INTERVIEW: INSIDE THE NATIONAL MUSEUM
BEIRUT: On a recent Saturday morning, the National Museum in Beirut was empty except for a family sprawled out on the soft low-slung benches inside an audiovisual room near to the entrance, where a documentary film on the institution's storied restoration was screening, and a lone security guard seated in a corner on the upper floor, clutching his mobile phone intently with two hands as it beeped out an infectious hook from a Snoop Dogg song.
The last time artist Fareed Armaly was here was around the time the museum re-opened in the late 1990s. Not much has changed since then - a selection of stately sarcophagi in limestone and marble arranged around ornate mosaics on the first floor, smaller jewels, coins, fenestrated axes and more arranged in glass vitrines on the second.
"It seems it's still settling into place," Armaly notes. "There is an interesting discrepancy between the chaotic animation of the area ... and the feeling of permanence, of suspending animation inside the museum. The outside is defined by all these streams of traffic flowing from all directions ... [but] once inside, the museum's architectural restoration provides an eerie calm from which to contemplate the arrangement of historical fragments."
Born in the United States to Lebanese and Palestinian parents, Armaly ripped through a number of art schools in his day, but it is probably more
accurate to say his formative education took place in the laboratory that was New York in the 1980s. He is now based in Germany, where he was the artistic director of the Kunstlerhaus in Stuttgart from 1999 through 2003.
Armaly came to Beirut this summer to visit family after a brief stint in Cairo, where he has been gathering material for an ongoing project on Egyptian filmmaker Tawfiq Saleh and his film "The Dupes," which is based on Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani's novella "Men in the Sun."
One of Armaly's earlier artworks, from 1987, was a music magazine called "Terminal Zone." Another drew on two pages from the United Nations General Assembly Yearbook outlining the proposed partition of Palestine. More recently, the project "From/To," a topography of post-1948 Palestinian routes charted as a map unfolding in real time, was realized for Documenta XI in 2002.
Over the years, Armaly has developed a multi-layered, multidisciplinary artistic practice involving maps, routes, movements, diagrams and correspondences. Architecture, archaeology and institutional discourse also play into his projects. As an artist, he is not particularly prolific - he grounds his work in years of research, interviews and exchanges.
"My interests always focus on 'script,' a term that joins contemporary computer programming language [with] literature, film and theater," he explains. Armaly's work takes on histories and narratives that are "in a moment of flux [and] on the verge of institutionalization."
As a rather marginalized institution in terms of contemporary culture in Lebanon, the National Museum began in 1919 with a small cache of artifacts that had been collected by Raymond Weill, a French officer based in Lebanon, and shown in an exhibition hall on Georges Picot Street. Four years later, a committee headed by Beshara al-Khoury was formed and tasked with raising construction funds for a proper museum. Based on designs by architects Antoine Nahas and Pierre Leprince Ringuet, the museum was built between 1930 and 1937 and inaugurated in 1942. Its mandate was to house all antiquities found in Lebanese soil, and it was linked from the start to Lebanon's DGA, the directorate general of antiquities.
For three decades, the museum built up its collection, from tools dating back to the Lower and Upper Paleolithic periods through the Bronze and Iron Ages, the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Mamluk periods through to the 19th century. But due to the outbreak of Lebanon's Civil War in 1975, and the museum's location smack on top of Beirut's Green Line, the building was sandbagged and closed. It was further shot at, shelled, looted, flooded, occupied by various militias and covered with graffiti. Parts of the collection were encased in concrete or ferreted away to the basement.
Restoration of both the building and the collection began in 1995. In 1997, the museum reopened - briefly and partially - under the auspices of then-President Elias Hrawi. Two years later it reopened again - with the ground and upper floors restored - under the auspices of then- and current-President Emile Lahoud. Much of the collection is still closeted on the lower floor - the basement galleries have yet to be rehabilitated - so one can expect a third, possibly final, reopening at some point in the future, though under the auspices of which president remains anyone's guess.
Armaly has been thinking about archaeological relics and the discourse of museums a great deal lately. In late April, the exhibition "Gaza: At the Crossroads of Civilizations" began its six-month run at the Musee d'Art et d'Histoire in Geneva. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, slightly less beleaguered at the time and still in command of the Gaza Strip, attended the opening reception. Curated by Marc-Andre Haldimann, the show includes more than 500 artifacts covering more than 5,000 years of history, from the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Arabs and more.
The artifacts were all culled from the Palestinian Authority's Department of Antiquities, which has been conducting archaeological excavations with international partners since 1994, and the collection of Jawdat Khoudary, a Gazan building contractor who has been amassing antiquities found on area construction sites since the early 1990s. Though the 30 kilometers that constitute the Gaza Strip are more commonly associated with poverty, strife and a population squeezed into an open-air prison than with a long, rich and diverse history, the exhibition is meant to be a precursor. If all goes well, a 20,000-square-meter Palestinian National Museum of Archaeology will be created, with help from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and at a cost of $30 million, on a major, 18-hectare excavation site at Blakhiah, north of Gaza City, by 2016.
The exhibition begins with a sixth-century amphora from Gaza that was discovered, curiously enough, beneath the Geneva Cathedral in 1980, attesting to ancient trade routes that once linked the two locations.
It ends with a Byzantine fragment, to which British soldiers added an inscription in 1917, turning it into a gravestone. In between the two elegant curatorial endpoints Armaly has created a contemporary artwork that both complements and complicates the show's linear historical narrative.
"Shar(e)d Domains" reassembles a new amphora based on the diagnostic shards (necessary), body shards (extraneous) and the seams made in between them during the reconstruction of the original sixth-century vessel. More than two years in the making, Armaly's piece remains an open project - one that considers the process by which such an exhibition comes together and how it functions strategically and in the long term. The experience of "Shar(e)d Domains," whether as text or within the actual exhibition setting itself, is a trenchant reminder that archaeology can - and probably should - be as alive to viewers as contemporary art. The distance between them isn't as vast as it seems.
"In museological discourse the artifact serves as an expression of the contemporary routed through a historical condition," Armaly writes in the text accompanying "Shar(e)d Domains." "The vessel here is inversed, outlined, and suspended in a tenuous state of equilibrium that no longer contains but exposes. It reminds us that it is impossible to reconstruct history but only our current relation to the past as active discourse."
Given the time he spent mulling over the Gaza-Geneva amphora and the establishment of an antiquities museum that presumes the creation of a Palestinian state, how does Armaly read Lebanon's National Museum now?
"The historical collection ... appears to follow the conventions of traditional museological display," he says. "But there [are] differences which register - in the relations, somewhere in the spacing, between objects, in the way one moves, the display texts." To find correspondences with the museum's "unfinishedness" and the sense of it being "not yet settled in place," Armaly points to the film screening at the entrance ("it replenishes a missing sense of atmosphere," he notes), the staircase between the two floors and what he calls his "cardinal points" in the upper gallery - four objects that each in their own way struck Armaly as anomalies.
The first is a substantial chunk of obsidian, the second a broken piece of sundial, the third a vitrious mass of undetermined date found in Tyre and the fourth a collection of pieces damaged during the war, melted and fused into automobile parts, now housed in a glass box as a reminder or object lesson in war.
"They stood out in their respective areas," Armaly says. "I search for a contemporary relation to museological discourse, history, a collection ... avoiding the preset formats requires a form of detourne or poetics of the discourse. And so I would consider these an offer of four cardinal points to orient the upper floor's collection. Maybe they're akin to 'attractors' in a chaos represented by the museum. Who knows. They offer so many levels that in turn can be found within the collection. But that's the beauty of collections.
"These four are all historical evidence of arrested states of transformation, mostly from intense heat - obsidian, vitrious mass, metled/fused automobile, even the fragment of sundial stands as a stone converted to use as a measuring device in relation to the sun. I can imagine these as a formulation of a collection, made by way of starting with just these four indications of unpredictable, transformatory forces."