'The Gesture': new Beirut sculpture to honour victims of port explosion

The response to the work, created by Lebanese artist and architect Nadim Karam, has been mixed

It looks like a steel giant emerging shell-shocked from the rubble of the exploded Beirut port, but the towering sculpture, made of reclaimed construction steel, is in fact a friendly figure, handing out what looks like a flower to the city.

Listen to the latest podcast on the Beirut blast here.

It is made of dozens of damaged steel parts, which were once part of the port's hangars. On Wednesday, onlookers could see the 25-metre high sculpture being erected by a crane. In a few days, the finished project will also include a light and water installation, in time for Lebanon’s national day of mourning on August 4.

The Gesture, as the work has been called, will serve as a memorial to the victims of the explosion that devastated the city almost a year ago today. It is also intended as a sign of hope for its survivors, according to an Instagram channel about the work.

The sculpture was designed and conceived by Nadim Karam, who describes the project as a collective effort with many volunteers. “We’re all working together to say that life is important, and that we are really concerned about what happened to Beirut,” Karam says in a video posted on Instagram.

Twenty seven individuals and organisations, including designers, arts institutions, logistics companies and public sector bodies, contributed to the project as volunteers. “When I approached people to participate, nobody thought twice before saying yes,” says Karam. The artist has been busy with the installation and could not be reached for an interview.

But among the volunteers is architect Christian Atallah, 32, who was tasked with taking aerial photographs of the site during the construction process.

He tells The National that he was proud to take part: “It’s a really personal project for everyone who lives in Lebanon and was affected by the blast. The explosion destroyed Beirut, its heritage and its urban fabric. The sculpture creates something positive out of the destruction.”

The project was also supported by the Lebanese Army, with permits supplied by Lebanon’s Home Security and the Port Authority.

Karam is one of Lebanon’s most celebrated artists, known for his urban art projects and interventions. His public art works appear in cities including London, Tokyo, and Al Ula.

However, the response online to Karam's new sculpture so far has been mixed. While some celebrated his work on social media channels, others criticised it.

Mazen Chehab, a creative director from Beirut, disagreed with the timing of the sculpture. “That’s a shameful gesture. Nothing should be done with the port until those responsible for the explosion are heavily sanctioned,” he wrote in a comment on Karam’s Instagram channel.

Others asked for more transparency about the project’s commissioning structure, and the involvement of Lebanese politicians and public bodies. “The public institution does not have money to print official papers any more. How did they support this great epic initiative? […] Can we know their involvement?!” Nathalie El Mir commented on social media.

Activist Bachar Al Halabi accused Karam of complicity with Lebanon's politicians, who many believe should be blamed for having done nothing to prevent the explosion. In his comment, he asserts that the installation required the consent of "the very criminals/perpetrators of the explosion itself".

In a statement posted on Thursday, the team wrote that the work has been done without the involvement of the Lebanese government adding, "the only intention behind it is to acknowledge our tragedy, our loss, our sadness and anger."

One commentator who asked to remain anonymous questioned the originality of the idea, as last year Lebanese artist Hayat Nazer created the commemorative sculpture of a woman holding out a torch, using rubble and broken glass from the explosion.

However, some simply objected to the sculpture's brutal and worn aesthetics. “This thing is being placed in the port, oh God!”, wrote Twitter user Hady Kabalan.

Atallah, the volunteer, was upset by the comments and believes the criticism is misguided. “The sculpture does not aim to bring back the victims of this crime, nor does it replace the long awaited justice; it is a gesture, as its name states,” he says.

Updated: August 3rd 2021, 6:48 AM
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