Critics’ Picks

Vyacheslav Akhunov, Doubt, 1976, ink on paper, 12 x 8”.

Vyacheslav Akhunov, Doubt, 1976, ink on paper, 12 x 8”.


“Revolution vs. Revolution”

Beirut Art Center
Jisr El Wati Building 13, Street 97, Zone 66
February 3–April 13, 2012

Since the Beirut Art Center opened its doors three years ago it has become a kind of game to guess how this former factory space will be reconfigured for each new show. Solo exhibitions have tended to be muscular––an elegant curved wall for Fouad Elkoury’s autobiographical ephemera; a long, wide corridor for Chris Marker’s “Staring Back”––while group shows have mostly left the space open for different works to correspond. How strange, then, for the current exhibition, inspired by the uprisings in the Arab world that began in 2010, to evoke none of the public squares, roundabouts, or urban alleyways where the demonstrations have taken place. The show’s layout is deliberately awkward and antisocial, offering no spaces for people to gather; it dead-ends with Tacita Dean’s Czech Photos, 1991–2002, and Marysia Lewandowska and Neil Cummings’s Economy of Love, 2012. These works make demands on your time, but once you are done with them, you have to turn back and retrace your steps to leave.

All of this makes the architecture of the exhibition a strange and subtle critic of its own subject––which is, in brief, the capacity of contemporary art to respond to political crisis. “Revolution vs. Revolution” addresses itself to the events of the so-called Arab Spring but does not deal with them directly, opting instead for an inspired genealogy of art made elsewhere in the aftermath of great historical ruptures: Abbas on the Iranian Revolution, David Goldblatt on apartheid South Africa, and Hai Bo on the cultural revolution in China are a few examples here.

Inevitably, a show that establishes a rule eventually breaks it, and so Fadi Abdallah’s Something Dies Within Us Today, 2012, presents two poems and three texts reflecting on past and present upheavals in the Arab world. Like Phil Collins’s mesmerizing film marxism today (prologue), 2010, or Boris Mikhailov’s rueful photographs for the series “Red,” 1968–75, and Vyacheslav Akhunov’s undercutting of propaganda for the poster project Doubt, 1976, Abdallah’s writings are tentative and unsettling, questioning not only what is gained but also what is lost when political orders are turned upside down. It is as if he, and the exhibition overall, are warning viewers: History never comes full circle, and revolutions are always incomplete.