Photo exhibit reflects artist’s anxiety about Beirut

War and ceasefire, destruction and reconstruction, loss and rediscovery and love and fear are among the themes explored in Aractingi’s diverse works.
Sunday 18/11/2018
Visual journey. A photo on diplay at “Obsessions” in Beirut.   (Philippe Aractingi)
Visual journey. A photo on diplay at “Obsessions” in Beirut. (Philippe Aractingi)

BEIRUT - Obsessed by his fear of not recognising the beloved city where he was born and grew up, French-Lebanese film-maker Philippe Aractingi tracked the changing face of Beirut over the decades in “Obsessions,” a photo exhibition that reflected the depth of his feeling for the city.

Aractingi created a visual journey through Beirut’s recent history, inviting viewers to consider the fragility of “that which does not last” while laying bare the range of emotions that the city and all it has endured stirs up inside him.

“My obsession is more of an obsession of what’s going to disappear,” Aractingi said. “I am in a constant anxiety that the things that I am seeing here and now are going to disappear.”

“This city is in constant movement and that’s dangerous because our very identity is attached to it. There are seven Beiruts (destroyed seven times in earthquakes) under the Beirut we know but, today, the city somehow resembles women after a makeover with Botox and this is scary.”

War and ceasefire, destruction and reconstruction, beginnings and endings, loss and rediscovery and love and fear are among the themes explored in Aractingi’s diverse works.

After working for two years as a photojournalist in the early part of the Lebanese civil war (1975-90), Aractingi changed professions and left Lebanon.

“I was sick and tired of taking photos of the dead and destruction so I started thinking more in terms of documentaries and long-feature films and took pictures about how the city was changing,” he said.

“Then, I called Beirut the ‘Frankenstein city’ because it was losing its face. It no longer had eyes (windows), or arteries (roads). Everything was blocked and disfigured.”

After returning to Beirut in the early 1990s, Aractingi said he did not recognise his city.

“There was a lot of traffic, the roads were changing and everything was being transformed,” he said. “Churches’ bell towers and mosques’ minarets used to be the highest landmarks in Beirut but that changed with the construction of skyscrapers.”

“Obsessions” featured photographs that capture the spirit of the city at different times alongside an installation on the same theme includes three videos that run simultaneously.

The videos highlight the changes that Beirut has witnessed, giving the opportunity to compare specific locations at different times. Compiled following years of research and observations, each video shows footage and images at a point in Beirut’s history. These include the 1920s; the 1990s, immediately after the end of the war; and the present, after post-war reconstruction.

Born in Beirut in 1964, Aractingi said he chose the former Green Line that divided Beirut, close to his childhood home and an area that was a flashpoint in the war years, as the primary spot for filming.

The videos juxtaposing past and present Beirut stirred various reactions, Aractingi noted. “Some people were nostalgic and would say it was much more beautiful and authentic in the past. Others said Solidere (the company that rebuilt Beirut’s downtown) did a very good job. Everyone has a special relationship with the city,” he said.

One of the photos explains all of Beirut, Aractingi said. “You have the old, the more and more recent and the latest,” he said. “After the war, I had this anxiety that the new generation will not really know ‘our Beirut,’ how it was and how we lived in it. With time, I believe this city will disappear as we know it.”

Other pictures depict women on the go, exuding an impression of continuous movement. Always in the same idea of the city that is moving constantly, Aractingi compared Beirut to a woman. “She is always on the move, walking, crossing, stepping. You can see her feet moving but no photo shows her face,” Aractingi said.

The artist’s infatuation for his beloved city is evident through the exhibition, even as he laments aspects of its past and expresses his fears for its future.

Next to his works, Aractingi’s words say it all: “I’ve photographed Beirut as a photographer would his lover, with a passion bordering on obsession. Day or night, whether it is calm or cooking up a storm, its fragility and resilience, its soul and essence, its femininity, its effervescent nature and everything that it is makes Beirut my muse…”

His works affirm the city’s hallmark resilience and character, in the face of challenges and change.

“I have an obsession with this city which is unliveable and impossible to be separated from at the same time,” he said.

Aractingi has released more than 50 documentaries and four award-winning long feature films, which have been distributed internationally. Photography remains an important part of Aractingi’s life.

“Obsessions,” which showed in September, was Aractingi’s second photography exhibition, following “Night in Beirut,” shown in Paris in 2010.