The archaeological site of Baalbek lies like a gem in a ring of encircling mountains amid the fertile plains of the Bekaa Valley. Showing signs of continual habitation for the last eight to nine millennia, it lies midway between Beirut and Damascus and boasts a spectacular series of Roman temples dating back 2000 years. From the towering pillars of the Temple of Jupiter, to the beautiful curved walls of the Temple of Venus, to the stunning carvings that adorn the Temple of Bacchus, Baalbek is one of the world’s most awe-inspiring historic sites.
Baalbek’s ruins were transported into the 21st century in October, thanks to a sensitively curated art exhibition entitled The Silent Echo. Curated by Karina El Helou, the exhibition paired works by seven local and international contemporary artists with Baalbek’s ancient ruins, highlighting the importance of the site while drawing attention to the role archaeology plays in our lives today.
El Helou chose installations by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, Bosnian artist Danica Dakic, French artists Laurent Grasso and Théo Mercier, London-based American artist Susan Hiller, and Lebanese artists Ziad Antar, Marwan Rechmaoui, Paola Yacoub and Cynthia Zaven. Each piece drew together past and present, creating links between archaeology and contemporary art and reflecting on issues such as the theft and destruction of artefacts, intangible heritage, vanished civilisations, identity and modernisation.
Lebanon has a thriving contemporary art scene, but for the most part it remains centralised in Beirut, where dozens of non-profit institutions and commercial galleries provide ample space for exhibitions. The Silent Echo, the first contemporary art exhibition to be held at Baalbek, showed the value of taking art outside the capital to more unusual settings, capable of providing a context that complements and even enhances the artwork.
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El Helou chose to display most of the work inside the on-site museum. An enormous installation by Ai was set up in a stone room with a soaring vaulted ceiling. Walls made up of heavy blocks of stone perfectly complemented his 16-tonne installation, Foundation, a wooden platform inset with the foundations stones of traditional Chinese houses destroyed in the name of progress.
Hiller’s video work, The Last Silent Movie, lamented the loss of a less tangible form of cultural heritage – language. Against a black screen, recordings of voices speaking phrases or singing songs in endangered or extinct tongues provoked reflection on how the ways in which we communicate shape our ideas and sense of identity.
While most of the artworks were displayed at some distance from the ancient artefacts, allowing history and modernity to exist in their own distinct spaces, two of the artists pieces were intimately entangled with the historic site.
Antar’s series of photographs and sculptures, entitled Derivable, were displayed in the small museum beside the Bacchus Temple. His concrete sculptures, recreating public artworks in Jeddah draped in fabric to hide them during restoration, were an amusing counterpoint to the 2000-year-old carved stone artefacts surrounding them.
Within the intricately decorated walls of the Temple of Bacchus, Zaven’s sound installation, Perpetuum Mobile, marked the ultimate blending of past and present. Twelve speakers stood in a circle within the stone courtyard, the sound of the artist’s melodic composition mixing with the voices and laughter of visitors and the faint resonances of the nearby town.
The Silent Echo was carefully conceived and curated to bring Baalbek’s archaeological site to life, reminding us that our history is not something removed from us, an abstract concept or a meaningless string of dates and facts — it is the story that lends our present meaning.