It was perhaps inevitable that, after so many uprisings sparked and crackled in the Arab world last year, people would eventually tire of tracking the long, manic, uncertain process of revolution in real time.
After the first round – Ben Ali’s abdication, Mubarak’s resignation, Ghadhafi’s death –subsequent narratives of reform, renewal, reversal and regression got messy, contradictory and confused. Attentions turned to the artists, writers and filmmakers who would presumably be capable of fixing those events in place by celebrating, dissecting or simply recycling them ad nauseam.
Now, for every attempt to tell a simple (and patently false) story of a revolution accomplished, there is a voice cautioning ‘Not so fast. Not too soon.’ One of the most succinct counter-narratives to emerge is a clear-sighted essay on art and the Egyptian revolution by the writer and long-term Cairo resident Ursula Lindsey.
“It is not easy to mix aesthetic and political ambitions in order to creatively address a revolutionary moment,” writes Lindsey, in a capacious feature published last month by the Middle East Research and Information Project.
“For one thing, many artists [are] active in the protest movement itself ... For another, it is too early for artists or anyone else to map the contours of the current juncture with any clarity ... The Egyptian revolution is not yet a subject of art; it is an ongoing experience.”
It was with a similar sentiment that the executive board members of the Beirut Art Center organized “Revolution vs. Revolution,” an ambitious new exhibition of videos and photographs (alongside a few collages, an animation and a film archive), which address but don’t actually deal with the events of the so-called Arab Spring.
It’s not as though no such artworks exist. Participatory theater pieces, shaky videos, rushed documentaries, palliative photography books, pulp fiction and earnest albums of revolutionary songs have been produced by the kilo, alongside walls upon walls of graffiti.
As Lindsey makes clear in her essay, though, few of these artworks are likely to endure beyond the cathartic, therapeutic or kitsch. There’s also such a crass and hungry market for this material that the BAC has done well by sidestepping it all.
In brief, the exhibition delves into revolutions past rather than present, and gives the notion of political trauma a historical and notably international cast.
With 14 bodies of work by 14 artists cut from deep in the ruptured seams of apartheid South Africa, China’s Cultural Revolution, Iran’s Islamic Revolution, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the devastating push and pull of Cold War politics in Central and South America, the show is a knockout, even if it skirts around its many possible subjects and never quite coheres along a common theme.
The show includes the masterful “marxism today [prologue],” a 35-minute video by artist Phil Collins, who previously filmed gangly teenagers doing a dance marathon in Ramallah, and more gangly teenagers doing karaoke in Istanbul, Bogota and Jakarta (to The Smiths, no less).
Interspersed with eerie archival footage, “marxism today” runs through three piercing interviews with women who taught Marxist-Leninist political economy at elite universities and vocational schools in the German Democratic Republic before it disappeared.
The first woman, whose hero was Nelson Mandela and whose ambition was to join the African National Congress, endures the suicide of her husband, who breaks down while waiting for a travel visa.
Having lost her partner, her country and her job, she decides to be retrained as a social worker (her other option was banking, which would have been a disaster, she says, because she would have given all the money away). Only then – settled in an occupation that allows her to help people – does she find any meaning in her life again.
The second woman marries one of her students and does become a banker. “It was no more a question of how to create a society and an economy that serves the people,” she says. “But you can become rich.” She did that.
“The sad thing is that now my life is just about consuming and earning money,” she adds. “It’s a bit poor.”
She looks back on her education via Marx and Lenin, particularly its emphasis on critical thinking, as a gift. “Just by learning their method,” she says, “windows opened and fresh air came in.”
The third woman wants out of politics and starts a dating agency. Her story, however, is as much about her daughter, a gymnast who stopped competing when the wall fell in 1989. At that point, she was an 18-year-old who had never dated or been to a disco, who wanted to get on with her life and suddenly found herself in a body, 20 kilos heavier, completely strange and unknown to her.
The strands of loss and longing that run through “marxism today” lend “Revolution vs. Revolution” a subtext.
Tacita Dean’s moving installation of a wooden table and chair with a boxful of small black-and-white prints of photographs she took 20 years ago in Prague is as much about the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution as it is about the obsolescence of film.
Francis Alys’ video “When Faith Moves Mountains” documents a project of the same title, for which he recruited 500 students to shovel a sand dune 10 centimeters to one side. The project depends on a strategy of political mobilization and collective spirit that is familiar to South American politics but no longer operative or motivated by common cause.
“So in fact, we’ve got other projects,” one student jokes at the end of the video, “things like ... Drink the Atlantic. Melt the Antarctic. Paint the sky.”
What keeps this show from falling into the ditch of nostalgia is the striking poetry of Fadi al-Abdallah (the crucial and not entirely unexpected exception to the “No Arab Spring” rule) and the grit that comes from Susan Meiselas’ photographic projects in Nicaragua – which touch all of the sensitive nerves of the accountability and crime.
The same can be said of the hide and seek game of reading David Goldblatt’s photographs of South African landscapes, with their traces of one crisis (apartheid) subsumed by another (the AIDS epidemic.)
“Revolution vs. Revolution” is part of a larger, longer-term effort on the part of the Beirut Art Center to create a survey of trenchant artistic strategies (particularly resonant for local artists whose work grapples with Lebanon’s political history) alongside a sampling of terrific, high-caliber contemporary artworks (which are both a pleasure and a gift to the general public).
Over the past three years, the BAC has mounted three major thematic shows: “America,” “Image in the Aftermath” and “Revolution vs. Revolution.” Emphasizing traumatic events, unintended consequences and a putative enemy, these shows are all, in a way, the same – the downside of curating by committee and consensus – to the extent that one could shuffle the works around and make three different shows without dislodging any one theme.
Greater precision and a little more depth would make subsequent exhibitions more distinct. But for now, the works are more than enough to make us think.
“Revolution vs. Revolution” is on view at the Beirut Art Center in Jisr al-Wati through March 30. For more information, please see www.beirutartcenter.org or call 01-397-018.
The Daily Star .