The Lost Empire by the prolific Lebanese photographer Fouad Elkoury is the latest exhibition at The Third Line. The exhibition features photos of abandoned soviet military bases where he visited dozens of military bases in Poland, Hungary, Estonia and East Germany between 2010 and 2011.
Most were aviation fields; others served separate purposes. And despite having being told there was nothing to photograph there, Fouad found the abandoned desolation far more captivating.
Deserted and invaded by nature, a force far more primal and stronger than weapons of war, the bases have become unserviceable areas of land. The utter silence and emptiness left Fouad the only protagonist in the plot, searching for abandoned stories, and his only ally was light, without which nothing could be seen.
I got a chance to meet Elkoury at The Third Line a few weeks ago and we talked about his career, photography and Dubai. Here are some of the highlights.
In addition to photographing in various cities around the world, Elkoury has been documenting Dubai for almost 10 years, you can see some of his work here. It's been a few years since he came to Dubai, so during this visit, he used every chance he had to photograph the city, despite the heat.
When I asked him what his impressions are of Dubai during this visit, he said he hoped there would have been an organic growth in the city after the economic crisis from a few years ago, but instead, he sees a lot of “constructed” growth which feels messy and chaotic. During his visit to Downtown Dubai around Burj Khalifa, he said that although he was impressed to see so much has been built in a very short period, but it "feels fake".
I tend to agree with Elkoury and told him I don’t feel lessons were learnt after the crisis and Dubai is very much in construction overdrive mode, especially after the World Expo 2020 in Dubai announcement.
When it comes to photography, Elkoury took it up based on instinct; it has and continues to play an important part in his life and work.
When we discussed the role of photography in the Middle East and its appreciation, or in most cases, lack of appreciation, he agreed with me that photography doesn’t get enough acknowledgment or recognition as an art form.
He pointed out that throughout history, artistic expression in the Arab world was found in literature, poetry, painting, sculpture and music; and in cinema during the past century, which took off in the Arab world when it was introduced, but the same cannot be said about photography. Somehow, photography is still struggling to be seen as a respected and serious art form in this region.
During his early days of photography, he was considered a "spy or following a disrespectful hobby". Again, this was another point we agreed on, and I was glad he validated my thoughts on how photography is perceived in this part of the world. There is distrust when it comes to photographers, especially when found in non-touristic sites. And there isn’t the same level of respect when it comes to photography as art and we wondered if it's due to the fact that in this day and age, everyone with a camera phone is a photographer, documenting and sharing a constant flood of images on social media? Or is it to do with the fact that photographs sold in galleries are in editions, and buyers prefer unique pieces, hence the popularity of paintings and sculptures?
About empty places
Before meeting Elkoury, I spent a lot of time looking at his work on his site, which goes back to the 1980s. I noticed a lot of his work does not show people, where he’s more of an observer or a quiet participant. For his Lost Empire series, I told him my first reaction to the work was categorising it as “ruin porn” photography. But as we discussed his work, I realised it was simply a case of Elkoury seeking quiet and peaceful places, an appreciation that has come with age. He described the places he photographed for The Lost Empire series as “beautiful”, whereas most people think of them as ruined and abandoned. He prefers to go to places without people, to enjoy nature, silence and his surroundings.
On that note, I leave you with some of Elkoury’s photos from the exhibition, accompanied with Negar Azmi’s eloquently written essay about this series (included in the exhibition catalogue). Negar Azimi is a writer and senior editor at Bidoun, an arts and culture magazine based in New York.
Grab a coffee/tea/drink, sit back, read and enjoy the photos. If you are in Dubai, the exhibition is on till 29h May 2014.
Mute Witness by Negar Azimi
He always arrived with a bottle of whiskey and a smile, just in case he had any problems getting in. Some encounters were more strange than others. In Hungary, he found dozens of menus scattered around, traces of soldiers’ mess halls from five decades before. In Germany, he walked into a warehouse stocked with crisp never-before-used officer fatigues. Somewhere else — he can’t remember where — he found young men racing their motorbikes along ancient airplane landing grounds. More often than not, sleepy sentinels—for there were often guards standing about the derelict architectural carcasses — raised their shoulders in sulky indifference to indicate that these abandoned military bases were not of their moment, but rather, that of their parents and grandparents. This was just some job. They didn’t have answers to the questions.
It is a queer thing to trace the footprints of great historical epochs. Unlike the photojournalist who yearns to be there in the moment – as the wall falls, when the dictator flees, amid the crowds heaving – the photographer of traces takes his time, thinks hard about the where, and sets out on a long walk. These walks take hours or weeks. Sometimes they take years, for if anything, they are not “timely.” The photographer says he has a sort of predisposition and sympathy toward these liminal spaces (for it is not clear if these sites are in a state of becoming or unbecoming). Maybe, he says, it’s a sort of a natural affinity. He has set out on journeys not unlike this one in Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt and Nicosia. In all of these places, the quality of the sound is the same, he says. Silence, it is thunderous, wraps around you like a blanket.
History becomes a puzzle to decipher. Sometimes, a place might unleash an avalanche of memory. When Jacques Austerlitz comes to know pieces of his occluded past in the novel of the same name by W.G. Sebald, he says of a gloomy room in London’s Liverpool Street station that it seemed to hold “all the hours of my past life, all the suppressed and extinguished fears and wishes I had ever entertained.” Sebald, the Bavarian author who passed away in 2001, may have been the last century’s great writer-historian. While his immediate concern seemed to be the still-fresh ravages of the second world war in Europe, it is in and around the gaps of his narratives that this vexed history speaks. Silences are pregnant. Past traumas are subtly alluded to. Objects can be bearers of riddles. Throughout his novels, one encounters ghosts, obfuscations, retellings: the landscape is littered with them. Nothing is addressed head on. There is no clarity. Here he is again, in another novel, Rings of Saturn: “We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was.”
We do not know how it was. Elegant understatements of past horrors, Elkoury’s photographs offer themselves up as Sebaldian traces. And like Sebald’s principle character in Rings of Saturn, who walks for the length of 300 pages in a heroic zigzag through the British countryside, Elkoury, too, walks. He finds memories jaded. People have died. The curious few are left to sift through the inscrutable wreckage of this modern life.
Sometimes, Elkoury’s ruins, if you can call them that, take on the appearance of other ruins we have known. In Kluczewo, two bunkers sit in the back of the frame, a little like the squat Mexican pyramids of Teotihuacan. In Furstenwalde, pillars from a now-destroyed structure (or was it never built?) approximate long discarded Greco-Roman pillars holding up nothing but sky. And everywhere, there are strange stand-ins for the human forms that once populated these abandoned spaces. In Gross Doln, over-tall lamps stand out like attenuated bodies. In Juterborg, two ventilators on the side of a building take on the aspect of ancient eyes.
Somewhere between becoming and unbecoming. And yet, one of the defining characteristics of these remnants of a Soviet past is that they exist in spite of the world. Everywhere in these photographs, a persistent grass grows — invading concrete crevices and cracks or inching along retired walls — as if reminding us that these wars, these empires, are mere specks on the historical record. The history of humans is a small thing. Nature persists.
One final image. Two boulders lie casually on a promontory, before a lake. There is no trace of the retired military base that is surely in the surrounds. The boulders appear to us as mute witnesses, having been here for decades, if not centuries. And while they are likely to hold many answers — for we came here with questions — it seems all too evident that they are not about to reveal a thing.