Far from the coast, deep in the congested Beirut suburb of Haret Hreik and contained within the concrete walls of The Umam Hangar exhibition space, the sea roars.
Hala Younes, an architect by profession, describes this, her maiden voyage into the installation art world, as an “intervention.”
“Waterfront,” which opened at The Hangar last week, comprises video and sound installations recorded at the seawall reinforcing the “Normandy” landfill in Downtown. This stretch of man-made coastline, opened one year ago to the public, was created largely in the aftermath of the Civil War as rubble from destroyed buildings was dumped to make way for Solidere’s reconstruction project, but it remains a lonely, uninhabited space. Its vacancy contrasts starkly with the city’s popular seafront areas: the Corniche and the trendy new Zaitunay Bay.
Younes’ mission is to change this. The Lebanese artist is determined to draw Beirutis to “this major public space that is still unknown.”
“You have 1 kilometer and a half of new shoreline that you don’t know,” is her message to her compatriots.
“So please go and get acquainted with this place.”
Younes believes, however, that the problem with this area of the city is that “it has no memory.” Locals have no recollections associated with this entirely altered coastline.
The artist herself became acquainted with the waterfront during the decade she spent working as an architect on the Beirut Hilton, which overlooks the virtual no man’s land. Her affinity for it grew as she spent time watching the sea and listening to its unusual sound – a unique composition created by the hydraulic engineers responsible for building the waterfront and its breakwater.
“I saw this [area] changing [and] evolving, and I’d really like to share it with the people of Beirut,” she says.
When a colleague issued a call for proposals on projects exploring public spaces, Younes was hesitant at first and inclined to simply forward the request to her architecture students, but on second thought she suggested taking a closer look at the unused area she’d come to love.
“My idea was to bring people to think about this place and to inhabit this place,” she says, “[and] to let them know it by its major characteristic, which is the noise, the sound [of the] the sea.”
Younes initially thought her project would be a sound installation alone, but when she used an open-air system to test the recording in Downtown’s Samir Kassir Square, Monika Borgmann, who runs the Umam Documentation and Research project, heard it and suggested she collaborate with The Hangar to create an exhibition surrounding the track.
Now upon arrival at The Hangar, one is greeted with the constant roar of the sea. Two-thirds of the exhibition space lies mysteriously behind heavy curtains, through which visitors are invited to step. Beyond the curtains, one finds oneself in a strange, dark space, surrounded on three sides by projections of the underside of the complex shoreline structure where the Mediterranean hits the solid limit imposed on it by man. The seawall is textured with grey watermarks and greenish algae, giving a sense that the body of water is somehow too endeavoring to lay claim to this stretch of coast. The water is dark, almost oil-black, and lapping animatedly, although not fiercely, against the concrete. Its reflection patterns the floors as well visitors’ skin and clothes, so that nothing in the space feels static or permanent. It also creates the sense that the room is dripping; one almost feels wet.
The only thing more consuming than the visual projections is the sound, in which one is equally immersed. A 30-minute track, which was recorded simultaneously with the projected images, runs on a loop. But the great noise of the sea’s crashing seems out of sync with the tempo of the projected waves. This unusual sound is created by an out-of-sight breakwater, Younes explains. And while at first the crashing dominates, the longer one listens, the more aural texture one uncovers. The sea also babbles and quivers. At times it is sinister, at others less so: a strangled throat is squeezed of breath, liquid glugs down a plughole, a stomach gurgles ... Younes encourages visitors to find their own narrative in the recording.
“In order to take possession of this place, they [have] to put this sound in their collection imagination,” she says. “Hearing this sound and having collective memories with it will help people get acquainted with it and like it, etc.”
While the first portion of the exhibition asks viewers to form memories in a place where there currently are none, the second takes the same location but recalls how it was before being altered by human hands.
The second video installation is taken from atop the newly built coastal structure, with the camera’s lens pointed toward the sea. Viewers are invited to observe waves hitting waterfront while listening to a mid-nineties audio recording taken at this segment of the city’s coastline. The sound is wholly other – more the typical rolling pull of wave on shale that is almost universally associated with the sea. It is the sound heard when one presses a seashell to one’s ear.
The exercise imposes something familiar on an unfamiliar place, playing with viewers’ recollections and sentiments, and hopefully ultimately generating in them some sense of ownership over this public space along with the will, Younes says, “to take possession of it.”
“My intervention, this is the meaning of it: I would like this place to stay public, like the Corniche is public. I don’t want people to think that they are going to [the upscale] Solidere, to [think they need to] ask for an entrance. It is a part of the city that is still unknown. I would like people to know it, to invest in it, before it is rented to restaurants or I don’t know what,” she explains.
Sitting in front of Younes’ second video installation, the sea spray is almost tangible, but outside The Hangar, in the warren of built-up streets and amid the screech of construction and honking of car horns, the coast couldn’t feel further away. It may seem counterintuitive to draw people inland in order to push them seaward, but don’t be surprised if topmost in your mind as you exit this exhibition is exploring the artist’s terra incognita for yourself.
“Waterfront” by Hala Younes, with sound by Christophe Hauser, is open at The Hangar/UMAM D&R Wednesday-Sunday, 2-8 p.m. until Feb. 26. For more information, call 01-553-604.