Photo display shows a destroyed Beirut, bringing the past to life
In the early 1990s, in the wake of the Civil War, Beirut was littered with the carcasses of bombed-out buildings, their sagging outer walls curled around the shrapnel-filled piles of rubble that were once roofs and walls, like a rib cage protecting a heart.
Two decades on, Lebanon’s capital is a mixture of old and new, ruined and restored, erased and replaced. On the edge of Downtown Beirut, the hulk of the Holiday Inn, with its pitted, bullet-scarred walls, towers over the carefully restored Phoenicia Hotel, juxtaposing destruction and reconstruction.
Some 10 years ago, when Solidere was still blithely reimagining Downtown, the artist, filmmaker and theorist Jalal Toufic wrote an essay on the significance of the city’s vanishing ruins.
“I predict that when war-damaged buildings have vanished from Beirut’s scape,” he warned, “some people will begin complaining to psychiatrists that they are apprehending even reconstructed buildings as ruins. While the imagination of disaster for a city such a Los Angeles, which has not already been reduced to ruins, is that of its destruction ... for Beirut it is fundamentally that of its revelation when reconstructed as still a ruined city.”
In 2006, in the aftermath of the July war, photographer Gilbert Hage took a series of shots of the rubble-strewn streets and collapsing buildings where Israeli bombs had rained down on Dahiyeh – that part of greater Beirut that happens to sprawl south of the city’s Ottoman-era municipal boundary.
Hage had worked with and exhibited alongside Toufic in the past, and he included Toufic’s essay alongside his series of photographs, which he dubbed “Toufician Ruins?”
Four of these photos are now hanging in Galerie Tanit’s cavernous new space in Mar Mikhael, part of a collective exhibition entitled “Installing the Ruin.” At close to two-by-three meters in size, they tower over viewers as though inviting them to step inside and witness the destruction first-hand.
Toufic’s involvement in the show is not limited to Hage’s evocation of his name. “Attempt 137 to Map the Drive,” a seven-minute film made by the artist and his wife Graziella Rizkallah Toufic, takes viewers on an eerie taxi tour of Downtown. Ultracontemporary artist Walid Sadek, who opened the gallery’s new space with a minimalist show six months ago, offers up an installation piece entitled “Would That a Survivor.”
Gallerist Naila Kettaneh Kunigk approached the three artists and asked them to work together on the theme of disappearance. The exhibition has been launched to accompany the program of Home Works 6, which, as Kettaneh Kunigk says, is about “remapping, rediscovering, resetting things ... the main interest of many Lebanese or Middle Eastern artists.”
The three together came up with the title of the exhibition, each approaching the concept of ruination from a different perspective. Hage’s photos are the most straightforward. “What happens is what you see,” as Kettaneh Kunigk succinctly puts it. “This is Gilbert.”
The two Toufics’ wonderfully atmospheric film is conceptually harder to penetrate. A series of enigmatic sequences, it takes viewers on an unstructured tour of Beirut Central District, beginning with a series of shots from a stationary camera.
Two workmen stand framed in the arched window of an old building, in the process of being restored. In the window above, two sets of clothing hang, uncannily mirroring the men’s position. As the men in the lower window start to fade away, becoming translucent, the camera pans up to show the empty sets of clothing, a ghostly echo. When it returns to the lower window the men have vanished altogether.
In the context of ruin and reconstruction, the shot suggests the transient nature of the workmen’s role in Downtown, their contribution forgotten as soon as it is completed, just as restoring the buildings’ facades to approximate their prewar state in a sense erases their history.
The second half of the film, shot through the back window of a moving taxi, becomes steadily eerier. Sounds of water dripping into a pool accompany shots of the rain-drenched city, gray streets mirroring the gray skies.
Windscreen wipers rhythmically cut across the field of vision like a metronome marking time as the car circles the small area at the center of the city, passing the ruin of the City Center Cinema – the elevated oval of pockmarked concrete, recently sold to foreign investors and destined to be razed.
The sound of thunder gives way to that of air raid sirens, as the camera, now filming from a side window, captures endless rows of builder’s trucks and lorries, parked beside mounds of rubble. As the film ends, the viewer can hear distant gunfire and muffled explosions, communicating the inevitability of destruction, even as the camera captures the apparatus of reconstruction in full swing.
Walid Sadek’s installation is the most equivocal. A bench on loan from the American University of Beirut, “Would That a Survivor” sits in the middle of the gallery’s small connecting room, the walls of which have been painted a dark green to match the bench’s paintwork, giving the space a womb-like feel.
A heavyset piece of furniture made of thick wooden planks and set in three sturdy blocks of concrete, the only remarkable thing about the bench is the small gold plaque on the seat back. On it is inscribed “H.E. Fuad Hamza,” next to which, in Arabic, is written “mout qabla tmoutu” – die before you die.
The phrase is one employed by some Sufis as a reference to the death of the ego before the physical death necessary to achieve spiritual enlightenment. Yet it is also reminiscent of a line from the Old Testament, in which the faithful are urged: “Be not overly wicked, neither be foolish: why should you die before your time?” evoking the inevitable path to ruin of those who sin.
Sadek’s short text accompanying the work approaches the bench’s legend in reference to the posthumous figure of the survivor – someone who is remembered after death. The Civil War, he posits, has made a reconceptualization of the survivor necessary. In a Beirut that is constantly being reinvented, striving for a selectively imagined prewar ideal, the memories of living war survivors threaten the status quo of reconstruction.
Though it consists of just six works, “Installing the Ruin” is a meaty and thought-provoking show. The three artists’ intersecting approaches mean that their works magnify and recontextualize one another, opening them up to multiple readings.
“Installing the Ruin” is up at Galerie Tanit in Mar Mikhael until June 6. To learn more call 76-557-662 or visit www.galerietanit.com.
By India Stoughton
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