Symbolic Trace and Urban Design: considering Memory and Modernity

by Ziad Suidan (2017)

Tom Young’s latest exhibit—somewhere between a greatest hits compilation and a retrospective—denies the commercialism of the former and latterly, the safe perspective from which to view his art. This selection of work speaks for his concern with the built environment. Whether painting a Lebanese “natural” landscape, confronting the sublimity of Beirut’s urban sprawl, highlighting Beirut’s forgotten spaces, providing us with lyrical memory-scapes, or presenting us with the digital city of congestive fare, the viewer is struck by the consumptive and never satiated appetite of capitalism’s desire for overreach. With an artistic sensibility, however, the artistic desire to stymie that voracious political-economy, freeze it if only for a moment, to remember, to think what could be, before the shutter frame of a white wash or a glaze takes us back to reality. Between possibility and reality—perhaps a wished for memory—this selection of paintings presents shades of realism that recall Lebanon against its more referenced romanticized memory under the skies of an oriental Switzerland or Paris.

            Tom’s “natural” landscapes of Lebanon make us question the burbling brook, or the soothing stream, and the majestic mountains. A “naturalistic” landscape of Lebanon as painted by Tom Young can be filled with a sense of ‘paradise lost’, or a paradise that could be. Cedar forests, when taken out of their symbolic shape, are painted in their vibrant multi-colour light that gives off a sense of a healthier ecology. That healthy ecology comes alive in the multi-coloured hues that represent the multiple histories contained in Tom Young’s painting of Lebanon’s Ottoman era treasures. But this collection presents a winter wash, a feel that the streams are grey, the mountains in a water-coloured wash are distant, and the landscape might recall something just short of a Pissaro winter bareness. The realism of Lebanon’s nature is turned autumnal, and the majestic Cedar tree has been uprooted—like so many lives—reflecting that whilst underlying conflicts persist, capitalism is on a relentless march. A swoosh of forceful wind has already felled one mighty wooded splendour and threatens the whole wooded ecology. The majesty of nature became a nationalized symbol only to flag heavily now. Its roots have been utterly extirpated. As a modern form of Walter Benjamin’s reflections on Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, a wind is blowing from Paradise and where the human perception wishes to flee the angel continues to lay a sedimented scripted sense of catastrophe to humanity’s averted face. Today, that modern form takes the shape of globalization and its cosmopolitan script in the face of the phantasmagoric everyday citizens or dwellers in Lebanon. What is evident in the white-washed memories, the hallowed, indeed hollowed out, trace of Beirut’s glory, or urban development’s explosive tremors over Beirut’s skyline have touched the landscape of Lebanon’s “nature”which used to be sublime even, dare I say it, a touristic draw. Even that most showy, yet delicate of flowers, the hibiscus ruptures the painted surface becoming cover: a welcome and fledgling bloom over the famed unpreserved tomb of The Holiday Inn or defying Beirut’s urbanized steel and concrete.That sense of welcome intensifies in the presence of the jasmine fronting the wreckage of Beirut, which will be uncannily counterpoised to a Phoenix rising from the ashes to become a ghostly replica of the Emerald City. Jasmine, also, welcomes, as it did for Tom Young, the viewer into Gemmayze’s Villa Paradiso. Flowers can at times populate a painting, covering over a de-saturated background suggesting the double-edged nature of promise: its relief, and, at times, its surplus desire.

However, the shutter-lenses and the cropping that made Lebanon and Beirut awash with visitors in the 50s and 60s in Europe’s escapism from war-devastated and recovering Europe no longer hold. Tom Young’s white-washed memories give us a sense of nostalgia that cannot remain for long as his brush-strokes and wiping technique across the canvas gives us as lower sense of speed to a disappearing aesthetic than film or a shutter frame. Today, Tom’s portraits of Lebanon’s “independent” political heritage approach and, at times, exceed that shuttering pace. The forgetting of a country’s legacy is sometimes evidence of institutionally produced amnesia for its younger generations. Counterpoised against that institutional shuddering to its not-so-distant past is Tom’s concern with preserving Beirut’s memory as is, without museum cover. A family’s 50s sea-side over-exposed photographic landscape clashes with the hurried sense of the beach-resort dotting contemporary Lebanon’s coast-line. It is a slower time, a more sensible love of the city, that an Armenian family remembers, the memories of which Young discovered in boxes in Villa Paradiso. The house, or its artistic springtime reminiscence, gives off an elegant tradition from its jasmine scent, to its fading glory, to its rustic charm. It is a trace of a family’s memories of a Beirut that has not entirely faded from our mind’s eye. Such traces continue in the soft and peeling pinks of the Rose House’s standing, at least under the aegis of Tom Young’s seven-month residency in this building.

            But, if Beirut is in need of a wash-over from its more touristy froth, it has an unmistakably harsher realism. Recalling the earlier play on W.B. Yeats’ ‘Second Coming’s (1916) famed declaration that “the center cannot hold,” we must enter a vortex, the gyre that has made such treasures as Villa Paradiso a forgotten site. Forgotten space is such a place of consideration in Tom Young’s paintings. Beirut, today, is ever more becoming what it used to be: a city where you could see the differences in class-consciousness by way of its urban design. This reality of a city under Reconstruction used to be seen from an aerial perspective. But not only have flight-plans changed so have the way the city is best experienced. In order to locate these lost treasures, some like Villa Paradiso which have been reclaimed thanks, in part to Tom Young’s art work that drew it to the concern of the European Union Ambassador to Lebanon, are hidden around every corner where traces of preservation call out against an increasingly Emirati skyline. Other places of cultural convocation and consideration, such as Beit Boustani in Mar Mikhail and the legendary singer Fairuz’s childhood home in Zuqaq El Blatt, not to mention the infamous Holiday Inn, that centre of war-torn anxiety and sectarian pitch-battles which scar Beirut, draw the impressionistic realism of Tom Young’s thick palette. One that draws attention to an earthen oxidation, of a place left in absence and wearing its history drawn from an abyss otherwise known as the mise-en-abyme.

Under urbanization’s sprawl, compassable direction can no longer mirror Lebanon’s reality. East, West, North, and South are simply words that might describe different sites along the way, their symbolic import absented under the sublime urbanity of Tom Young’s precision. Looking at the sprawl that Beirut’s urbanization is becoming, Tom’s rationalized design pattern recognizes the transference of sublimity’s ravenous awe. Symbolically, many can recall the lithographs from the 30s-60s that Armenian families used to preserve and sell in Lebanese shop stalls. Those lithographs presented a layout of a classic city, its slow paced healthy ecological outlook that has been overtaken by Europe’s Haussmann period. While not the demolition of medieval neighbourhoods for the “healthier” wide avenues,parks and squares, this vast public works project that had a beginning in Napoleon III’s Paris has gone global, picked up pace with the mis interpreted dawn of Le Corbusier’s ‘vertical street’, and leaves the older buildings compressed, as if dangled off, worn-down, remnant traces of hybridity which most look at from the outside in trepidation or visible sadness. The city has become a marvel but its beauties are ever tucked away and bordering on extinction. The mise-en-abyme of urban public works projects have given us a mirror, a mirror that might be best viewed from the top of the Rose House in its current dilapidated and ruinous form. The rustic charm of Beirut’s Ottoman traces that Tom Young captured have become a disappearing aesthetic. Today, a concrete wasteland stands in their place as urbanity surges on. Could it be that Europe as a modern idea has architecturally normalized itself globally? Has it become the new comparative geography of worldly historical change?

            To begin an answer to these questions, I propose to look at Tom’s treatment of people as compared to the built and ecological environment of Lebanon. One could read this through a biography of Tom Young’s career that is influenced by not only an adept artistic skill but an architectural sensibility and training. But, I prefer to look at a comparison of painted surface. Tom’s paintings of the Corniche are more wintry than autumnal. Some of Tom Young’s Lebanese contemporaries have painted the same site in pop art’s stunning awe, one that leans as much to over-saturated commerce as it does to creativity and memory. Tom Young’s large landscapes capture the life of the Corniche as engulfing the people, who are more spectral, phantasmagoric even at times everyday realities.It is the ecological and built environment of the Corniche and the power of the sea, especially in one case, where just like the ecological devastated forestry, is visited by an unfavourably destructive wind that bespeaks globalization as destiny. When, however, Tom’s paintings take us into sites that call for preservation against this more worldly destiny of globalization, the early spring time promise of the orphanage center, Dar al-Aytam in Zarif welcomes. It is as if the building in relation to its built environment has maintained itself, is a wonder given its lack-lustre sense of “national” history and sense of remembrance. The new location of Villa Paradiso’s latest incarnation, in Batroun, makes us want to take a stroll under its archways. This is felt most tellingly in Beirut’s built environment when Tom’s painting of Beirut turns it into a huge park, but not of green but to its urban jungle. No wonder the park bench lies empty. But, when we go atop The Holiday Inn, Tom’s perched spectator wishes to avert his eyes from the hallowed hollow of the iconic tower for its more socialized presence in pre-Civil War days. But Lebanon is perhaps the hero of this piece and its Ottoman treasures. Perhaps, more generally, the perched observer of Tom Young’s painting is transfixed on a past one can no longer touch but fantasizes about. But we feel like we are in a ballroom not only in the memory of The Rose House or Villa Paradiso or its newest realization. Feet can no longer give off a sense of inertial human clay. The emotive sensibility picks up; the light of the archways deflects a journey that is just opening and flooded with different possibilities. This sense of equipoise between older remains of a more elegant Ottoman history and today’s global urbanity is important as Tom Young’s other paintings give us the reality Beirut, Lebanon, and perhaps the Middle East has been plunged into. A global standardization of the Lebanese terrain is taking over.


As one approaches, Tom Young’s most current statement on urbanity, we come to a near closure, the foreclosure of a digital city, a circuit board that is nearly tied into a fully operational network circuitry. In terms of the ethos of Tom Young’s aesthetic, a slow violence is evident in Beirut as a public works project. Tom Young’s artistic architectural sketches gives off flash-points of what is present in his blue,red, grey, and then multi-coloured oil besotted climate catastrophe painted surfaces, a consequence from globalization’s ethos. Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972) recalls Tom Young’s work on a Beirut in perpetual reconstruction since 1992. For Calvino’s proposition, it would fit a travelogue’s claim against the marketplace of tourism: “each city takes to resembling all cities, places exchange their form, order, distances, a shapeless dust cloud invades the continents." If Tom Young’s rationally conceived design of Beirut’s relentless sprawl makes us think of a city on privatized steroids, his digital remark on the final phase obliterates all distance and has seemingly and sadly completed the mission of capitalism to shrink differences and make us come closer together. Unfortunately, that closeness is hardly what Hannah Arendt’s concept of “unwilled proximity” suggested was something that forced us to deal with our class, race, and gendered prejudices. Instead, it magnifies our cultural differences as we struggle to hold on to something which gives us an identity.

            Aesthetically, Tom’s image of a digitalized city is a mirroring image of a city under plumes of white smog from the pace of urban design, environmental catastrophe, and a heavily polluted sky. No, Tom’s diurnal image of day is no Pope’s election. The pace of bulldozing development under constant environmental smog is just the latest phase of de-industrialized political economy. Or, is it, perhaps, Tom Young’s acid neon glow over Baalbek, where famed ruins are highlighted by dangerous foreboding polluted ecology? The traffic jams and trace of factory congestion fill us with coal’s asphyxiation while, as the Iranian artist Nazgol Ansarinia said of a modern Tehran, bulldozes collective memory leaving us only with artificial rural scenes on those sky-scraping images of modernity. But there is no such illusion on Tom’s canvas. There is no assimilation or blending of colour, only explosions of oil painted feel of spray paint that want to state its punctuated refusal.

            As we turn to black and the night, Tom’s work gives us a simulation of a photographic negative. But it is more than a photographic negative; it is an uncanny reminder of Joanna Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s postcards of civil warBeirut which they set to partial flame. In Tom Young’s painted mirror image of a positive plumed day-time smoke screen, an acrylic filled background seems to fight that rationalized oil painted screen of an outlined architectural matrix. But what seems to be utter rationality is on closer inspection denied. There are interruptions in this circuitry. We hear the sound of fireworks- or do we? Moments of joyous celebration could equally be pockets of violence. In this city, the two are never far apart. They are mirror images themselves of an always-already sectarian factionalism and explosive celebration of an urbanized reconstruction. Welcome to post-war Lebanon. In this it is the street-level response to Charbel Samuel Aoun’s underground piped work that disrupts an urbanized artificiality. We feel that the blackness refuses the overreach. And whereas the delicate glazes of spray and street art graffiti gestures greet us as the only refusal to the plumes of daytime productivity, at night-time it is complemented by darkness occasionally punctuated by the dazzling lights of a fully born out abstracted and digitalized city.