New York

Annabel Daou, WHEN IN THE COURSE OF HUMAN EVENTS (detail), 2019–20, ink and correction fluid on paper, dimensions variable.

Annabel Daou, WHEN IN THE COURSE OF HUMAN EVENTS (detail), 2019–20, ink and correction fluid on paper, dimensions variable.

Annabel Daou

Signs and Symbols

Although political discourse contains language that is seemingly direct, it is subject to endless interpretation and reinterpretation. Take the Declaration of Independence’s “All men are created equal,” which has been quoted with rhetorical flourish by American civil rights icons including Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In a 2009 interview, Donald Trump—a willfully obtuse man who is barely literate—called the statement “very confusing.” This ugly moment foreshadowed his presidency, one that is bolstered by supporters—such as White Lives Matter, among other hateful movements—who have appropriated the terminology of disenfranchisement to uphold the status quo of white supremacy. Politicians always bend words to their will, but Trumpers twist them into perversions of decency and truth.

For her solo exhibition at signs and symbols, the Beirut-born, New York–based artist Annabel Daou made the Declaration her point of departure. Rather than offering up a polemical statement, Daou’s show considered the ways in which political language works on us. The centerpiece was WHEN IN THE COURSE OF HUMAN EVENTS, 2019–20, a sprawling, scroll-like text written in white correction fluid on a sheet of dyed microfiber paper almost twenty feet long. (Before this presentation, Daou participated in a six-month residency at the gallery, working as a silent palm reader, writing predictions for visitors, in an ongoing performance piece titled FORTUNE, 2019–, that she reprised once during the exhibition’s run.) Daou’s missive began with the Declaration’s opening line: WHEN IN THE COURSE OF HUMAN EVENTS IT BECOMES NECESSARY . . . The remainder of the piece was composed of hundreds of infinitive phrases: TO TAKE A STEP BACK, TO TAKE A DEEP BREATH, TO HOLD OUT YOUR HANDS, TO HOLD BACK YOUR TEARS, TO SCREAM IN THE NIGHT, TO WAIT FOR THE DAWN . . . Other expressions, which Daou had lifted from other artists and activists—or from everyday conversations—ran the gamut of emotions, evoking variously rage, triumph, and utter despair.

Daou repeated such language across three different pieces, using a trio of different verb forms. In a small ink-on-microfiber work, RESOLUTION, 2020, she took the first fourteen infinitive phrases from the larger drawing and shifted them into imperatives. The result balanced urgency with a strain of political romanticism: SHOULDER THE BURDEN / BREAK UP THE FIGHT / HOWL AT THE MOON / LEAVE NOTHING BEHIND. For the roughly twenty-five-minute audio piece DECLARATION, 2020, a collaboration with the sound artist Miriam Schickler, Daou read from WHEN IN THE COURSE using the first-person present tense. Such a simple shift was persuasive, providing a real voice to assorted political gestures: “I wear a yellow vest” (referencing the gilets jaunes of France), “I wave the flag,” “I refuse to go to war for a capitalist government.” Occasionally, Daou’s voice was doubled; this effect, as well as slight departures from her script, enforced a sense of all-too-human frustration: “To think of everything you didn’t do” became “I think of everything; I think of everything I didn’t do.” Daou’s text was an overwhelming enumeration of actions—an outline of steps one might take for the greater good. Her words also hinted at the bureaucratic systems that force us to compromise and that grind away at our resolve: “I care too much, I care a little less, I have my doubts, I sign the treaty.”

In the audio’s background, Daou collaged sounds from her daily walks in New York, as well as clips from protests in places such as Lebanon and Chile. It was startling to recognize Cher’s 1966 ballad “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down),” accompanied by the sound of explosions ringing in the distance—an earworm that in 2020 is at once specific and placeless. Such gestures revealed the artist to be a compassionate Conceptualist.