Jwan Yosef

Tensegrity / An attempt of unity

Site specific installation by JWAN YOSEF

for the cycle Art and Liturgy in the Church of the Artists

Curated by Alice Zucca

Basilica di Santa Maria in Montesanto, 

The Church of the Artists 

Piazza del Popolo, 18, 00187 Rome RM

May 6 – Jul 30 2019

It was Monsignor Ennio Francia, art and literary critic, journalist and first Rector of the Basilica of Santa Maria in Montesanto, who started in the early fifties the tradition of involving and linking the work of the most important contemporary artists to liturgical events. Don Walter Insero, current Rector of the Basilica, carried on Monsignor Francia’s project, with the creation of the cycle Arte e Liturgia (Art and Liturgy) – curated by Alice Zucca – he reaffirms the importance of the Church that – for over seventy years – has been considered the church of artists, interweaving contemporary art with the contemplation of the Christian message, in a timeless dialogue with the great masters of the past, including Gian Lorenzo Bernini whose stunning works are present in the Basilica, and the architecture, a wonderful example of the last phase of the Baroque. The events of the cycle, linked to the different moments of the liturgical year, began on the occasion of the Easter period. It is precisely for Holy Easter 2019, the eighth Art and Liturgy appointment, that the Basilica hosted the site specif installation by the artist Jwan Yosef, titled “Tensegrity / An attempt of Unity” with the participation of the Choir of Santa Maria in Campo Marzio of the Syriac Catholic community in Rome that performed traditional songs.

Since ancient times the set of myths passed down from one generation to another is what originated the social fabric of communities and populations, and what of them remained deeply rooted and survived over time is what gradually defined their peculiarities. This factor is what eventually gave birth to the evocative and stimulating mélange that is the diversified entirety of the world population today. In this respect Jwan Yosef’s roots are firmly anchored to a polychrome and profound combination. Born of a Kurdish-Muslim father and Armenian-Christian mother, Yosef shapes his cultural heritage in a background characterized, since the very beginning, by an element of duality that promotes and enhances the intriguing foundations from which his transcendent artistic research develops. If Yosef’s heterogeneous religious experiences can shed some light on his conscious and deeply rooted sense of spirituality, the collection of geographical coordinates that he gathered during his life path can help us understand how his artistic themes evolved. 

A native of Syria, he grows up in Stockholm. The union between his mother, of heritage and religion different from his father’s, might have proven to be problematic and eventually is what led his family to find home “elsewhere”, which happened to be the Swedish capital. “I never really lived in Syria. Growing up in Sweden I was considered Syrian; once I went back in Syria, there, I was considered Swedish”. There’s an element of contact in the subconscious intuition that opens a direct dialogue that investigates a remote but at the same time shared feeling, typical of the human state: the necessity for a sense of belonging and unity. It is, even more in depth, a sentiment that historically echoes in the atmosphere of his place of origin, in the voice of his people.

Young Syrian refugees from the Choir of Santa Maria in Campo Marzio of the Syriac Catholic community in Rome performing traditional songs during the opening, Santa Maria in Montesanto, Piazza del Popolo, Rome, 2019. Photo © Fiorenzo Niccoli

A beautiful and ancient land, Syria has been a cradle of civilizations but it’s also an unfortunate and oppressed territory where currently a conflict that started in 2011 is still ongoing, causing hundreds of thousands of victims and millions of refugees: a genuine Syrian diaspora. The etymological meaning of this term recalls a specific concept which is defined as a “scattering of individuals previously united in a group”, an ancient word that comes from the Greek verb  διασπείρω, which literally means “to disseminate”. This perception of dispersion, of being removed from a group, of losing the relationship with our peers and links that could be of place, ethnicity or community, puts the human being at the heart of a dualistic question which results in a feeling that is the opposite of inclusion, that ultimately turns into seeking individuality even though the subject is unable of envisage himself as a finite individual. It’s clear that at the basis of the fulfillment of the sense of belonging – which men, being social entities, need in order to define themselves as finite individuals in their individuality – there is existing at an individual level as a finite “self”, that cannot be separated from a universal context because it’s in this actual context that men, inevitably, operate and it is also in community that the surrounding environment is perceived.

Jwan Yosef, 2018 © PrazDelavallade, Los Angeles
Jwan Yosef, 2018 © PrazDelavallade, Los Angeles

Challenges in the sense of inclusion

The structural principle of Tensegrity


Starting from these premises it is possible to see how humans, by nature, apply a selective system while trying to define their own existential condition. Figures and spaces which we share some characteristics with and that we feel close, produce a sense of belonging to a collective entity. It’s a plurality that defines structures and systems, with intermediate levels, from family to city, nation, and in the end, by logical succession, to the ultimate systemic limit of the “whole of humankind”.

Even though one cannot dispute the fact that everyone of us exists already as predeterminately included as part of the “humankind”, which is the ultimate set of units possible, in seeking our sense of belonging the whole humankind is a unit of measurement which is rationally too diverse and large to be conceived as a set of identifiable groups to which we could belong to, despite the fact that every group is essentially and logically a subset of it.

The myths at the basis of our common sense do not encourage us to feel in harmony with what’s different and interconnected with the rest of the universe, but push us to be only part of the whole, in contrast, always part of that place where the safe limit is the belief that we exist only as physical individuals inside a defined society, in a defined time, in a defined space that is similar to us and that we can recognize. In seeking a sense of belonging the exercise of selection involves, usually, a component of identification by equality, which is identifying what we have in common with something other than us, as physical individuals. But in the process of achieving this, the human being also refers to the characteristics that differentiate him from others, from other groups he doesn’t belong to as well as from other individuals of his group, against which the subject differentiates itself for its own characteristics, both on a moral and a physical level, and for an individual history, a biography that is its own and nobody else’s.

The structural principle of Tensegrity, term coined by the eclectic architect Buckminster Fuller during the sixties as portmanteau of the definition “tensional integrity”, the observation of which is the start of Yosef’s artistic research in his Tape pieces, defines a structure that is the result of the coexistence of a dual element of contrasting consistencies, which can have an infinite variety of shapes, that will provide a much superior strength compared to what its elements would have if taken individually. This, although, is achieved only by complying with the criteria of unity of the rigid elements, which in theory should be non-deformable, harmonically interconnected to elements with a certain degree of flexibility. The structure, as a result, will be stronger than the sum of the resistances of the single components. It will also benefit from added flexibility which will enable it to adapt, in a reversible manner, to changes in its shape. This means that in the event of an external force that is stressing a Tensegrity, the structure will contrast the force deforming itself and not breaking, then it will return to its original shape when the external stressing force has subsided.

The human being, in order to consciously recognize himself in his own individuality, feels the necessity to be included and accepted in a collective plurality, this condition is essential to satisfy the innate sense of belonging. But if the criteria in researching this sense remains only an exercise of selection by equality, in reality, like in a Tensegrity, it will not be possible to achieve an all-embracing sense of integrity. Let’s take as an example the human being as a physical individual. The human body is in itself comparable to a Tensegrity, the bones are the rigid elements which are under stress by compression and the muscles, instead, are the elements under stress by tension. The bones of the human body work under compression, men are able to stand on their feet and contrast gravity thanks to the presence of the bones inside their bodies, but they are able to engage into actions thanks to the fact that the bones are interconnected between them by the muscular system which allows, bones and muscles, to lift weights that would not be able to be lifted just with the mere force of the bones, nor with the muscles on their own. The muscles and the bones together have a lifting capacity that is superior to what we would have otherwise if we wouldn’t have muscles or bones and vice versa.

The analogy between Tensegrity/Human body and Tensegriry/Humanity comes naturally. Indeed, in the human body the division of the functions between bones and muscles gives the body greater resistance than what would result from the sum of the resistances of bones and muscles taken individually. Similarly in a community of people different components cooperate for the common good even though individuals can differ in ethnicity, skills, ideas, opinions and so on, they enrich the system and create a universal harmony which will we able to maintain its own form and balance. Every person can take advantage from the good that comes from the others and this is possible precisely thanks to their differences. The fishermen who live in the coastal areas will supply the people of inland areas with fish, in exchange they will provide wheat. Therefore the resistance of a community of people is greater than the sum of the resistances of all its components and all the possible sets.

Speaking on a universal level, if an individual, as a human being, would need to describe an action that would legitimate him as such, as himself, for example in the act of speaking, of expressing his own ideas, which is what makes him part of a subset, a group of people that share the same ideas, he would not be able to describe this action as finite in its own totality. In the act of communicating, which is never just an individual act, it doesn’t matter if somebody has different ideas from us, this doesn’t prevent them from being expressed, even on a physiological level, or doesn’t preclude the possibility of having different levels of tension in an argument or a different intensity or slightly differences in the opinions even sharing the same ideas.

All our actions imply an element of participation, our nature is already in itself inclusive and dualistic. In the act of describing themselves while communicating, men can’t help describing their interlocutor, in order to describe their behavior they must describe also the action of somebody else as well as the one of the environment surrounding them. What I am involves inevitably what you are. Understanding the importance of this interconnection will produce, in the end, harmony in the exchange even in the case of a diversity in opinion.

From what has been expressed so far, a question arises: if man is an entity that has inherent in itself the concept of “unity for plurality” why is the main problem of men is still that of belonging? If what we need is a sense of integrity, a sense of totalizing unity, we certainly cannot satisfy this need with an idea of unity, nor with an ideology of unity. Because, first and foremost, this problem is a matter of identity on an individual level, perhaps a personal act of courage may prove decisive: the acceptance of plurality, of all possible sets, of our condition as equals within an ultimate universal system. It’s not that simple though. 

Going back to the parallelism with the principle of Tensegrity we can note that the elements, that operate within the structure, must necessarily be different and tied together in order to produce a degree of maximum resistance, compared to the individual resistance of all the elements from which the structure is composed, taken individually. But since they can also be analyzed individually it means that they also exist as such, although with the same degree of efficiency. The same can be said for the human being. It is therefore easy to understand the human search for a sense of unity in the light of an individuality that in order to be defined as finite can only take into account that it is, as a result, always a dualistic plurality which defines, in its totality, the individual singularity.

An attempt of unity


Jwan Yosef, starting from the concept of Tensegrity, with his site-specific installation inside the Church of Santa Maria in Montesanto, creates a meta-structure, an individual and universal meta-place at the same time, which – hosted within an equally sacred space – presents itself as an architecture of the evolving soul, made of materials and stages of construction that investigates the intermediate states of duality.

It is here, indeed, that a great deal of duality also lies in the meaning of the materials, the tapes in tension, according to their difference in perception, appear to have the consistency of steel, of wood, they are like architraves of the architectural structure of this epiphanic space but they are themselves fragile and flexible, and their hypothetical rupture seems almost to have the power to lead us to the denial or confirmation of our convictions. But they can also be geometries in tension that refer to the human body itself in relation to space, which is fragile or tense in the process of searching for a sense of unity. Jwan Yosef here tries to shed light on the process and path of the perpetual human “attempt” to reach for unity starting from plurality, from the coexistence of differences in a whole. A whole which consists of our ideas, our beliefs, of what allows us to define ourselves in our individuality or not.

Yosef invites us to question ourselves, he tracks the human need for a sense of inclusion that goes beyond eras and territories. And this is innate in us, as human beings, it is an urgency that as such, unites us, despite our differences. A unity that balances our structure and can function, as in a Tensegrity, starting from our common tensions and fragility, instincts and reasoning, images, gestures that we are all physiologically led to recognize as value in the act of canceling the distance between us and the world, feeling ourselves part of it, whether they are trends in a horizontal or vertical direction.

Jwan Yosef then leads viewers along a difficult path in which they should face feelings of certainties and uncertainties, norms and abnormalities. A moment of research, in progress, that evolves once again starting from a double element. Individuality and sense of belonging, objectivity and appearance and so on. Identity is in fact a conquest, because as we have seen, individuality as a finite “self”, cannot be separated from a universal context and therefore always presumes the acceptance of something that is different from that self.

Personal Identity indicates the ability of individuals to remain themselves through time and through all the fractures of the experience, it is that sense of unity that links the moments, the hours, the days of our existence with the entire duration of our biological life. But tracing and reconstructing our own history also means overcoming the usual chrono-logical conception of a time that is only ours, understood as a succession of our own moments; as an example we could mention our own family lineage (another subset to which we belong). I exist because I belong to my family, but my descendants do not belong to the time I live in, even though I belong to them as well. Identity is a matter of research and Jwan Yosef sees the possible implications of this achievement, since as a builder, he builds and manufactures a space, he renovates a space that already exists, operating its balancing and contrasting forces, as if he was building a temple inside the temple, as a human being in itself is a body in tension that leaves traces of technically mediated living that have a continuity in time; Yosef connects the floor to the wall, our convictions to universal values, the ephemeral world with the spiritual one.

Identity therefore is not founded on anything but extends itself over time, it is linked to the continuity of memory, it is the thread of memory. Indeed, as in the human body the division of the functions between bones and muscles gives the body greater resistance than what would result from the sum of the resistances of bones and muscles taken individually, memory is a concept still transient at the individual level. In the concept of personal identity, memory is an element of fragility. Thus Yosef’s material analogy is explained, and becomes more enhanced if we think that memory is something powerful but becomes something that at the individual level is full of holes even in normal people, it is a matter of perception. 

However, if we try to extend the subject to a universal level, there is a collective memory  which can be defined as a survival of the archetypes and which inevitably implicates the whole of humanity. Some gestures, symbols, images, survive the generations, they remain part of memory during eras and even taking on different variations, different textures, meanings and degrees of intensity and nuances within a given culture, ethnic group, etc., they have a greater degree of resistance, they resist and subtend to a universal feeling that interconnects and relates the identities of anyone in this world, including it in the system.

The symbol of the cross, that here in “Tensegrity” we find practically in every point of intersection of the tensions, puts in relation the floor to the wall: the earth that is stable and the sky that has an ethereal consistency. A symbol so archetypal that, even if we came from a completely alien culture, we would probably be able to deduce some of its meaning no matter what our Faith is. There is a vertical plane, a horizontal plane, and they meet at the intersection point. And the concept of intersection, which is peculiar to the set theory, indicates precisely the variety of multiple sets and it is the set of elements that belong to all sets at once, let’s think of humanity as a system of ultimate unity that encompasses all the possible groups of sets.

The meaning of the vertical dimension of the cross, and the fact that the Gospel often refers to it with the Greek term ξύλον, which means “wood” or “tree”, also suggests a clear affinity even with the pre-Christian archetypal symbol of the axis of the world, a tree. Many myths are related to the duality between the sky and the earth which symbolized the division between sacred and profane, the kingdom of the mortals and the kingdom of the gods. The separation between the two kingdoms was symbolized by a pole of sacredness, which is individual in each of us, which somehow also connected the two kingdoms. The tree was seen as the sacred center that gave meaning to the world. As an axis mundi, it offered the sacred principle necessary for social organization. The physical gesture of the sign of the cross on our body echoes the way of thinking of the ancient Christian writers that intended the human being as a microcosm. The sign of the cross does not only symbolize the divine sacrifice, but also the cosmic dimension of said sacrifice – the sky and earth, vertical and horizontal. The upper and lower part of the cosmos like the polarity of the human body. The sign of the cross expresses the exceptional key position of the human being in the hierarchy of the cosmos. And it is evident that its symbolism turns the body into the center of the universe, a universe that is not impersonal but that at the same time reflects the cosmos of the Creation, and the center of this microcosm is given by a meeting, of which the cross is the emblem, or “sign of the Son of the Man”, as a sign that belongs both to us and to God.

Video: M. Panei Doria