Temple Talk

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie at “The Silent Echo” in Baalbek

The six standing columns of Baalbek's Temple of Jupiter at night. (Except where noted, all photos: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie)

CYNTHIA ZAVEN IS AN ARTIST, COMPOSER, AND PIANIST with wild curly hair and a steely demeanor. She is exceptionally talented and extremely busy, frustrating from a critic’s point of view. She teaches at a conservatory in Beirut, scores films, and travels constantly. She makes work when she wants to, when she has time. Her installations are slow, serious, and ephemeral. They can be captivating in the context of an exhibition but almost impossible to write about afterward. Zaven has no gallery, doesn’t sell, and seemingly feels no pressure to produce. She is adept at keeping the demands of the world at bay. We see each other often in passing—Hi! Bye!—but the last time I spent any time with her or her work was three years ago in Sarajevo. So when I heard that for a month this fall, Zaven was showing a twelve-channel sound installation in a site no less astounding than the two-thousand-year-old Temple of Bacchus, as part of “The Silent Echo,” the first exhibition of contemporary art ever to be staged among the vast Roman ruins of the ancient city of Baalbek, I pretty much dropped everything, moved scheduling mountains, and wrote a dozen apologetic emails on the two-hour-drive due east from Beirut.

Baalbek is one of the oldest cities in the world, steadily inhabited for some ten thousand years. Its history is a mille-feuille of Phoenician, Hellenic, Roman, Byzantine, Umayyad, Abbasid, Mamluk, Ottoman, Syrian, and Lebanese influences. Situated on a major fault line, it has witnessed three devastating earthquakes, causing a pileup of ruins to make Walter Benjamin swoon. The most dramatic are the temples of Jupiter, Mercury, Venus, and Bacchus. They are some of the largest, most ornate religious structures ever built, anywhere, by the Roman Empire, and they incorporate elements of earlier temples too. Newly reopened after a long restoration, Bacchus is the most intact of the four and, while larger than the Parthenon in Athens, also the most intimate. For Zaven’s Perpetuum Mobile, twelve tiny speakers are raised high on thin stands, arranged in a broad circle. A piano composition circles around them, second by second, note by note, clockwise—echoing off the ancient stones, mixing with the contemporary sounds of birdsong and gunfire—until it collapses into disorder and chaos, eventually finding itself again. In theory, no two permutations of the installation are the same. But they all induce a kind of vertigo through mechanical and epochal time, history in free fall.

Left: Curator Karina El Helou. (Photo:  Ibrahim Dirani/Al Mussawir) Right: Artist Cynthia Zaven with filmmaker Vatche Boulghourjian.

One of the factors making the exhibition possible—alongside a symposium on iconoclasm at the Sursock Museum in late September and a theater workshop culminating in a public performance in Bacchus on October 15—is the fact that visitors have totally vanished from Baalbek since the war in Syria began five years ago. Tourism is stunted and the local economy is a wreck. Nearly four hundred thousand Syrian refugees have flowed into the Bekaa Valley. Some have paid a high price for rapidly built apartment buildings in the now-very-crowded outskirts of Baalbek. Others are living in tents, fields, roadside encampments. Ever since the hysterical fighters of the so-called Islamic State seized the ancient city of Palmyra and began committing unspeakable acts of cruelty, the Lebanese have developed a psychosomatic tick. Mention ISIS in a crowded room and you can be sure someone will blurt out: “You know they are planning to blow up Baalbek!”

What’s more, the city is now a staging ground for the war next door, the place from which fighters are going off to battle on behalf of Bashar al-Assad—departing in shifts, some returning, others not, all of them easily replaced by men who need the wages. The city has been a Hezbollah stronghold since the 1980s. Huge sun-blasted cutouts of Khomeini and Khamenei still loom over the road into town. So too a billboard of Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, declaring: “Enta kabousahoum, ya sayedi” (You are their nightmare, sir), referring, as always, to Israel without naming it.

“The Silent Echo,” organized by Karina El Helou and featuring the work of nine international artists treading the line between art and archeology, was a modest proposal for bringing visitors back. I wasn’t alone in my enthusiasm. The opening, on September 17, drew a sizable if also curiously mixed-up crowd. From Beirut and further afield came artists, writers, curators, designers, polyglot filmmakers, producers, brash and discreet collectors, lady patrons in their gala dinner dresses, jaded art-school students who have seen it all but still find wonder in new work, diplomats, ambassadors, politicians, their proxies, bodyguards, and convoys. Everyone arrived in the late afternoon and headed for the garden terrace of the Palmyra Hotel, a jewel of the nineteenth century.

Left: Mayor of Baalbeck Hussein al-Lakkis with Culture Minister Roni Araiji. (Photo:  Ibrahim Dirani/Al Mussawir) Right: Urban planner Amira Solh of Solidere with artist Ziad Antar.

The first person I ran into was, of course, Zaven, alongside her sister and the filmmaker Vatche Boulghourjian. She was making one last dash to the site. I followed her, but it was one of those openings adhering to protocol: speeches, ceremonies, rituals. I lost count of the speakers introducing “The Silent Echo” and wandered off. The big men (always) of the evening were the mayor of Baalbek (Hussein al-Lakkis), the regional governor (Bashir Khodr), the head of the local Russian Cultural Center (Naji al-Attar, who Helou met by chance, but who turned out to be her key into Baalbek), and the Lebanese culture minister (Roni Araiji, who recently sent two Beiruti bloggers to Paris and Rome as part of an ill-conceived PR stunt for a “virtual museum” of Lebanese modern art, meaning a website, a bad one at that, and an app that repeatedly crashed my phone, just saying).

Protocol as the radical chic of our day: All those men in suits, drivers and bodyguards, NGO staffers and multinational creative elites dressed to the nines, making a show of their interest in cultural heritage. Daylight faded from the ruins and we were stuck outside. A line of photographers jammed themselves in front of the speakers. Security guards blocked the way to Bacchus. No one could enter before the wazir (the minister). We had to scram until the wazir showed up, had a look, and left. Of course the wazir travels with an entourage, and on this particular evening, a big one. And it wasn’t even clear if the wazir was Araiji, specifically, or just abstractly men of good tailoring and political weight. I found relief in the good humor of the Istanbullu filmmaker Barış Doğrusöz, now living in Beirut, and Mustapha Yamout, aka Zico, one of the original founders of Ashkal Alwan, who helped with the technical aspects of “The Silent Echo.”

Left: Artist Théo Mercier. Right: Artist Susan Hiller. (Photos:  Ibrahim Dirani/Al Mussawir)

With the exception of Zaven’s installation in Bacchus and Ziad Antar’s sculptures in a space below, all of the works in “The Silent Echo” are in the long, narrow hallways of Baalbek’s archeological site museum. One vision of hell is that which finds a politician’s entourage squeezing into the black-box rooms of biennial-style video installations. I ducked, crawled, and squished through god knows how many limbs to ease myself into one of them, the room most popular with the group: Susan Hiller’s The Silent Movie. I hopped a few times to see white type on a black screen. No sound. Seriously? I returned the next morning to find a mesmerizing piece composed of endangered or extinct languages, lullabies, stories, and tales. But for the opening, a black hole. Fortuitously, this left ample space to discover Théo Mercier’s great limestone-encrusted sculptures, Paola Yacoub’s ruminative installation on the excavations in downtown Beirut in the 1990s, and Marwan Rechmaoui’s Pillars, a series of scaled-down hi-rise buildings sprouting rebar, so much more effective here than they were in last year’s Istanbul Biennial. The urban planner Amira Solh, another formidable woman with big curly hair who comes often to Baalbek, nodded and told me the hallway where we were standing was used in ancient times to walk animals from their stables to the temples for ritual slaughter.

If Zaven was my reason for Baalbek, for many others it was Ai Weiwei. He wasn’t in town for the opening but had been there months before, during a trip to Lebanon to work with Syrian refugees (an initiative not to everyone’s taste). Helou, who left Lebanon at seventeen and now lives in Paris, had tried several times to reach him. No answer. One day she checked his Instagram account and learned he was in Beirut. Ever enterprising, the Palmyra Hotel’s owner, Rima Husseini, invited him to Baalbek. He went, and sent word to Helou the next day. He was in. The work he chose to show? Foundation, made from the bases of some two-dozen stone columns taken from a traditional Chinese house. The weight? “Sixteen tons,” Helou told me. Getting the piece to Lebanon “was an indescribable nightmare,” she said. “I didn’t have the structure. I didn’t sleep.” It was lovely in the end.

By the time I made it to Zaven’s installation it was night and all the more haunting beneath a vast, inky, star-strewn sky.

Left: Curator Nigel Tallis of the British Museum with curator Karina El Helou of STUIOCUR/ART. Right: Ashkal Alwan cofounder Mustapha Yamout, aka Zico.

TWO DAYS LATER, back in Beirut, the symposium on art and archeology followed. Hiller was in attendance—her 1987 three-channel slide projection, The Magic Lantern, was on view for a week in the Sursock Museum. With so many artists in the region (Yto Barrada, Ali Cherri, Iman Issa, Lamia Joreige, Walid Raad, Rayyane Tabet, Akram Zaatari) working on the historical, museological, and political aspects of archeology, the program seemed, at times, a little light. But it gave Helou the opportunity to share her ideas in a provocative way: “We didn’t want to do something political with the exhibition but we wanted to do something engaged.” She later made a finer distinction between the political and the poetic, all good (because debatable).

The archeologist Luc Bachelot gave a bewildering talk on the maxim “to build is to destroy,” ending with the question: “The world, what do we mean by it?” He was followed by Swiss curator Marc-Olivier Wahler, who could play an evil politician in a neo-noir film. He broke down the art-archeology complex into the three phases of a magic trick, like pulling a rabbit from a hat. Art was telling stories. Without them, “a vase is just a vase,” he said, “a stone is just a stone.” This went downhill from there. “Anyone can be an artist. Anyone can write a book. But can anyone tell a good story? That is the challenge. Anyone can be a curator,” he added, giving his grandmother as a prime example, a great curator when grocery shopping. From the audience, Solh, who is working on the Renzo Piano–designed archeology museum amid the Roman ruins of downtown Beirut, wanted to hear more on storytelling, because in Lebanon, archeology tends to be presented as relentlessly chronological to avoid the politics of history and who tells what.

But the speaker who pulled everything together and gave a talk equal to the verve and magic of Zaven’s work was Nigel Tallis of the British Museum. A specialist in Assyrian art, he pieced together a beautiful account from objects that have all been deliberately destroyed. Then he told a story of trying to puzzle out how the fragments of a relief fit together. The main piece showed a boatful of Phoenician warriors, charging forth. The match came to him suddenly. At the head of the ship, a woman with a baby in her arms. Warriors became refugees, fleeing for their lives. A chill ran down my spine. Tallis let a beat pass, and said quietly: “It was hard not to think of a more resonant piece.”

Left: Dealer Joumana Asseily of Marfa with Ruya Foundation chairwoman Tamara Chalabi. Right: Curator Marc-Olivier Wahler.

Left: Archeologist Luc Bachelot. Right: Nada El Khoury, Rita Nammour, and Sandra Abou Nader of APEAL.

Left: Artist Franziska Pierwoss with art historian Gregory Buchakjian. Right: Curator Amanda Abi Khalil with journalist Hazem Saghieh.

Collector and Bokja cofounder Huda Baroudi, designer Yasmina Skaff, and ceramicist Rasha Nawam.