I was on holiday in Rome in mid-April when the latest video purporting to document Islamic State’s razing of ancient Mesopotamia flooded news channels. In the film, black-robed militants topple immense alabaster panels covered with intricate reliefs – winged Assyrian deities and rows of tight cuneiform script – in the ancient city of Nimrud. Jackhammers and bulldozers pummel through walls, some of which date back to the 13th century BCE. The idolatrous relics that cannot be hacked from the walls are surrounded by powder-filled barrels, and the video ends with a violent explosion as the city dissipates into a towering mushroom cloud of desert dust. An animated gif of the black Islamic State flag unfurls and flutters in the top right hand side of the screen.
Rome, on the contrary, is a city in which you can’t move for relics. Literally. Last November, after a delay of 15 years, the initial section of the metropolis’s much-needed third metro line was inaugurated. The GBP£3.1 billion project is ongoing: only eight out of a planned 25 kilometres of track are currently open. Partly responsible for the delays are the artefacts that construction constantly unearths. Thus far, workers have found: the remains of a villa whose kitchen still contained pots and pans; tombs and burial amphorae; the ruins of a copper factory from the 6th century ce and a tavern from the Middle Ages. At one proposed subway stop, near the Pantheon, the remains of an Imperial palace were discovered; the site was reburied for future excavation and the entire station scrapped. Rome’s strict conservation laws mean that construction work must halt every time an object of archaeological interest is discovered – the most significant are excavated and removed, others simply documented and allowed to be destroyed as the project lumbers onwards, towards the eternal city’s modern suburbs.
Nimrud was already in ruins when Xenophon, the Greek mercenary-turned-general, passed through with his army of Ten Thousand in the late 5th century BCE, but the colossal winged-bull figures (lamassu) that had flanked the entrances to the Assyrian palaces for centuries were still standing, as they did until the Islamic State’s obliteration of the site. The lamassu were protective deities, installed to ward off demons and dark forces. Carved almost a millennium before the Christian calendar begins, they communicate something about mortality – our understanding of, and fear for, the brevity and precariousness of human life – which is common to us all. Islamic State’s video of the destruction of Nimrud, like that of the toppling of statues in the Mosul Museum which preceded it, is not as immediately horrifying as other kinds of image that the organization likes to circulate: severed heads resting on top of the corpses from which they have just been cleaved, or lines of men on their knees in the sand waiting for bullets to the brain, for example. But, in its own way, it’s both tragic and terrifying. It demonstrates Islamic State’s singular, brutal assertion of ownership over artefacts that we imagine to belong to a global patrimony – the corollary of which is an equally brutal negation of the human rights we also believe to be universal.
Nimrud’s palaces, temples and monuments were testimony to a desire to produce something that will outlast our own mortal existences, which is at the origin of all culture. As John Ruskin wrote of great works of architecture: ‘They are not ours. They belong partly to those who built them, and partly to all the generations of mankind who are to follow us. The dead have still their right in them: that which they laboured for, the praise of achievement or the expression of religious feeling, or whatsoever else it might be which in those buildings they intended to be permanent, we have no right to obliterate.’ (The Seven Lamps of Architecture, 1849)
The demolition of this cultural heritage is part of Islamic State’s attempt to sever itself from, and set itself outside of, a shared past by refusing a heritage that links the Middle East to the West and beyond. Often claimed to be the ‘cradle of civilization’, Ancient Mesopotamia gave us, amongst other things, the wheel, the 60-minute hour, the 24-hour day, written language, mathematics, the Code of Hammurabi that provided the basis of a legal system, and some of the fundamental origin narratives of the Old Testament, including the parable of Noah, which appears to have originated in the Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2100 BCE). The refusal of common ground leads to intolerance and persecution in the present but it also denies a possible future because, in the globalized economy of late capitalism, survival means co-existence and exchange.
I don’t know whether Okwui Enwezor had in mind the annihilation of ancient artefacts and monuments when he introduced his theme ‘All the World’s Futures’ for this year’s 56th Venice Biennale with a reference to Walter Benjamin’s description of Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus (1920). In what is perhaps the most famous passage of his essay ‘On the Concept of History’ (1948), Benjamin writes: ‘This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet.’ I can’t help but picture jackhammers, bulldozers and something still replete with meaning, 3,000 years after it was made, disappearing in a billow of smoke. The focus of Enwezor’s central exhibition is the way in which art and artists are responding to our turbulent global present – both its problems and its possibilities. As his title suggests, it asks what role art could have in imagining, or working towards, a future that might acknowledge the needs and desires of ‘all the world’.
Enwezor’s exhibition (reviewed in this issue by Sean O’Toole) is not utopian – on the contrary, the inclusion of many works that focus on dark histories and present horrors creates, at points, an atmosphere of hopelessness that feels suffocating. Perhaps this is appropriate for a moment in which the future seems so uncertain. However, at times like these, the art and architecture of the past – the illusion of timelessness that we seek in places like Venice or Rome – can hold a particular solace, as evidence that civilization has seen turmoil before, and endured. They remind us that we are part of something that is much bigger than ourselves. The best contemporary art – including the standout pieces from this year’s biennale, many of which are featured in this issue – does likewise, though often not by emphasizing permanence, but rather frailty, fleetingness and the blood-and-bones materiality that has always made us human.
First published in Issue 172