Beirut 1991 by Gabriele Basilico

[26 October 2008]

By Carmelo Militano

Gabriele Basilico is currently an internationally recognized Italian photographer. He is particularly well known for his accurate and often haunting photographs of European landscapes and cityscapes. Trained as an architect before winning acclaim as a photographer, he brings less a pictorial eye to his subjects (cities and landscapes) than a curious detachment and eager interest in recording how buildings interact with each other and with the surrounding city or landscape. In other words, he is not drawn to the pretty or the elegiac element inherit in photographing a changing urban landscape but rather wishes to record as well as to be a witness.

Basilico was one of six photographers who came to Beirut in the autumn of 1991, one year after the end of the 15-year Lebanese Civil War, as part of a mission called “Beyrouth centre-ville”. The aim of the project was to document the ruins and remains of central Beirut, known as the ‘Paris of the East’ until the start of the civil war in 1975. As the nickname implies, Beirut was known throughout the entire Arab world, indeed, internationally, as a liberal, tolerant city where religious and ethnic groups such as Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, and Druses could live, eat, and prosper together.

The civil war changed this attempt at pluralism and tolerance and the city soon was divided in half with the Muslims mainly in control of West Beirut and the Christians, East Beirut. The city center, once a thriving hub of commercial and cultural activities became a no-man’s land as each faction, and sometimes factions within factions, fought each other with AK 47s and rifle grenade launchers. Individual buildings and streets became the scenes of savage and constant gun battles. In fact most of the damage inflicted on the buildings was not from bombings or air strikes but from the insistent running gun-battles between the warring groups.

Basilico’s photographs in Beirut 1991 are bare, mute testimonies to the fighting. There is not a single building in this collection of photos that does not bear the scars of bullet holes. All the buildings are pockmarked, as if struck by some strange and horrible skin disease, whether they stand half-bombed and gaping like a collapsed cavity, or are the remains of a row of erect and passive stoic structures, the windows hollow and roof tops and balconies stained with black smoke. The center of Beirut, to rephrase a famous line, suffered the death of a thousand bullet holes.

Basilico’s aesthetic stance is ‘objective’ and his style of photography is documentary, according to the introduction by Dominique Edde. It is this documentary vision that has brought him much critical acclaim, as well as commissions in Europe beginning in the mid-‘80s. But it should be noted that in art, whether it be writing, painting, or photography, the objective stance is a subjective aesthetic choice.

In short, it is the personal choice of the artist to aim for objectivity and to reach for the effect an objective point of view creates. Curiously, often an objective perspective elicits some of our strongest subjective responses. Also, objective art creates the illusion of unfiltered truth. Take for example Primo Levi’s book If This is a Man, a harrowing account of his time spent in a Nazi concentration camp near the end of the Second World War. Part of what makes Levi’s book so horrific is the quiet, unassuming way and objective tone Levi uses to describe the day-to-day inhuman activities of the camp.

Basilico’s photos engage us in a similar conversation. His photos of the ruined city center are not dramatic, nor do they seek to romanticize the destruction of a once famously beautiful cosmopolitan city. Basilico avoids the evocative and the lure of another Italian artist of a ruined urban landscape, Piransei.

Piransei was an Italian engraver, architect, and amateur archaeologist who in the middle of the 18th century went about the city of Rome etching the collapsed ruins of Ancient Rome. Many of his engravings were fanciful and he added vegetation and arches and vaults that were often an extension of Piransei’s sympathetic imagination of what was once the ‘glory of Rome’.

Basilico’s photography avoid such gauze; they are instead crisp, direct and clear, and do not seek to show the glory of what was but rather the plain destructive savagery of what is after a civil war.

Many of his photos of buildings are oddly reminiscent of the abandoned factories and mills of the rust belt with jutting rotting steel frames, boarded up entrances, rubble mysteriously clear of the streets but in heaps underneath buildings and on the side of the street. Except that what we are looking at now were once commercial banks, elegant hotels, grand apartment blocks, and graceful Moorish arched arcades now abandoned after being destroyed, currently existing in various stages of decay.

Basilico’s photos are like those of a neutral police photographer at a crime scene; they show us what remains after that most cruel of wars, an urban civil war. It is a Dantesque vision of hell after the fire has finally gone out. The charred and bullet scarred remains of the buildings in the center of the city stand empty and almost indifferent it seems to the damage they have endured; the streets have been neatly swept of rubble. Human figures seldom appear except in a blur at the edges of a half-destroyed building.

Photo after photo shows us the reckless and appalling ruthlessness and destruction wrought by the civil war. It is a process repeated over and over again everywhere. Each photograph is an individual tile that is part of a mosaic of ruin. Some of the aerial photos, however, taken from a third or four floor of a building or a rooftop make the city look normal for a moment. The close-up geography of destruction seen from the ground is masked and you can see fragments of the once beautiful downtown and in some photos the misty edges of the Mediterranean port. Other aerial photos show us a panoramic view and the vastness of the destruction of the historic center.

The center of Beirut was a ruined monument at the end of the civil war. Edde, in his introduction, points out that three-quarters of the city center was empty and that “in these ruined places a time apart reigned, a sort of time outside time, like the one which usually defines the unconscious, or the fanciful succession of hours or years in a dream.” Basilico’s photographs are able to capture the eerie eloquent silence that fell over the torn and mutilated city of Beirut.

Where this book disappoints is in the photos of Beirut in 1991 set against the photos of Beirut in 2003 after reconstruction. The photos are small compared to the ones originally taken in 1991 and it is difficult to get a sense of the detailed work that went into the reconstruction of the buildings that remained standing and how indeed how whole streets were repaired.

This juxtaposition is a poor decision on the part of the publisher and fails to showcase Basilico alongside a transformed Beirut.

Nevertheless, the photographs taken in 1991, when understood as a whole, show us what was obviously a once full vibrant city reduced to its opposite an empty burnt-out shell where you can imagine the sea making a deep inhuman sound on the mute beaches of a ruined city. Basilico’s photographs do not seek to praise the mutilated city or to wax elegiac but seek to express a consciousness, in a direct and non-confrontational way, of the collective agony of self-destruction.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/beirut-1991-by-gabriele-basilico/