Tony Chakar: Spectral Iconic Appearances

An interview with Tony Chakar on de-sanctified icons, the space of catastrophe and the aftermath of the Lebanese civil wars.

Ellen Mara De Wachter: You tend to privilege writing as an artistic medium. Why is this? Deleuze mentioned in an interview that »Only writing is pure, speech is pure charm.« What do you think of that?

Tony Chakar: The relationship between text and image has been problematic for a long time, and at certain points it seemed that we were dealing with two absolutely separate entities, one related to concepts and ideas while the other was constantly relegated to the realm of the representational, with all that the idea of »representation« carries: the non-authentic, the false, the reflection, etc. It hasn’t always been such. Take the icon in the Orthodox tradition, for instance; in Arabic you’d never say »to draw an icon« (R/S/M, Arabic verb stem, editor), but rather icons are »written« (K/T/B). Icons are texts, albeit pictorial ones. Furthermore, the icon is not a representation of, it doesn’t represent, but rather it operates as the First Image of (hence their sanctity). Icons are embodiments, the same as in the Divine Nature of Christ being embodied in Christ the Man. This helps to blur the rigid distinction that I spoke of earlier, and it might help us (re)think this problematic issue differently. If we understand this theological example allegorically, and from the point of view of our (post)modern period, we might assert that everything which is truly modern is inscribed on the surface, on the surface of the things that surround us. Modernity’s authenticity lies on its surface, and it manifests itself as text-figures, as de-sanctified icons. In that sense this is what constitutes our world, the world in which we move, where we constantly shift positions, where we are surrounded by spectral iconic appearances; and in that sense there would be nothing particular about using text, it’s just the way the world is.
As for the distinction that Deleuze made, I wouldn’t be able to comment because I’m not really familiar with his work or his terminology.

De Wachter: Can you talk a little about the development of your ideas of the space of catastrophe. You have been working on this for some time now; what has been the trajectory of this thinking?

Chakar: The work on the time and space of catastrophe is an ongoing project on which I started working after the Israeli attacks on Lebanon in 2006. It is not really related to the attacks as such (and it certainly isn’t a »militant« work), but rather to the Lebanese civil wars of 1975-1990, and then only allegorically. I’ll go out on a limb and say that it’s an attempt to reconstruct a certain world (and a certain time span) that has been lost to me. The reconstruction is never perfect; it may be melancholic but it is never nostalgic. Maybe it is an act of redemption – not of myself but of the world (another theological comparison would be with the 2nd-century Gnostics, who believed that it was not God’s task to redeem the faithful, but rather it was the faithful who were to redeem God).
During these past three years I’ve accumulated a lot of material, a lot of spectral iconic appearances. These are not descriptive of what the catastrophic was, of the way life was lived during that period. Rather, they act as »interruptions«, as disturbances in a certain continuum, like lightning is an interruption of the stormy night sky (une déchirure de la nuit). They are all held together by a certain force field, a gravitational field, a black hole if you will, which is the catastrophic.
What is paradoxical, at least for me, is that after almost three years, I’ve nothing really to show; this work never took a definitive form; if someone is interested I haven’t got any »object« (art object, video, publication, etc.) to show them. I only have the slideshows that I use to aid me in the talks that I give about the subject, but without what I say these are absolutely hermetic, and even meaningless. Maybe it’s better like this – not to have this work »solidify« in one way or the other, and maybe it’ll happen in the future when I’m ready, when the work itself is ready. We’ll see.

De Wachter: Your relationship with your city, Beirut, is fundamental to your artistic practice. You also teach architectural history (is this correct?). How do you enmesh theory, history and practice? Also you use literary sources – as in this project you will be using Shakespeare – in what ways do literature and the city cross over for you?

Chakar: It’s funny that you should use the term »artistic practice.« I always consider the work that I do as belonging first to the sphere of architecture. The architectural world doesn’t take this sort of work very seriously, so I always end up with artists, who are kind enough to provide me with the closest thing to acceptance I know. But it is still architecture.
I came across a citation from a French poem recently: »Je suis l’espace où je suis« by Noël Arnaud (»I am the space where I am«), which I think will fit quite nicely here. Beirut imposes its program on you – and I certainly wouldn’t be the only person who would say that. It’s a city built on extreme contradictions, which tend to explode in your face from time to time. Contradictions: which means that at times it can be very tender and graceful; but it’s the other face that I dread, the one which is spiteful, ugly and filled with hate. Maybe one of the dimensions of my work is to try and save Beirut’s kinder face, the one that makes me want to stay here. It’s not that easy, because it seems to me that this face shines best after moments of intense destruction, after the city attempts so vehemently to destroy itself.
The last part of your question takes me back to what I said about texts and images. To take the Shakespeare reference that I mentioned to you before, it’s funny how – for lack of a better term – you come across something which was written in 17th-century England in 21st-century Beirut; or perhaps you happen upon a situation that you’re living in a foreign text (spatially and temporally). The reference I intend to use is from Richard II, where Bushy, the queen’s servant, advises her to »look awry« in order to see the shadows of grief. Looking, looking obliquely, seeing, shadows and grief are all themes that I worked on previously; it’s uncanny how Shakespeare managed to put all these categories in one sentence! In any case, what concerns me in the immediate is how to remind a building of its forgotten future(s)… would that be possible, visually, by changing the conditions of looking and seeing? It’s a very delicate operation and I hope it’ll work.

De Wachter: You visit and revisit places and ideas in your work; how do you view this practice of the return, as a kind of haunting? What place do notions of ghosts and hauntings play in your work?

Chakar: Yes, I do revisit certain themes and ideas, sometimes obsessively; but I don’t think you can call that haunting. Maybe I have an obsessive personality, what do I know? What I know for sure is that I tend to linger, to look behind while moving forward… to paraphrase Baudelaire, I’d say that there is an eternity between the lived moment and the present moment. But that doesn’t have much to do with ghosts or haunting. I’d rather use the term specters, which is not easily interchangeable with the term ghosts. Specters do not haunt; I don’t think they even »will« or take over something. They’re just there, in this spectral universe we live in, hovering, lingering, distractedly waiting to be redeemed.

De Wachter: Can any space be catastrophic (virtually)? Or is it a question of history?

Chakar: There’s a distinction to be made: When I talk about the space and time of catastrophe, I mean the shifts, displacements and disruptions caused by catastrophic events on the space-time continuum that we usually qualify as »normality.« Normality can be considered a set of conventions and habitudes of course, and ultimately it doesn’t mean anything physical, or palpable (in the sense that you cannot qualify a space as being »normal,« it doesn’t make sense). Viewed from this angle, a space cannot be termed »catastrophic« either. But we can slightly shift our angle of vision, and ask: what are the elements that determine how people, in a certain place, experience space and time in a certain way, a specific way? The answer would certainly encompass the notion of normality I spoke of above, but it wouldn’t be enough. There are other elements which are not necessarily conscious and that play a large role. If you take the Lebanese wars for instance, and think about not what caused them or their physical results, but rather: how come the country is still in one piece? The amount of violence that was exerted in the direction of fragmenting Lebanon was enormous, and sustained over many years; but still, the country is there, in one piece; still, there is a certain notion of »Lebaneseness« (for lack of a better term) that manifests itself sporadically, and that has nothing to do with a conventional »national feeling« or »national heritage.« It bases itself, precisely, not on an ancient history, but rather on a shared lived experience (the experience of the catastrophic is only part of it) that is to be found in what we might call a latent space, a veiled space, an obscure space, I’m not quite sure. For better or worse, this experience hasn’t been formulated in political terms, in the sense that it has not yet been recuperated by the prevailing political discourses.

De Wachter: You seem to be suggesting a Bergsonian approach to buildings, positing that the building contains a flux of past and future events that constitute them today. Would you agree, or is there something else there?

Chakar: You can say that, but where do we go from here? As far as I’m concerned, this is a correct theoretical observation (which is not at all self-evident, by the way); but it only constitutes a basis for a non-banal architectural practice, a starting point. Another starting point – or let’s call it a shining point in this constellation of ideas – would be to insist that the experience of architecture is not only visual, it is tactile as well, an idea which disturbs the foundations of architecture as we know it, foundations which have been mainly developed in the Renaissance period. Not unrelated to that is the amazing analogy between Panofsky’s description of the space of the Renaissance perspective, how it is constituted by points linked together only by a Cartesian system, and how objects »float« in the space of Capitalism (the only force of gravity being »how much?«) as described by Georg Simmel. I can give other points as well; the fact remains that these ideas are not what constitutes a »practice« (even if understood in the broadest of ways). The practice lies in the space defined within these ideas.

De Wachter: Could you describe the project a little?

Chakar: I’m not sure how… I’ve never attempted to do something so absolutely digital before. But in view of what I said, I’d like to consider the space allocated to me as a surface, which I will try to disturb and interrupt in certain places, so that it acquires some topography, and so that people who would see it would get a glimpse of a shining figure-text in evanescence. We only see things just as they are disappearing, and the closer we look the farther they move back. I cannot promise that the result will coincide perfectly with my description, because my technological knowledge is really behind; but it doesn’t matter really. The discrepancy between what you aim for and the result you get (the discrepancy between the content and the form) creates a certain space between the two that is always interesting to investigate.
For this project I’ll be using some pictures I took in the streets of Beirut, along with others that come from the repertoire of digital images produced by Hizbollah for the reconstruction of the southern suburbs of Beirut (Hizbollah’s fief and the object of massive Israeli air raids in 2006). There’s one that I digitally manipulated in order to create an anamorphic image, something which in »real« space would require a sophisticated apparatus of mirrors and a lot of mathematical calculations.

This interview first appeared on in September 2008, as a companion to the online project »Breathe« by Tony Chakar, curated by Ellen Mara De Wachter. It can be viewed here:

This text is also available in German at:

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