At the Venice Biennale 2017: the Pavilion of Lebanon
The Pavilion of Lebanon is at the edge of the Venice Biennale – just beyond the edge, in fact, in a 16th-century boatyard called the Arsenale Novissimo.
To reach the site where SamaS, a display of the work of 50-year-old artist and musician Zad Moultaka is being exhibited and played, you board a boat that glides quietly across the Arsenale, the old fort where a section of the biennale is taking place until November.
Once there, you enter a massive, near-empty space illuminated by dim lights.
As choral music plays from speakers on the side walls, your attention is directed to the far interior wall, which is studded with shiny coins reminiscent of the surface of a mosaic. This is deliberate, as it was inspired by the gold mosaics of the Basilica of San Marco.
The thousands of coins include some with holes in them, suggesting bullet holes.
“This is a gold mosaic but with real coins,” says pavilion curator Emmanuel Daydé.
“It is money that makes war possible.”
The music – 32 voices, each coming from a separate speaker – creates a chorus of mourning and a whirr of energy. Each voice is delicately differentiated, as if pieces in a mosaic.
“This is a wall of lamentation,” says Moultaka, the pianist, painter and composer who designed the space. He expects some visitors might compare it to other commemorative walls, such as the monument honouring the victims of the 9/11 attacks in New York City.
The title SamaS is a palindrome, a word that reads the same backwards and forwards. It means “Sun Dark Sun” and is not the pavilion’s only paradox. The music was written for the Chorus of the Antonine University in Beirut. At times it sounds like the hum of an aircraft engine, and at others like what Daydé describes as “the song of angels”.
Some of that sound is the result of electronic manipulation by Moultaka. The choir sings in the ancient Akkadian language, “so ancient that it no longer needs to be in direct relation with meaning”, the composer notes in the exhibition catalogue.
The space seems almost sacred; yet it is also suggestive of a landscape ravaged by war.
“We don’t know if it’s Ur, Beirut, Aleppo,” says Daydé, “or tomorrow?”
In the centre of the space is an improbable object – an upright Rolls-Royce Avon MK 209 airplane engine from the 1950s, standing like a column and positioned to resemble a statue from the era of Hammurabi, who ruled Mesopotamia in 18BC.
His reign is known for some of the world’s most ancient inscriptions, including the world’s earliest descriptions of laws. Displaying the aircraft engine, an instrument of war, in place of a basalt column from Hammurabi’s time suggests conflict has been present in the region at least as long as the precepts encoded by Hammurabi.
Moultaka explains that the two columns – the code of laws and the airplane engine – “are exactly the same form. It’s incredible that, in the human mind, these forms can look so much alike, even if they’re being used for opposing purposes”.
Daydé adds the columns are used to ask pressing questions about modern life.
“The Middle East invented civilisation, with the first codes of law, the code of Hammurabi,” he says. “And now we’re asking the question: who makes the law in the Middle East? The planes that are bombing?”
The deep themes behind the exhibit made their mark on visitors. On the first day the pavilion was open to the public, some people emerged visibly overcome with emotion. Several said that the extra effort to reach it had been worth the effort.
This year marks the third time Lebanon has had a pavilion at the biennale.
Moultaka has exhibited in the Italian city before, but not in a national pavilion. He and Daydé collaborated on an exhibition of what he called “somewhat monumental paintings” in Venice two years ago, for a collateral event organised outside the 2015 biennale.
This year’s pavilion is the culmination of 15 years of work, says Moultaka.
“As a composer, as an artist, I’ve experimented in an enormous number of ways, looking for an identity, looking for a path,” he says.
“[As Arabs] we’ve been a bit locked into traditional music – which is fantastic, very strong, almost sacred – but how can you be modern with that? That leads to questions about form, and about all sorts of things. That’s where I started and I’ve been working for 15 to 20 years on that mission.”
Another paradox emerges. This quest for modernisation coincided with preparing a project for Venice, a city that seems deliberately frozen in the past.
“Did Venice accelerate this process?” Moultaka asks himself. “I think that I’ve reached a place in my own development that coincides with being at Venice.
“This project crystallises something about where I am along this path.”
Venice did indeed play a role for Moultaka.
“It was at Christmas, in the Basilica of San Marco, and I saw all the gold around me,” he says. “How is it possible, with all this wealth, all this money devoted to something spiritual, that everything else around us is going in the other direction?”
The metal coins, the aircraft engine and the shadow of an airplane over land all combined in his vision.
“Obviously we build, we think, we tell stories – but the goal for me is always, always, emotion,” he says. “This is something that I learnt from Bach. The music of Bach has a sense of counterpoint and composition that’s overwhelming. It’s absolutely extraordinary. What’s comparable for me in painting are the compositions of Paul Klee.”
It still seems odd that the pavilion for Lebanon, a country that has been a cultural crossroads, would be located on the fringes of the biennale’s exhibitors.
“The project determined the space and where it would be,” says Dayde, who adds that he and Moultaka considered another site in a more central location in the main Arsenale.
“The idea was to have something of a pilgrimage, to cross the Mediterranean, as it were, from one shore to the other, like a rite that would be undertaken and repeated. That’s what got us here, on the other side of the Mediterranean.”
“You often hear a place of art described as a common ground,” says Moultaka, looking out on the water separating the pavilion from the Arsenale.
“This is art that is bringing down borders,” he notes, which is perhaps a curious way to describe an installation built around a wall.
“I’m happy that everyone finds his or her own meaning here. From the beginning, I wanted to create something that wasn’t simply Lebanese. Each visitor is finding his or her own story.”
• The Venice Biennale runs until November 26. For more details, go to www.labiennale.org
• Next week, we conclude our 2017 Venice Biennale series with a visit to the Turkish Pavilion