Out of order | noel nasr
“It is precisely the fragmentary nature and lack of fixed meaning that render ruins and wastelands deeply meaningful” (Armstrong, 2006)
In 1891, The French concession to build the Beirut-Damascus railway was awarded to the Société des Chemins de fer Ottomans Economiques de Beyrouth-Damas-Hauran (Almashriq). More than a century and a dozen ravaging wars later, these photographs show a sample of what was once the Lebanese railway and the state it currently lies in.
Far from the obvious signs of industrial waste, the derelict stations and the destroyed locomotives, yet not too far from where life goes on, and sometimes right in someone’s backyard, lie layers of a forgotten history. A history that refused to give in to destiny; that kept on fighting its own fate, evoking Freud’s argument that ‘the power of the uncanny is that it ought to remain hidden but keeps coming to light’ (Freud, 1985).
Rebutting its destiny, the railway breaks through the asphalt in one place but surrenders temporarily to cement in the other. And as though in a gesture of solidarity, the railway company mimics the very rail it represents by refusing to admit its defeat*. Its existence is like an attempt to deny its failure, or could it possibly be an endeavour to keep the unlikely hope of its resurrection alive against all the odds?
The ferocious moment is turned into desire.Its artificial beauty is naturally revealed and bathes in a fusion of lights from untraceable sources. The fear of losing this ephemeral beauty of the derelict incites the usage of the camera; the only tool capable of capturing this fragile tissue of the urban, where chaos rules.
Where aesthetics defy the ugliness of the act of denial, where themysteriousness of the image becomes the subject in question, this manmade landscape reveals all its history at night. Trees grow hand in hand with the rusted metal. Horizontals and verticals meet in an eerie way to discuss the duality of urbanism as though witnesses to the creation of a new theory on parallels.
Experiencing beauty amid ruins seems unethical. Witnessing the death of the trinity (memory, history and technology), the camera - the tool of death - fights to overcome its fear. At night, it can barely see its static subject. A long exposure invites a conversation between the metal and all its surrounding elements, which filters through the lens such as a ghost whispering the tales of the departed. The photograph is no longer about freezing the moment but about extending time over a dead subject. An ongoing struggle between life and death transmutes in revealing the sublime.
Leaving the space for semiotics, nothing is left unsaid or undone. The photograph reads like an open book using a universal language with an unusual openness. The signifiers hold a divergent meaning that requires a reflectionfor things left untold.
The subject in question challenges the viewer to decipher its real meaning while the obvious is stated in every frame. If memory and history ever meet to observe and recount the past, only the present will defy their move. In a place where life is fast, nostalgia only finds space to breathe in an image.
Maybe Stalker was right when he argued that the most effective cure for abandoned urban spaces is to leave them alone to be overtaken by nature. These photographs and their peculiar beauty are not the product of humans. The rail is, the camera is, but not the marriage of the two. The trace of the trace fusing on twilight is neither a documentary nor an archive. It is another failure of the medium of photography – possibly even a failure of art.
The image making process failed while witnessing fatality and the moment of silence metamorphosed into an abstract beauty denying the crime and turning the interment into resurrection.
(*) CEL – “Chemin de Fer de l'Etat Libanais” was formed in 1961. Until now, and after more than a decade since the rail stopped functioning, employees still go to work everyday.
Armstrong, Helen (2006) ‘Time, Dereliction and Beauty: An Argument for ‘Landscapes of Contempt’, The Landscape Architect, IFLA Conference Papers.
Freud, Sigmund (trans 1985) ‘The Uncanny in Art and Literature’ edited by Dickson, A. London: Penguin, p364, as cited in Trigg, D. (2004) ‘The Uncanny Space of decay’ in Psy-Geo Provflux vol 1 (1).