Tiffany Chung’s six intricately drawn maps at first appear merely decorative, but their vivid colours and florid patterns belie their complex representations. Each one depicts specific historical layers that have profoundly affected the cities that were represented in ‘Six Lines of Flight: Shifting Geographies in Contemporary Art’. Conceived by curator Apsara DiQuinzio, the exhibition considered six art scenes designated as peripheral to the international art world (which, in DiQuinzio’s catalogue essay, she defines as comprising New York, Berlin, Los Angeles, Beijing, London, or indeed any city with a biennial). The concept of the exhibition was influenced by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s writings on deterritorialization, loosely defined as a ‘line of flight’ or movement out of a territory and suggestive of an expanding understanding of the world.
DiQuinzio proposed that we are entering an era where centre and periphery overlap, and she selected the exhibiting artists based on their pivotal roles in establishing art centres with international reputations in their respective communities. The cities represented were: Beirut, Lebanon; Cali, Colombia; Cluj-Napoca, Romania; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; San Francisco, USA; and Tangier, Morocco. Excluding the sole North American locale, these urban centres have been plagued with trauma in the recent past, including prolonged war, effects of the drug trade, religious conflict and economic depression, and many of the artists here reflected on these violent histories.
The adequacy of the image to represent history was questioned throughout ‘Six Lines of Flight’, a problem introduced by Beirut-based duo Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige at the start of the show, where five large photographs with saturated colours and burn marks surrounded the entrance. Part of the project Wonder Beirut, the Story of a Pyromaniac Photographer (1997–2006), the works are enlarged versions of 1960s tourist postcards – depicting the idyllic oceanfront cityscapes of Beirut – that have been meticulously smoldered. The marred photographs act as a literal representation of Beirut’s decline.
Cali-based Oscar Muñoz also alters historical photographs in his interrogation of the role of propaganda images in shaping Colombia’s reputation. Created with a unique process involving charcoal dust, Muñoz’s elegiac grey-toned compositions demand a complex reading of modified news photographs. The end results are similar to Gerhard Richter’s photorealist paintings in both their blurry technique and their challenge to the objectivity of the camera. In Untitled, from the series ‘El Testigo (The Witness)’ (2011) – two haunting, nearly identical, images of the 1953 surrender of guerrilla fighters in the eastern plains of Colombia – Muñoz has shifted the emphasis away from the rebel leaders to a bystander, who appears to be blind. Through his manipulation of the medium and his intentional focus on an unseeing subject, the artist preserves a critical distance to the photograph as a representation of reality.
The large-scale colour photographs of Moroccan artist Yto Barrada and the dynamic video installation Sound and Fury (2012) by Vietnamese-American artist Dinh Q. Lê are meditations on Tangier and Ho Chih Min City, respectively, that emphasize the disparity between the outsider’s view and the local’s understanding. Barrada’s photographs are evocative and ambiguous, while Sound and Fury is strident and sensory. In Family Tree (2005), a close-up of an unvarnished wooden wall reveals darker shapes protected from the sun, presumably where family photos once hung. Subtle and metaphoric, the photograph gently suggests the dispersal of family members, perhaps searching for a better life outside Tangier. A three-channel video installation shown in a dedicated gallery, Sound and Fury is non-linear and impressionistic (like its namesake, the 1929 William Faulkner novel). Staid ceremonial exercises performed outside the communist leader’s imposing mausoleum and a frenetic motorbike ride (filmed upside down) through a vibrant westernized neighbourhood overlap to create a portrait of a city in contradiction, visually united by shots of the red and yellow Vietnamese flag.
Like Lê, the Romanian artists Ciprian Muresan and Adrian Ghenie are concerned with the tribulations of a country transitioning from communism to capitalism. Cut out of propaganda records, stark black vinyl letters on the wall declare ‘communism never happened’, a statement that simultaneously suggests the denial of the political movement and its failure to fulfil its Utopian potential. Three grandiose oil paintings by Ghenie provided an effective visual contrast to Muresan’s witty commentary. Challenged by Muresan to paint a traditional yet critical portrait of the reviled Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, Ghenie responded with The Trial (2010), a large-scale cinematic oil painting of the ruler and his wife moments before their public execution by firing squad in 1989. This dramatic work conjures up both the rigidity of Socialist Realism and the terror of Francis Bacon’s paintings.
‘Six Lines of Flight’ presented intelligent works of art united by common themes experienced by artists living in countries of recent turmoil. Oddly, its one misstep was the contribution of the San Francisco-based collective Futurefarmers. A Variation on the Powers of Ten (2010–12) incorporates photographic and sound documentation of scholars in fields such as microbial ecology and city planning in dialogue with the artists at idyllic picnics. Emphasizing the artisanal snacks served (cured salmon and raw honey, for instance) and offering the audio of only a few minutes of each conversation, the installation felt hollow in contrast to the rest of the show. San Francisco artists were presented as members of the leisure class, disconnected from the Bay Area’s radical political legacy and from the other cities in the exhibition.
Fortunately, the exhibition catalogue, a comprehensive online component and related programmes offered a more balanced view of the robust Bay Area arts scene in the last few decades, as well as examples of Futurefarmers’ more engaging work. The overarching project of the exhibition offered a unique perspective on Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of ‘lines of flight’: artists forging new global connections, while maintaining strong roots in the local.