‘Material Remains’ is a deceptively sparse exhibition. When you step into the Ayyam Gallery, you are confronted with 12, near-identical metal structures of various heights, clustered in the center of the foyer. At the far end of the gallery, a set of large-scale tableaus – which, at first glance, seem as abstract and near-identical to each other as the metal structures – occupy the rest of the space.

These two sets of art objects – the first, an installation by Ginane Makki Bacho, and the second, a series of paintings by Fathallah Zamroud – are contextualized by two artist statements displayed prominently on the gallery walls. The texts reveal a shared theme: war. Yet the texts also hint at a shared approach to dealing with war: both artists choose to address this theme cryptically, and through a focus on war’s spatial consequences.

Makki Bacho’s artwork tells the story of the Burj al-Murr, a concrete monolith that became an infamous character in the Lebanese Civil War by serving as a strategic ‘snipers’ nest,’ and a place where -- it is rumored -- several people were ‘executed’ by being thrown off the top. The building is especially significant today because it is one of the few wartime landmarks still standing that have never served any other purpose: unlike other damaged or destroyed buildings with pre-war histories, the vast majority of Beirutis have only ever experienced the building as either a threat, or as a reminder of a darker time. The tower has no other identity.

As Makki Bacho explains in her artist statement, making different sized replicas of the tower was a way for her to give the building a new meaning:

"This forty-story building used to overlook the city but was inhabited by ones wearing masks and carrying weapons. The replication of the tower in different scales is a dream to return to a former time. To be able to play with, or change places as one can do with a Matryoshka doll set may allow us to unfix the memory of the tower or at least to introduce variances into it.”

It is interesting that Makki Bacho chooses to describe the tower in the past tense, as though her playful re-use of the tower’s design in her installation truly ends the building’s reign of terror. When asked why she did this, Makki Bacho told Beirut.com: “The past tense or present tense in Beirut means the same. We lived struggled and suffered during the war and we are still living struggling and suffering […] Living in the past or now or tomorrow is same and one to me."

A painting by Fathallah Zamroud as part of the 'Material Remains' exhibit at Ayyam Gallery. (Photo via buro247.com)

Zamroud’s paintings, on the other hand, deal with a war that is ongoing. His depiction of Syrian refugee camps and destroyed areas in Syria are gestural and impressionistic, making it somewhat difficult to immediately discern what it is that’s being represented. While this style communicates the feelings that war evoke, and can also be interpreted as a reflection of the confusion that the Syrian conflict can sow, Zamroud’s stylistic choice also reflects how the paintings were made: as his artist statement explains, the paintings are reproductions of news photographs, and the color palette he chose emphasizes the distance and “coldness of the original photographs,” and of his process itself.

From this perspective, Zamroud’s paintings are in some ways as distant from the conflict they address as Makki Bacho’s steel structures are from theirs. In other words, both artists depict spaces of war, but they are also concerned with the struggle to understand and give meaning to war. This is reflected in the two artists’ emphasis on their artistic process. As Makki Bacho explains:

“Iron as a material can be said to possess the coldness of death, but through the process of welding one can mould the material according to her own means. Figuratively, playing with fire, and literally, working with heat, the act of steel welding is a risk I have enjoyed taking.

At the centre of this process is my fascination with the act of melting. Sparks created during this welding process bring to mind flashes of thunder and lightning, or may be reminiscent of the diffusion of bombs and bullets as we experienced bombing and bullets as we experienced bombing and shelling early on in this city.”

On one wall, we are shown photographs of this welding process, with Makki Bacho seen working on her structures on a balcony. This aspect of the exhibit would have been more compelling if a video of the welding process was also displayed, so that the subtexts and emotions of ‘playing with fire’ could be translated more directly to the viewer. Furthermore, showing more documentation of Zamroud’s process could have tied the shared exhibit together more tightly; like the two photographs of Burj al-Murr also displayed for reference on another wall, a few of Zamroud’s collected photographs could have also been shown.

These details aside, ‘Material Remains’ is a powerful exhibit precisely because it asks the viewer to think about the process of representation and the politics of finding meaning within and behind the seemingly mundane artifacts of conflict. While the warscapes of Lebanon and Syria occupy a vast, shared space in our collective imagination, what this collection of artworks emphasizes most is an oftentimes forgotten, yet fundamental constant: any political stance begins primarily with a process of discovery that is deeply personal.

"In my young age," Makki Bacho tells Beirut.com, "or during the Civil War, I had some hope that things will get better. [Today] everything is getting worse and I have no more expectations from this place. It's my city, I love it and will never leave it as I did during the war, but it's unfortunate that we, the decent people who work hard to give the best image of our country, have no voice here, no matter what we do.”

The 'Material Remains' Exhibition continues at Ayyam Gallery until May 31.

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