Sahar Khraibani
Art Criticism & Design









The Weight Of The World
/ A Conversation with Etel
2018

























































































































Etel Adnan, The Weight of The World (2016), Serpentine Galleries, London









1.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, I read Etel Adnan’s latest book: “Surge.” My friend told me that it was

darker, more morose, “less Etel.” “It’s still romantic, though” she said so as to comfort me. What prompted her to think that that would comfort me remains beyond my knowledge. Etel Adnan’s work never comforted me. I never felt that I fully understood it. It made me uneasy—a kind of unease I only feel when I read her work. It is a particular one that I never managed to put my finger on. The work is beautiful, a term often deemed to be pejorative. Frowned upon when used. But it’s beautiful in a way that terrifies you, “shocks [you] shitless.”[1]It’s beautiful in a way that only Etel Adnan’s prose can be. Take, for example:


"And of white butterflies the sea is inundated. A fabulous verse, for one needs trillions of butterflies to fill this image-equation, Gerard having seen at once the power of the infinitely small when it agglomerates. There's no denying it: in Beirut, it is the sea which calls for intimacy because it often resembles people's eyes. It is she who gives us the desire to live at the dimensions which are ours: taking walks, running into someone, wanderings, amorous ornonchalant, despair annihilating us because the sea's green is even more translucid when it appears behind the cactus bushes, it's a tear in a solar plant. The ocean pushes you to absolute solitude." – Etel Adnan, Life Is A Weaving.


2.
In 2016, Adnan created a series of prints titled “The Weight of The World / Le Poids Du Monde.” The series consists of 20 paintings, all featuring at least one circle. No one knows what the circles are really meant to represent. Whether they stood for the all-seeing eye, the sun, the moon, or the tension between forms and the canvas, is anyone’s guess. Did they stand for the weight? This weight is supposed to be invisible. It cannot—physically speaking—be perceived by the naked eye. The weight was the invisible tension between the canvas and the world.

- Etel Adnan, The Weight of The World (2016), Serpentine Galleries, London

3.
Some conversations can be invisible —wait, can conversations be invisible? I’m not entirely sure whether that’s physiologically possible.

(Conversations are audible, they are something that we listen to, or partake in; but they cannot be perceived by the naked eye, hence they are invisible.)

4.
Is the weight of the world invisible? Is it quantifiable?


5.
I had never seen any of Adnan’s work in real life up until this past summer, when, on a visit to the Sursock Museum in Beirut, I happened to stumble upon one of her large-scale tapestries. I’d been taken by photographs I’ve seen online of her paintings and tapestries, but it was something else to see a creation of hers in real life. A very specific radiance emanated from it, a certain light, a semblance of a memory.


6.
Writers always say that they are in conversation with their predecessors, the writers and thinkers who influenced them. Am I in conversation with Etel?

7.
Degradation followed display, reified and emptied. The circle was treated like the loneliest of things. It lived within the confines of the canvas, the confines of sharp corners, and lines that break.


8.
There is more work in interpreting interpretations than in interpreting things.

9.
Of Mount Tamlpais, Etel explains: “It was my point of reference, it was like a pole, that when I saw it I felt like home.” In Surge, she did away with possessive pronouns: “During a darkest night I did away with the word “I” on my way to being just a being. The land was of the past. We will soon return to inhabiting trees (if any are left).”

10.
Sometimes, I don’t know where to take and what to do with this body of mine: this body that needs to be constantly fed, washed, hydrated, scrubbed, clothed, informed and taken care of. Can I do away with it on my way to being just a being?

11.
How do we construct being? How do we construct that which we cannot perceive?

12.
The multiverse is composed of a quantum superposition of infinitely many, increasingly divergent, non-communicating parallel universes or quantum worlds. All outcomes exist simultaneously but do not interfere further with each other. Each single prior world had split into mutually unobservable but equally real worlds. The others are invisible to the one and the one invisible to the others.


12. a.
Every lie creates a parallel world: the world in which it’s true. It is a frequent habit when I discover several resemblances between two things to attribute equally to both points in which they are in reality different.


13.
“Combined with this was another perversity – an innate preference for the represented subject over the real one: the defect of the real one was so apt to be a lack of representation. I like things that appeared; then one was sure. Whether they were or not was a subordinate and almost always a profitless question.” Henry James, The Real Thing

14.
Now I have asked this question before: how do we construct becoming? 

15.
I am yet to excavate an answer.


16.
Existing is in and of itself a form of breakage, consisting of a series of schisms: the first one happens in the womb, when chromosomes split and take either the form of XX or XY. How does the subject construct a form of becoming that emerges from within these schisms? How does it seep through the cracks and thread itself into a web of (invisible) synapses that make one what they are (becoming)?


17.
This place had been arranged to be ready for some particular event. It had already attained the embarrassed silence of recent obsolescence. The time of its purposeful operation had dissolved and pooled into the containers of many living memories.


18.
It had already attained the embarrassed silence of recent obsolescence.


19.
Planned obsolescence is a policy of producing consumer goods that rapidly become obsolete and so require replacing. It is achieved by frequent changes in design, termination of the supply of spare parts, and the use of nondurable materials.


20.
“We witness night as the result of high-jacking of light, a home for despair. A thousand souls in one body, in one soul… body and soul dying at different times, different speeds.”[2]— Is the light of day a daily planned obsolescence? A trick played by the multiverse?









[1] Anzaldúa Gloria, and AnaLouise Keating. The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader. Duke University Press, 2009.

[2] Adnan, Etel. Surge.Nightboat Books, 2018.

(Revisiting) The Earth Room
Walter De Maria
1977

Walter De Maria, The New York Earth Room, 1977. © The Estate of Walter De Maria. Photo: John Cliett
“Look, look, the emperor has no clothes”

The room was quiet. This was Walter De Maria’s Earth Room, located on Wooster Street, in the Soho district of Manhattan. It’s hard for one to think of the concept of an Earth room in relation to an artist. We refer to it as Walter De Maria’s “Earth Room,” as if this stretch of soil, or any stretch of soil, could ever belong to a man. In the Dia Foundation funded white-cube gallery, where De Maria’s 1977 permanent installation resides, I shared the space, in 2018, with the room’s keeper. For the exception of the faint distant sound of the Fire Department truck, howling at the traffic, nothing could be heard but our unsynchronized breaths. I was instructed not to take any pictures, and to remain within a safe distance of the Plexiglas facade that separated my body from the Earth’s. In that instant, the Earth, much like art, suddenly felt highly privatized: collected, claimed and deposited on the second floor of a nondescript building somewhere in lower Manhattan. Something didn’t feel quite right about all of this. Perhaps, as city dwellers, we are not used to experiencing the Earth in the quiet atmosphere that is harbored here. When I think of soil, I think of Land, I think of belonging, and what it entails to demand for the right and ownership of a Land. When I think of soil, I am also filled with the sensation of my feet coming in contact with the Land, the Earth, the planet. In De Maria’s “Earth Room” there exists no such sensation.

The viewer is asked to observe it from a distance. Perhaps this is why it has stayed in pristine shape, something that can strike someone as completely unnatural. Perhaps, this is why vegetation started to sprout discreetly, outside of the existence of man. Some critics have dubbed the “Earth Room” as an escape [1] from the unforgiving streets of this noisy city; others called it “The Emperor’s New Cat Box. [2]” In the midst of contemplating the extremely dark manure-brown of the soil in contrast with the white walls of the building, one can’t help but wonder about the origins for the need of such an “escape.” The 280,000 pounds of moist Long Island dirt –in the spirit of mysticism and undeniable ties between Dia’s founders and Sufism– is meant to provide an avenue and space of transcendence. In the late 1970s in New York, Dia’s selection of artists and the commissioned work presented a sort of austere and seemingly ascetic new approach to contemporary art. This was quite alien to the art scene at the time.

Walter De Maria, born in 1935, was an American artist, sculptor, illustrator and composer who lived and worked in New York City. His artistic practice is most widely connected with Minimal art, Conceptual art, and Land art of the 1960s.

Like many of his installations, but most specifically his “Lightning Field,” De Maria, who died of a stroke at the age 77, was a figure of mystery. What is known is that he was born in Albany, California, to an Italian-American restaurateur. He studied the piano and later majored in art history and painting at the University of California in Berkeley. His move across the Bay to San Fransisco proved to be quite influential. He joined the city’s fresh new scene of cross-disciplinary avant garde artists, forming a friendship with the composer La Monte Young, with whom he would later collaborate.

However, the real breakthrough in De Maria’s career happened in 1960, when he moved to New York, slightly shy of twenty-five years of age. Manhattan, with its dazzling lights and very happening art scene, offered De Maria a taste for performance art that took other forms.

Steering away from labels such as minimalist, conceptual artist or even a land artist, De Maria’s work incorporated aspects of all three approaches to making art. It is evident that his multi-disciplinary background feeds into his later works. His involvement with the music scene creates a vibrant image of an artist who was dipping his fingers in many different alleyways. Sometime between 1965 or 1966, De Maria joined a rock band called The Primitives (it later went on to become The Velvet Underground). By then a percussionist, he soon tired of dragging his drums around the New York bar scene. In a 1972 oral history interview with the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, speaking of his decision to not go down this path, De Maria ponders “I thought, are you going to play or are you going to do the sculpture? You know, are you going to be an artist or a musician?”

In 1966, he created a tall, thin stainless steel sculpture entitled Cage, named for the composer, John. Situating De Maria next to the likes of John Cage, creator of 4’33’’, models a scenic vision of artists working on and around the transcendental experiences of art and silence. This early piece of Minimalism led directly to the polished steel poles of The Lightning Field.

De Maria, one of Dia’s protégés, specialized in pinning human perfectability against natural imperfection. Land art expanded the boundaries of art by the use of unorthodox materials. These materials were often extracted from the Earth, including soil, rocks, vegetation and water found in relevant sites. The art movement centered on a rejection of the commercialization of art making. De Maria’s Earthworks felt both monumental and apocalyptic. As if he was in on a secret that no one else knew. As if knowing and anticipating the day when humankind’s enterprise has led to its extinction. This phenomenon, however, was reversed in The New York Earth Room, which contrasted with the hard metal of his earlier pieces. Standing near what is essentially an inside-out mudflat, remains, forty-one years later, a disquieting experience. Harboring a certain sense of circularity, it literally brings earth art to the city.


The ties between the Dia Art Foundation and Sufism are undeniable. The silence with which you experience spaces such as The New York Earth Room is a prime example of this. You are compelled to speak in a lowered voice, as if not to awaken the work, or offend it. The philosopher Otto Bollnow, in “On Silence,” speaks of silence as “the ground from which all speech emerges and into which it falls back.” The use of the term “ground” is oddly apt. The elevated stature of a second-floor loft on Wooster Street – which houses The Earth Room – is reminiscent of a space-time-continuum of silence from which all speech would emerge.

De Maria’s Earth Room exemplifies the ascetic formalism that distinguishes several of Dia’s artists. The Dia Art Foundation, launched under various aliases and in near-secrecy in 1974, is a nonprofit organization that initiates and preserves art projects. Its founders were Philippa de Menil, daughter of Houston arts patron Dominique De Menil and youngest scion of the Schlumberger oil fortune. and her husband, German art dealer and visionary Heiner Friedrich. They envisioned Dia as a space that would support artistic endeavors "whose nature or scale would preclude other funding sources."

The name "Dia," taken from the Greek word meaning "through," was chosen to suggest the institution's pivotal role in enabling artistic projects that might not otherwise be realized. Alternatively, and perhaps more fittingly, the word Dia’ in Arabic translates to “shine,” most commonly used in Islam for its reference to “light” or the “light of God.” The kind art put forth by Dia in the 1970s represented a radical departure in artistic practices. It was often large in scale and occasionally ephemeral or site-specific.

Together, De Menil and Friedrich created a refuge from the speculative art market then taking shape in New York, and a new standard of monumental and spiritually charged ways of experiencing art. Take, for instance, a SoHo gallery floor buried permanently beneath black earth, its layers suggesting a duration spanning epochs, reminiscent of a cross-section reference drawing from a geology school textbook.

A few years after commissioning The New York Earth Room, the enigmatic Friedrich left New York and disappeared; Philippa de Menil, on the other hand, had long since ceased to exist. In 1980, she had shed her western identity and had become a Sufi dervish, going by the name of Fariha al-Jerrahi. When the austere house of Dia fell – due to financial difficulties– Fariha moved on. The Sheikha now splits her time between a hilltop in Yonkers and retreats with dervishes in Turkey.

Hermann Minkowski, Albert Einstein’s college professor in mathematics, arrived at a new way of thinking about space and time in 1906: “space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality." Sufi mysticism is characterized by asceticism, and the renunciation of material possessions. It is, in essence, an understanding that space by itself and time by itself will fade away, but their union will preserve a different reality. In the quietude of The Earth Room, such a renunciation of time and space is overwhelmingly present, creating the space-time-continuum of silence from which all speech could emerge.




[1] "Escapes: 'The Earth Room' and Other Art by Walter De Maria in New York." The Washington Post. May 20, 2009. Accessed January 16, 2018. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/19/AR2009051903443.html.

[2] Hess, Thomas B. “The Emperor’s New Cat Box.” New York Magazine, October 31, 1977, 102-105. 





    In Conversation with Gogy Esparza


This interview initially appeared on Degree Critical

I first met NYC-based, Ecuadorian-American artist Gogy Esparza through mutual friends, and the first time we hung out we ended up walking down Madison Avenue on a Thursday afternoon. On that walk, Gogy told me that he gets his inspiration from the shop windows on this street. This surprised me, because I never took him for an Upper East Side aficionado. My vision of Gogy was that of a warm-hearted individual, who spent the last ten years or so hustling in the gritty art scene, as far away as can be from Madison Avenue. I was living in Beirut in 2016 when he was there shooting for his Beirut Youth project (2017), and though we did not cross paths, the word of his visit spread like wildfire in such a small city. The project, initially tackled the globalization of subcultures, but ultimately showcased the juxtaposition of a diverse culture, where different religions, classes and opinions breed both its chaos and its charm. It later gained a sponsorship from Adidas Originals for the exhibition to tour worldwide.  Gogy and I squeezed this conversation between two haircutting appointments at his Chinatown studio. I arrived right after he had finished giving his first haircut of the day. As he sat comfortably in his barber’s chair, we discussed his path as a barber and artist working across film, photography, and fashion.


The following text has been edited for clarity.  

Sahar Khraibani: You just came back from showing Beirut Youthsin Tokyo. Did that trip change your perspective of the project? How was it perceived there?

Gogy Esparza: Really well. I mean, I don’t want to generalize, but the creative culture in Japan is very curious and anything they find exotic they want to know about. They tend to explore outside cultures and they go all the way: they do all their homework, they ask a lot of questions, and I think they’re very respectful and genuinely curious. That’s why I love it there. And it was great to see their reactions cause they were like “wow, the conditions in the [refugee] camps are really crazy, the history is so complex.” They were willing to ask the right questions, and eager to educate themselves.

SK: I was watching the Beirut Youths videos again, and I was thinking about their content. You know, it’s home for me, and I was thinking of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp especially because I’ve been there so many times for different reasons. So I have a different relationship to the camp in a way, but I normally don’t like it when people other-ize and exoticize it. Your video didn’t do that. You know, it’s a very specific culture they have in the camp: it’s their own little world, kind of like Chinatown on a smaller and more condensed scale. So I was curious, as someone who had never been to Beirut before, what was your perception of Beirut before going and after going, especially visiting the camps and then areas like Raouche, which is really a mishmash of people from all classes.

GE: Before going to Lebanon you try to cover the history. I’m Latino and I grew up Catholic, so this culture is very different from mine on the surface—at least that’s what I thought. I mean, yeah, the country is 47% Christian, but the Muslim and French influences are felt just as much, if not more. The mash-up of everything over the years—you want to be privy to that before you walk in there. I think a lot of people sensationalize war and conflict and I’m not going to say that I didn’t do that.

SK: But you didn’t.

GE: But I was really naturally attracted to that. I was there when Trump was about to be elected and then there were a couple of documentaries that came out that talked about U.S. relationships with the Middle East. One of our big goals was visiting Mlita in the South and the Hizbollah Museum. There you see the other side, because in the U.S. you only get the U.S.-Israeli side. So a lot of my focus was initially on the history of war. As you know, I’m an immigrant from Ecuador who came to the U.S. with my family. We grew up in the inner city, in the hood, so naturally I kind of gravitate towards these stories of conflict and displacement because I relate to that.

SK: So you’ve been through a form of displacement?

GE: Exactly. And also assimilation, right? Palestinians here are refugees but in Lebanon they somewhat have no identity. And in Lebanon I think they remind you of that.

SK: Definitely. As a Palestinian, you don’t have a passport or a citizenship. You only have a refugee card, and you’re not allowed to work in certain places or even buy a house. You’re constantly reminded that you don’t belong. I mean unless you’re very rich, there are a lot of class rules that play into this game as well. What was interesting to me was that you went to Beirut at a very specific time: the garbage crisis was at its peak, and the summer was rough, politically and culturally.  

GE: I guess initially that was my concept. Beirut is a very progressive place in the Middle East, so there was going to be more free spirited energy there than obviously in Saudi or even Dubai, but what I found there was very different. Inevitably I started realizing that I couldn’t tell people that I was from New York. I couldn’t tell them I was American. I preferred telling them that I’m Ecuadorian because there was a big wall put up, rightfully so, toward the United States. But once you get through that wall with people in Lebanon, it felt just like Latin culture to me: very warm, very giving, inviting. The hosting culture is really beautiful. And also, the Mediterranean Sea. I think the sea had the biggest impact on me. It felt cleansing, calming, almost omnipresent.

SK: The sea has always been the biggest mystery and inspiration for Beirut. Ultimately, being here in New York and now so far from it, I’m starting to realize why it has such a hold on people. I mean it’s the only place where you can breathe: an open space in a city with no public spaces. It’s the only escape, really. And then people lost their lives in the Mediterranean while trying to migrate and we carry that shame around. 

GE: I didn’t think about that…

SK: I mean you see it everyday. What I appreciated in your videos, especially the one about the private beach club Sporting (Raouché, 2017), was that you showed the public beach right next to it.  I think you hit on a specific synthesis of Beirut, a non-cliché way of showing what the city is and what it means to live there.

GE: I just tried to be honest because of course I got love at the cliffs of Raouché, but I wasn’t fully down with everybody there. They knew I was an outsider. Like “hey, I went to Sporting too, I was at that private beach,” and I think I showed that. I wasn’t trying to lie. I was eating fish at Sporting and also looking across the bay. I think I was trying to be very objective and factual and just to tell the truth. I wasn’t lying about the conditions in the camp, I wasn’t lying about Raouché. And for me, I always go in both worlds. Even in New York, I like to see every scope of every place. You can come from two different worlds and exist in both at once. Some people can only exist in one world and that’s very sad, but it’s real.

SK: I really appreciated the honesty. I’m very wary of someone coming in from the outside and wanting to apply their own vision to what the place is.

GE: Being a Catholic Latino for me changed how I saw things. We hide behind this veil of conservatism and prayer. People have this fascination with the virgin or the whore, It’s very prevalent throughout the Bible and the years of culture that have come from it, but at the end of the day this strict idea of “right and wrong” creates so much infidelity and so much distrust. You know, I talk about that in my work. I show you the ugly side. I show you the truth, and then I also show you this idealistic vision. I don’t lie. My personal work is very crude and very raw, and you know, it’s not for everybody. I think if you pay attention to the nuances of what I’m trying to say, you understand that I’m very honest about it, and anywhere I’m going to go, I’m going to do that ‘cause that’s who I am. We need to have a dialogue about the truth and our perceived notion of what we feel should be true.

SK: Do you feel like you have a duality in your perception of things? In your art?

GE: Definitely. Being in Japan was amazing and beautiful. It’s like: okay, it’s very clean and pristine and everything is incredibly orderly. All the trains are on time, but at night—or if you go to Shinjuku, the party district—essentially they sell sex dreams there. You as a foreigner cannot go into these places. You cannot document these places, because the Japanese government wants the outside world to only see the pristine side of Japan, to perceive it in a specific light. But Shinjuku is the underbelly of the city, completely run by Yakuza (members of transnational organized crime syndicates originating in Japan). This is the contrast I like to show. In Lebanon, it’s more out there, but the tradition of Arab culture is still very conservative.

SK: Depends where you are geographically in Lebanon.

GE: For sure. And I can’t assume this American standard is the same everywhere else. I can’t. It’s arrogant.

SK: But you also come from a dual identity, I mean you’re from Ecuador, then you moved to Massachusetts, and then to New York. You saw different sides of the world and had an interesting trajectory, and that’s why I think you even see New York in a different way. I mean the first time we hung out, we walked down Madison Avenue, which is an uncomfortable place for me cause I always felt it was for the rich. But you didn’t feel that way.

GE: The thing is, my father was a doctor in Ecuador, and he fought and earned his education coming from nothing. And then he came to the States and his title wasn’t recognized, the only work he could find was in a factory assembly line. He was reduced to that kind of labor. But this guy was a doctor in his culture. Every immigrant has this story. To withstand and remain yourself and assimilate only to a certain degree is respectable and admirable. In Ecuador, he’s able to walk in the poor neighborhoods that he’s from, but he’s an educated person that willfully fought for an education, and he should be entitled to the same levels of consideration as every other person. In New York, or anywhere I go, I feel the same way. I always go to the hood wherever I am travelling, but then I will go to the more expensive neighborhoods and have a drink. I will go to the Louvre and appreciate art. I will challenge myself like that, and I will challenge the environment that is in place. I’m willing to take that risk. I have to dress like them. I’m fair skinned, but I have a shaved head. I have tattoos. I have my mannerisms and a character that let them know I’m not bourgeois. and if you’re unable to accept me, then I will challenge you. Because these people, they tend to stay in their world. They don’t come to my world, or if they do they consume it, from hip-hop to street art.

SK: Or sensationalize it in a way?

GE: Absolutely.

SK: They want to put you in that category and don’t expect of you more levels of culture or integration.

GE: For me, it’s like cutting hair. I know how to give you a fade or a tape up, a line up, a shape up; these are like cuts you get in the hood. But I know how to cut all different types of hair, and also you need different types of techniques to do that and there is a cadence, a layering process. There’s an understanding of how things fall into place in the act of cutting hair. I know how to give a good haircut because I’ve been giving them for so long, but I’ve challenged myself to learn what I don’t know. I should be entitled to appreciate the complexities of any type of world that I choose. You have these creatives challenging themselves by the exposition to a whole new culture, and assimilating the traditions of the pre-existing culture. That’s what New York is, that’s what the infrastructure is. The city was built on a grid system from the very beginning, and it was meant for ease and flow of commerce and culture. That’s embedded in the design of the city, so who am I not to take advantage of that, you know what I mean? In Lebanon, it was important for me to go to Mlita, to go to Dahieh, to Shatila and then yes I was at the trendy Decks On The Beach, and yes I was eating at Restaurant Casablanca, because I wanted to see it all.

SK: It’s part of the culture somehow.

GE: To be honest with you, I understand classism because it exists in Ecuador as well. It’s very classist, and it’s based on the color of your skin. But I don’t agree with that, and I don’t partake in it at all. I’m very vocal about that, and I show that in my work. I chill with all different types of people because I truly believe in that spirit. I believe in the human race. I want this universal prevailing message of struggle and of acceptance.

Beirut Youth showing in Los Angeles at HVW8 Gallery on February 22nd, 2018. It will be the fourth installment of the exhibition. The exhibition was shown in New York City, Dubai, and Tokyo thus far, and planning to close out the tour with an exhibition in Beirut this coming Summer.

Image courtesy of Gogy Esparza





Franklin D. Roosevelt
Memorial on Roosevelt Island






Louis Kahn





1991










































There are numerous ways for a person to encounter a monument: in most cases, one does not choose the encounter, but rather is confronted with it. In other instances, one makes a trip to see a monument, cited on a list of “ten must-see” this or that. Sometimes, one very intentionally visits a monument in order to understand the culture or place that it represents.

You don’t simply come across the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, on the contrary, you intentionally make a trip across the East River in order to see it. The Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, part of a four-acre park called Four Freedoms, stands at the southernmost point on the tip of Roosevelt Island. If one’s gaze happens to be targeted south, one has a clear-cut view of the United Nations Building, while to the north, one can see the Queensboro Bridge spanning the East River. The procession-like nature of approaching from the north –passing between a double row of trees that narrow as they approach the focal point of the sculpted bust of Roosevelt– can be likened to a pilgrimage. With the bust functioning as a quasi-Mecca, it’s easy to forget that there is much more to see beyond it.

The monument, in its totality, is a roofless modern version of a Greek temple, built with granite. The renowned architect Louis Kahn was commissioned to design the memorial in 1972. His concept was simple: drawing inspiration from Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech of 1941, Kahn designed an open “room and a garden,” destined to be located at the bottom of the

island. The trees on either side of the island form a “V” shape, and lead to a two-walled stone room at the water’s edge, framing views of the New York skyline and the harbor. Excerpts from Roosevelt’s speech are carved on the walls of the room-like space. In a 1973 talk given at Pratt Institute, Kahn explained his intentions for the design of the memorial:

“I had this thought that a memorial should be a room and a garden. That's all I had. Why did I want a room and a garden? I just chose it to be the point of departure. The garden is somehow a personal nature, a personal kind of control of nature. And the room was the beginning of architecture. I had this sense, you see, and the room wasn't just architecture, but was an extension of self.”

Standing at the tip of the island on a gloomy February day, in proximity to the relic of a smallpox hospital, one can’t but think about the “extension of self.” Are memorials a tool for an extension of self? Are they a tool for the extension of many selves? Extensions of a people and their ideals?

The word “monument” originally comes from the Greek word mnemosynon, and the Latin moneo, which means ‘to remind’, ‘to advise’ or ‘to warn’. The etymology of the word suggests that a monument allows us to see the past, and in turn helps us visualize what could materialize in the future. When used as an adjective in English, the word “monumental” makes a reference to something of significant size and power. The word  memorial, on the other hand, comes from the Latin word memoriale, referring to a record or a memory, often presented in the form of a monument and serving as a reminder.

Monuments – and subsequently memorials – are thus a physical representation of power, of ideals set in stone: unchangeable, resistant to erosion and upheaval. This is perhaps why they torment many of us. They are, at their core, an attempt to place some understanding of history beyond dispute: this man was a hero, this leader was great, these ideals are ultimate, these words should be remembered.

“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms: the first is freedom of speech and expression – everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship god in his own way – everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want… everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear… anywhere in the world. That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.” – Franklin Roosevelt, January 6, 1941.

Perhaps, most notably, what stands out on the procession towards the tip of Roosevelt Island is the larger than life, bright red, Pepsi-Cola sign, hovering over the waters. In the midst of the serenity of the experience, the deafening and ultimate silence of such spaces, nothing screams louder than the icon for American consumerist culture. As the viewer gazes at these words “freedom from want,” and “everywhere in the world,” the Pepsi-Cola sign manages to remain in the field of vision. Somewhere, in the distance, with Manhattan and the United Nations Building to your back, you can’t help but crave a soft drink.

Monuments are, of course, just that: inanimate physical spaces. Places subject to our gaze. Immovable and static. Surfaces on which snow lands and pigeons defecate. It is we who inject them with meaning. What we choose to commemorate as a people says as much about us as the moment or person we are attempting to commemorate. We see ourselves reflected in whatever shape the stone is in, whatever words carved on its surface. It is easy to wish upon yourself such histories, to think that they could, for a fraction of a second, belong to you. But, more often than not, they don’t. They belong to other times, a specific moment from the past, and other people. If the function of a memorial is to remind us of certain core values, one can’t help but wonder about the deep implications of such a purpose. In the process of remembering, are we forgetting to practice these core values? Are we comforted by the fact that such ideals are carved in stone, that they will always be there, and thus we need not bring them to life?



©saharkhraibani
New York, Beirut