By Felicity Cobbing (PEF Executive Secretary & Curator)
The Missing: Rebuilding the Past 15th April -7th May 2016
4 Mandeville Place, Marylebone, London. www.jessicacarlisle.com
The PEF has a new neighbour in the form of an art gallery, run by Jessica Carlisle and Valerie Wallersteiner, located just round the corner from our offices. Their first exhibition, The Missing: Rebuilding the Past is curated by Erin Thompson, Professor of Art Crime at the City University of New York.
I visited the exhibition which has received quite a bit of publicity following the erection of the replica Palmyrene arch in Trafalgar Square.
The Missing is a response from artists to the recent destruction of ancient monuments and art by so-called Islamic State (ISIS or DAESH), and examines the nature of this loss, what it can mean for humanity, and how the artefacts themselves are transformed by this action.
There were several artist’s work on display, each offering a very different response to current events.
James Brooks’ Stoic Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is a multi-media work combining an image of Palmyra with a soundtrack, alongside quotes from the Roman philosopher-emperor’s Meditations. It is an introspective work, which acknowledges our feelings of loss when such monuments are destroyed, but also puts this loss in a wider historical perspective.
Dimitra Ermeidou’s evocative photographs of defaced Greek relief sculptures from the National Archaeological Museum in Athens forms Demos – for a Hall of Portraits. The images form a collection of rather ghostly figures, like memories of once living people whose features and unique characteristics are slowly fading from the collective consciousness. The sculptures were vandalised by persons unknown, at some time in the past. They are a timely reminder that iconoclasm is not confined to any one group of people or set of beliefs. It is a part of human nature to destroy as much as it is to create.
Also on display is a small 3D printed version of the replica Palmyrene arch currently erected in Trafalgar Square, and next to be displayed in Time Square New York. Created by the Oxford Institute of Digital Archaeology, using images taken on low-cost, easy to use 3D cameras distributed to activists in Syria, it provides an example of the possibilities that technology can bring to the process of reconstruction envisaged in the future. Through the Million Image database, an international project supported by UNESCO, similar activities are taking place in Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Turkey, Jordan, and Egypt.
A stunning piece by Piers Secunda shows a replica of an Assyrian relief, and then the same relief punctured by bullet holes. The holes are casts of damage caused to ancient monuments in Iraqi Kurdistan by DAESH fighters seeking to destroy cultural heritage in the region. Bizarrely, the damaged piece is in some ways as beautiful as its pristine pristine: perhaps a commentary that imperfection and the marks of history have their own resonance and beauty. Maybe it is a question as to whether we should be quite so enthusiastic about instantly ‘restoring’ everything to its former glory – as if to wipe out the reality of DAESH’s barbarism? After all, we do preserve some icons of extreme pain, such as the remains of Auschwitz, to serve as a permanent reminder of what took place there, and what should never be allowed to happen again. Would a total ‘restoration’ in itself be a form of iconoclasm, wiping out as it would all traces of this horrendous moment in our history?
Our cultural heritage is not just threatened by destruction from bombs and guns and fanatics wielding hammers. Erin Thompson has been collecting images from social media of ancient artefacts for sale on the antiquities market – a trade which the whole world is complicit in, and one in which London is a major player. Artefacts which have been looted are made untraceable through cleaning and falsification of records, and sold for profit in an illegal trade which causes huge damage to our shared cultural heritage. Ironically, the images of looted artefacts posted by middle-men on social media to aid the sale of these antiquities, form an ‘image trail’ which Erin is tracking, in the hope that some artefacts may be identified. A selection of these images is displayed in the exhibition. The installation covers a whole wall, but forms a tiny fraction of the data that Erin has collected.
In amongst all the publicity surrounding the destruction of monuments in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, and events such as the erection of a replica of the Palmyrene triumphal arch in Trafalgar Square, there has been some criticism that perhaps artefacts of the past mean more to some of us than living people – what about the inhabitants of Tadmor (the modern town next to the ancient site of Palmyra, for instance? Don’t they matter? Is their suffering ignored because of the focus on things?
These are relevant questions to ask, and they deserve thinking about. It is a terrible thing to learn that whilst a media circus surrounded a pile of stones, the suffering and circumstances of living people are actually being ignored.
The monuments of ancient Palmyra, Aleppo or Nineveh are the palpable remains of human civilisation. I think that by studying them and visiting them we learn to appreciate the achievements of our fellow human beings who just happen to have lived in the past. In my very humble opinion, they are inherently important as reminders of our shared humanity. Iconoclasts – whether they be those of the past or modern day – want to deny that shared humanity. Our desire to recreate (in some way) what has been destroyed of our cultural heritage is a natural reaction, and has a place alongside the efforts to restore some sort of normality to those whose lives have been shattered. It is not, and should not be, an ‘either / or’ situation. I think it is very true that the inhabitants and custodians of Palmyra – Tadmor, Aleppo, and those cities and towns in Iraq where monasteries and mosques have been destroyed, feel their loss with an intensity that we lucky souls elsewhere can only begin to imagine. Some of them have died trying to protect them. In wanting to help mend them, we are sharing a little of their pain.
This reality, that these monuments matter profoundly, and constitute a visible and lasting metaphor for human life and memory which are in themselves so transient and fragile, was made very apparent to me at the exhibition in the form of a model of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, made by Tmam Alkhidaiwi Alnabilsi, a 25 year old Syrian refugee currently living at Zaatari Camp just outside Jordan. The model was featured in an article in The Guardian by Charlie Dunmore entitled ‘How art is helping Syrian refugees keep their culture alive’. The Umayyad Mosque, a unique and beautiful example of very early Islamic architecture, has suffered extensive damage, caught in the cross-fire of Syria’s ongoing civil war – an accidental victim rather than the intended target. The building is the latest incarnation of religious structures on the site that go back to at least the second millennium BCE, if not earlier. This destruction is such a tragedy.
I remember visiting the mosque on several occasions in happier years. As a visitor to Syria, it was one of my favourite places. What was so lovely was not just the beauty of the building itself, or the exquisite green and gold mosaics which adorned it, but how this place was alive as the true heart of the city. All were welcome. Children played and scholars studied verses of the Koran. Grannies chatted, and new parents brought their precious new bundles of life to be blessed. The place was filled with the echoes of whispering clerics and quietly laughing children. It was a privilege to witness Syrian life at its very best, and to see the part this wonderful historic building played in it. Tmam’s model is a homage to all of this – to the life of the building as much to the building itself. It is a symbol for all that Syria has lost. Remarkable in its accuracy, it is made from bits of plywood, food crates, and kebab sticks: anything that came to hand in the camp. Tmam clearly knows this building intimately, and his model is an expression of his relationship with it. It is a deeply moving artefact.
There are plans to take this exhibition travelling after its London stint, and a fine thing that would be. The exhibition is a brave and eloquent expression of human creativity and destructive impulse – opposite sides of the same coin, perhaps, and a relationship which deserves exploring.