Culture

Tales of walls, tunnels in the desert

BEIRUT: If you’re looking for a resonant point of departure for contemporary art, you could do worse than Dura Europos.

The stories of this ancient city near the Syria-Iraq border are at the center of “Theater of Operations,” Baris Dogrusoz’s solo at the Sursock Museum’s Twin Galleries.

Dogrusoz’s work last appeared in town during “Space Edits,” a group exhibition at BAC last year.

His series of metal sculptures, “Interstices,” explored the designs of fortified military outposts in geographical Syria. Centering on a ruined desert fortress, “Theater of Operations” scrutinizes fortification narratives.

Located on the western bank of the Euphrates, on a bluff that today overlooks the Iraqi frontier, the fortress-city of Europos was founded in 303 B.C. by a general of Alexander the Great, when the Macedonians and their allies were marching on one of Iran’s empires, the Achaemenid one. Locals, it’s said, called the site Dura (fortress). After a couple of centuries of Hellenistic rule, it was conquered by another Iranian empire, the Parthians.

About 250 years later, the Achaemenids’ successors were booted out by the Romans. A century or so later, the Romans were themselves dislodged by yet another Iranian dynasty, the Sassanids.

Over the course of this centurieslong contest between Greco-Roman and Iranian regimes, the city’s population developed into a rich melange of cultures, languages and religions, presided over by a Greek-speaking aristocracy descended from Macedonian colonists.

It’s the Sassanids who’ve been credited with mastering the tunneling lore needed to undermine the massive walls of fortresses like Dura Europos. They also departed from Parthian practice by deporting the city’s population and abandoning the place, which the desert eventually swallowed.

It remained buried until World War I. While dutifully digging trenches, the British expeditionary force to Iraq stumbled upon the city’s remarkably well-preserved wall paintings.

Wartime aside, Dura Europos remained an active archaeological site for much of the 20th century. Some early finds disappeared. Others were removed to be housed in the U.S., France, or elsewhere in Syria.

The massive western wall facing the desert was conserved, the river-front “citadel” restored. The moonscape of broken foundations within the walls was left for archaeologists, tourists and, after 2012, looters said to have been affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, the Nusra Front and Daesh (ISIS).

Nowadays, it’s said at least 70 percent of the Dura Europos site’s been destroyed by explosives and earthmovers, employed to uncover treasure for the market. Few would argue that these losses outweigh the human costs of the Syrian conflict, but they are informative of the perpetrators’ relationship to history characters in a narrative to which they are hostile or indifferent.

Twentieth-century readings of Dura Europos tended to reflect and reinforce prevalent narratives of contending Occidental and Oriental civilizations. (Before the site was plundered on an industrial scale, knowing travelers might amuse themselves reading from Australian diplomat Ross Burns’ “Monuments of Syria,” whose engaging discussion of the site muses that changes in the urban morphology reflected the Orientalization of the Western city.)

The only cultural generalizations that interest Dogrusoz in Dura Europos concern the dialogue between the wall and the tunnel. In an age when things “cyber” and “virtual” are central to prevailing ideologies of distraction, these two architectural archetypes remain politically resilient.

Twin Gallery 1 hosts the video installation “Sand Storm and the Oblivion.” Dogrusoz’s 2017 work takes the form of a looped video that mingles aerial and orbital images with diagrams of the Dura Europos site and footage from within the city walls. A voice-over provides a thumbnail history of the site - its defenses, cosmopolitan population, downfall and rediscovery bookended by poetic remarks about the role of sand in preserving artifacts.

History is not contemporary art (neither is Wikipedia), and Dogrusoz doesn’t simply show us how the site looked before 2012 while recounting the relevant details of its history.

In postproduction the footage has been tinted in various hues, making otherwise documentary-quality images unfamiliar. Though projected in two channels - one portrait-shaped, the other in landscape - the two frames show different parts of a single shot. This segmentation of the image reflects the fragmented state of the Dura Europos narrative, reinforcing the impression that the footage (like the history) doesn’t disclose the whole story. The narration has also been formally altered, delivered in an irritating Siri-style electronic voice that’s as likely to conceal meaning as to convey it.

Across the hall in Twin Gallery 2 is Dogrusoz’s 2019 Sursock museum commission “Beneath Crowded Skies.” This looped video installation returns to Dura Europos, more diligently pushing a history-sort-of-repeats-itself narrative.

Like “Sand Storm,” “Crowded Skies” refers to on-site events without anchoring them to specific dates. Freed from the need to relate the site’s history, the new work’s narration is free to follow a cyclical structure that gives it a patina of poetry.

The phrase “They’re everywhere. She stomped on the ground,” for instance, is repeated three times over the course of the 10-minute work, on each occasion accompanied by images from a different era. At one point stills of standard-issue army boots and other items from the last decade fill the screen. At others there are images of artifacts uncovered by archaeologists - a famed child’s shoe, scraps of textile and the like.

Here too documentary-type footage is garishly tinted, though the two-channel presentation is more conventional, pairing a wall-sized landscape-shaped projection with an autonomous video playing upon a portrait-shaped screen suspended from the ceiling.

In lieu of a curatorial essay, the exhibition guide for “Theater of Operations” is adorned by “A Non-compliant Operation: Manual for the Probability Engine,” penned by Mohammad Salemy and Patrick Schabus (aka the Alphabet Collection artist collective).

This fictional essay asserts the existence of an ancient device called the “xemanimiq” - amateur linguists may have some fun sorting out what two words were thrust together to make that one that “worked simultaneously as a clock, a camera, and an imaging machine capable of projecting pictures of time in the mind of its operators.”

Designed by Egyptian pyramid-builders “for producing architectural surveys of large swaths of land,” the xemanimiq was “repurposed ... for risk-measurement” and speculation concerning what the gods wanted. The technology was much sought-after and eventually made its way to the marchlands of the Iranian and Greco-Roman spheres of influence, where it played a role in the siege of Dura Europos.

This tale’s imagining of the arcane premodern is reminiscent of late-model Umberto Eco but, in its straight-faced delivery, this bit of pseudo-scholarly dishonesty is reminiscent of Walid Raad, a la “The Dead Weight of the Quarrel Hangs.”

The intended effect, presumably, is to underline that not everything you read about old stones (or walls and tunnels) is based in fact.

Baris Dogrusoz’s “Theater of Operations” is up at the Sursock Museum’s Twin Galleries through July 7.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 18, 2019, on page 12.

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