December 3, 2023

Excavating the Present by Syrian artist Issam Kourbaj, Cambridge

Art never has more impact than when it resonates with current affairs. A real-world parallel gives even the most powerful installation an extra punch.

On the surface, Excavating the Present, the new fundraising exhibition by Syrian artist Issam Kourbaj, seems calmly removed from what’s going on three and a half thousand kilometres away in the artist’s birth-country to the East. It’s a series of X-rays amalgamated with aerial photographs of the British countryside.

Issam Kourbaj EtP 01
by Issam Kourbaj

Images of animal and human bones hang beside images of land taken from the sky. What’s normally hidden from human eyes is naked and on show – the topography of the land, the internal topography of living bodies. And it’s on show in a casually domestic setting, strung up on a clothes line, reminding us that the biggest mystery of all, death, surrounds us all the time, like our bodies and their paraphernalia do.

But the exhibition is more than just a display of memento mori. This is a time of lies and bloodshed in Syria. Words are being used to veil terrible crimes. By contrast, X-ray images seem like a move in the opposite direction, against the tide of secrecy. They make the obscure transparent. They are the opposite of the Assad regime’s lies.

Issam Kourbaj EtP 02
by Issam Kourbaj

‘Children will have this suffering carved in their memories, their psyches,’ Issam says of the humanitarian crisis in Syria. ‘It could have been a much more peaceful transition and unfortunately it’s not. People are dying and becoming objects … I believe there’s something sacred about human beings that is now being demolished.’

In a more general sense, the installation is a construction of outer and inner landscapes, a chronicle of the smallness and fragility of our bodies and the vastness of the land and sky that hold us and bear silent witness to us.

The images haven’t been handled with kid gloves. The artist has reversed them from negatives back to positives and made them ruggedly geological with acids. He’s given them more than a suggestion of abstract painting.

Bones meander darkly like the river Styx. Is that rusty surface a copper-enriched landscape – or dried blood?

In this way he suggests the enduring nature of life. He reminds us that we and our fellow animals are made up of the same elements as those that make mountains and rocks – the bones of the planet. Perhaps at a deeper level our natures are the same too. To harm one is to harm the other.

Art isn’t a technology, it doesn’t build systems or structures, but by making the invisible manifest it inspires the people who do build them. In this way it can truly be said to change the world.

Can the present be created from broken pieces of the past? Can we find all the broken pieces and with them build something new? These are some of the questions that Issam Kourbaj’s art tries to answer – while offering hope that a bigger and better world may one day be.

Excavating the Present runs from the 22nd March to the 7th April in a converted furniture shop on Kings Street, Cambridge. At the private view on the 21st March acclaimed Syrian writer and broadcaster Rana Kabbani will give a talk on women’s role in the Syrian revolution.

All proceeds from the fundraiser will be donated to Oxfam.

by Olympia Zographos

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