Feature: 'They call it peace'

By MISHKA MOJABBER MOURANI   |   Nov. 20, 2002 at 7:00 PM
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BEIRUT, Lebanon, Nov. 20 (UPI) -- Downtown Beirut, known as the Solidere district, has earned the praise and admiration of many of its visitors, relieved that the all-too-familiar images of horror and destruction caused by 17 years of war have been obliterated.

They have been replaced by empty lots or pristine buildings, some new and some tastefully renovated, peopled by the irrepressible Beirutis who have always known how to live well and have a good time. The heart of Beirut is almost a tabula rasa, as if the Lebanese have been granted a clean slate. Unfortunately, along with the ruins, the city center has also swept away every sign of its throbbing vitality. Beirut has lost its heart.

Perhaps the most striking reminder of the soullessness of this city whose face has been lifted too taut is an installation exhibition that is currently taking place in the city center. The exhibition by Samir Khaddage, a Lebanese artist who has chosen to live in Paris since just before the war ended, evokes a poignant atmosphere of loss as the installations subsume the space assigned to them.

The exhibition is being held in the Dome City Center, which was once a movie theater built in the early 1970s. It is a peculiar ovoid structure set on top of concrete pillars; a shell-pocked building that sits like an expectant egg at the beginning of Bshara Khoury street as it leaves the edges of the city's heart.

It is one of the few structures in the Solidere district that still displays the scabs of the war.

The dome was an odd-looking building even when it was built, but bearing the scars of the fierce battles that took place in downtown Beirut only renders the structure more bizarre and more ominous. The dome reminds observers that erasing the appearances of the war does not obliterate the scars beneath the surface. It is the Ancient Mariner of post-modern Beirut persistently repeating its tale and admonishing us not to forget.

The exhibit is composed of installations of human and animal figures made of wire, foam and gypsum, inspired by what is probably the first novel ever written: Petronius' "Satyricon."

It is a bizarre installation of characters against a backdrop of Roman medallions and Latin text that recreate the Rome of the first century A.D. and speak both of the glory that once was and the decadence that ensued.

The artist first got the idea for the installation from a quotation by Tacitus attributed to Galgacus, a Caledonian chief: "Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant," "Where they make a desert, they call it peace."

The exhibit extends over three floors. On the second floor, Khaddage established a separate space which features a display of his paintings. It is located in an area adjacent to the installation space and stands in stark contrast to its shadowy decrepitude.

As you move from one space to another, you emerge from one world and are swallowed by another. The painting exhibition is well ordered and well lit; the paintings are intricate and sophisticated in their technique and use of color.

The exhibit seems to allude to the civilizing force of art, for upon crossing the threshold you are engulfed in shadows. You move into a murky world, an ominous black-and-white world, a world of peculiar forms that bespeak emptiness, the desertification of culture. There is no anguish. We have gone beyond anguish to nothingness, to aridity.

The spectator moves from the orderly, uni-dimensional world of the painting exhibition to the shell-shocked, multi-dimensional universe of the dome. Like the abandoned building that houses them, the forms are desolate and empty, all meaning sucked out of them. They are three dimensional forms capable of pain and pleasure, but not of significance. "Where they make a desert, they call it peace."

Khaddage's tour de force is his uncanny ability to inhabit the space he chose, set as it is in the decaying shell of what was once a theater. It is now an ugly, wounded building that thumbs its nose at the facile, fancy, frenzied, heart of post-war Beirut.

Khaddage succeeds in integrating the landscape into his installation so that the setting is no longer part of the message, it is the message. Beirutis beware.

(Mishka Mojabber Mourani is an educator who lives in Beirut.)

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