Counterpoint Performance- Exposing the Memories of a Beiruti home

by Ziad Suidan

‘Beware of saying to them that sometimes different cities follow one another on the same site and under the same name, born and dying without knowing one another, without communicating among themselves. At times, even the names of the inhabitants remain the same, and their voices’ accent, and also the features of the faces; but the gods who live beneath names and above places have gone off without a word and outsiders have settled in their place.’

(Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, tr. William Weaver)

Welcome to Beyt El Boustani, soon to become ‘Beirut Arts Club’, a house still standing due to the advocacy of Nabil and Zoe Debs who bought it with the intention of suspending a major bifurcation of Beirut from its multiple histories. Beirut, like many capital cities, is in jeopardy of losing its remaining traces of heritage with new skyscrapers crowding the sky. But suspending the utter take over of urban concrete jungles is one thing, preserving the trace of histories within it, around it, and recalling histories that have passed through and around it is a passion that requires counterpoint from harmonically interdependent efforts and independent voices. Tom Young’s In-Residence brings architectural preservation artists, photographers, film-makers, installation artists, and multi-disciplinary performance artists together to remind those who dwell within and around Beirut of its still potent vestigial traces. In such a way, reinserting histories, not in a superficially nostalgic way, but in an effort to recall histories that have passed on but not by mandates that homes and their environs still retain their resonance.

Citing and Sit(e)ing the past: Synchronic Histories of Beyt El Boustani

Last year, Robert Fisk, the renowned Independent journalist, brought the counterpoint voice of journalism to recall not only the site specific event to which we are here to celebrate, the dilatory time of In-Residence, but also to invest those who dwell in and around Beirut with Beyt El Boustani’s contrapunctality, that is its intertwined histories and perspectives.

Before hearing Fisk out again, a brief word on the dilatory time of In-Residence. Over a year ago, Tom Young and Noor Haydar had wanted to recall Beyt El Boustani to Beirutis’ conscience. But, it was due to the artists’ conscience that the show was delayed: they refused to play ball, all pun intended, with the previous owner’s intention to bring a wrecking ball through the building. Now, why such an act is prohibitive has been foregrounded, Fisk’s voice has been re-contextualised:

 […] I took a call from British artist Tom Young [,] the same painter whose efforts to save Beirut’s Ottoman "Pink House" […] who told me that he’s now trying to preserve the magnificent 1873 Boustani House in a Christian suburb of Beirut.  It was built by a Lebanese banker, Salim el-Boustani, whose wife Adele – owner of one of the first pianos in Lebanon (it still survives) – had six children, one of them a beautiful daughter called Georgette.

Back again now to the 1941 Allied invasion of Lebanon. Among the British forces was Sergeant Major Frank Armor, almost certainly fighting in a Scottish Commando unit that was badly hit in the first stages of the attack. He and his fellow officers arrived in "liberated" Beirut and were billeted on the top two floors of Salim Boustani’s home, and last week I walked through their rooms with their beautiful Italian architrave window frames and views over the Mediterranean, a glorious olive garden and banana plantation next door.

But like the French soldiers who married Lebanese women and chose to stay in Lebanon, Frank Armor — whose father was Scots and mother Russian — fell passionately in love with the gorgeous Georgette, married her, and lived on in the Ottoman mansion for the rest of his life. Behind the garden is a Phoenician tomb.

(Robert Fisk, “The West's desire to ‘liberate’ the Middle East remains as flawed as ever”)

This same Phoenician tomb lies next to a cave where Victor El Boustani, a pharmacist and son of the banker Salim who built the mansion, had his pharmacy, a pharmacy where Tom Young found medicine bottles with some liquid still present. Today, Tom Young has created an installation situating those bottles. The situated-ness of those bottles are uncannily reminiscent to those of us who follow Tom’s architectural and artistic preservation mission in Villa Paradiso, the former residence of an Armenian family and now home to the European Union less than one mile away. In that house, the Armenian owner’s painted and photographed presence is strong and staunch in the face of a near forgetting of his and his family’s time in Beirut during the Civil War. Tom Young, not working off of a photograph of Victor El Boustani creates a similar staunchness but not in the home but rather in an alley way like setting such that a melancholy sense of space confronts a parked presence. It is as Manal Khader says of Fouad El-Khoury, the founder of the Arab Image Foundation, and his photography:

His images are not a record of events but stories from the hors champ [off-camera] that challenge the limits of documentation. They are stories of the decomposition of his intimate space.

(“Intimate Sidelines", 220)

While not coming “full circle” to Beyt El Boustani, one of counterpoint’s musical sensibilities puncture the presence,not of a musical score, but of a certain sense of place, with other recollections, other lives, other times, that dwell in residence.

Shadow Time: Double Exposure and Translucent Performance           

Living memory or memories recalled, performed, and re situated cannot suture time. In physical or marked presence, a suture will hold together the edges of a wound or surgical incision. Memories of a joie de vivre of a wedding find themselves lived out in two disjunctive instances in In Residence.

One being Nadine Sures’s haunting performance of a time of wedlock in suspense, hauntingly committed to “the figure of a ghost which is neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive” (Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx). Nadine’s performance is in a sense solo but being touched with time and framed capture. Her body moves at slants. But the slant is not of a bride in her wedding gown but one pulled back as if caught by a nagging trace. The veil does not cover innocence but rather is snagged and holding her back; keeping her in place. But where? Her wedding dress is translucent, her face shutter-framed, her face averted from the catastrophe building up behind her. She is in comparison to the in medias res of Paul Klee’s “Angelus Novus,” or rather Walter Benjamin’s reading of it. The witness wanting to move but unable to as the scriptures of time or rather the sacralisation of time decreeing her inertial frame. At times Nadine’s body is posed as a moth, in which a wedding dress is no longer that, but of a figure transfixed, recalling the ghost of Virginia Woolf’s “Death of a Moth” where a moth cannot remove itself and take to flight as it is caught in time. Not even a child’s balloon can bring a smile as the gaze is askance. The ball remains framed in diagonal counter-pose to the Italian and Arabesque architectural en-framing. But is Nadine’s performance itself a still within a still, in but not of place, always out of place.   

      If Nadine’s performance cannot be of place in its residing in other times, can a double-exposure bring reclamation or only hold off forgetting? Karim Sakr’s photography makes its mark as does Nadine Sures’s performance’s constant remarking and recalling other times in place. The context undoubtedly recalls Fouad El-Khoury’s recognition of Beirut:

[…] Beirut has indeed gone through fifteen years of civil war, and many of its central neighbourhoods were emptied of their inhabitants by 1977, two years after the start of the conflict. From then on, Beirut’s center became a ghost city, with bullet-riddled facades progressively overrun by vegetation.

(“Passing Time,” 2017, 37)

Can the joie-de-vivre of Beirut’s golden age be recalled? Can it be re-called in the still of photography? While Nadine’s body is in slanted relation to the frame, Karim’s “superimposition” does not take over but finds itself disrupting the flow of modernity that will leave unofficial, unrecorded histories buried in the brush of thickets of natural overgrowth. As a place once full of life lies untended, threatened with erasure, the figure of a black and white photograph demands a captive audience. It punctures the time of forgetting with its erect equality. It is located not within the overgrowth but suturing the presence of a home that had been neglected. The wedding day in this case is in time, not of others, frozen, and brought into the present demanding to be accorded equal status. There is no translucence here, just the grey overtones of the photography of its day.  

Gothic Haunts: What Remains

Usually, when thinking of gothic presence, we think of ghosts, those taken to be of monstrous form, red rooms and spires of ghouls, not of the ghabra, dust, of artificially suspended gaze or of spider-laced remains becoming the overhang of a sink. The domesticity of the kitchen of Beyt El-Boustani plays host to that which dwells in human absence. Hence, it might be appropriate to call one of Noor’s objects a cob-web as opposed to a spider- web. It can still catch its prey, the neglect of a home left unpreserved and threatened with extinction. The soot colour of the sink doubling back on that which Nadine Sures’ performance averted its gaze. But, Noor’s copper cob web is at once made of the material from which pipes were made prior to the steel and plastic phase, giving historical material weight to her work,at the same time as it signals an indexical shape, the absence of a faucet head, the light over the sink, and yet still the openness of an unfinished or a no longer completed object. That project is itself the wedding dress from ‘TheRose House’ inverted. If weddings mark a moment of cultural zenith, the inversion of it renders absence a cultural death to fixity and given direction.The gyred shape of the cobweb gives way to a descaled train line, again tying women’s history to that which she has often been associated, the nation’s promise. Such is the result of a feminist take on a return to the gothic that takes issue with the role of women and puppetry in the wake of Anselm Kiefer’s destroyed ruins of the city.

            But what is even more intriguing about Noor’s sculptures is her return to previous work and the story behind it. If Noor’s cobweb lacked a part, was at loose ends, like the house before Tom and her second return, her object spins off of her show Loose Ends. While the previous show was about displacement and anxiety of the female body and its perceptions, the globular resin cover that was like an enlarged petri dish examining remains that most people avert their eyes from, loose and fallen out hair from everyday life, the globular resin turns into lighting fixtures, wrapped up in copper-wrapped holding. What this chandelier like sculpture gives off in its gothic feel is not its lit elegance filling a room with light. What it does give off is gloominess, the absence that will only alight upon histories hidden by even more dust. The ghabra, or dust of the home, cannot be the provenance of a spider web’s clean capture but a statement that the domicile of hearth and home has become defined by an absence to be witnessed. Elegance and finery have been absented for quite sometime. That witness cannot be repeated, cannot be left unacknowledged and turned to other more luminescent fruits of sleep. It must bear out its statement in singularity.  

A building enfolded in a becoming city: Beirut’s modernity and Beit El-Boustani

Tom’s work and social advocacy can never be described as a fruit of sleep but rather an acknowledgment of transformation, in many instances its horror and remembering what had been under nostalgia’s painful un-returnable gaze. In this show the story of modernity is told in landscapes, painted against a postcards marketability. A seaside of Beirut may seem to evoke a pristine untouched luxurious ideality, a Beirut that today’s onlookers have only been witness to second hand. Today, that seaside is and has been mostly erased due to globalisation and neoliberal ecocide, a terrain of dump trucks and plumes of smoke fill it up in rapid succession of erasures since the end of Beirut’s last civil war.

            But Tom’s vehicular transport in this show is not Beirut’s Civil War, or at least not mainly. The train is both the evocation of modernity’s travel over borders now largely sealed off to most people dwelling in Beirut. The desire of Fairouz’s music videos that transport its listeners between Palestine and Lebanon cannot be experienced except in ecstatic traverse. The same can be said for many travellers, who have become precarious dwellers since national lines were drawn across the face of the ArabWorld. Indeed, centres cannot hold, ceremonies of innocence have passed by, and the falcon can no longer be brought to bear witness to its call, the ever-widening gyre to play off of Yeats’ “Second Coming” is witness to an anarchy loosed upon the world. But that anarchy did not begin under our parents’ eyes but well before. If the train can transport an upper and middle class across distances,it, as George Eliot’s novel Middle March (1871-72) attests, signals a transformation into an industrial greyness now dancing with ever more green house gasses. Our concrete jungle has been in coming for sometime. While Beirut’s art scene has been witness to the hazards of industrialism in the Gemmayze area over the past month and a half, the Beirut Arts Club becomes a temporary home to Beirut’s industrialised and globalised history. While Beit El Boustani is home to orchards, the street is a site of train lines passing, passing by in flames, and a busy industriousness below. Only when passing through the mansion and its history can a visitor imagine a home to orchards. But if a busy industriousness once stood in somewhat busy splendour, that history is being threatened by monstrous erections that swallow up red tiled roofs, beautiful old world charm is being singled out and targeted for forgetfulness, a story that has been put to rest by the mansion’s new residents.