The Stone Opera

Axis Mundi is the place where heaven and earth meet, and where divine and mortal communicate. A space from which the world is organised. It is where a community finds meaning and orientation, because it is there that it can often perceive and interpret the signs of its destiny, that is to say of its history. The bodies, as social bodies existing with each other, are thus determined on the basis of this place. Every body is a relation to space, a fundamental mode of habitation on earth, and as such, a relation to historical destiny and its signs. It is for that reason that the body often exceeds its biological impulses and mechanisms. It is never only engrossed in its “vital needs,” but it is the arrangement of its world. It is devoted to places that call it towards its transcendence, towards its sacrifices, and towards its expenditure without return. The carnal and perceptive, sensitive and erotic body is always unfolded in its world, consecrating and profaning particular places. It is not a physical body existing in a neutral and mathematized space. The sacred place gives an essential determination to the bodies that relate to it, an incalculable determination, because it cannot be exchanged or substituted. It orients the senses and gathers the gestures that are the foundation of all thought and belief.

But what is the meaning of a sacred place in our time? What is our relation to the divine in our daily life where the prevalent religion is consumerist capitalism? What happens to the body, which has existed and been formed through rituals and festivals, after the domination of market values? Can we still speak of an Axis Mundi in the era of the conquest and appropriation of space? And what happens to the sacred places of different communities and cultures when Western rationalism has dominated the planet with its orthonormal reference points and quantum geometry? Axis Mundi II is part of an ongoing series of creations in which artist Haythem Zakaria experiments with paths that traverse questions about the relationship between space, the sacred, and our contemporary history. During his artistic residency in the city of El Jadida in Morocco in 2019, Haythem Zakaria chose to film the Portuguese cistern. It is a mythical place with fascinating architecture as well as history. Built under the castle by the Portuguese colonists in the 16th century to serve as an armoury, this underground room was transformed into a water tank to resist the siege of the Moroccans. After the departure of the Portuguese, the cistern was completely abandoned until it was rediscovered in 1916 by a merchant. Since then, it has become a place that attracts visitors and camera lenses (Orson Welles, for example, who filmed some scenes from his film Othello there).

The frame is still. The images call for a meditative look. The visitors follow one another. They pass and repass in front of the camera wide-open eye. They are spectres captured in their movements and peregrinations. Tourists, who are the pilgrims of modern times, discover the place and, fascinated like moths by the well of lights, circumambulate in the space and perform the rituals of the new capitalist religion. Couples who take advantage of the alcove atmosphere to tighten their intimacy. Children from the neighbourhood who come, during these heritage days where admission is free of charge, to mark their underground territory while posing spontaneously before the camera. The voices and echoes rise and fall to impose a narrative structure. And the rhythm discovers in its beat the genies of the place and the life that unfolds there. The constraint that the video imposes on the level of the shot opens a phenomenal space- time where the place appears in its life.

It is a form of conjuration that brings to light our contemporary condition. A cistern that becomes a tourist attraction: a cultic place of contemporary capitalism, where the gods are absent (or included in the process of generalised culpabilisation, as Walter Benjamin suggests), and the gazes are determined first by the cameras’ points of view before the eyes. It is a sacred space, but where the sacredness appears only by its privation, hence, perhaps, the erasure on the title Axis Mundi. And where sacralization is prevented, profanation is not possible either. The Portuguese cistern is a space used, abused, in a very contemporary and technical way, in order to produce sensations, a space made for the spectacle of the sacred and of mystery. It is in this sense that it is very contemporary for us. Yet, the image that lingers and that tries not to tell anything regarding the cistern but gives time to the place to appear by itself also reveals something else. It shows the constitution of contemporary bodies: the way in which we inhabit our world, as capitalist subjects (consumers or producers), but also as projects for breaking away from this system. It places us at a respectful distance that prevents any utilitarian or consuming capture, forcing us to think by looking.

It reveals to us that our body is not at the limit of our epidermis, but that we exist our body in the way we relate to the places we inhabit. The body is neither matter nor substance: it is a mode of relatedness to the world and to others. It is capable of perception, sensation, pleasure and pain… because it inhabits places that speak to it and to which it corresponds. Axis Mundi II gives us an idea about this correspondence that makes us historical beings. It reveals the persistence of the sky even at the bottom of the earth. That is to say that it reveals the insistence of history and the call of a past to project ourselves towards the future, and thus to make one with our world.

Arafat Sadallah