Culture

Small gestures, spiraling turbulence

BEIRUT: It has a way of firing up the imagination, serious wind. Joan Didion has written California’s Santa Ana wind as if it were vengeance itself. She might have written the khamasin too, had she only lived in the eastern Mediterranean.

Its name suggests parts of the region undergo this North African air current for 50 days, but the khamasin usually brushes Beirut lightly. Dropping upon the city at the end of winter, it interrupts the gradual declension from moist cool to sultry. As the pall of desert air descends, it denudes your nostrils of moisture, changing the smell of things.

The khamasin can sweep up tons of Egyptian and Libyan dust and toss it skyward, where it stalls as yellow haze over Beirut. Then, as happened while March 2018 expired, the North African air may have a howling tryst with a passing European system, spewing showers of mud upon Mercedes and Kia alike.

How could you read such a mischief-maker as anything but geopolitical metaphor?

Dust is in the air at the Beirut Art Center these days, where work by Belgian-born Francis Alys is being exhibited not far from that of U.K.-born Naeem Mohaiemen. The main exhibition hall is showing “Knots’n dust,” a selection of Alys’ objects, images and electronic art. In its upstairs gallery, BAC is projecting Mohaiemen’s “Two Meetings and Funeral,” his three-screen video installation from 2017.

These works emerge from what appear to be wildly divergent practices. Alys work betrays no obvious interest in the “defeated left utopias” that so preoccupy Mohaiemen, for instance, yet politics interests both artists and they share a fondness for deploying the moving image as a device for documentation. Beneath BAC’s roof there is an intriguing convergence between the two.

Curated by BAC director Marie Muracciole, this is Alys’ first solo show in the Middle East. With Knots’n dust,” she writes, she set out to explore themes of turbulence in Alys’ work, oscillating “between the smallest ... unrest and instability ... to total chaos, from meteorological ... to geopolitical ... from a simple knot in the hair to an ascending spiral” of dust.

Two years in the making, this exhibition focuses on the preliminary, the intuitive, the traces left from making a piece of art. Set alongside some pieces, work benches covered with studies and sketches “show the course and the detours of the ideas, each element building links between apparently disparate works.”

The show also brings two new works to Alys’ oeuvre – an animated short with the working title “Exodus 3:14” and an untitled postcard series. The postcards draw upon photos the artist shot while walking around Beirut in 2015. As the city was coated in a film of sand, the postcards feature the self-contradicting aphorisms Alys wrote on the dusty windscreens of parked vehicles.

“As in [much] of Alys’ work,” the curator writes, “every affirmation walks with its opposite. [Each] gesture comes with its own undoing.”

The dialectic of Alys’ practice resonates in his 2008 video “Do, Undo,” which is looped on a portable television sitting so inconspicuous in one corner of BAC that visitors might miss it.

For less than two minutes, the artists’ hands use a marker and pieces of paper to play with the construction of the title’s two words. As tends to be the case with his time-based work, the camera is used to document a raw act. Aestheticizing the image is of little interest.

The installation “Knots,” 2005, documents the artist’s proposals for employing various types of knots as words in a haptic language. While a series of framed, natural history-style sketches provide a glossary of terms, the 2006 work “Knots” (walks) – hanging in BAC’s skylight – uses a series of loops and hitches to recount the details of a stroll in Mexico, Alys’ home.

For his three-minute animated loop “Exodus 3:14,” Alys drew 1,000-odd sketches of a young woman, her face averted from the viewer as she coils her hair into a rope for knotting. Her handiwork undoes itself as she releases it, so the loop follows her tireless efforts to recoil and knot her hair.

Though several pieces stand between them, “Exodus 3:14” speaks directly to the artist’s 33-minute “Tornado,” 2000-2010. The premise of the earlier work is simple enough. At the centre of every spiral of ascending air, physics states, there is a point of calm. “Tornado” documents Alys’ decadelong effort to find and record that still point.

“Tornado” comprises raw rushes spiced together into a single loop. Occasional minutes of footage scan the arid landscape of Mexico’s Milpa Alta region – capturing wandering dogs, desiccated plant life or feral plastic bags. The scenes were shot while the artist awaited the appearance of dust devils – columns of ascending air that behave like small-scale tornados. Shot from a distance, other vistas observe Alys’ form as he dashes after house-sized dust swirls, camera in hand.

The most intriguing footage in “Tornado” – and the most intense in the show – are shot within the storms. As the microphone captures both the howling winds and the man’s gasps as he struggles to keep pace with the thing, then to keep his feet once within it, Alys enters the whirlwind searching for calm.

The lens is soon grimy – as is the artist as we see him trying to clean it – and it seems the conditions sometimes reduce the image to stationary pixels. Whether Alys drops the camera or is himself knocked over, more than one scene ends with the lens abruptly gazing into the dirt.

There are sometimes seconds of gray calm, but the skeptic within may wonder whether these document the still point or are a few seconds of optimism inserted during postproduction. “Tornado” echoes the work for which Alys is best-known – unadulterated self-documented perambulations through space that carry no banners but have provoked political readings.

Feted videos like “Green Line,” in which the artist walks the length of the 1948 Green Line between Palestine and Israel with a leaking tin of green paint framing the territory, and “Railings, London,” which finds him marching around some of the city’s monumental imperial architecture, sounding variations on a monotonous tune as he runs a stick upon the metal fences surrounding them, aren’t staged here but can be viewed in this show’s archive section.

One work stands as a stationary (and personal) counterpoint to the movement-driven practice of many of Alys’ time-based works.

“L’imprevoyace de la Nostalgie” (Dad), 1999, is composed of a pair of formal (if worn) shoes knotted together by their laces. Atop them sit a pair of knotted socks.

“Knots’n dust” and “Two Meetings and Funeral” are up at BAC through April 22. For more information, see www.beirutartcenter.org.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 06, 2018, on page 16.

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