‘Cross Section of a Revolution’ was a grand title for a fairly modest exhibition – situated in just one of Lisson Gallery’s two Bell Street spaces. It might have seemed misjudged were it not borrowed from Haroon Mirza’s installation, exhibited upstairs. The seven divergent works, all by Lisson Gallery artists – powerful and provocative though they were – could not offer a fresh plane of understanding on so vast a topic. Thematic exhibitions – especially on such a compact scale – are notoriously difficult to get right and, for curatorial rigour, the Lisson presentation could not compete with Tate Modern’s ‘Conflict. Time. Photography’ exhibition – on show concurrently and also featuring Broomberg & Chanarin – with which comparison felt inevitable.
Taken individually, however, these works opened up a great deal to consider. The display was strongest in the main gallery, where a lone CRT monitor in the centre played Wael Shawky’s The Cave (Amsterdam) (2005). In this early video, the artist walks through the aisles of a supermarket, reciting from the Koran to camera in the manner of a newsreader, while scrolling green subtitles cut across the screen like breaking news bulletins. Shawky’s breathless performance has a propulsive rhythm echoed in the hang of Broomberg & Chanarin’s Divine Violence (2013): an installation of 57 framed panels featuring pages from the King James Bible, intermittently illustrated with images from the Archive of Modern Conflict (the esoteric collection based in west London, given a whole room in the Tate show). Combining the visual language of news reportage with religious texts, both works suggest that, beneath the headlines, the real story remains the same.
Hanging in the front gallery, visible from the street like the wares hung in the windows along the nearby Edgware Road, was Rashid Rana’s Red Carpet 5 (2008–12). Up close, the pattern of this Persian rug unravels into a photomontage of details of the halal slaughtering of goats. This ‘object of gruesome beauty’ (as the press release described it) has a queasy status – critiquing the currency of obscene imagery while maintaining a palatable, decorative form – which is only heightened by the knowledge that an earlier version became the most expensive piece of art by a Pakistani artist ever sold when it was auctioned at Sotheby’s in 2008. To the right was work by Liu Xiaodong, a contemporary Chinese painter in the Socialist Realist tradition. West (2012) may not be the finest example of his painting, but the grungy, desolate scene, depicting Muslim jade miners in Xinjiang, certainly felt atmospheric.
Clamouring through the downstairs spaces was the sound of a church bell, resonating from a side gallery in which Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla’s The Bell, The Digger and the Tropical Pharmacy (2014) was projected. As the title suggests, the video features a modified digger, with a cast-iron bell attached to its articulated arm, which smashes through GlaxoSmithKline’s pharmaceutical plant in Cidra, Puerto Rico – controversially closed in 2009 after a contamination incident was exposed by a quality assurance manager. The digger tears through the fabric of the building, causing the innards of insulation and cabling to splutter out from the collapsing false ceiling with all the violence of a war movie. The bell tolls for the end of a major corporate cover-up, for the courage of the female whistleblower and for the wreckage we humans wreak.
Upstairs, there was an epic photograph by Santiago Sierra from 2007 of his excavation of the word ‘Sumisión’ (Submission) in giant Helvetica lettering into an area of Mexican desert next to the US border, which he intended to set alight, until police intervened. Positioned in the reception, Sierra’s revolutionary fervour felt somewhat adrift. More at home was Haroon Mirza’s titular installation from 2011, featuring a three-channel video of a man drumming in Lamu, Kenya, projected onto the gallery window so that it blended with the street scene beyond. A monitor played YouTube footage of a student delivering a competitive speech in Urdu – his rhetoric exacerbated by the rhythm of the drumming and clouded by the interference of a turntable assemblage. Mirza, like many of the artists, responds imaginatively to the causes, culture and coverage of conflict; but, without clear interpretation, this exhibition felt more like crossed wires than a cross-section – which Mirza, at least, might not mind.