In the Lebanese Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Zad Moultaka looks back 4000 years to reflect on the contemporary Near East and its idols

Lebanon didn’t participate in the last edition of the Venice Biennale, but it makes a return this year with an ambitious pavilion that reflects not just on the history of Lebanon, but of the entire Near East. Conceived by artist and composer Zad Moultaka and curated by Emmanuel Daydé, the pavilion is entitled Šamaš, after the god of the sun and of justice worshipped by the ancient Babylonians. The installation reflects on the ancient and inspiring history of the region, as well as the tragic reality of thousands of years of conflict. Fittingly, it takes place in the old Venetian civil and military shipyard of the Venetian fleet, the Aresenale Nuovissimo.

Moultaka decided to take as his starting point the Lament for Ur a Sumerian poem dating from around 4000 years ago, which “remembers for the first time the destruction of a brilliant city in the Middle East,” he explains. “Surviving people at that time gathered to weep this lament near the destroyed walls of Ur — the city Abraham is supposed to have left at nearly the same time to go to Canaan,” an area that corresponds to modern-day Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and Jordan. Moultaka and Daydé wanted to draw parallels between this ancient act of destruction and mourning and modern Middle Eastern history.

“This lament has no age, and could have been sung in Beirut during the war or more recently in Aleppo,” says Moultaka, “because who is the god we worship nowadays if not the airplane bombers coming from the sky?”

Moultaka conceived a physical construct for this piece before beginning to work on the sound element. “I started with the architecture of the piece, which is supposed to be a modern temple of Šamaš,” he explains. The artist placed the motor of an airplane against a golden wall, made up of thousands of coins, to symbolise a modern incarnation of the Golden Calf, a symbol of idol worship in the Bible.

“Leading to the motor, I imagine a choir of 32 voices trying with difficulty to sing the Hymn to Šamaš, while we can hear a plane flying over us,” he says. “Escaping from the motor itself, I recorded the pure voice of three children, foretelling the Lament for Ur as if it was a future text.” He likens these three innocent voices to the Babylonian youths Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who refused to worship a golden idol and were thus cast into a pit of fire but did not die.

“I didn’t want to speak only for Lebanon but for the all Near East,” Moultaka says. “It tells the never-ending story of war in that land since the destruction of Ur, the Syrian war seeming to have taken the place of the Lebanese Civil War… The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi — which inspires me to consider the airplane motor as a steel erected to a new god — is considered the first code of laws ever written. Western civilisation is deeply rooted in the Middle East. Šamaš remembers that the idea of justice comes from the East. At the same time, we have forgotten justice to worship only the light that shines — and this light is the light of bombing.”

Moultaka’s work reflects on millennia of destruction and of tragedy, but ultimately his message is one of hope. “Šamaš was the sun god of justice worshipped by the powerful king Hammurabi in Babylonia around 1750 BC,” he says. “At that time in ancient Mesopotamia, and especially in Ur, it was the god of moon and time, Sîn, who was most worshipped. Wishing to be a just king, Hammurabi preferred to dedicate his power to Šamaš. With him, the eternity of time ends to create the time of civilisation and mankind. I think we need to bring back this god of justice under the sun in our unjust land.”

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Biennial & Museum Acquisitions #41, pages 90-91.