The Baroque, protest and the Second Coming

BEIRUT: In 16th- and 17th-century Europe, books comprised of short texts juxtaposed with etchings were fairly common. Such “emblem books” frequently focused on endings, defeats and the trappings of a failed world.Often didactic, their blend of image and text compelled readers to absorb information in a new way, searching for the intersection between text and image to ascertain how they played off one another.

The allegories formed by this pairing of two disciplines captured the attention of artist, writer and architect Tony Chakar.

“My attraction to emblem books comes from the way they present us with a different view of picture and text,” he explains. “Pictures in emblem books are never an illustration of what is being said, and the text is never commenting on the picture. So they have a weird symbiosis. ... They both carry their meaning, but each gives other layers of meaning to the other – the text to the image and the image to the text.”

Chakar recently released his own limited-edition emblem book, “The Dialogue that is Us,” commissioned and produced by the Sharjah Art Foundation as part of his 100,000 Solitudes project, in which his diverse interests coalesce.

Presented at Ashkal Alwan in a lecture staged as part of Home Works 6, 100,000 Solitudes links Chakar’s interest in the Baroque period, recent worldwide grassroots resistance movements such as the Occupy movement, the Canadian protest movement Idle No More and the wave of uprisings across the Arab world, and predicts the arrival of messianic times.

Chakar’s interest in the Baroque period stems from the parallels he is able to draw between Europe several centuries ago and Lebanon today.

“I teach architecture and art,” he says, “and the Baroque period is very specific. It’s very particular. There is something in there, a certain sensibility, which I think resembles a lot our own.

“This sensibility,” he continues, “is this capacity of seeing the end of things, instead of seeing their beginnings. When you look at things and you look at their beginnings, you’re hopeful, and you know that they are going to grow and prosper, but here, in Beirut, I think that we see the end of things. Even if something has just been formed now, people will instantly think about how it will end. The idea of death ... is always present.”

In “The Dialogue That is Us” Chakar pairs etched examples of famous European art and architecture – paintings such as Jan Vermeer’s “Young Woman with a Water Pitcher” and Pablo Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” buildings by Mies van der Rohe and Hans Scharoun and the famous smiling angel statue in Reims cathedral – with short, enigmatic texts.

The etchings, done with a simple ballpoint pen by Eli Ayal, are in keeping with the style of traditional emblem books. Chakar’s texts rarely refer directly to the image with which they are paired. Instead, they explore a story or emotion conjured up by the image, sometimes linking these to contemporary upheavals, at other times leaving readers to make their own inferences.

The book is divided into four sections, the texts in each centered on the attribute of a Greek god. The first, entitled Gaia – after the Greek creation goddess, mother earth -- is concerned with creation and destruction. Uranus focuses on the sky, light and the heavens. Eros takes up love. In the final section, Kronos, Chakar explores the concept of time.

The texts draw together diverse elements in each poetic, reflective passage. Beside an etching that captures the distinctive mountain that appears in many of Paul Cezanne’s works, Chakar draws attention to the artist’s technique of placing patches of color side by side, the white canvas being visible between them. To finish, he borrows a line from Canadian poet and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Next to an etched representation of Hubert Robert’s “An Imaginary View of the Grande Galerie in the Louvre in Ruins,” in the Eros chapter, Chakar asks why Robert predicted the museum’s demise before its completion. “Was it because he knew that the world was in failure?” he speculates. “... Or was it because he saw the history of humanity, its past, present and future for what it is, wreckage upon wreckage?

“As for us, now,” he concludes, “how are we to represent our devastated world? Painting is not enough, nor is photography.”

Other texts are more overtly linked to the Arab region and their recent uprisings. Next to an etching of the smiling angel at Reims cathedral, Chakar wonders what made the sculptor abandon tradition and sculpt that small smile onto the angel’s face.

“How lucky will the photographer be,” he writes, “the one who will capture that first smile after the fall of all the Arab regimes of oppression.”

The epilogue, a single page consisting of an etching of a group of Syrian men in Kfarenbel, holding a banner, is the key to the book, tying the project back in with the themes 100,000 Solitudes.

Next to this etching, Chakar provides a translation of the Arabic text on the banner: “May the Regime and the Opposition fall ... May the Arab and Islamic Nations Fall ... May the Security Council Fall ... May the World Fall ... May Everything Fall.”

“In 100,000 Solitudes I declare the coming of messianic times but without the Messiah, without the Christ,” he explains.

“This is what I saw in the Arab revolutions and in other places. Like rivers filled with blood – it was done in Damascus. Like people demonstrating wearing their death shrouds, saying ‘Even the dead want to regime to go,’ that was done also. Like the world becoming upside down.”

He gestures to the Kfarenbel etching, explaining that in other pictures the banner was inverted.

“Here on the spine you have the omega and the alpha,” he says, pointing to two symbols embossed on the black cloth binding. “Usually Jesus says that he is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, so this is the omega and the alpha – the reversal of everything.”

Tony Chakar’s “The Dialogue that is Us,” commissioned and produced by the Sharjah Art Foundation, is available from the Beirut Art Center and Ashkal Alwan.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 03, 2013, on page 16.




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