Farewell Is Not Good-Bye

“Die Krise ist Permanent geworden” –Jacob Taubes

What is a collection of photographs? Susan Sontag partially answers the question: “Any collection of photographs is an exercise in Surrealist montage and the Surrealist abbreviation of history”. It is perhaps not that the world is seen through photographs but that photographs are seen as the world. The reality of wars and conflicts that happen far away are no longer only part of the photography stock of any decent publication but also household items; they come in the form of toys, videogames, souvenirs, Hollywood films, TV series, post stamps and cigarettes. War is a familiar sound of the living room. An unavoidable background sound.

But wars are more than sights and sounds. The experience of war leaves traces in the air that are both incorruptible and imperceptible: Wars come with their own textures, smells and sense of time. Documenting a war through photographs and film footage is unable to capture these traces that are distinguishable only by the participants of this age-old game. And in a war, everyone is a participant: The victim and the perpetrator. Buildings come and go – history knows this to be so – but the color of the waters, the moisture of the soil, the humming of birds; all of this is landscaped anew by armed conflict, as if by decree of a master plan.

Photography is immune to these changes. Representational images in general exist in smooth surfaces that lack the kind of traces necessary to be properly stored in memory; advertising and documentaries of war have in common that they attempt to deploy archetypes resembling traces of memory. But how to manipulate an image, a photograph in such a way that it leaves traces? Literalness is the opposite of trace, and this is how in the Impressionist period, artists set out to subvert compositional images to enable them to capture the passing and imperceptible: Cold air, morning fog, air, and in particular the effects of light on emotions.

The exhibition “Legend of Death”, by Aleppo-born photographer and mixed media artist Khaled Akil is one such topographies of war in which otherwise straightforward images are manipulated to convey real effects of texture; the texture of violence and war, cycles of decay and re-birth, the merciless and ever so recurring passing of time. Two years after the Syrian civil war raged on – and while it is an academic question whether it is a revolution or not, the cold facts of war are unavoidable – Akil focused on his native Aleppo, choosing a plethora of cultural and geographical objects with enlarged sentimental value, treating them with more historical bird’s eye than sentimentality.

The skyline of Aleppo, rarely seen Mesopotamian effigies, birds and soldiers are among Akil’s chosen symbols through which he presents the Syrian conflict, charged with cultural metaphors associated with the land – rather than the republic – of Syria through the ages. His images exist simultaneously in different planes and times, acquiring a certain cinematic quality, as if identical still frames could be juxtaposed on paper in such a way as to provoke fright and hope, despair and joy, melancholy and glee. Rather than a medium of representation or even opinion, Akil’s photography is an imbalance between observation and ambiguity.  

Through a complex process of manual intervention, including not only photography but painting, Arabic calligraphy, drawing and endless layers of scratches, light and anti-light: Sometimes a thick halo of presence, sometimes a grayed fading. The concept behind the exhibition does more than merely collecting and defies Surrealism in being more than a montage: His visual landscape is never an artificial hell or heaven, but rather, the capture of a moment of ecstatic intensity before its final disappearance – in the same way that stars go to their death in the sky, part of complex biological cycles that appear marvelous when observed from the outside.

Khaled Akil is mourning over the destruction of Aleppo during the war, but his mourning is not melancholy and gloom; it is charged with the epic of the Greek tragic hero. As the political abuses of religion continue to ransack and vandalize the entire Middle East, Akil reflects on the five-thousand years history of this region and without blinking he visualizes how everything will pass, come of its own age, rise and fall, but yet Mesopotamia and Sumer will live on. The Arabic calligraphy with passages from the Koran and Mesopotamian mythology does not function as quotations but act in the name of the scandalous revolutionary force of the past, to quote Pasolini.

 An apparently somber journey through Aleppo turns into an untimely meditation on hope and an allegory against war, war in general. Stranded somewhere between painting and photography, passing and remaining, metaphor and documentary, poetics and lamentations, Khaled Akil’s “Legend of Death” unfurls before the viewer as an unrestrained visual essay on human possibilities. Produced in Syria while intense gun battles raged outside, and presented for the first time in Istanbul, his exhibition is a tribute to the Syria that is no more but that with or without him, will rise once again. In a conversation he remarked: “I would love to take you to Aleppo, to my Aleppo… One day, one day…” 

Images courtesy of Khaled Akil

"Legend of Death", Chalabi Art Gallery, Istanbul, open until March 15th. 

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Arie Amaya-Akkermans is a specialist in contemporary art from the Middle East. Living and working in Beirut.