by Helen MacKreath (2013)
A wonderfully frenetic and bold style marks Tom Young’s works. “Carousel” exhibition is marked by cyclical satisfaction, housed in the subject of much of the work, Villa Paradiso, which Young stumbled across, derelict, and set up as a working environment to urgently document in watercolours and oils. The villa had most of the heaps of rubble removed for the purpose of the exhibition (frantically, in the last hours before the opening), though still retains the potent whisper of decay of a former grandeur, empty frames and faded paint. Beautiful patterned tiling and stained glass windows evoke some of the vibrancy of its early life.
Young’s questioning of the process of mythologizing Beirut found a ready subject in Villa Paradiso. The mansion was inhabited by a wealthy Armenian Lebanese family that fled the Armenian genocide and settled in Beirut, only to flee again after the onset of war in 1975. The oil works he created within the Villa’s shell, hung upon the very walls they depict, are a mixture of realism and imagination – a myth of the Villa he happened upon, supported by scattered remnants of a life previously lived there. Holiday photographs, bottle of perfume, dusty music scores and portraits unearthed in the shell provide a rich source of conjecture. Sons and daughters, in youthful splendour, bathed on a Beirut beach under the Mediterranean sun buzzing with revelry (captured by an over exposed photograph) then returned in balmy evenings for dances in white silk dresses. Heady smiles, wafts of perfume and whirls of legs caught in sways of song are frozen in film.
The synecdoche this produces is profoundly intentional, reflective of a broader questioning of the synecdoche superficially created by a Beiruti population piecing together a fragmented life, and fragmented view of the city, post War.
Young speaks of his interest in “how people choose to remember the best times, and sweep the bad times under the carpet without really dealing with their wounds”. He is interested in the creation of myth, the particular aspect of imagination which leads people shattered by Beirut City to dwell on a blissful ‘Golden Age’ and to imbue their present with the idyll of the past it represents. Young’s imagination of the lives of Villa Paradiso’s inhabitants taps into this quest for a glorious and hedonistic Beirut which still populates perceptions of the present day city.
The imagination of a desired existence, and desired physical reality to play it out, is not a phenomenon unique to Beirut – captured by Calvino in “Invisible Cities” (1972; 37-8) in which he describes how “cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else” – but Beirut has a particular need for this escapism. The constant cycle of destruction and rebirth which the city has found itself in, stretching prior to conflict, political instability and cultural flux has necessitated some positive, and perhaps unattainable identity. The quest for the unreachable, the indulgence in living up to nostalgia, alongside the need to live very much in the moment, is a survival mechanism of sorts. But it is understood that this is not a panacea. Words from “Memory for Forgetfulness”, the powerfully emotional memoir of a single day of shelling of Beirut in 1982 attest to this confusion, and the entrapment of the city.
“Let Beirut be what it wants to be.
She will forget me,
That I may forget her.
Will I forget? Oh, would, oh, would I could
This moment bring back my homeland
Out of myself! I wish I knew what I desire
I wish I knew!
I wish I knew!"
Bleeding from deeps scars of conflict, the physical decimation of the city and psychological wounds carved during fifteen long years of war, the desire to forget is inevitable. But alongside the need to forget is a need to re-identify, and survive, within a deadened city. The connection with some identity of a Beirut past, regardless of how representative or truthful, attests to this attempt to reclaim the city and repossess it
Young’s work makes no judgements. He tells me of his doubts that this survival instinct is a dangerous form of amnesia that prevents real healing and progress, whilst being both admirable and essential. As an artist he wants to create images that provoke questions, and forge a creative common ground. By charting the act of time in “Carousel”, Young firmly plants it in the present. The Villa is a crumbled empty structure (perfume bottles are isolated in dereliction; two pairs of Cuban heels stand alone). Passing time has been eclipsed, and the happy wholesome life is elided with decay and emptiness. The glimpses of life which the villa teases us with are enough to spark synergywith other imaginations,to allow a romantic picture to be build up with can be both glorious and attainable.
The quote of Iain Sinclair, “in the negative space between contraries we learn to venture” from “Objects of Obscure Desire”, gives some voice to the potential for the grey space between two extremes to foster creativities. Villa Paradiso, neither fully alive or dead has been carved to create a new space of understanding, both a glorification of its past, and beacon for a divergent future.