Critics’ Picks

  • View of Tornado, 2000–2010, video, color, sound, forty minutes.

    Francis Alÿs

    Beirut Art Center
    Jisr El Wati Building 13, Street 97, Zone 66
    January 31 - April 9

    A cryptic question appears in one of Francis Alÿs’s many studies for Tornado, 2000–10: “What relationship can one build with a tornado?” The words “pure present,” hastily scribbled underneath, are far from a full-fledged response but offer an important clue for understanding the microcosm that is the artist’s first solo exhibition in Lebanon. Above all, the phrase suggests an unadulterated sense of being in the moment, the pursuit of a self momentarily yet perfectly suspended, or, in the words of art historian Michael Fried, the “primacy of absorption.”

    To what end does (self-)absorption function in Alÿs’s work? In the forty-minute video Tornado, the artist chases or keeps watch over dust devils with a handheld camera. Once inside the tornado, all sense of direction is obliterated: Ubiquity of motion, recorded by the camera as a billowing brown monochrome, becomes the only reality to which one is beholden. Dissolution of extremities—in this case, conceptual, not physical—also takes place within the minimal visual economy of the video Do/Undo, 2008, in which Alÿs nimbly flicks papers inscribed with the words “DO” and “UNDO” back and forth. This repetitive act allows the words to melt into each other despite their meanings and perhaps serves as a blueprint for Exodus 3:14, 2014–18. Titled after the biblical verse in which God says to Moses, “I am that I am,” this new work comprises six hundred and thirty-nine drawings and the stop-motion animation derived from them. Here, the U-shaped spatial configuration of the drawings, hung or suspended in a grid, gently evokes the whirl of a tornado and guides the viewer through the incremental movements of a woman trying to make a knot out of her own hair. In the video, projected onto a blank paper among these drawings, the woman shows no sign of fatigue or frustration with her task. Doing immediately leads to undoing, keeping her entirely, and forever, absorbed.

  • Khalil Rabah, view of “The Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind,” 1995–, mixed media, dimensions variable.

    Khalil Rabah

    Sfeir-Semler Gallery | Beirut
    Tannous Building, 4th Floor Street 56 Jisr Sector 77
    January 18 - April 7

    Despite swelling regional unrest and economic stagnation, the museum boom of the former capital of Arab letters lingers on with Khalil Rabah’s Broodthaersian fictional enterprise, “The Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind,” 1995–. For its most comprehensive presentation in Beirut, the museum debuts a new installation within the Anthropology Department, in addition to bringing together new and old works in all four wings.

    Rabah’s project has long moved on from being a tongue-in-cheek museological intervention aimed at introducing a voice and narrative for compatriots who lacked such institutions under Israeli occupation until very recently (the Yasser Arafat Museum and the Palestinian Museum were founded in 2016). In fact, the entrance display in the gallery, showcasing the series “Hide Geographies,” 2017, reveals a self-reflexive institutional critique: Here, four patchwork-style embroidered fabrics in bright red, green, and blue encapsulate the departments on view, tracing the outlines of the Gaza Strip (Geology and Paleontology Department), the West Bank (Botanical Department), the Dead Sea (Earth and the Solar System Department), and the Nova Palestina favela in Brazil (Anthropology Department). Rather than merely engaging mise en abyme as representations of a representation, these maps actively probe, with their imposing size, the possibility of museification as a prohibitive closure—in this case, against a sophisticated understanding of a severely oppressed people.

    A double bill of revelation and concealment is similarly at play in the Anthropology Department: In Acampamento Vila Nova Palestina, 2017, the human figures in a quadriptych of large oil paintings, based on photographs of the titular São Paulo favela thriving on unoccupied terrain, are cut out, mimicking the violent power dynamics of certain outmoded anthropological approaches. Yet the work also seems to suggest that internationalization in content (or branches, as in “global” museums) does not necessitate surrendering to marketization—but that it can also be an act of solidarity across and beyond nations.