For the Lebanese artist Marwan Rechmaoui, a seven-year-old sculpture that documents an almost sacred pathway is suddenly relevant to his home country in ways he never would have imagined.
“Veni, Vidi, Vici,” his 2013 artwork that has been shown in museums and galleries across the globe, has taken on new significance after months of protests that have roiled Lebanon. Although most of these protests have focused on the economic situation in the country — high youth unemployment, a plummeting currency and a stagnant economy that many feel favors the elite — one smaller protest has focused on a troubling mixture of politics, history and the environment: the construction of a government building near a crossroads that many consider to be unparalleled in Lebanon’s place in history.
And this is where “Veni, Vidi, Vici” — drawn from the phrase “I came, I saw, I conquered, ” attributed to Julius Caesar — feels suddenly more immediate. Mr. Rechmaoui conceived the piece seven years ago when he became concerned about the future of the Nahr el-Kalb site north of Beirut, a well-trod passageway over thousands of years for conquerors and others traveling between the Mediterranean and the Arabian Peninsula.
“For armies in ancient times, this was a geostrategic point that connected Africa, Europe and Europe by sea,” Mr. Rechmaoui explained in a recent phone interview from his studio in Beirut. “If people had to walk from ancient Egypt to Babylonia, if the crusaders wanted to pass from Europe to Jerusalem, they all went through this passage.”
The mountainous cliff of the Nahr el-Kalb river runs into the Mediterranean Sea through a small delta where ships would moor, and the location was a departure for Mr. Rechmaoui, who is best known for his artworks that normally focus on urban landscapes and the raw materials therein. The rural setting inspired him, thanks to the conquerors and others who inscribed their names, sometimes quite elaborately, on platelike vertical rocks as they passed through the valley, and through history.
“Conquerors after a battle would leave a plate on this mountain, next to the river,” Mr. Rechmaoui explained. “They wrote their names, or date, or reason they passed through.”
And this was the genesis of “Veni, Vidi, Vici,” which is part of the permanent collection of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Mr. Rechmaoui pays homage to these rocks by stacking 1,000 marble cubes measuring seven by seven centimeters in a mountainous heap. Twenty-six are engraved: 13 in Latin and 13 in Arabic, although the actual plates are also in Assyrian, Latin, Arabic, Greek, Roman and Egyptian.
“I surveyed the names on the plates, but many are too old,” he said. “But I came up with 13 names that were still legible, as far back as Pharaoh Ramses II from nearly 3,000 years ago and up to President Émile Lahoud of Lebanon in the year 2000.”
Fast forward to late 2019 when people began marching in the streets of Beirut protesting the construction of the new headquarters for the Free Patriotic Movement, a major political party in Lebanon, near the Nahr el-Kalb site. The complex will include a series of buildings and has raised concern among environmentalists and many citizens.
“All of this construction is having a huge impact,” Mr. Rechmaoui said. “Usually in rural areas, if a site like this is untouched by people then it’s protected. But the minute the government opens a road, then you’ll have the gas station, then the guy who fixes the tires and so on. Then you will have homes. Buildings begin to spread, and the forest disappears.”
It’s almost as if “Veni, Vidi, Vici” is, like many of his works, about the saga of Lebanon after its civil war from 1975 to 1990. And, like many of his works, the past has become the future. His concerns seven years ago about the trampling of such a sacred site by tourists was minuscule compared with the construction project now underway.
“What’s happening politically now, and at that particular site, makes me think more about the meaning of my work — all of my works, really,” he said. “What I work on are corpses — things that will not exist in the future, or things that are still existing but are dysfunctional or under threat. Like walking, living corpses.”
The relevancy of his work is exactly what drew Andrée Sfeir-Semler, the owner of Sfeir-Semler Gallery in Beirut and Hamburg, Germany, to bring “Veni, Vidi, Vici” and dozens of Mr. Rechmaoui’s other works to her Hamburg gallery last fall in the exhibition “Cityscapes,” when, coincidentally, the protests began to spread across Lebanon. (She had planned to bring “Veni, Vidi, Vici” to Art Dubai 2020 this month before it was postponed because of the coronavirus).
“I love this piece because it is even more relevant today since the historical site that inspired it is endangered,” Ms. Sfeir-Semler said in a recent phone interview fromHamburg. “I like to feature artists who respond to an urgency that they witness in the world around them and are somehow safekeeping this knowledge for future generations.”
This theme is evident in a few of Mr. Rechmaoui’s most famous works, including “Monument for the Living,” a nearly 8-foot-tall concrete replica of a Beirut skyscraper that was never completed after the civil war started. It has been on display at the Tate Modern in London since 2016 (part of the museum’s permanent collection), and many see this, like “Veni, Vidi, Vici” today, to be an ironic and tragic bit of timing after the Grenfell residential tower fire killed 72 in London in 2017. A shell of a building in a museum came to represent the shell of a building still standing, charred, in London.
In a similar light, “Spectre” (2006-2008) is Mr. Rechmaoui’s replica of a Beirut apartment building that was abandoned during the war, then occupied by refugee squatters and is currently rented housing again. Mr. Rechmaoui sees this as an ideal reflection of Beirut’s highs and lows.
“Refugees came from rural areas with different ways of life and modified it according to their needs, down to the details of such things as different curtains,” he said. “For a modern viewer it would look like chaos, but it made its own path. It’s a modern corpse, but one that is still there and functioning.”
And like these two pieces, “Veni, Vidi, Vici” is, in its own way, a corpse, Mr. Rechmaoui said. These historic plates will be overrun far more quickly as tourism grows alongside construction. But this piece will, like many of his others, remain as a homage to a slowly dissolving piece of history.
“With any archaeological site, you’re left only with the corpse, and the soul disappears,” he said. “But I’m beginning to think that I am preserving these things, and perhaps their soul, in my own way. When something physically exists, even if it’s a miniature, it replaces the original if that somehow disappears.”