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Why Recreating the Palmyra Arch Is Smug, Hypocritical, and Tacky

We should probably look at our own role in the destruction of ancient artifacts.

by Sam Kriss
Apr 25 2016, 5:45pm

The Palmyra Arch in Trafalgar Square. Picture by: Frank Augstein / AP/Press Association Images

I went to look at the recreation of Palmyra's Arch of Triumph in Trafalgar Square in London just in time to see the whole thing being disassembled. As I stood behind the wire barricades with a couple of other mildly interested spectators, a crane mounted on a flatbed truck slowly winched off each of the model's 3D-modeled, machine-cut blocks and carted them away.

In a few days, it'll re-appear, as if by magic, in Dubai and then New York. Which is kind of fitting: the real arch stood for 2,000 years in Syria before being blown up by Isis militants, and the 2:3 replica in London performed a similarly miniature re-enactment of its story: put up by some pompous local ruler, gawped at briefly, and then taken apart.

Like most pieces of public art, the recreated arch is clearly well-meaning, but it's also a total political and aesthetic failure. Its creators, the Institute for Digital Archaeology, will eagerly prattle on about the advanced imaging technology used to recreate the building from photographs, but the fact is that it looks absolutely nothing like the original. The marble is smooth, bright, and plasticky; it looks as much like a Roman ruin as the Disneyland castle looks like an actual medieval fortress. Under the yellowing light of a springtime afternoon in the barbaric northern reaches of the old empire, the whole thing glows a kind of gaudy Barbie-skin orange.

It's tacky, and shamelessly so, like an Italian restaurant trying to recreate the feel of the Campidoglio with lots of stone-effect paint and plastic ivy. And some of this fakery is clearly a conscious decision; it is historical reconstruction as performed by Jeff Koons. Stones that were chipped and frayed in the original, jutting out or worn away, eroded to slivers, mottled with 20 centuries of dirt and decay, are here as straight and regular as Lego. One could argue that they're trying to recreate the arch in a perfect state, before any of its destruction, as a kind of eternal image—but the missing blocks above the keystone are absent here too, a swollen void, the uneasy gap between recreation and re-imagination. With its 2:3 scale the model feels tiny and toylike, sanitized, domesticated. It's been torn out of its geographical and historical context, pulled away from the structures that surrounded it and presented to us as a good opportunity for a selfie. It's an archway to nowhere.

But it might be best not to get too hung up on comparisons to the original. The arch is a piece of Baudrillardian sorcery: a copy of a copy of a copy. A real, physical object, recreated from weightless digital photographs, which themselves captured something entirely artificial. The ruins at Palmyra didn't really stand in desolate solemnity for 2,000 years until Isis came along to blow it up; until the late-1920s, most of the structures had long been toppled and buried, with the village of Tadmur built on its site and modern huts jutting against fractured colonnades. In 1929 the French Mandatory authorities razed the village, relocating it to the contemporary city of Tadmur, and started stacking the old stones on top of each other again. It's not excusing Isis' vandalism to point out that what they destroyed was less than a century old; or that the weird, cartoonish recreation in London, in its attempt to realistically copy a simulacrum, was doomed from the start.

You might think I'm being snobbish or pedantic here, unfairly rounding on a memorial to the very real tragedy going on in Syria, and you might be right. But it's still interesting to note that in all the column inches devoted to this brief monument, almost nobody has stopped to ask the first question that's usually asked of new works of art: is it any good?

And no, it's not good.

But that's not the point, is it? We didn't erect a model of a Syrian ruin in Trafalgar Square because it might look nice; it's there because it's supposed to mean something. This isn't far from what Theodor Adorno meant when he talked about the "fetish-character" in music, the way that scraps and phrases of great classical pieces are isolated from their context in the work itself, atomized and commodified, so that they can come to stand for "high culture," a chimera that in practice wasn't much more than a crutch for the ego, a way of looking down at other people who don't fetishize the grand signifiers of art. The actual content and quality of the thing is subordinated to an imposed set of social meanings. But what did the Palmyra arch, recreated in London, actually mean?

Really, it's quite hard to tell. It's supposed to be a protest against the ongoing cultural vandalism in Iraq and Syria, which is fair enough. But putting it in London seems a little smug, not to mention hypocritical. The message is that Iraqis and Syrians can't be trusted to take care of their own artifacts, that we in the west are still the guardians of universal culture. In other words, it's a form of looting—we've stolen a piece of Syrian history, copied it, and tried to make it our own.

This is nothing new. Walk along Northumberland Avenue, from the fake arch down to the river Thames, turn left, and eventually you'll come across Cleopatra's Needle—an actual ancient Egyptian obelisk, 3,500 years old, dug up from Alexandria and shipped halfway across the world, all because some Victorian imperialists decided that they quite fancied plonking it down in their capital. (Incredibly, a recent opinion piece in the Evening Standard used the arch to praise the incredible foresight of the "enterprising, acquisitive Victorians" in shamelessly stealing great works of art from around the world.)

While Isis' outright destruction of big historic sites tends to be what makes headlines, what the group usually does with priceless historical artifacts is sell them. They percolate through Syria's northern border and the global black market, until they end up in the world's great antiquities markets—one of which happens to be London. Nobody really knows how many blood artifacts have ended up in the city—it could be dozens, it could be thousands. But before we start patting ourselves on the back for appreciating world history, it might be a good idea to look at our own country's role in its destruction.

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