Through the snarls of traffic choking the roads around Beirut’s National Museum, past the boutique selling snow globes of Harissa and Anjar and Raouche, past the newly restored mosaic depicting the abduction of Europa and the sarcophagus showing the legend of Achilles and the statue of two strange drunken cupids with striated faces, a modest glass display case marks the end of the museum’s permanent collection. Standing apart from the rest of the exhibition, at the top of the central staircase, it holds nine objects, damaged beyond recognition by a fire in the storage area, started when local militias shelled the museum during the Civil War.
Fusions of metal, ivory, glass and stone, these composite pieces are made of archeological relics – figurine and vessel, votive and tiny vase – melted together.
The display is a stroke of genius in an earnest but otherwise moribund institution. The museum is full of incredible stories but, since the government runs it as a minor concern, it musters none of the energy needed to tell them – except in this particular case.
These war-damaged objects are a sobering lesson and a subtle warning: the carriers of cultural lineage do not necessarily last; at a certain point or across a certain threshold, violence transforms them totally, turning them into junk.
After 15 years of war, during which the museum stood at one of the city’s most dangerous crossings, there were boxes, crates, shelves, rooms, a floor full of similarly wrecked things. Two of them – a charred Phoenician figurine and a thick, motley gob of glass-like substance – have been transported out of the museum to a small town in the middle of Germany.
Kassel, with a population of less than 200,000, hosts one of the world’s most important perennial exhibitions of contemporary art, Documenta, which more than 800,000 people are expected to visit this summer. The objects from Beirut’s National Museum are there on display alongside works by a number of Lebanese artists – Etel Adnan, Akram Zaatari, Walid Raad and Rabih Mroué – among some 200 other participants from around the globe.
Now in its 13th edition, Documenta is held every five years in Kassel, which was also the hometown of the late Arnold Bode, an artist, curator and teacher who was banned from painting by the Nazis during World War II.
Bode initiated the first Documenta, in 1955, to help stitch Germany back into European culture after the horrors of the Holocaust.
More practically, the first exhibition sought to sensitively redress the Nazi policy of categorizing much of the era’s avant-garde and experimental art as “degenerate.”
The Documenta exhibition was born of a post-traumatic moment and, under the current artistic direction of curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, to that idea it has returned.
Is that the context in which these two tiny ruins from Lebanon have landed in the literal and figurative heart of Documenta? Yes and no.
The National Museum objects are on display in the Rotunda of the Fridericianum, a neoclassical museum, in a portion of the exhibition Christov-Bakargiev has called both “the brain” and “a riddle” – “a set of elements,” she writes in a related essay, “pitting ethics, desire, fear, love, hope, anger, outrage and sadness against the conditions of hope, retreat, siege and stage.”
Those last four conditions – which also correspond to related events being organized in Kabul, Cairo and Banff in Canada – are effectively the sub-themes of a Documenta that Christov-Bakargiev has repeatedly claimed has no concept, but clearly does.
This Documenta is in many ways an incredibly poetic and emotionally gouging exhibition that not only looks back on the sites of trauma with wounded eyes – to borrow a phrase from the artist Walid Sadek, who isn’t included here but could’ve been. It also plots that recurring experience of trauma (including difference, otherness, division) along a rather glacial and ecological conception of time.
In key artworks and projects throughout the exhibition, Christov-Bakargiev appears to be raising the possibility that art is the one thing that endures, renews and sustains. This possibility is placed alongside another, which sees art among the many things that destroy, an endeavor as capricious as desire, equally capable of swinging to the side of good or bad.
The objects from the National Museum are both beautifully and painfully twinned to another set of composite pieces, the so-called Bactrian Princesses. These gorgeous Central Asian figurines, from the late third to early second millennia B.C., are made of chlorite, calcite and limestone parts that slot together and slide apart, without any form of glue or adhesive.
The fact that pieces of such stunning delicacy have held together for so long is as humbling as it is restorative of one’s faith in humanity. Only 80 of these objects are thought to exist. Nine are on display for Documenta.
The National Museum pieces are asked to carry a much less kind history – emblems of war, devastation, stupidity, callous indifference – but they sit in a glass display case with Etel Adnan’s palette knife, a gesture that is either totally random or entirely redemptive.
With an entire room in the Documenta Halle devoted to her paintings (and a tapestry), an ill-conceived evening devoted to her having messed around making Super-8 films 30 years ago, letters scattered here and there, a new monograph and a potent little publication called “The Cost for Love We Are Not Willing Pay,” Adnan hovers over this Documenta like some kind of pagan, elfin, matron saint.
Akram Zaatari, meanwhile, doubles back to the National Museum with a striking new 16-millimeter film called “The End of Time,” which the artist describes as “a choreography for two lovers enacted by three figures.”
Proposing archival practice as an endeavor that is only undertaken after heartbreak and failure, the film is part of a larger time capsule project. Zaatari has buried a series of small monochromatic paintings – made to pay tribute to a photographer losing his sight – in wooden cases sealed with acrylic and cased in cement on the banks of Kassel’s Fulda River.
Related to Zaatari’s decision to resign from the board of the Arab Image Foundation and to withdraw his membership, the time capsule was also inspired by the way National Museum staff protected the larger pieces in its collection during the Civil War – sealing them within concrete.
Back in Beirut, the National Museum had a handful of visitors this morning. The staff was wholly indifferent to Documenta. The easy-going atmosphere of the place, however, offered a fine refuge from the aggression and anxiety outside the museum’s doors.
There, on the first floor, sat those nine, untraveled objects, like a coda, an elegy to a time that, one hopes, has long passed.