“ON THE OTHER SIDE OF TIME” unveiled in Minet El Hosn

Public Art Project by architect and artist Nayla Romanos Iliya draws on Dante and explores deep-rooted divisions

A new permanent public art project by the Lebanese architect and artist Nayla Romanos Iliya, which takes inspiration from Dante’s Divine Comedy (Divina Commedia) and has inclusivity at its heart, was unveiled on Sunday March 15.

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 - Kantari.

Romanos Iliya explained that on her first visit to the location, she immediately saw the potential that the site offered. “The space talked to me right away,” she said. “Given that there is such a lack of public places, like squares, gardens and parks, I wanted the installation to give life to the place and be inviting. Above all, I was excited the project would be a gift to Beirut and its people.”

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.

The site’s appeal is deeply rooted in its prominent location at a crossroads in the heart of Beirut, easily accessible from both “East” and “West” districts, labels commonly used during the Lebanese civil war, but still regarded as relevant by some of the country’s population today. “I was also struck by the fact that this public square was a rarity – a space in a neighborhood mostly housing office buildings that offered a welcome outdoor gathering place for employees and passers-by alike,” Romanos Iliya noted.

The art installation draws its inspiration from Dante’s Divine Comedy, a famous medieval epic poem that remains as relevant today as ever, thanks to the timeless themes it explores. Inclusive and tightly structured, the narrative describes Dante’s travels through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, in what represents an allegory of man’s journey through life as he eyes salvation, keenly aware of the consequences of sin and the glories of Heaven.

Romanos Iliya makes specific references to The Divine Comedy in her work, mirroring the poem’s structure and symbolism through the use of numbers, elements and shapes. The installation, set over 50 m2 of space, features three parts, one for each volume of the poem, namely “Inferno” (Hell), “Purgatorio” (Purgatory) and “Paradiso” (Paradise). It is spread over three of the four platforms that constitute the square, with its highest point standing at around 9 meters above the ground.

“Inferno” (Hell), depicted by Dante as a funnel-shaped abyss extending into nine ever-decreasing circles, Is represented by a weathering steel (Corten) cylinder, featuring a mirror at its bottom and a circular glass on the top, allowing the viewer to look inside the structure. The ominous message “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’entrate” (Abandon all hope, ye who enter) is carved around the window, referencing the grim inscription that greeted unrepentant sinners passing through the gate of Hell.

“Purgatorio” (Purgatory) takes the form of a ridged mountain, depicted as the inverted image of “Hell”, since, according to Dante, Lucifer's fall created Hell’s abyss, which, in turn, displaced land on the opposite side of the world, creating Mount Purgatory. In the installation, it is portrayed as 10 concrete cylinders of variable dimensions, which, when nested in each other, have the same volume as the void in the Corten structure around which they are positioned.

“Paradiso” (Paradise), the final part of Dante’s journey, is made up of nine celestial spheres surrounding the earth, and the Empyrean – the abode of God and tenth heaven – immobile and intangible, on the very top, outside time and space. In the square, a monumental and dynamic composition of nine brushed stainless steel rings of different diameters rises from the ground; the rings interconnect, supporting each other, culminating with a big mirrored stainless steel halo, blending with everything around it and curling up toward the sky.

Visible from afar, the installation will offer 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.