The city of Damascus is often described as being the oldest continually inhabited city on the face of the earth. As the almost psychotically brutal Syrian civil war grinds into its fifth year, the capacity for ordinary Damascenes to survive in the face of seemingly omnidirectional violence is certainly a testament to a steadfastness that bears out the city’s reputation for endurance. From a historical standpoint, the question of whether Damascus will survive – even if the nation in which it is contained is irrevocably and permanently changed – appears to have been answered definitively in the affirmative, but the question is what kind of Damascus will emerge from this war? It is a question that has been asked before. Damascus’ history includes conflicts stretching back to the days of Ramesses II in the 13th century BCE, but the city’s ability to adapt and absorb cultural influences, to nativise aesthetic forms, is as much, indeed more, crucial to defining its legacy as the battles that have been fought for and within its geography.
Julie Mehretu’s work “Epigraph, Damascus” powerfully address the palimpsestic history of Damascus. The work consists of a set of panels depicting architectural drawings of buildings located within the city. The images are of columns and arches, porticoes and edifices. Over these images, Mehretu has made a dense maze of paint marks on a sheet of mylar. Mehretu’s palate is fittingly sombre. Black lines swirl, patches of darkness cannot help morphing into bomb craters as one looks through the haze of colour to find the city beneath. It is not, to be exact, the city in any specific historical moment. The drawings are projections, constructions of subjunctive constructions that are as abstract, in their own way as Mehretu’s meandering lines and uneven chevrons. There is a bleakly apposite disembodied quality to the depictions of visions for an urbanity that was, and is, always destined to wander from the careful rational plans of designers and architects. Knowing the history of the present conflict will lead some viewers to see these fragments of a city in even darker terms: elements of Syria’s history and heritage will now only be known from drawings, photographs, and digital modelling. The destroyed, the looted and the neglected physical manifestations of Damascus are perhaps more vulnerable than the ideas from which they were conceived, and, thus, Mehretu’s work contains a potent conceptual layer beyond its physical and presentational content: materiality often entails deception; paraphrasing Paul Virilio, to create a city is to create the destruction of that city. A city is an organism of technology and an incubator for technologies of creativity and destruction. For a generation that has watched New York and London destroyed hundreds of times on film, the neat porticoes beneath Mehretu’s marks may have a cool inviolability, but the ingenuity that has underwritten their creation must be understood as an equally important element of the psychologies of the people so assiduously wreaking devastation on their IRL counterparts. Plans are often at their best and most fulfilling when fruition eludes them.
Niels Borch Jensen
Images courtesy to the artist & Niels Borch Jensen Editions.