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Urbanisation and its undoing

A thought-provoking stacked stone installation, ‘While we Wait’ explores several topical issues, including the changing dynamics between nature and architecture

“In this delicate stone shelter, we will wait and we will testify that all the vanishing isles of the world did indeed once exist”.

So ends an evocative text by Karim Kattan, who spent his childhood in the Cremisan Valley, located on the seam line between the West Bank and Jerusalem. A film shot at close range of the writer reciting the text within brothers Elias and Yousef Anastas’s ‘Stone Sourcing Space’ in a neighbouring landscape opens the second iteration of the exhibition ‘While We Wait’ at Alserkal Avenue’s Concrete. The show has been curated by Salma Tuqan of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Tuqan met architects Elias and Yousef Anastas on a research trip to Bethlehem four years ago and the commission was born. The 600 individual units making up the exquisite stacked installation were created in Bethlehem using the stereotomy technique, the art of cutting stone that can generate structures which are entirely self-standing. The research department of the brothers’ practice has focused on stone as a material since 2013. As a material, it has a rich history in all types of vaulted constructions in Palestine and the Anastas siblings believe it holds the potential to become a main component in contemporary architecture worldwide.

Yousef gives details of the sophisticated, doubly curved interfaces and choices of stone, saying that the lower, reddish stone is from Jerusalem, the middle piece from Hebron and the top pearly limestone hails from Bethlehem. “The idea is that when it is permanently installed in the Cremisan Valley, you have a gradient from the natural colour of the soil to the colour of the sky,” he explains.

Elias adds, “The project is a reflection on the relationship between architecture and nature, which is completely dissolving in the race to urbanise.”

Tuqan sees the installation as reigniting this crucial symbiotic relationship. She also talks of the journey of the piece from London back to Palestine, going from being a precious object in a museum setting to completely blending into the natural landscape and returning to its community for as long as it is able to do so.

The Dubai stopover is important for several reasons, in part because the space at Concrete allows for a broader narrative framework and context to be presented. A stone plinth emulating the gradients of the valley gives visitors a tactile experience. It is also populated with archival photographs from the local monastery which has been there for a century and holds weekly gatherings of protest against the wall. The title actually originates from patient words spoken by Michel Sabbah, the head of the Catholic Church in Jerusalem, during a sermon at one such gathering. Mikaela Burstow’s film of a landscape that is larger than life, projected on a vast scale, divides up the space and provides a pause before visitors see the structure beautifully spot lit. The ambient sound commission by Tariq Abboushi adds to the immersive experience.

Tuqan believes, too, that bringing the work to the Gulf has a symbolic role. “We want it to reach Arabs and Palestinians who can’t travel to Palestine, for them to experience surroundings they are unable to access,” she says. Drawing attention to issues of contested territories, cultural claims and ownership of spaces, the context is both specific to Palestine and of universal application.

With a comprehensive public programme running through Dubai Design Week, the mission of ‘While We Wait’ has undoubtedly been fully realised. It marries technical innovations with traditional craftsmanship, highlights an environmental tragedy of our time and is ultimately a spectacular object that brings people together.

While We Wait’, Concrete, Alserkal Avenue, Dubai, from November 6 to 18, commissioned by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.


A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, Letters from the past#43.

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Laura Egerton is a Dubai-based art historian, writer and curator. She was one of the founding team behind Art Dubai, where she ran education programmes, selected art projects and was curator of the Abraaj Group Art Prize for its first five years. She holds MAs in art history from Cambridge University and the Courtauld Institute of Art.

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