Julie Mehretu’s Syrian Elegy

Edition Review

  • Julie Mehretu, Epigraph, Damascus (2016)

  • Six framed photogravures with open bite, sugar lift and spit bite aquatint, 217 x 87 cm each. Edition of 16. Printed and published by Niels Borch Jensen, Copenhagen. Price on request.

Julie Mehretu, Epigraph, Damascus (2016).

Julie Mehretu’s Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts) has received a good deal of attention since it appeared at Documenta in 2012. As the press duly noted, Mogamma is the mammoth Egyptian government building—half Chicago Merchandise Mart, half Albert Speer—that dominates Tahrir Square in Cairo. The four vast paintings took as their subject matter both the Arab Spring of 2010–11 and that most politically volatile of urban spaces, the city square. “I think architecture reflects the machinations of politics,” Mehretu has said, and the geographically specific example of Tahrir provided her with a gateway for connecting a field of abstractions (human engagement, exchange and shared agency) to a field of events (from the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi to the downfall of Hosni Mubarak).1

All this is clear from external materials, but the paintings themselves do not spell it out. What the viewer sees are Mehretu’s familiar, entrancing flurries of open marks, fine line drawing and colored confetti moving across adjacent canvases like a summer squall. Up close can one make out the underpinning of architectural line drawings. But given that each canvas is 15 feet high, only the bottom quarter or so can actually be seen up close; the upper reaches slip away into generalities that the viewer can only trust are similarly grounded.

Mehretu’s spectacular new project with Niels Borch Jensen, Epigraph, Damascus, is also an ambitious response to events in the Middle East. Across seven vertical panels, 7-1/2 feet high and a collective 20 feet long, stretches a dark cloud of energetic marks, gray haze and bits of buildings, but the atmosphere is less summer squall than forest fire. This is not Egypt in 2012, it is Syria in 2015, and the title points not to a public square where a dictator was brought low, but to a city shattered by a dictator still standing.

In exquisitely printed intaglio, black marks hurtle downward and clump in clusters; variations in ink transparency provide the illusion of depth—the cloud seems to stretch not just vertically and horizontally but sagittally. Barely perceptible color shifts shape it further—bits of black-green like a park seen in the distance at night, a swathe of cordovan like dried blood. In and around this massed activity wafts a translucent gray mist, and beneath it we glimpse airy renderings of urban buildings—upside-down windows and pediments and steps, some in clear isolation and some in stammering repetition.

Julie Mehretu, panels 1 and 2 from Epigraph, Damascus (2016).

Like many artists who take to print, Mehretu understands images not as organic wholes but as accretions of parts. In both painting and print, her arrays of elegant lines and expressive gestures interact without merging, like friends waving to each other on either side of a window. Her intricate compositions are built layer by layer—drawn, erased, and drawn again in strata (she is not averse to the archeological metaphor). And she often works in series, using adjacency and sequence to further complicate, or divide, a totality. (See, for instance, the four-part Myriads, Only By Dark [2014], the five-part series Apparitions and Translations [2013] or the 12-part Auguries [2010]).

In the case of Epigraph, Damascus, the appearance of a landscape arranged in conjoined vertical panels is strongly suggestive of East Asian screen painting, though at a Brobdingnagian scale. The almost ineffable grays and sudden blacks suggest sumi-e ink painting, while the sense of weather sweeping across occasionally visible topography echoes aerial views like Yoshimura Shuzan’s Bird’s-eye view of Osaka, where the city plan peeps out between rolling clouds of gold.2 Both give us the vertiginous sense of peering down on something from on high—the God’s eye view of civilization and the weather it cannot control.

With these prints, as with the Mogamma paintings, we don’t know where to stand: the line drawings of building parts require close proximity to be recognized for what they are, while other sections only coalesce when seen from a distance. Whatever position we stake, we are missing something.

As subject matter, the Middle East—the birthplace of both civilization and of scientific excavation—is tailor-made for Mehretu: a geographical palimpsest of building, erasure and rebuilding. Nor is it irrelevant—given the artist’s fascination with scale and inconstancy—that all that grandeur, subsidence and survival served as fodder for European romantic visions of Ozymandian ebb and flow. For archeologists and poets, the Middle East presented an enthralling tale of loss.

Today’s losses are more visceral and their implications more difficult to rationalize or to satisfy in verse. If architecture reflects politics, does exploded architecture signify the fireworks of a new independence day or the detonation of an I.E.D.? Mehretu provides a picture of uncertainty, the state change between the complicated and the complex. A car engine is complicated; global politics is complex. Both have moving parts and causes and effects, but the latter has so many parts, connected in so many interdependent ways and moving simultaneously at such speed it is effectively impossible for us to control—or even comprehend—what is going on. Beyond doubt, Epigraph, Damascus is an agitated, disconcerting elegy, though whether for the past or the future is anyone’s guess.

  1. Mehretu in Augustin Pérez Rubio, “Tracing the Universe of Julie Mehretu: a Choral Text,” in Julie Mehretu: Black City (Hatje Cantz, 2006), 29. []
  2. Yoshimura Shuzan, Bird’s-eye view of Osaka (18th century), six-fold screen: ink, color and gold leaf on paper. The British Museum, 2001,0627,0.1, AN21032001. []