Last fall, Oscar Niemeyer’s magnificent fair in Tripoli came back to life as an artistic destination

Architect Oscar Niemeyer’s fabled fairground in Tripoli hosted a month-long art event in September and October intended to reclaim the site for public use. The Brazilian architect originally designed the 100-hectare Modernist fairground, later renamed Rashid Karameh International Fair, after visiting Tripoli in 1962. But construction slowed and then stopped with the onset of the Lebanese civil war in 1975, and the site was commandeered as a military base.

While the military base is long gone, the site hasn’t been restored or put to use and has effectively been abandoned. But last fall, Niemeyer’s “sound dome” – an echoing auditorium intended to have a hydraulic stage – hosted an extraordinary sound and light installation by Zad Moultaka, who delivered Lebanon’s amazing entry during 2017’s Venice Biennale.

Alongside Moultaka, the work of 14 other artists from Lebanon and Mexico were showcased at the fair, under the huge mushroom-shaped helipad, in the giant curving conference halls and at what looks like a Modernist answer to a many-pillared Middle Eastern palace. Another four artists were shown at Tripoli’s 12th-century Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles, in a dialogue between the two sites. The exhibition was called Cycles of Collapsing Progress.

“This is a project on utopia, because this place was utopic,” said Sorbonne-trained curator Karina El Helou. “The Niemeyer project was very positive, about Modernism and progress.” El Helou added that the art showcase would reclaim the fair park, which dominates a vast area in the centre of Tripoli but is not freely open to the public. “Nothing happened for as long as a month here, so it is really important to suggest things are more permanent,” she said. “We are in a country, in Lebanon, where everything is quick, a one-day event, a two-day event. For me it’s important that for a month people can come into the fairground. The place is not open to everyone. If you are a local person you need an authorisation to get here. You cannot come in and just walk. They are afraid of people coming in and doing damage. For me it’s a re-appropriation of our own space, to say we are still here, we have a culture.” El Helou’s co-curator is Anissa Touati, and she’s based between Mexico and France.

Utopia (The No-Place is a Real Place) - Jorge Mendez Blake by Chantale Fahmi
Utopia (The No-Place is a Real Place) - Jorge Mendez Blake by Chantale Fahmi

Two years ago El Helou co-curated The Silent Echo, an exhibition at the archaeological site and museum of Baalbek, where a triad of temples to Jupiter, Venus and Bacchus were transformed by the work of Ai Wei Wei and others.

Between 1957 and 1968, another architect, the American Frank Lloyd Wright, designed plans for Greater Baghdad, including an opera house and cultural centre. They were never built. Niemeyer, a political activist and long-time communist, refused to be involved in the Baghdad project, but his work in Lebanon was part of the same Modernist trend in the Middle East.

The building of the Niemeyer fair, of huge scale and ambition, saw a big area cleared of people for construction. It suffered delays over local disputes and was then frozen by the Lebanese Civil War. Niemeyer never mentioned it as part of his architectural work, said Moultaka’s touring curator, Nadine Zaccour. “The guy never ever wanted to talk about this project within his other projects. He wouldn’t mention Tripoli because it was an unfinished project.”

Moultaka’s work, titled “Don’t Fall/because whoever fell will fall for good,” used the clusters of construction wires that hang down from the unfinished roof of the dome, anchoring them to the floor like winding iron creepers. The impression was like walking into a film set for an alien spaceship, in a dome where the sunken centre has the look of a circular gladiators’ arena. The mournful, evocative soundscape used the repetitive echo of the building, which amplifies sound like the crunch of a shoe on stone. There were sounds like those of distant worshippers, a muezzin, against tiny musical noises like guitar strings or the faintest cymbal. Moultaka used amplified recordings of his own hair to create sounds like Arctic ice cracking.

New research for the show has shown that Niemeyer intended the space underneath the helicopter pad for a space museum, El Helou said. The well-known Lebanese artists and filmmakers Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige used it for a new version of their long-running project on the Lebanese Rocket Society, an aspirational space programme that flowered briefly in the 1960s. Other work, including a mix of commissioned and existing pieces, included Damian Ortego’s Controller of the Universe, a hanging array of 463 found tools pointing to the centre of the piece.

Controller of the Universe - Damian Ortega - by Walid Rashid
Controller of the Universe - Damian Ortega - by Walid Rashid

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, Sanctuaries #47, pages 44 – 51

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