An Artist’s Memorial on the Site of Last Year’s Devastating Blast in Beirut Has Been Met With Sharp Criticism

A year after the deadly explosion in Beirut that shattered the city, a new sculpture commemorating the victims of the tragedy has gone up. It’s a work meant to heal—but in the charged atmosphere of crisis-wracked Lebanon, the memorial is also being met by a wave of fierce criticism.

The towering sculpture, by Lebanese artist Nadim Karam, was unveiled on August 2 at the site of the explosion. Standing 82 feet tall and weighing in at 35 tons, The Gesture (2021) is made of steel salvaged from Beirut’s port after the blast.

The piece takes the form of a giant holding out a flower. Karam, an accomplished figure in local public art, intended the gesture to symbolize “an act of memory and a gesture towards the immensity of sadness that marks the people of Beirut,” according to a statement.

“It is a giant made of ashes, traces from the explosions, scars of the city, that still exist everywhere in Beirut,” Karam told Arab News. “The work represents the scars of the people that still have not healed. This figure is every single one of us and a reminder that we are the living energy of Beirut.”

The Gesture will ultimately also incorporate a water feature and a light installation in time for Lebanon’s national day of mourning on August 4.

Nadim Karam, <em>The Gesture</eM> (2021). Photo courtesy of the artist.

Nadim Karam, The Gesture (2021). Photo courtesy of the artist.

But the response to the work has been divided. Some argue that the wounds of the attack—which killed more than 200, injured at least 7,000, and destroyed large portions of the city, leaving more than 300,000 without homes—are still too raw for a public memorial, especially on the site itself.

“That’s a shameful gesture,” Mazen Chehab, a local creative director, wrote on Instagram, according to the National. “Nothing should be done with the port until those responsible for the explosion are heavily sanctioned.”

“The killers have complete impunity and we are already pretending something is in the past and we are trying to transcend it through art,” filmmaker Rawan Nassif told Reuters. “I feel this is a crime scene that can’t be touched yet, and it has to be investigated.”

Top officials have thus far not been investigated for the devastating blast, though Lebanese parliament indicated on July 29 that they will no longer have immunity.

`Nadim Karam, <em>The Gesture</eM> (2021). Photo courtesy of the artist.

Nadim Karam, The Gesture (2021). Photo courtesy of the artist.

The Gesture has also been beset with concerns that it is a government-backed initiative, and thus potentially a piece of propaganda. Karam, however, denies this is the case.

“No governmental institutions [sic] has been involved in any way in this project,” Karam insisted in an Instagram post. “The Gesture is a grassroots project.” (The project did, however, have support from the Lebanese Army as well as permits supplied by Lebanon’s Home Security and the Port Authority, according to Mashable.)

According to a statement put out by the World Bank last month, Lebanon’s current economic crisis “is likely to rank in the top 10, possibly top 3, most severe crises episodes globally since the mid-nineteenth century.”

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The Migrant Ship That Christoph Büchel Displayed at the Venice Biennale Has Gone to Sicily, Where It Will Become a Memorial

The sunken fishing ship upon which more than 1,000 African migrants died in 2015, and which was later controversially displayed at the Venice Biennale, will now be converted into a permanent memorial in Italy.

The ship had been languishing in Venice since 2019, when Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel turned it into an incendiary monument to the Mediterranean migration crisis as part of the Venice Biennale. Presented without context or labels, Barca Nostra—as Büchel’s installation was called—promptly fomented harsh condemnations. (Two of Midnight Publishing Group News’s own writers ranked it among the worst artworks of the year.)

The piece further fueled ire last year, when it was revealed that the artist had not returned the vessel to Augusta, the Sicilian city legally responsible for it, despite a contract requiring him to do so after the exhibition’s close. 

According to reports at the time, the ship’s cradle was damaged during transport—a defect that was not covered by the biennale’s insurance, since Büchel had agreed to foot the shipping costs himself. Both the team behind the biennale and the Augusta town council called on the artist to give the object back.

The shipwreck being moved from a port near Augusta, Sicily, to Venice for the biennale. The project is being presented by artist Christoph Büchel. © Barca Nostra.

The shipwreck being moved from a port near Augusta, Sicily, to Venice for the biennale. The project is being presented by artist Christoph Büchel. © Barca Nostra.

Now, after two years, that has finally happened. Traveling atop a barge, the ship made its return to Augusta this week, according to the New York Times

Representatives from Hauser and Wirth, Büchel’s gallery, did not respond to a request for comment on the ship’s return. 

With the Büchel saga in the past, Augusta will now look to the future of the vessel, including plans to turn it into a “Garden of Memory.” Details about the memorial haven’t yet been revealed, but Giuseppe Di Mare, the mayor of the Sicilian municipality, told the Times that it “will have to be in the open, because that boat gives a sense of the sea, the air, the skies. To enclose it in a building would clash with its story.”

“Certainly, the ship has attained an international dimension and we want this garden to become a place of reflection for the world, so that all people can ponder,” Di Mare added.

Over 1,000 people from Mali, Mauritius, and other African countries died when the ship collided with a Portuguese freighter off the coast of Libya in 2015. Pulled from the depths of the Mediterranean Sea in 2016, the ship has since become a symbol of Europe’s failed policies for accommodating arriving migrants.  

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Ukraine Unveils Plans for a $100 Million Interactive Holocaust Memorial, But Faces Criticism Over Director’s Proposal to Experiment on Visitors

As the world recognizes Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center in Kiev has unveiled plans for a major—and highly unconventional—memorial and museum complex in Babyn Yar, a ravine outside the Ukrainian city where Nazis executed 100,000 people.

The $100 million project’s artistic director is the controversial filmmaker Ilya Khrzhanovsky, who is consulting with a team that includes performance artist Marina Abramović, who appeared in one of Khrzhanovsky’s films, and architect Maks Rokhmaniyko.

The Babyn Yar massacre took place on September 29 and 30, 1941, and was the Nazis’ largest, wiping out the city’s entire Jewish population of 33,771 people (only 29 are known to have survived). Thousands more died in the months that followed, in what is now called the Holocaust by Bullets.

“The establishment of the center is essential for the commemoration of the Holocaust,” said Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky in a statement. “As Europe’s largest mass grave, Babyn Yar represents unimaginable destruction. Thanks to these plans, it will become a place of peace, reflection and tranquility.”

The Babyn Yar ravine where 100,000 Holocaust victims were brutally executed. Photo ©Manuel Herz Architekten.

The Babyn Yar ravine where 100,000 Holocaust victims were executed. Photo ©Manuel Herz Architekten.

The complex will include a dozen buildings, including two separate museums—one for Ukrainians and Eastern European Jews killed in the Holocaust, and one specifically memorializing those who died at Babyn Yar. There will also be a church, a mosque, a synagogue, a multimedia center, a research center, and a conference building.

Organizers aim to complete the project by 2026, but to open the synagogue, designed by Manuel Herz, and a portion of exhibition space this September, in time for the 80th anniversary of the massacre.

Manuel Herz Architekten's rendering of the Babyn Yar Synagogue. Image ©Manuel Herz Architekten.

Manuel Herz Architekten’s rendering of the Babyn Yar Synagogue. Image ©Manuel Herz Architekten.

Since the Babyn Yar site was turned into a park during the Soviet era, the center has worked with Martin Dean, a former Scotland Yard detective who now investigates Nazi war crimes, to pinpoint the exact location of the shootings. Last year, they used that research, including historical photographs and maps, to create a 3-D simulation of the 500-foot-long massacre site.

“Currently, there are far too many people unaware of the nature of the place,” Khrzhanovsky told the Times of Israel. “If you visit Babyn Yar today, you will see families relaxing and playing as if it were a regular park.”

Manuel Herz Architekten's rendering of the Babyn Yar Synagogue. Image ©Manuel Herz Architekten.

Manuel Herz Architekten’s rendering of the Babyn Yar Synagogue. Image ©Manuel Herz Architekten.

Khrzhanovsky, the center’s director, is best known for making the wildly ambitious film installation DAU, a 15-year project that recreated life in Soviet Russia on its sets, including a three-year shoot where non-professional actors were filmed around the clock in a replica of a Soviet scientific institute that was built in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

The project generated significant controversy, including accusations of sexual misconduct and child abuse on the three-acre set. Its 2018 debut in Berlin was cancelled over concerns about plans to rebuild a section of the Berlin Wall for the immersive presentation. A pared-back version opened in Paris the following year amid much chaos. DAU‘s two feature films, Natasha and Degeneratsia, screened last year at the Berlin International Film Festival, with the former winning the Silver Bear for outstanding artistic contribution.

Khrzhanovsky’s plans to remind visitors of the horrors that occurred at Babyn Yar have also been met with criticism. One former curator called it a “Holocaust Disneyland” when he quit.

Last spring, Karel Berkhoff, the project’s chief historian, announced his resignation over what he said were Khrzhanovsky’s plans to subject museum goers to “psychometric algorithms” and experiments “in which visitors would find themselves playing the role of victims, collaborators, Nazis, or prisoners of war who were forced to burn corpses.”

Ilya Khrzhanovsky. Photo via YouTube screengrab.

Ilya Khrzhanovsky. Photo via YouTube screengrab.

As Khrzhanovsky required of visitors to DAU in Paris, attendees of the memorial would have to fill out an invasive questionnaire, take a psychological test, and provide access to their social media channels in order to be profiled and cast either as a victim or perpetrator.

There would be “interactive, role-based experiences” with virtual reality goggles that would allow visitors to witness the events of the Holocaust as if they were taking part, according to the Ukrainian online newspaper Istorychna pravda. Other possible attractions could include a restaging of the infamous Stanford prison experiment.

A screenshot from Dau. Photo courtesy of Ilya Khrzhanovsky.

A screenshot from Dau. Photo courtesy of Ilya Khrzhanovsky.

Others involved in the project have quit as well, including director general Hennadiy Verbylenko and executive director Yana Barinova, who both resigned in 2019, around the time Khrzhanovsky was appointed. Dieter Bogner, a curator on the center’s planning committee, resigned in April.

It is not clear to what extent the current plan incorporates these interactive elements, but Khrzhanovsky told the Times of Israel last year that “VR technology will enable the audience to feel closer to the victims, understand who they and their families were, hear sounds from the past, and share their feelings, thoughts and actions.”

He added elsewhere, however, that many of the characterizations of the project in the press are untrue. “I did not plan and do not plan anything resembling an amusement park or ‘Disneyland’ on the site of the tragedy. I consider this blasphemy,” he told the Daily Beast.

More than 80 Ukrainian academics, artists, and historians penned an open letter in May calling for Khrzhanovsky’s removal from the project.

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Hank Willis Thomas’s Poignant Memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King Will Be Unveiled in Boston Next Fall

A 22-foot-tall bronze memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King will be unveiled next year in the country’s oldest public park.  

Designed by artist Hank Willis Thomas with a team of architects from the MASS Design Group, the sculpture, destined for Boston Common, depicts two disembodied pairs of arms in a tender embrace—a gesture based on a photograph of the couple hugging after Martin Luther King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. 

The Kings, Thomas said in a statement when his design was chosen, are a “monumental [example] of the capacity of love to shape society.” 

Led by King Boston, a private nonprofit committed to furthering the legacy of the couple, the project has been in the works since 2016. The organization selected Thomas’s memorial from a shortlist of five proposals, including designs by artists Krzysztof Wodiczko, Adam Pendleton, and Yinka Shonibare, in 2019.

Now, the monumental artwork has an approximate launch date: October 2022, just in time for a Boston-based summit of music, arts, and civic educational work centered around issues and racial and economic justice. 

The Embrace, as the memorial is called, will be installed on a new plaza named after Dr. King’s 1965 march from Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood to Boston Common. The event came a day after King spoke in favor of desegregating schools at a joint legislative session at the Massachusetts State House.

King Boston executive director Imari Paris Jeffries tells Midnight Publishing Group News that he hopes the memorial—which arrives at a time when the United States is reckoning with what kind of history its monuments tell—will “inspire a new civic narrative.”

“Boston has the opportunity to be the very first city in the nation to emerge post-vaccine as a place that embodies values of justice,” Jeffries says. “Now more than ever people want to ’embrace’ friends, loved ones, and each other. This is a symbol of that sentiment.”

A rendering of<i>The Embrace</i> on the Boston Common. Courtesy of King Boston.

A rendering of The Embrace on the Boston Common. Courtesy of King Boston.

King Boston has raised some $12 million for the project so far, over half of which has come in since June of this year, according to the Boston Globe, when cities around the country saw Black Lives Matter demonstrations flood their streets. Jeffries and his team are hoping to secure another $3 million in private and corporate donations.

The urgency of this moment, Jeffries says, has only been underscored by the lockdown era, which has “exacerbated social inequality and revealed, as King reminded us, that we are tied together in ‘an inescapable network of mutuality’ and a ‘single garment of destiny.’”

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