A journey to the past where contemporary art meets archeology at Baalbek
Inside a room of roughly hewn rock, an installation by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei laments destruction in the name of progress. Outside lies the sprawling archaeological site of Baalbek.
Located an hour’s drive north-east from the Lebanese capital, Beirut, it is one of the largest temples of the Roman Empire, where visitors fade almost to nothing beside the Temple of Jupiter’s towering columns and the soaring stone edifice of the Temple of Bacchus.
Ai’s work, titled Foundation, invites viewers to wander among the stone bases of traditional Chinese houses hit by rapid urban expansion. A video projection, showing a looped series of photographs from the artist’s Instagram feed, aims to provoke reflection on the idea of the internet as the contemporary agora, or gathering place, and pose one of the driving questions facing any civilisation: Is it necessary to erase the past in the interests of a brighter future? This is a question that is at the heart of The Silent Echo, the first contemporary art exhibition to be held at Baalbek.
Curated by Karina El Helou, founder of the non-profit curatorial platform, Studicur/Art, in Paris, the exhibition features one piece each by Ai, Bosnian artist Danica Dakic, Laurent Grasso and Théo Mercier, both from France, London-based American Susan Hiller, and Lebanese artists Ziad Antar, Marwan Rechmaoui, Paola Yacoub and Cynthia Zaven.
El Helou began working on the concept for the exhibition a year ago, inspired by contemporary questions surrounding archaeology and artefacts, including destruction, preservation, ownership and iconoclasm.
“I wanted to really engage the public on their relationship with archaeology,” she says. “All of the artists had their own views on archaeology: future archaeology, experimental archaeology, the passage of time, erosion, preservation, intangible heritage.
“What would the public have to say? I wanted to reflect on what they really see. Do you see beautiful architecture? Do you see it as a tourist, or take a more poetic view? Is it something you really relate to from your culture?”
El Helou chose to exhibit most of the works inside Baalbek’s on-site museum – which is housed in ancient stone tunnels – highlighting the value of displaying artefacts at the location where they were found.
“The idea was mainly archaeology, iconoclasm, destruction, but also a reflection on how archaeological findings can disappear and on how civilisations disappear – the erosion of time, obsolescence,” she says. “It’s a huge debate because in the end, do we really need to preserve everything? Do we need to build on past things to get into the future? What do we really need to remember?”
A video installation by Hiller, which is screening close to Foundation, explores a more intangible sort of cultural heritage – language. The Last Silent Movie is a 22-minute compilation of recordings of extinct or endangered languages, played against a blank screen showing only subtitles in English and Arabic.
Snatches of conversations, stories, lessons and songs plunge viewers briefly into endangered or vanished cultures, emphasising the extent to which identity is bound up with language and self-expression, and the difficulty of preserving the intangible.
Grasso’s film Soleil Noir, meanwhile, is eerie and mesmerising, as it explores the devastating destruction wrought by natural forces in spite of human attempts at preservation.
Filmed using a drone, it combines beautiful, sweeping shots of the abandoned streets and ruined buildings of Pompeii with a bird’s-eye view of the smoking craters of live volcanoes. In Pompeii, still shots of frescoed animals are juxtaposed with footage of a scrawny white dog running silently through the deserted streets. Meanwhile, the volcanoes exhale smoke and cough up ash, biding their time before the inevitable eruption.
Grasso’s video is accompanied by an ominous, dissonant soundtrack with a rumbling bassline like a distant avalanche.
It works particularly well in the context of Baalbek, which has suffered severe damage due to earthquakes. The last major one, in 1759, toppled three of the enormous columns in the Temple of Jupiter, which had stood for close to two millennia. Only six of the original 58 remain standing.
El Helou chose to keep the contemporary artwork largely separate from the archaeological artefacts in the museum, aiming to create a dialogue between past and present.
Works by Mercier, Yacoub, Rechmaoui and Dacik are arranged in a long stone corridor, darkened with heavy black curtains that hang at either end and dramatically spot-lit.
Mercier’s magical sculptures of ancient gods from long-vanished civilisations are eminently at home in the cavelike space. Coated with limestone after being left to languish for two years in an underground grotto, they glitter subtly in the lights.
Yacoub, who trained as an archaeologist, is showing a series of photographs of urban construction and destruction, accompanied by a mosaic made using coloured stone tiles that represent the strata of Lebanon’s seven successive civilisations, reflecting on cycles of loss and renewal.
A particular highlight of the show is Zaven’s complex 12-channel sound installation, Perpetuum Mobile, which is located inside the shell of the Temple of Bacchus. A circle of sleek black speakers stand incongruously in the courtyard, surrounded by carved pilasters topped with Corinthian capitals.
The musical soundscape cycles endlessly from order to chaos and back again, blending with the voices and laughter of visiting families – and, every few hours, the melodic sounds of the call to prayer.
• The Silent Echo exhibition runs until October 17. For more details, visit www.studiocurart.com.