Lebanon art show at Beit Meri's Roman ruins portrays tragedy in a delicate way

Lost in the Right Direction continues the unrealised project of Gaia Fodoulian, a young designer who died during the 2020 Beirut port explosion

An aerial shot of the Byzantine church at Deir El Kalaa. Photo: Art Design Lebanon
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For the next two months, the often-overlooked archaeological site of Deir El Kalaa in Beit Meri, Lebanon, will be getting some extra attention, thanks to a pop-up exhibition by Art Design Lebanon (AD Leb).

Titled Lost in the Right Direction, the show which opened on December 4 gathers 18 contemporary works by 37 artists, designers and artisans, and displays them among the Roman-Byzantine settlement ruins; some pieces in contrast, others in dialogue with the remains of structures dating back to the first century AD.

Created in collaboration with the Directorate General of Antiquities and L’Institut Francais, the creatives were given tours by archaeology professor Assaad Seif to inform their works, many of which drew inspiration from themes of memory, the passage of time, migration and loss.

“We wanted to spotlight this site, which is a Roman temple, with the Maronite Monastery of Saint John the Baptist built on top,” architect and scenographer Hala Younes tells The National. “Where the show takes place is at the ruins of the Roman-Byzantine town that sat at the base of the temple, which was abandoned around the sixth or seventh century AD.

“The site has the remains of a Byzantine church, a Roman bathhouse, the remains of a Roman villa and a street that would have been the local market of the town, showing the remains of shops and houses,” she says. “The location of Beit Meri, and therefore the previous historic settlements, is very geographically strategic, which is why during the Lebanese Civil War, the Syrian Army had a small outpost you can still see here. Beit Meri overlooks Beirut, the coast and the valley of Nahr Beirut.”

This is the second show from AD Leb, a cultural platform founded this year by gallerist Annie Vartivarian, continuing the unrealised project of her daughter Gaia Fodoulian, a young designer who died during the 2020 Beirut Port explosion. The title of the show is derived from a social media post published by Fodoulian while exploring Europe.

Placed in the Roman bathhouse ruins is a light installation named Drop by Drop, created by sculptor and installation artist Nathaniel Rackowe, who is inspired by two of Fodoulian’s designs, resulting in a new piece in her memory. The new installation is based on a sink inspired by Jeita Grotto’s stalactites and stalagmites and a shelf piece with a perpendicular structure.

“Rackowe combined them both with his work… and he used these neon lights to give the impression of dripping stalactites,” AD Leb assistant director Stephanie Ghougassian tells The National. “The placement of the piece is very important too, because it's a covered area and the piece needs a little bit of darkness, which also gives the impression of the Grotto.”

Dotted around Deir Al Kalaa are works by Hussein Nassereddine, Natasha Karam, Christine Safatly, Samer Bou Rjeily, Mohamad Kanaan and more.

On Magnetic Declination, a collaboration between jewellery designer Oliver DeGem and photographer Caroline Tabet, explores themes of displacement. The project consists of 12 copper locket pendants in glass bottles or domes, containing photographs of artefacts or items related to the myths and practices of Deir El Kalaa, as well as bits of plants.

They intended to show what precious items people forced to migrate might choose to take with them – a familiar choice to modern Lebanon, now facing a new mass exodus to escape the several crises plaguing the country.

Mahmoud El Safadi’s Baring Bodies features fragmented clay sculptures half-buried in the earth or emerging from rubble, evoking semi-excavated statues or preserved bodies from the ashes of Pompeii. The figures are inspired by Roman myths and their famous renditions, such as the Belvedere Torso or The Rape of Proserpina by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, surrounded by local medicinal plants.

“There's this whole cycle of thinking about the healing properties of plants and caring for figures; about how long can you sustain life on them, in an environment like this. You have a lot of rosemary, thyme, lemongrass, olive, bay leaves, lavender and aloe,” Safadi says. “The [statues’] gestures are confused on purpose, like you don't know if someone is swimming or drowning, being caressed or groped, pushed or pulled. You don't know if it's a thing in repose or decay.

“It’s about the cycle of life and death. One piece is a sundial, so the body itself tells time and has watercress seeds planted on it. As the exhibition goes on, the watercress is actually going to cover the entire dial, so it’s this obscurity of time – especially with what we've lived through the past two years – and how its meaning goes away.”

Over time, the installation will become green, in the same way Deir El Kalaa has been reclaimed by nature.

Nada Debs and Rina Jaber’s collaborative installation Migration of the Butterflies uses concrete blocks stacked into pillars, echoing the fragments of colonnades at the site. Debs’ work often features mother-of-pearl butterflies inlaid in concrete, but this time ceramic butterflies, made by Jaber, are flying away, leaving hollow imprints.

“I was looking at Nada’s table and I imagined the butterflies leaving, just like everyone was leaving around us – we lost people in our family from Covid-19, we lost friends in the explosion, we lost so many beautiful souls as a lot of them are leaving the country because of the situation in Lebanon,” Jaber says. “If the butterflies leave their concrete homes, or their homes inside us or in their country, they would leave a beautiful imprint behind because they were beautiful.

“Usually, art that talks about tragedy is always portrayed in a way that visualises the violence and the aggression in the artwork,” she says. “We chose to portray the tragedy in a delicate and sensitive way that is also visually pleasing. It doesn't have to be blood and bombs or broken buildings to show our sadness.”

Heritage non-profit Silat for Culture will be offering guided tours of the site to spotlight its history. As part of the exhibition, they’ve cleaned up the Roman olive oil press and added missing wooden elements to help visitors learn about it. They’ve similarly redefined the Byzantine church and placed wire skeletons of the missing columns, to flesh out the original scope of the church.

Lost in the Right Direction continues till January 9, 2022

Updated: December 13, 2021, 1:13 PM