San Francisco

Ciprian Mureşan, Leap into the Void, After 3 Seconds, 2004, gelatin silver print, 39 3/8 x 25 3/8. From “Six Lines of Flight: Shifting Geographies in Contemporary Art.”

Ciprian Mureşan, Leap into the Void, After 3 Seconds, 2004, gelatin silver print, 39 3/8 x 25 3/8. From “Six Lines of Flight: Shifting Geographies in Contemporary Art.”

“Six Lines of Flight: Shifting Geographies in Contemporary Art”

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

Ciprian Mureşan, Leap into the Void, After 3 Seconds, 2004, gelatin silver print, 39 3/8 x 25 3/8. From “Six Lines of Flight: Shifting Geographies in Contemporary Art.”

A photograph reveals a man sprawled facedown in the street, alone except for a distant cyclist and the presence of the camera. A send-up of Yves Klein’s infamous 1960 photomontage, this work, Romanian artist Ciprian Mures¸an’s Leap into the Void, After 3 Seconds, 2004, restages Klein’s iconic gesture of artistic freedom. On view here, it served to highlight one of the primary themes of “Six Lines of Flight”: the relationships between as many emergent art scenes and more established centers. Mures¸an’s image is exemplary of the witty, intrepid, performative practices of the artists selected for this show, a group that represented a spectrum of geographical points, including Beirut, Lebanon; Cali, Colombia; Cluj-Napoca, Romania; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Tangier, Morocco; and San Francisco. In the pieces gathered here, the freedom and exhilaration of working on the periphery of the art market were evident, yet it was matched by the gravity of recent forces shaping these locales.

Starting with a fragmented sense of the past—as after the end of a restrictive regime or the waning of colonialism and conflict—many of the featured artists had seized the opportunity to rebuild by appropriating and rearranging the shards of their region’s cultural production. Surprisingly, the works were, on balance, more ludic than melancholic. For example, humor infiltrated not only Mures¸an’s contributions, but also Lebanese artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s inventive Wonder Beirut, the Story of a Pyromaniac Photographer, 1997–2006, an installation of images depicting the exploits of their (semifictional) titular character. Yet recognizing the wonderfully slippery relationship between truth and fiction brings the overwhelming responsibility of charting new paths. It is no wonder that many of the exhibition’s artists work in partnerships or collectives (e.g., the Propeller Group, Helena Producciones). For if working on the periphery is as much about recentering as decentering, banding together appears to provide a protected space where ideas and practices can flourish.

Sàn Art is one of those cooperative enterprises, established in 2007 by members of the Vietnamese diaspora who had returned to Ho Chi Minh City. Photographer Dinh Q. Lê is a founder of this group, and though his three-channel video Sound and Fury, 2012, is independently authored, multiple viewpoints characteristically inhabit the very structure of his piece: Spread across three screens, the imagery devolves from synchronicity into chaos before inverting altogether, requiring the viewer to reconcile segmented experiences in order to grasp the content. Even more interactively, the multimedia installation A Variation on Powers of Ten, 2010–12, by the California-based collective Futurefarmers, had visitors picking up handsets to listen in on fragments of conversations with contemporary thinkers from diverse fields. The lo-fi aesthetic of the listening stations felt a bit arch, but it was hard to shake the impact of the voices that crossed shared territory while never consolidating.

Other works on view investigated shifting notions of geographic centers by primarily visual means. Moroccan artist Yto Barrada’s well-known “A Life Full of Holes: The Strait Project,” 1998–2004, for example, probed the liminal territory occupied by Tangier, a port visible from the European shore but tectonically tied to Africa. Her photographs of architecture and everyday life quietly evidence the numerous colonial exploitations of a city that is both a point of contact between two continents and a marker of their separation. Similarly, Lamia Joreige’s diagrammatic Beirut, Autopsy of a City, 2010, and Vietnamese-American artist Tiffany Chung’s hand-drawn, diachronic maps encourage conditional notions of place by refusing to resolve into synchronic perspectives.

The title of this exhibition was borrowed from the language of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, whose theories offer viewers a lens for reading such subversions. Of course, notions of rhizomes, horizons, plateaus—the relative nature of center and periphery—have long had currency in the art world, and so such terminological scaffolding may not have been necessary for apprehending the work presented here. Yet the exhibition’s works, all by artists avidly wrestling with shifting terrain, grappling with the contingency of histories and ideologies, lent substantial courage to those still on the precipice, artists and viewers alike who may similarly harbor hopes of taking flight.

Elizabeth Mangini