Tracing cycles of collapsing progress

TRIPOLI, Lebanon: The concrete dome Oscar Niemeyer called the Experimental Theater is the most responsive of the 19 structures he erected in Tripoli, in the remarkable space now known as the Rashid Karami International Fairground.

Some 56 years after Niemeyer conceived them, all his Tripoli pieces remain unfinished, underemployed and deteriorating. Most enter the imagination visually whether the geometric forms that stand aboveground or the elaborate subterranean facilities below. Thanks to its acoustics, only the Experimental Theater reacts to the presence of visitors at a more visceral level.

Without the baffling tiles that would have tamed it for performances, the space slaps the slightest rattle and hum back at its perpetrator like an immaterial squash ball hissing hollowly before being swallowed by a void far more vast, you imagine, than the one that formed it.

Niemeyer’s theater is a uniquely non-neutral space to exhibit contemporary art. It would be ludicrous to install anything here but a sound piece and, in ideal circumstances, the domed enclosure would be more akin to an instrument to compose around than one to be played “played” suggesting control.

These thoughts percolate while entering “Don’t fall, because whoever fell will fall for good.” Composer-cum-visual artist Zad Moultaka was commissioned to devise this multichannel sound-and-light installation for “Cycles of Collapsing Progress,” the sprawling contemporary art exhibition at Tripoli’s modernist fairground and across town at its medieval citadel.

The sound facet of Moultaka’s six-minute work is driven by speakers deployed every few meters along the circumference of the dome. All theater entrances have been hooded in black fabric, making the space pitch dark without the piece’s indirect lighting features, which at specific points in the sound design illuminate the circumference wall.

A third element seemingly a visual evocation of premodern fasteners, or the strings of an acoustic instrument is a web of ropes, erected to emulate the tangle of rebar that hangs from the dome’s ceiling (said to have been left for the theater’s baffling tiles).

“Don’t fall” plays in a loop, so it’s difficult to discern a start or finish which echoes the cyclical (that is, nonlinear) notions that curator Karina El Helou had in mind while commissioning and collecting works for this show.

Entering the theater, a member of the public might find the interior dimly lit, with an ambient rumble sounding in the background, not unlike a threat of distant thunder.

Two abrupt notes of an oud sound as the space plunges into darkness. Individual notes play out against the rumbling thunder. The slap of metal upon metal is added to this duet, increasing in frequency as the roar swells, like building materials in a gale. You may become aware of isolated floor lights as the ensemble is joined by solo voice isolated notes at first, then more sustained, wordless vocalizing.

Lights blink on at the circumference wall and the sound of thunder recedes, without ever falling silent.

Chances are this isn’t the only thing a visitor to “Don’t fall” will hear. Though Tripoli is relatively isolated from the hubbub of Beirut, and the fairground insulated from the rest of town, “Cycles of Collapsing Progress” is open to a masterful maker of noise the public.

Moultaka’s carefully calibrated composition of light and sound for Niemeyer’s theater is, in practice, a mutable thing. Each loop may be variously punctuated by the lisping meeps of smartphone photography, the match-struck reverberation of that guy who can’t resist clapping his hands once or twice, the diffusing rasps of apology as folks step on each other in the dark (or curses as they trip over lengths of rope).

You may jump at the terse fluid concussion of a half-empty water bottle puncturing the air after slipping from beneath a would-be photographer’s armpit.

Like the exhibition framing it, “Don’t fall” is an idea that requires human beings to be fully realized.

The same could be said about Niemeyer’s unfinished modernist experiment in Tripoli.

“Cycles of Collapsing Progress,” is the second sprawling contemporary art show to be curated in Lebanon by Helou’s STUDIOCUR/ART the first being “The Silent Echo,” which scattered recent work by nine artists about Baalbeck’s archaeological museum, located in the ruins of old Heliopolis.

Helou’s curatorial collaborator in the Tripoli show is Mexico’s Anissa Touati Corporation. The expo’s co-organizer is BeMA (the Beirut Museum of Art). It has been staged under the patronage of UNESCO and Lebanon’s Culture Ministry, in partnership with the Mikati Foundation.

Created by Lebanese and Mexican artists, each of the 20 works and installations strewn across this exhibition’s two venues is said to have been devised or selected with its setting in mind.

Staging contemporary art within a monumental structure, as opposed to a white cube-style space, provokes interest in some, skepticism in others. The interested are lured by the pairing of (possibly striking) work and reliably striking location. But how good could the art be, skeptics muse, if you need a monument to attract a public?

As if in response to this question, Helou says the show hopes to provoke conversations, not only between individual works and their locations, but between the venues themselves. This would be an ambitious goal if “Cycles of Collapsing Progress” had restricted itself to the spacious confines of the Tripoli fairground, the exhibition’s principal venue.

Commissioned by the Lebanese state in the 1960s, left incomplete by its commissioner and idled by a want of consensus on how to destroy or conserve it, Niemeyer’s fairground is Lebanon’s most conspicuous embodiment of derelict modernism.

So the dialogue prompted by its 14 on-site works could be billed as a conversation between “the contemporary” (shallow, deracinated, defiantly incomprehensible to those unschooled in its segmented narrative preoccupations) and “modernism” (confidently progressive, naively utopian, dangerously totalizing). It’s a grand idea for a conversation, one sure to provoke more questions than answers, not least because some works will have little to contribute to it.

Ten of the 14 works on show in the fairground are staged in the “Grand Cover,” a glass-enclosed exhibition space situated beneath one wing of the boomerang-shaped structure marking the venue’s central axis. This wide array of work includes videos and objects, newly commissioned and less new.

A fun pairing of videos can be found in two apocalypse-flavored video installations by Ali Cherri and Roy Samaha.

Cherri’s lyrical “The Disquiet,” 2013, blends inquiry-driven and impressionistic footage to investigate Lebanon’s curious geological basis the intersecting system of tectonic fault lines that run beneath the country, occasionally wreaking havoc when they rub each other the wrong way. Samaha’s 2018 “Sun Rave” employs a similar blend of fact and fancy, here correlating the recent history of (potentially catastrophic) solar flare activity with suspicious individuals’ radio activity in late-Civil War Beirut.

In so far as they work with contemporary building materials, sculptures by Damian Ortega and Jose Davila both address the exhibition’s broader architectural concerns. Ortega’s “Harvest,” 2013, is made of suspended lengths of twisted rebar. Davila’s “Newton’s Fault,” 2017, uses stainless steel wires to balance stone weights and metal beams.

Jorge Mendez Blake and Marwan Rechmaoui reflect upon modernism’s utopian preoccupations in quite different terms.

Blake’s sculpture/video “Utopia (The no place is the real place),” 2017-2018, takes up the accepted use of utopia (an ideal place) with its literal meaning (no place). The video is premised on the artist visiting four hotels, all called Utopia.

There he used a typewriter to compose letters to Thomas More the author who coined the term for his 1516 book “Utopia” each pinning contemplations of contemporary reality upon his observations of local communities.

Each begins, “Dear Thomas, / I’m writing from Utopia.”

Rechmaoui’s “If I only had a chance,” 2018, is a grout-and-resin scale-model sculpture reproducing Niemeyer’s Experimental Theater with a transparent dome, revealing architectural features that most Lebanese have never seen with their own eyes.

The accompanying narrative reflects upon how most putatively public spaces in Lebanon are (like the Tripoli Fairground) closed to the public, reflecting the lack of transparency about the erection and management of these spaces.

The main venue of “Cycles of Collapsing Progress” uses Niemeyer’s architectural forms to house pieces that reflect upon the modernist premises of the venue or, as with Rechmaoui’s piece, the venue itself.

There is some virtue to be found in placing works in proximity to the subject, of course, but the only piece that transcends Niemeyer’s enclosure is Moultaka’s “Don’t fall.”

It’s unlikely to be feted as a masterpiece of composition, but by making the theater a principal instrument in the work, the artist has used a modernist structure to fashion something contemporary a piece as ephemeral as sound and echo, light and shadow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 23, 2018, on page 16.




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