“ON THE OTHER SIDE OF TIME” unveiled in Beirut
Public Art Project by architect and artist Nayla Romanos Iliya draws on Dante and explores deep-rooted divisions
Lebanese architect and artist Nayla Romanos Iliya revealed a new permanent public art installation titled “ON THE OTHER SIDE OF TIME”. The site-specific installation is set in the public square adjacent to Saint Elias Church, Minet El Hosn - Beirut.
Due to the absence of government funding for public art, the project was brought to fruition as a collaborative effort between three protagonists: Romanos Iliya, who contributed to the concept and implementation; a generous and anonymous patron, who donated all production costs; and the Parish of Saint Elias, which initiated the project and provided unwavering support from start to finish.
Inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy (Divina Commedia) and while this year marks the 700th anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s death, Italian poet, writer, and philosopher – recognized and celebrated internationally, the unveiling took place in partnership with the Istituto Italiano di Cultura di Beirut and in the presence of H.E. Nicoletta Bombardiere, Ambassador of Italy to Lebanon.
The ceremony included a music performance by NDU String Ensemble, artistic director Fr. Khalil Rahme, coach Mario El Rahi; extracts from Franz Liszt's "Dante Symphony", arranged by Ramzi Kandalaft and a dance performance by Yara Boustany and Nader Bahsoun, exclusively commissioned for the event.
During the unveiling, Ambassador Bombardiere stated: "I am grateful to this beautiful art creation for reminding us of the powerful and yet contemporary meaning and inspiration of Dante’s masterwork. The Divina Commedia is an investigation into the human being, through the representation of its vices and virtues, misery and greatness.”
The installation echoes the medieval poem’s structure and theme, narrating Dante’s travels through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise; the epic is an allegory of man’s journey through life towards salvation, celebrating universalism and goodness as ideals while emphasizing the consequences of sin and the glories of Heaven. The art installation, set over 50 m2 of space, features all three parts of the poem, namely “Inferno” (Hell), “Purgatorio” (Purgatory) and “Paradiso” (Paradise).
The deep-rooted symbolism of the theme is acutely pertinent in Lebanon, where decades of corruption and negligence coupled with impunity have tested both individual and social consciousness to their limits. In a non-artistic context, the irony surfaces as “hell” has been the word that describes the current situation of the Lebanese people, but the twist here is that this particular hell was imposed on the people rather than them deserving it.
The comedy has turned into a tragedy, and while “Paradise” seems a long way ahead, the art aims at instilling some belief that there exists, still, a ray of hope.
Visible from afar, the installation offers various perspectives, whether approached by car, on foot or explored from within. The viewer’s relationship with the work is multi-layered, as Romanos Iliya explained. “Reactions and interactions can happen on visual, physical, emotional and intellectual levels,” she said. “Also, observers’ initial interpretations and assumptions may change as they move around the art and interact with it, hopefully triggering an incentive to engage and reflect.”
She concluded by saying she had been keen to remind people that public art forms part of a nation’s shared history, helping to define its evolving culture and collective memory; but above all, it should be for everyone to enjoy and feel that they can call their own.
The event was held during the 21st Italian Language Week in the World, as Italy this year celebrates Dante, the father of the Italian language, everywhere around the world.
About ON THE OTHER SIDE OF TIME
The site-specific installation, occupying the square, echoes both the poem’s theme and structure through a multilayered symbolic composition.
Hell, according to Dante, is a funnel-shaped abyss containing nine concentric circles. Its representation is a Corten cylinder with a glass top, centrally positioned in the square, and bearing the ominous inscription that greeted unrepentant sinners entering the gate of Hell: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter”. The damned souls endure eternal punishments, which worsen as they move deeper into the circles towards the center of the earth, where Satan is frozen for eternity.
Purgatory is the inverted image of “Hell”, taking the form of a ridged mountain. Striving to reach the summit towards the Garden of Eden, repentant souls atone for their sins by contemplating examples of the virtues contrasting with their vices. In the installation, concrete cylinders proportionate to the negative spaces inside the Corten structure are positioned around it, inviting people to sit and interact with the work.
Paradise, the final part of Dante’s journey, is a collection of nine celestial spheres that surround the Earth, where the blessed souls reside. Their happiness and virtuousness grow as they ascend from sphere to sphere in their journey towards the Empyrean – abode of God and tenth heaven – immobile and intangible. In the square, a dynamic composition of nine brushed stainless-steel rings rises from the ground, culminating in a big mirrored steel circle, that blends with its surroundings, curling up towards the sky.
About Nayla Romanos Iliya
Nayla Romanos Iliya is a Lebanese architect and artist. Her numerous realizations in the field include projects of interior design, renovation, and architecture in Lebanon.
Leaving her home country near the end of the civil war, she moved to Paris, then lived in London, Hong Kong and Dubai. During this period, Nayla traveled extensively in different parts of the world, absorbing the cultural and artistic offerings of each city, and, earlier on, she developed a strong interest in art.
She started sculpting in 2011, became passionate about it, and has devoted herself entirely to her art since.
Driven by a quest for identity, Nayla took interest in the Phoenician civilization and more particularly in the Phoenician Alphabet; while in Dubai, she created her first series of sculptures, triggered by the power of the language itself, and inspired by the letters’ shapes, meanings and symbolism. Back home, in her Flower Power series, she reflects on the civil war in Lebanese memory, while raising awareness about sustainability at a time when the unprecedented garbage crisis in the country was just the tip of the iceberg of a dysfunctional state.
Influenced by her architectural practice, she approaches her sculptures as such, replacing function with intuition. Her works have radically different scales, varying from monumental public art to small size limited edition series especially created for museum boutiques, or even sculptures that can be worn as jewelry. Her sculptures can be found in private as well as public collections, in Lebanon and abroad. Nayla currently lives and works in Beirut.