit difficult.

And you attribute this largely to the fact that, at the end of the Lebanese Civil War in the early ’90s, there was a handshake, but none of the underlying issues that caused the war were dealt with?

A handshake and a kiss. What made peace was the promise of money coming to the country. But the problems of the society and the country’s identity are still unsolved. So this is where mapping comes in. The buildings are, basically, different kinds of failures. None of them were ever completed, but they have real addresses. You can take a cab from the airport to the site. They are still there and you can see them. The idea was to document those failures, to keep them as artworks so people will look at them. And this way they will look at the original thing that they pass by all the time without noticing.

Installation view of Marwan Rechmaoui. Beirut by the Sea. 2017–19

Installation view of Marwan Rechmaoui. Beirut by the Sea. 2017–19

What’s interesting about your works with maps is that they bring certain aspects of cities to the surface, maybe in the same way that the buildings that you make draw our attention to things that would have been overlooked.

In mapping the lines in my work, accuracy is very important. In Beirut by the Sea, the coastline’s curves are almost identical to the real coastline. And I’m very strict with that, because every centimeter has an event or a story. So it’s important for me to show all these details, because they are like characters.

Can you talk a little bit more about what you mean?

Hypothetically speaking, if you place your finger on one spot along the coastline in Beirut by the Sea, your finger might land on the fisherman who goes there every afternoon. An amateur fisherman who fishes as a hobby. He stands on that rock for two hours; what does he have in his bag? How is he preparing the line and the hook? That is a story.

Another story might be about the guy who sells corn, and where he puts his cart. At another spot there is a V in the coastline, which resembles a small fishing port. Right next to it, a high-rise went up in the ’90s, and the developers wanted to buy out the fishermen, to bulldoze this place and use it for parking, probably. So, the fishermen refused, and there were a lot of protests near the location. And the fishermen stayed. But now, 20 years later, the fishermen are retired or dead, and their kids are not into fishing. They’re probably educated and do something else. So this place is still there. It’s not a parking lot, and it’s no longer used as a port, either. It was lost in translation.

There are many stories like this. And that is why it’s important to keep these details. Because a person who knows the city can read a story there, or remember a moment. People can read maps very well.

I learned this when I made Beirut Caoutchouc. It’s a big, black rubber map that’s also very accurate, and people are allowed to walk on it. You wouldn’t believe the amount of conversations that come out of that work. Conversation between viewers, not with me. People trying to find a location, arguing about a location. “Is it here or is it that one over there?” So they follow the lines, and they get to the right place without having the names, you know? It’s very abstract. But, because the map is accurate, they can follow it.

You had been living in New York and you decided to move to Lebanon in the ’90s. Can you talk about that?

Even though I love New York, it was probably the best move I’ve made, because it gave me the opportunity to be what I am now. This is thanks to Beirut in the ’90s: how ambitious it was, how feverish it was, and how it gave us the energy to do all this. I was very lucky to live there. And even now, with the crisis and the gloomy situation, you still see some sparks of energy here. And probably, in a few years, it will change again.