Picturing Beirut

Reviewed by Iris Yirei Hu
All the Clocks Have Stopped at Different Times
I am traveling back home—a distant land, one that I never inhabited for more than a summer. I am returning to the same flat that my grandmother adopted in Taipei after World War II and the Chinese Civil War. The one in which my mother and five of her older siblings were born. It is the vessel that houses my history, though I am only familiar with it from a distance.
It is with this lens that I am writing about artist Gilda Davidian’s Picturing Beirut, a publication that maps uncharted memories through photography and prose. Davidian, born in Los Angeles, belongs to the Armenian diaspora and uses her personal and familial experience to connect to her familiar, yet foreign memory of Beirut, where much of her family now resides. Once home to many diverse groups across the globe, Beirut has now become anxiety ridden and temporary for many Syrian refugees, like Davidian’s family members, with fates yet to be determined.
Davidian introduces us to her Beirut by recalling “a known unknown” from the perspective of a purple-haired teen, where the most vivid memory is seeing a car on fire upon her arrival at the airport. She doesn’t describe the event in detail, but rather dismisses it by jumping to the next memory – a visit fourteen years later with her white American husband in fall of 2014, a journey framed by sensationalized violence created from afar.
Through the specificity of her lens, Davidian’s pictures —interspersed with screenshots of personal correspondence with her mother—transport me to my own recollections and connections to a foreign and familiar home. Perfect bound and printed in full color, a succession of memories unfold throughout the rest of the thin, 8-inch by 8-inch book. The artist collapses past and present tenses through iPhone screenshots that appear between carefully composed pictures both scenic and reflective of an interior life. The different languages and platforms of contemporary photography are embedded within the ruptures of memory and myths reconfigured in the present experience.
In the weaving of photography and prose, Davidian creates a movement of memories that allows breathing room for the reader to embed their own pasts. Sitting in front of the dining table, her Uncle Zohrab casts aside his eyes with a gaze heavy with regret and acceptance. Just like my Uncle Jay’s. I am compelled to think of my own family and their displacement by war, not unlike Davidian’s history. Upwardly angled pictures of age-old buildings, aerial views of breakfast, and the intimacy of a 1950s photograph of Davidian’s Aunt Shakeh coexist with stories told to the artist by her parents back in Los Angeles. Memory and experience unfold simultaneously in the present tense of her voice, and in the presence of my mind.
A picture of multi-story balconies belonging to the neighboring building shows no one in sight, but Davidian imagines:
I see my maternal great-grandmother’s apartment on the opposite side of the street with its green shutters and a matching statue of the Virgin Mary…I pretend I see my great-grandmother standing out on her balcony looking at me when I walk by, but I don’t know what she looked like…In my mind she is round, her breasts are low (cylindrical), and she has a light mustache.
I return to the balconies, some with outdoor curtains and a few with windows open. I try to imagine her great-grandmother. Instead, I’m transported back to mine, and see what it would be like for my great-grandmother, in her black Oriental blouse, to look at me, several generations apart. The affect of empathy is evidently powerful here.
Coincidentally, I have begun writing about Picturing Beirut on an airplane back to Los Angeles. I think about my home in Taipei and the one in Los Angeles, both of which I long for from a distance, to paraphrase Davidian’s poetry. Both belonging to our respective diasporic communities, Davidian and I are pieces of the same urban immigrant fabric that make up Los Angeles, and Picturing Beirut reminds us that memory is both here and elsewhere, that identity is both historical and in the making, that this history is both real and imagined.
Gilda Davidian. Picturing Beirut. Davidian, 2014.