Six Lines of Flight
Review by Julia Glosemeyer
By and large, ‘Six Lines of Flight’ at SFMOMA is about violence and pain. The tone is set by the very first work one sees, ‘Postcards of War’ by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige. By subjecting postcard views of Beirut to extreme mutilation, so that the buildings appear to be burning, melting or exploding, the artists make allusions to the wars that have brutalised the city’s body. In the next room, Lamia Joreige’s text/photo/video installation ‘Beirut, Autopsy of a City’, details real and fictional devastations of the Lebanese capital.
Beirut is one of the five non-US cities that the exhibition showcases; the others are Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam), Cali (Colombia), Cluj-Napoca (Romania), and Tangier (Morocco). Those cities do not count among the major art centres, but they nevertheless have strong art scenes. And according to the show, a lot of what those scenes do is deal with their countries’ violent pasts and presents.
The artists’ approaches might be very different, but the current of trauma runs through almost the entire show. Sometimes trauma is expressed quite unequivocally, for instance in the paintings by Romanian artist Adrian Ghenie, who rivals Luc Tuymans in his ability to smear dread on canvas. But even the clinical photo-Conceptualism of Yto Barrada (the polar opposite of Ghenie’s works) has a say on the topic: the artist’s photographs of banal interstitial spaces are supposed to serve as allegories to Tangier’s uneasy situation as the transit point between Africa and Europe, with the attendant baggage of migrants’ hopes and fears.
The exhibition sometimes feels like a history or geography lesson, as it generally strives to highlight problems specific to each locale. It nudges viewers to look at various cultural forms through the prism of politics. The works by Cali-based Wilson Diaz explore the role popular music played in the country’s internal struggles, while Ciprian Muresan thematises artistic production during Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorial rule and its aftermath. In his video installation ‘Sound and Fury’ Dinh Q. Lê presents a joyful and uplifting portrayal of Ho Chi Minh City energised by a celebration of a national sports team, but the impression is ultimately marred when one learns that public manifestations are highly restricted in Vietnam.
In this context, the pieces that deal with more abstract topics, such as memory, are accorded urgent political meaning. The photography-based works by Oscar Muñoz and Akram Zaatari ask the questions, what gets lost over time, and what is worth saving’ In turbulent times the issue of preservation of information and meaning takes on a crucial importance.
The exhibition would feel absolutely coherent in its slow-burning politically charged intensity, if not for the installation that represents the sixth city (there are six lines of flight after all). The space dedicated to San Francisco is given over to the collective Futurefarmers, whose work is basically a series of conversations with scientists. It is as if San Francisco suddenly decided to distance itself from “cities with problems,” not lowering its smart, forward-thinking self to considering such things as pain and trauma: this in a situation when the city is actually being traumatised, by rampant gentrification, for example, or by the woefully neglected violence in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighbourhood. By disregarding its own host city’s actual problems and upholding the status quo, the exhibition ultimately fails to build a commonality between San Francisco and the other cities, which are, in contrast, “united in suffering.”