Between Paris and Brussels
30 May 2023
“To bring order to bookshelves is to exercise in a silent and modest manner the art of the critic”
The Proximity of the Sea, Jorge Luis Borges
In a mirror image of his exhibition in Paris, Louis-Cyprien Rials presents his Fondation exhibition at Galerie Eric Mouchet Brussels with four films shot in Iraq plus an original work that is the fruit of his extensive documentary research. Each of the works shown in Fondation is in its own way an extension of the message conveyed by the artist in the Paris exhibition.
It all began with the work that lent its title to the exhibition: Fondation. Two slide carousels flick through 160 restored slides shot by the US army during the war in Iraq between 2003 and 2011. They offer a behind the scenes look at the military operation by exploring the sometimes-absurd everyday life of the military while affording spectators views of the country’s great tourism sites and iconic monuments. This catalogue and display endeavour points to what lies at the foundation of the artist’s perspective, which is to render back unto Iraq its foundational role as a country that was instrumental in building our world, twice over, in fact, as the artist sees it.
The land known as Iraq gave birth to our civilisation and to the first known form of writing, Mesopotamian cuneiform, developed more than 5000 years ago. It also sprouted many distinct ancient societies, among which Sumer, Akkad, Babylon and Assyria, which played a crucial role in the development of agriculture, commerce, architecture and elements of the legal system we still use today. They also founded the first known city-states.
Today, Iraq once again serves as a prototype of the world we live in. War has been with us for the past forty years with the same major protagonist – the US – either directly involved or sometimes wisely taking a back seat but still involved via its incredible military-industrial complex. In fact, war lies at the heart of what constitutes our globalised world. It is a war that seeks to impose a concept hammered home like a mantra by political and economic leaders alike, speaking as though they were the new masters of the universe: the creation of a ‘New World Order’ that tramples on international law to impose its own rules, starting with the weakest states and then moving on to its own citizens, to the detriment of the common good.
Similarly to Jean Bottéro, who in his foundational text Ancestor of the West: Writing, Reasoning, and Religion in Mesopotamia recontextualises the ancient Mesopotamians as the inventors of writing, and through it, the instigators of a new perspective on the universe and a new way of conceiving of, analysing and governing the world, Louis-Cyprien Rials recontextualises the foundations of the war in Iraq and tells us that the history of our globalised world is being written by a ‘narrator’ who is indifferent to the destruction of the cradle of civilisation and who toys with the peoples of the world.
The four films presented in Fondation explore this theme, each of them offering a perspective on vestiges of the past and how they are used today in political, religious, and cultural propaganda.
Le Son des ruines (The Sound of Ruins) was shot among the ruins of a house in the old city of Mosul. It shows a man tenderly playing the oud to a young woman with uncovered hair. What to us may appear a harmless melancholic scene contravenes in three different ways the laws of the so-called ‘Islamic State’, which occupied the city from 2014 to 2017: the prohibition on encounters between unmarried persons of different sexes, the obligation on women to wear the abaya, and the outright ban on music. The film tells us that fifty years ago, the freedoms exercised in the film were rights in Iraq, that our freedoms are not set in stone, and that we have to continue to fight for such basic rights as being able to listen to music or express our feelings in a romance.
Labyrinthe, the second film, is inspired by The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths, a short story by Jorge Luis Borges. It was filmed using a drone in the ruins of the great mosque of Al Rahman (commissioned by Saddam Hussein and never completed), the ruins of Saddam Hussein’s palace, and the labyrinthine ruins of the ancient city of Babylon, as well as a burned palm grove and adjacent cemetery. Like in the short story that inspired the film, Louis-Cyprien Rials leads us through the meandering twists and turns of political construction intimately intertwined with the religious and economic particularities of a country in the process of rebuilding. Similarly, the short story tells us that a labyrinth has no need of walls for us to get lost in it. With this film, Louis-Cyprien tells is that life itself is made up of different labyrinths in which lurks a minotaur that we never even suspected was there, that a hybrid monster lies at the heart of humanity’s great constructs. He transforms several places replete with symbolism into these labyrinths. The labyrinth of faith (the ruins of the great mosque of Al-Rahman), which at its heart conceals religious extremism, and the labyrinth of political power (Saddam’s palace and the ruins of Babylon), whose monster is vanity and corruption. And then finally the cemetery and the palm grove, the labyrinth of life and death, one that explores the complexities of our world. It all culminates, just like in Borges, in the desert, a labyrinth without walls, a labyrinth of crushing solitude, a metaphor for human destiny.
The film Les Deux mers, shot in the region of Najaf, juxtaposes two immense expanses: the almost completely undocumented Najaf Sea, whose central region is dotted with small brickworks, and the cemetery of Wadi al-Salam , the world’s largest necropolis. These two havens of peace are also part of the Iraq of today. But they are peaceful only on the surface. The cemetery became a battleground between the US army and the Madhi army in 2004, and the Najaf Sea is beginning to suffer from irreparable human-induced environmental degradation. The contrast between the two expanses is striking. One is alive, full of water, home to an abundance of flora and fauna, and yet looks abandoned. The other, the world’s largest expanse of tombstones, curiously happens to be far more replete with life: as a place of pilgrimage for the Shiite faith, it receives thousands of visitors a day.
Finally, Babel is directly inspired by the passage in the Old Testament in which the peoples of the world defied God by trying to build a tower that would touch the sky, whereupon God punished them by making them speak different languages so that they could no longer understand each other. Here, Louis-Cyprien Rials films the remnants of the ziggurat of Borsippa  just outside Babylon. The camera circles the ruins while ascending to the sky while voices say the same phrase in different languages, cancelling each other out until all that’s left is a hubbub in which no-one can distinguish anything anymore.
Like in many of the artist’s works, we are meant to apply different levels of interpretation to what we see. No-one truly knows where the remains of the tower of Babel are located. Another site now seems a more likely candidate, and we know that the one illustrated in nineteenth century engravings is not the right one. Late nineteenth century archaeologists, having discovered the ruins of the Borsippa ziggurat, which today looks like a ruined tower, assumed that they had found the remnants of the biblical edifice. However, the numerous engravings that exist of the twisted minaret of the mosque of Samarra could be the forerunners of our present-day idea of what the tower of Babel looked like. Popular beliefs often take over, even in terms of depictions. In which realm of the imagination did this particular belief take hold and how did it propagate? And to what end?
In the case of the war in Iraq just like for any war, among its causes are factors that are unknown to us that need to be identified and considered for better and more informed understanding. Knowledge of those factors, once gained, inevitably leads to the wholesale deconstruction of the respective roles of liberator and oppressed.
After all, isn’t history always written by the victors? So when an artist who wasn’t a party to the conflict tells another story, doesn’t that deserve to be listened to too? Or at the very least viewed in a new light?
 Les Deux Rois et les deux labyrinthes (The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths) takes the form of an oriental tale in the style of A Thousand and One Nights, a work that Borges never tired of reading and re-reading. The king of Babylon has a labyrinth of such complexity built, that even his wisest subjects become lost in it. One day, a king from Arabia pays him a visit. In order to ridicule him, the king of Babylon induces him to enter the labyrinth, where he wanders, lost, until nightfall. He is only able to find his way out by appealing to divine intervention. On his return to Arabia, he decides to wreak vengeance, gathers his armies, and lays waste to the kingdoms of Babylon. He captures the king, carries him off into the desert, and says: “in Babylon you sought to lose me in a labyrinth of bronze with innumerable stairs, walls and doors. Now the Almighty has wished it that I show you mine, where there are neither stairs to climb, nor doors to force open, nor walls to prevent you from passing.” And then he abandoned him, leaving him to die of thirst.
 Plus importante nécropole du monde, vieille de 1 400 ans, qui s’étend sur 6 kilomètres carrés, des millions de chiites y sont enterrés. Le cimetière de Wadi al-Salam se traduit par « la Vallée de la paix ».
 Borsippa is an ancient city of Mesopotamia. It is located at the site of today’s Birs Nimrud, around 20 kilometers south-west of Babylon.
// Press release
// Louis-Cyprien Rials
// Fondation (09/22-12/16/2023 | Brussels)
// See also: Oyouni (09/09-10/21/2023 | Paris)