The setup for the Mustard’s Untold Pilgrimages struck me as uncharacteristic of the centre’s usually generous layouts. Each exhibit resides in its own atrium, with even the smallest of artefacts fleshed-out with embellishments. A lack of pieces isn’t sinful, of course, and as I sidled between the hefty centre-barriers, I was nonetheless inspired by the centre’s decision to tell the stories of a country so presently embroiled in grief.
I am greeted firstly, as if by old friends, though not quite as I expected them. Socrates and his disciples gather with surprising clarity, given their sixth-century origin (something I attributed to the Mustard’s archaeological dedication). The philosopher I encountered back in Beirut is this time realised in speckled blue tile – distinctly odd for such a mosaic – though eccentricity isn’t exactly out of sorts with the centre’s eclectic tendencies.
The significance of St. Elian to the Pilgrimage is not understated. Here lives a martyr commanding of admiration; his presence permeating the very walls housing his previously-unseen statue. The statue speaks almost entirely facially; the eyes capture the self-resignation of a man unyieldingly committed to faith. But my concern with the eyes of Elian was as much due to the damage this piece presented as to artistic fascination. The base and legs of the saint had evidently been knocked. Indentations were narrow and ridged in a way that could have only been exacted post-excavation. The regularity with which these afflictions occurred proved still more contrary to Mustard’s adroit reputation; the damage looked like the result of one heavy blow, rather than a series of fumblings. Hardly commendable excavation.
If any skill at all is to be acquired after a decade of art critique, it is that peculiar shrewdness for discerning a point at which history and its reconstruction cross paths. In the case of Mustard’s Pilgrimage, that point surfaces uncomfortably within its finale: a collection of clay tablets procured (so I was told) from metropolitan Apamea. Anyone acquainted with the civilisation, however, will find their crudity overwhelming. Mesopotamian transcription was notably conducted using blunt reeds; these demonstrations of cuneiform proved too standardised to have been conducted organically. Below read a plaque: ‘Reconstructed following regrettable damages’. The mysticism segued into frustration.
I was greeted by the Unspoken Pilgrimages banner on my way out, and I couldn’t help but find myself saddened by the irony that was at play. What could’ve been a journey proclaimed barely managed a whisper, and yet more disheartening was the damage to its landmarks. In the last six months, I’ve travelled to Sicily, Lebanon and Brussels, and in none of them have I encountered a comparable lack of confidence. It’s especially out-of-the-ordinary for the Mustard centre, and I can only assume this has been a collaborative project with new contractors.