A journey through anonymous cities

BEIRUT: Thirty-eight untitled photographs – of cities as nameless as the images – comprise the opening exhibition at Minus 5, a warehouse five floors below ground at the Mkalles 2001 Center.

“Symmetricity,” photographer Roody Khalil’s latest exhibition, is intentionally ambiguous. The collection of images, shot on film in an unspecified number of cities, is a purposeful attempt to skew the lines of difference between culture and architecture, making the locations hard to identify and creating as it does a kind of desolate universality.

In Khalil’s images a surprising quietude pervades. His lens seems to find the stillest moments and corners of anonymous cities, largely avoiding humanity and the hustle and bustle usually associated with urban scapes. They bestow upon the cities they depict – by capturing stairways, tramlines, parking lots and lanes – a peacefulness and solitude.

The result is a set of images that aren’t likely to be described as arresting. But that may just be part of the point: one could bypass these images just as easily as one regularly bypasses their content in real life. Yet, when one takes the time, in a gallery setting, to give due attention to Khalil’s shots, one discovers something revelatory in some, deeply touching in others and compositionally attractive in most.

Among the first grouping is Untitled 8, a shot which succeeds in making a curbstone beautiful. In the vertical image, Khalil – who finds himself on a tree-lined and leaf-strewn street – focuses his lens on the curb, drawing our attention to the piece of paving at the point at which it aligns with a beam of sunlight. Thus this curb is transformed into something elegant, something that seems to form an enlightened pathway out of the physical world.

Untitled 11 plays a similar trick with what is either a railing or tree branch. Caught in focus, the railing or branch seems to extend until it penetrates a window of the blurred building behind it, like a hypodermic needle to the soul of domestic life.

Other images appear to capture a tenderness even in their inanimate content. Untitled 26, 27, 28 and 29 are all taken as the photographer looks out from various windows. Although the lens is turned away from the interior of these rooms, the images also speak of the indoor worlds within Khalil’s cities. Untitled 29 in particular, with its four foggy panes, contains in its outward gaze the red-painted building opposite it and the warmth of the life being lived behind the image.

Symmetry lies at the heart of the composition of many of Khalil’s works. He utilizes road markings, walls, telegraph poles, paint work and trees to measure and balance his shots, so that some would create almost a mirror image of themselves if folded down the center, giving the urban scapes he depicts an uncanny uniformity.

That Khalil’s works are untitled adds a new dimension to a conventional exhibition, bringing a sort of “guess where this is” game into play. The compulsion to learn the location of each shot is so overwhelming it may be a point of irritation for some. But viewers quickly enter into a new type of engagement with the images as they endeavor to deduce each one’s whereabouts.

One would assume – given Khalil’s time in Beirut and the fact that his first photographic exhibition here (“Around the City” shown at Galerie Janine Rubeiz in 2007) was a documentary of the Lebanese capital – that a number of the shots in “Symmetricity” are scenes from the city.

Yet there is little sunshine in the collection. The skies shown are muted, the cool whites and grays of drizzly weather, or that blue that accompanies the winter’s chill; the concrete surfaces shown are often slick with rain, and snow is clear in some images.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to establish the locations beyond “definitely not Beirut” and “somewhere in Europe.”

Into the former category, one can lump those photographs showing functional tramlines, a clearly demarcated zebra crossing and signage in neither Arabic, French nor English. Into the latter go the two images where Germanic or Slavic languages are identifiable on the signage in shot.

But then, that’s the whole idea: to blur the lines of difference and to reveal in doing so a common perspective. Although, Khalil says, he may reveal the locations to purchasers of his images if they so wish.

The gallery Minus 5 also plays on his theme, drawing as it does viewers out of central Beirut and up the hill to Mkalles, a part of the city rarely visited by those who have neither residence nor business there. From Mkalles you behold new aspects of the city, and en route to Minus 5, some five floors below a shopping center, visitors again encounter previously unexplored terrain.

“Symmetricity” is up at Minus 5 in the Mkalles 2001 Center until Oct. 26. The exhibition is open from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Saturday. For more information please call 01-697-210.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 08, 2012, on page 16.




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