‘Razed: Syrian Ruins’ Exhibition Talk
London, UK [22.06.2016]
A few of you may have been at my first show, seven years ago. It was a brightly coloured, optimistic, and kind of naïve look at the world.
I assumed that the places I visited would remain a part of the landscape forever, surviving a thousand more wars and a thousand more years — and my work reflected the hubris, or arrogance of a ‘Western’ viewer looking in. The words ‘UNESCO World Heritage Site’ that I assumed would protect these monuments have fallen away and now can be seen for the almost arbitrary, powerless labels that they are.
Today, as you can see, the works are not so colourful. They reflect something uneasy in me — an enormous sense of loss. Why has the destruction of these objects, buildings, and places suddenly stirred something in people in far away countries, while we have largely ignored the brutality of the Assad regime? And why, when we hear the word “Palmyra”, do we think of the ancient ruins, and not the high-security prison that held thousands of political prisoners?
I believe that some of this sense of loss can be traced to the classical language of architecture, which many ‘Western’ countries (such as our own) have adopted for their own imperial ambitions. As a result, almost every street you walk down in London is likely to have a classical moulding across its facade, a mock-pediment of over its windows, or a faux-portico surrounding its doorway. The aesthetic of classicism has, unconsciously or not, become the aesthetic of much of the ‘Western’ world — and therefore the destruction of its origins feels somehow personal. The UK has its own history of iconoclasm, in the dissolution of the monasteries — and perhaps by looking to historical precedents like these we can begin to grasp the meaning behind the breaking of these immensely powerful symbols.
As I’ve moved further away from the journey and the exhibition in 2009, it’s become harder and harder to reconcile my experiences with the news from Syria and many of the surrounding countries. The 4000 or so photographs I took seemed seemed to be ‘honest’ representations of the objects I saw and the places I visited — but I was learning of a very different reality. I slowly developed a method for working onto the surface of the image which involved obscuring the photograph, and layering different processes onto the picture-plane, until it became difficult to tell where the actual object ends and the distorted memory begins. The layers are a direct reference to the decay and destruction of the subject, but they are also a reference to our own decaying, prejudicial memories.
The work examines this gap, between a lived experience of a place, and a fragile, fading memory that gets pushed around by the narratives of politicians, newspapers, and countless other self-interested forces.
The countries I visited in 2009 allowed me to feel confident in myself as an artist; they provided me with hope that I could actually do this as a profession. And without the hospitality and warmth of the people in those countries — particularly Syria — I don’t know if I would be doing what I am doing today. I feel an enormous sense of gratitude to each place, and it was for that reason that I wanted to try to show Syria the same kind of generosity that it showed me.
The money from every painting or catalogue bought (or independent donation made) today will go to a charity working in Syria called the White Helmets.
The White Helmets are a group of impartial, unarmed, volunteer rescue-workers, who have saved over 50,000 lives. They are normal people — bakers, tailors, engineers, pharmacists, painters, carpenters, students, etc — and they wear a white helmet for protection and identification. As well as the more headline-grabbing task of saving lives, they are providing far less glamorous civil services to Syria, like securing buildings, repairing electrical cables, and providing safety education to children. In a world where the word “hero” is loosely thrown around, I think these individuals are a rare example worthy of the term.
Sadly, no one from The White Helmets can be here today to represent them — as they are literally saving lives at the moment. However, Raed Saleh, head of the organisation, sent me these words to read to you this evening:
“Thank you Arthur for this exhibition and thank you everyone for coming. We are very proud of international solidarity like this, for people who stand by our side. This solidarity gives us the hope and drive to keep going. It gives us hope that there are still champions for human rights in the world”
Your funds, if you buy a painting or a catalogue or make a donation, will be going to the medical treatment of wounded White Helmets and the support of the families of those who have died, or those who are too badly injured to provide for their loved ones. Over one hundred White Helmets have died in the conflict so far, and hundreds more have been gravely injured.
I’d like to thank the Asfari Foundation for making this exhibition possible. There’s no way I could have got this project off the ground without their support. They helped me to find and afford this beautiful, welcoming gallery. Sadly, Sawsan and Ayman Asfari can’t be here this evening, but I can thank Clare Roberts and Marieke Bosman for being incredibly patient, and trusting me, even when I didn’t trust myself!
I’d like also to thank Sophie Cain for her work to make sure everything ran smoothly behind the scenes. And a huge thank you to Elizabeth Yarlott, who is masterminding the card reader this evening (I advise you all to go and introduce yourself to her ASAP).
And then, finally, I’d like to thank my parents, my girlfriend Charlotte, and all of you, for encouraging me and putting up with me in equal measure.