Commissioned by the Sharjah Art Foundation, this body of work is related to a project which traces can be found in different moments of time. Ziad Antar started to work on an archive of images he then developed on a film he found in Sidon, Lebanon, but which expired in 1976 giving a very specific visual effect to the result. Since 2000 the artist has used this film to print images he took in Sidon, New York, Cairo, Alexandria and Beirut. For this special project conceived for FLATT’s special issue on America, Antar has selected three towers: Burj Khalifa, the tallest Building in the World, in Dubai which he shot in 2010; the Murr Tower in Beirut, which picture he took in 2007; and the Eiffel Tower in Paris, which he shot in 2011. This project, these series of “portraits of towers,” presented together with a text written in Arabic by Lebanese writer Hazem Saghieh and translated into English by Nizar Ghanem, is a very poignant reflection on how architecture – towers in this specific case – have been used by human beings to convey different meanings and messages: power, wealth, progression, you name it. As for “Portrait of a Territory,” his show curated by Christine Macel at the Sharjah Art Foundation, Antar is once again questioning the complex reality of the Middle East through a perspective that is filtered by universal preoccupations.
Nicola Trezzi, editor and commissioner.
Ziad Antar assaults the tower twice. Once by miniaturizing it; which is what a camera or a photo does, for it transforms the sky, the earth and the seas into frameworks that capture and contain the colossal. He assaults it a second time through his use of old, expired film which show its decrepitude and disintegration, transforming it into a human figure that ages like us and, like us, dies.
This process of miniaturizing and aging subverts the tower’s narcissism. For the tower is the essence of narcissism, as the ancients tried through it and through mythology to defy God, or at least to say to him: We can reach your command center, your heights.
As short, diminutive humans, we subject this towering giant to a pitiful process that renders the three towers, subject to Antar’s gaze, equal in time. This happens despite the fact that historical, temporal and spatial conditions rarely connect them; though they are all linked by misfortune.
In fact, life aroused our pity for the three towers long before Ziad Antar aroused our compassion.
The Khalifa Tower in Dubai, which opened on January 4, 2010, in the heart of the Arabian Desert, was meant to be a radiant sign of progress and modernity – at least according to one understanding of them. But the economic crisis that hit the world in 2008, which severely affected Dubai, made that birth particularly unhappy.
On the other hand, the Murr Tower, on the Mediterranean, conveys sorrow. When construction started in 1970, its thirty-four floors were meant to keep pace with Lebanese capitalistism’s self-celebration and optimism. It did not take more than five years for the outbreak of the ‘Two Years War’ to completely suspend construction. Since then no one has lived in the stripped, naked tower, except for snipers, who further vandalized it and stripped away what remained. Even the Eiffel Tower, which was, and which remains, one of the most important symbols of Paris and Europe, has become a symbol of the aging of France and its old continent. This enormous structure, with its widely-spread huge feet, looks more like a long-extinct monster that spends its time annoyed, unemployed, waiting for an American or a Japanese camera to turn it into another picture, to join the hundreds of thousands of images taken of it before. The Eiffel Tower was built to be the entrance to the 1889 World Fair, held to celebrate the centenary of the French Revolution. But these words sound ancient today, much like the Great Revolution that remade the world; old words in an old country.
It is modernity that is responsible for us perceiving the old as ‘old’. Modernity also made us discover the vintage and the antique and occasionally drove our quest to aging what is not yet old.
This perhaps explains Ziad Antar’s success in aging the Khalifa Tower, a task that is more difficult than it is in the case of the other two. ‘Novelty’ can be used to describe this tower and its purpose and like everything else that is constructed in the Gulf, it is imagined as the first of its kind. Antar’s return to the past, real or imagined, appeals to certain need we have, we who call ourselves modern. We feel that what modernity offers us does not satisfy our desires. When we “dirty” the new and the bright with stains, dust and the dark sky, it is as if the process renews our contact with a biblical or apocalyptic past.
However, despite the appearance of aging, Antar’s approach is closer to creating a kind of history than to the functioning of memory. If the latter requires us to stand with respect and discipline before a graceful heritage, regardless of the extent of our forgetfulness, forgery or selectivity involved in the act of remembering, history, while it extends its hand to the archives and museums to study them, destroys in the process such “lieu de memoir” and makes everything, no matter how great, the subject of profanity. Here, then, we are facing a sort of anti-heroism and are loaded with a rich willingness to mock heroism and what is taken for granted.
But it’s always more than that anyway. This is because the implicit dialectic employed by Ziad Antar combines two moments; a revolutionary one that responds to the present by basing it quickly in a past moment, the vintage mechanism, so to speak. The second moment combines play and meditation, converting the vintage into an exhibit, a toy and also an experience. This is one of the conditions of the human acquisition of any kind of history we intend to possess, in the positive sense of the word. It is also one of the conditions of domesticating the beast that inhabits that history and of extracting its teeth. Is this not the same incentive that informs the keeping of statues of authoritarian leaders in museums – even in their original places and public squares – long after the fall of those leaders?
Since everything that Antar does stands opposed to the despotic consciousness, it is also opposed to advertising and touristic discourse, which trades with the past, after it is first beautified, tidied and presented. The vintage photo not only destroys touristic value, it reaches beyond the tower to a concept of time and place that expands expression and expands the scope of participation in a particular experience.
This aggression on multiple fronts becomes easier to understand when we see Ziad Antar in his hometown of Sidon. There, the same sea that has swallowed so many ancient civilizations before, stretches before him. As Ziad looks at the sea, we see him greeting men and women as old as his grandparents and playing with children whose parents he knows. He asks vendors about the prices of the goods they sell and where they come from, and when a white pony passes by on the sidewalk, he pats her sleek body.
We are not presented with anything immortal or heroic in Sidon. Life there follows the flow of the sea, in a wave-like fashion. Eventually we understand that, as a famous pre-Islamic orator once said: “He who lived died, he who died was left behind, and all that is coming, is coming.”