Increasingly more public sculpture, both representational and purely abstract, is beginning to appear in the public spaces of Beirut. Two years ago, a huge abstract sculpture carved in white Italian Carrarsa marble with two inverted L-shaped handles to the side and two vertical connecting blades thrusting forward to the front, was placed on a pedestal in the popular Hamam Al Askari area on the Corniche in Ras Beirut. The sculpture was set on a large space three steps up from street level on the crossroad of two main streets.
This sculpture, with its two blades connecting in the front, directing energy to their sides, exudes a reference to fertility. Fertility is a universal concept that touches everyone, the rich and the poor, the erudite and the illiterate. Sadly, the sculpture is in a pitiful state today. It is bathed in dust and missing the three light projectors originally installed around it, and it has become the site for martyrs’ photos.
Moreover, there is no inscription with the name of the sculptor or the title and date of the work anywhere on or near the sculpture. The only clue to the sculpture’s origins currently is the initials AUG, possibly those of an insurance company, printed in large, blue letters on a stone slab on both sides of the sculpture. This leaves the impression that the sculpture was donated by an insurance company to the city of Beirut. However, the true donor is the municipality of Aley, a town in Mount Lebanon that, up to 2003 organized yearly sculpture workshops. One might find it surprising that the capital city of Beirut would accept contributions from Aley, a small town in the mountains, and wonder how Aley allocates more resources to cultural projects than Beirut, the capital. One would expect that Beirut have contacts with banks and other access to sponsorships.
As one walks farther down the sidewalk of the Corniche along the Mediterranean, more art appears. Mosaic benches studded with beautiful stones and patterns – curvaceous and pointed, square, interlocking spirals and leaf motifs – attract the viewer. As the Corniche is usually frequented at night, these mosaic benches of coral blue, white, and yellow stones radiate in the dark and dazzle the viewer with their interweaving circular and square patterns.
The benches are so utilitarian that not only do the passers-by scrutinize each mosaic bench from a distance, but they are also invited to consume its space, sit on the bench, and become one with this work of art. The spirals on the benches are a universally meaningful symbol of life similar to the shape of a growing embryo or a sprouting seed. The initials BBAC, the name of a well-known Lebanese bank, are inscribed onto the benches. The initials MSC, Mediterranean Shipping Company, are integrated into a second set of benches. Between these two mosaic benches, an abstract iron sculpture gives information on the private sponsorship of these benches, the artist, and the private contractor.
Facing the benches, a vertical stainless steel pole, with three horizontal slabs ending in circles, stands on a one-meter tall rocky crag on the sea coast, eight meters away from the shore. Year after year, the pole is increasingly rusting and moving further into the water and deeper into the sea. Again, this simple abstract sculpture refers to the basic human yearning to leave a mark in the world as one moves inexorably towards death.
This installation is sponsored by the privately managed Ashkal Alwan organizers, who offer yearly cultural programs set in diverse locations.
A wealth of non-representational public sculpture seems to be emerging in Beirut. Over the course of a few years and within a space of a few hundred meters, the Beirut Corniche, the public space par excellence, has embraced seven purely aesthetic sculptures devoid of political, ceremonial, or memorial undertones. All seven, however, were privately sponsored and installed.
In a country like Lebanon, suffering from the debilitating conditions of war, economic collapse, continuous internal strife and impending external crises, public art basically follows the pattern of struggling developing countries. For the most part, Lebanese public sculpture, when funded by the government, serves purely political and nationalistic ends. Sometimes public sculpture celebrates a unified historical, nationalistic moment such as the hanging of the Lebanese nationals who defied Ottoman control during WWI, an incident embodied by the Martyr’s monument in downtown Beirut. In other instances, a public sculpture simply represents a key figure in Lebanese history such as the statue of the post-independence Lebanese prime minister Riad al-Solh in downtown Beirut, or the memorial and statue of the assassinated prime minister Rafic Hariri in the Port. However, public sculpture that serves purely aesthetic ends is mainly privately funded.
In contrast, purely aesthetic or abstract sculpture has become the trademark of the town of Aley. There are 237 abstract sculptures currently on display in different public spaces of this town, according to the director of Aley’s annual sculpture workshop. Funding from this project mainly came from the municipality of Aley, as well as the Bank of Beirut and the Arab Countries (BBAC), some insurance companies, and other private companies. The United Nations encouraged the project, as did the late Aref El Rayess, the prolific painter-sculptor who was a resident of Aley. El Rayess encouraged his friend and Aley’s mayor, Wajdi Mrad, who has a strong personal interest in art and a belief in its cultural benefits, to undertake this project. Mrad decided with the owner of BBAC, who is from nearby town of Aitat, to proceed with the project.
So what prevents Beirut from getting as involved in promoting public sculpture as the town of Aley? Perhaps the reason is basically government officials’ belief that abstract sculpture is esoteric. It is absorbed and understood only by those already initiated. Does aesthetic public art truly serve any purpose to merit concern by a government that subsists on scarce resources? From the government’s perspective, why waste those scarce resources to preach to the converted? But surely, purely aesthetic public sculpture serves more than an aesthetic role. It gives the public a sense of solidarity, of owning a public “ornament.” Perhaps, the government should emphasize the role that art plays in enriching people’s lives and providing them with meaning and identity. By including the sculptures of Lebanese artists in public spaces, the public will eventually identify with one language that is basic to all, the language of basic forms and colors, of universal themes such as fertility, positive energy, and mortality. Although the Lebanese do not generally identify with public spaces and the concept of public ownership, imposing aesthetic sculpture that invades the viewer’s daily space with its essential shapes, sizes, and hues can help connect the individual with the larger community.
Historically, abstract art has been used to strengthen community ties in times of crises. During World War I and II, abstract or formal aesthetic art became the language of expression in times of strife among different communities. Abstract Expressionist painters and sculptors used aesthetic, formalist, abstract motifs during World War I to express their yearning to return to the simple, basic essential elements and themes that unify all humans regardless of social status or education. Perhaps the lesson for the Lebanese government is that promoting aesthetic or abstract sculpture in Lebanon’s public spaces can be a means of reinforcing the notion of unity within diversity or the concept of sameness amidst apparent religious, social, and ideological differences.
This essay appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 15, no. 60 (2009)