The Wall Street Journal, ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

October 1, 2012
Cities on the Edge by David Littlejohn
Six Lines of Flight San Francisco Museum Of Modern Art Through Dec. 31 

In June 2010, Apsara DiQuinzio, then a curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (now at the Berkeley Art Museum), received a grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation to travel around the world and find six relatively off-the-chart cities where significant new art institutions, movements and activity had taken root and flourished in the past 10 or 20 years. The cities she ended up with were Beirut, Lebanon; Cali, Colombia; Cluj, Romania (the Communist government added “Napoca” to its name in 1974, but no one ever uses it); Saigon, Vietnam (the Communist powers have renamed it Ho Chi Minh City, but no one except bureaucrats ever uses that name, either); Tangier, Morocco; and San Francisco.

The result is the eye-opening “Six Lines of Flight: Shifting Geography in Contemporary Art,” which fills the top floor of SFMOMA. It contains 60 works in many media by 19 artists or art collectives from these cities, separated geographically by gallery.

‘The Trial’ (2010) by Adrian Ghenie.

San Francisco doesn’t belong on the list. As an art city, it’s not “marginal,” or “peripheral,” as the catalog authors define the other locales, and its significance as a creative center has long been acknowledged. Ms. DiQuinzio’s justification was that “this exhibition was about the importance of the local, and I had to include my own locality.” But what if she lived in New York?

Moreover, the San Francisco contribution, by an environmentalist, anticorporate group called Futurefarmers, is the weakest of the six: 10 audio recordings about the future, by experts (on ecology, planning, astronomy, physics, biology, etc.) from Berkeley, Harvard and other universities, that could have been PBS broadcasts.

The only other disappointing contribution from Ms. DiQuinzio’s six chosen cities is the sole one from Tangier. There is no question that Morocco’s colonialist past, and the two decades of repressive national government that came after independence, provide plenty of material. But in her photographs, posters and videos, Yto Barrada (director of the Cinémathèque de Tanger) focuses on the uglification of her native city since masses of impoverished new immigrants and wealthy tourists have led to the destruction of old quarters and the erection of banal hotels and apartment blocks. A good story, yielding grim, banal photographs.

Unlike the U.S. and Morocco, the other four countries have been through hell in the past 20 to 50 years. This goes a long way to explain why their suddenly released artistic energies—as they try to remember, rediscover and rewrite their tragic pasts—are so much more moving.

Lebanon has a 3,000-year-old history, perpetually cloven by religious and cultural divisions and invasions. Akram Zaatari tries to reconstruct this messy history through the archives of hundreds of thousands of photographs he discovered, all taken by a popular Beirut portrait photographer Hashem el Maadani since the 1940s; the exhibit includes a reconstruction of this photographer’s studio. Joana Hadjithomas has taken dozens of colorful “Welcome to Beirut” postcards of the good old days—the beaches, grand hotels, quasi-Parisian night life—and burned or smudged each one. (Museum visitors are invited to take copies home.) Lamia Joreige has composed a wall-filling “time line” of the history of Beirut, from 1200 B.C. to A.D. 2100—made up of 29 photos, drawings, reproduced paintings, maps, texts and video monitors—that would take a day or more to absorb.

Cluj, in Romania, is a city that not one museum visitor in a thousand is likely to have heard of. Yet it is that country’s second city, arguably its most active in terms of new art and intellectual activity, looked down on (like Saigon by Hanoi, Cali by Bogotá) by the more powerful capital city, Bucharest.

After serving as dictator of the country since 1967 (and after 1971, as the most repressive, neo-Stalinist dictator in Eastern Europe), Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife, Elena, were seized by the army (which had joined forces with the revolutionaries, after four days of national mass demonstrations), given a brief show-trial, and almost instantly shot by a firing squad on Christmas Day 1989. The assassination was shown on national television and the Communist Party dissolved.

Cluj painter Adrian Ghenie’s large 2010 oil called “The Trial” depicts a blurred, freely painted image of the Ceaușescus sitting before an L-shaped judgment table—an image shown on TV—shortly before they were killed. Another, “Dada is Dead” (2009), shows a spot-lit, frightened and frightening gray wolf in a dark cellar. A third (“The Collector,” 2008) is a large, blood-red painting of Hermann Göring at his desk, surrounded by paintings he had looted from all over Europe. All three are museum worthy; “The Trial” belongs to SFMOMA.

Also from Cluj is Ciprian Muresan’s video of a gang of animated dog-puppets shouting out the oppressive evils of the world, tormenting a female member of the Eternal Republic of Dogmania with every kind of insulting accusation, and then torturing to death one of their members for being insufficiently dedicated to the ruling regime.

Particularly impressive are the contributions of new Cali artists, after 21 years of rule by a brutal drug cartel often in collusion with a corrupt government. Wilson Diaz’s video of a Colombian pop group (in military fatigues and bearing rifles) singing and playing jauntily about the recent atrocities of life in Cali is no joke. Oscar Muñoz’s gradually fading images of his own face and of significant moments in recent Colombian history remind us of how quickly the present disappears into the past. Most powerful of all is Luis Ospina’s 28-minute mockumentary (“The Vampires of Poverty”) about the poor people of Cali, with paid actors, written lines and a borrowed set. Just before the end, the gaunt, dreadlocked, gap-toothed owner of the shack breaks in, curses the film crew as exploiters (what Latin Americans call purveyors of “pornomiseria” for the middle class), chases them out, and ruins their film.

We know something of Vietnam’s historical horror story, because we had something to do with it, during what the Vietnamese now call “the American War” of 1965-75. It is against this background that the art on display from Saigon—the former capital of the U.S.-allied South, still regarded with suspicion and disdain by Hanoi—must be seen.

The Propellor group—two returned Vietnamese and one American—made a slow-motion video of an underground North Vietnamese tunnel near Hanoi (one of the thousands that were a major weapon in the Communist victory) that has been excavated and converted into a shooting gallery for tourists, mainly Americans, who pay to aim at a target with AK-47s. The ironies involved are almost stifling. Dinh Q. Lê’s video contrasts a stiff, perfunctory daily assembly of Vietnamese soldiers in front of the huge white mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi with exuberant scenes of hundreds of gleaming motorcycles racing at night (sometimes upside-down) through the jovial chaos of still-Westernized Saigon.

Tiffany Chung’s exquisitely drawn, colored and embroidered maps of each of the six cities (commissioned by SFMOMA) turn cartography into art overlaid with social commentary. Her precise, beautiful maps depict cities expanding through increased population growth (Cali, Cluj); past earthquakes and predicted floods (San Francisco, Saigon); major political events (Tangier); and total social chaos (Beirut).

I can’t say that “Six Lines of Flight” totally won me over to its premise: that the relatively new, “peripheral” art cities of the world may now have as much to offer the “center” (New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Los Angeles) as they once drew from these art-world capitals. But, thanks to Ms. DiQuinzio and SFMOMA, I feel a slightly better-informed citizen of the world.

Mr. Littlejohn writes about West Coast cultural events for the Journal.