SFMoMA's New Exhibit "Six Lines of Flight" Shows Six Art Scenes Emerging from Violent Pasts


Stephen Dedalus, the narrator of James Joyce’s Ulysses, is a recurring subject for Romanian painter Victor Man. Rendered young and effeminate, he peers out of Man’s nocturnal, deep green canvases with apprehensive intensity. “History,” Dedalus said in Ulysses, “is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

Dedalus’ statement could characterize much of the work in SFMOMA’s Six Lines of Flight: Shifting Geographies in Contemporary Art, which includes artists from six geographically scattered, burgeoning art scenes: Beirut, Lebanon; Cali, Colombia; Cluj-Napoca, Romania; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Tangier, Morocco; and San Francisco, USA. All of these populations – with one blaring exception – are striving to emerge from recent histories of violent conflict, political oppression and cultural relegation to “the periphery.”

Their artists, the exhibition suggests, are at the forefront of this struggle to awaken, looking forward while taking honest inventory of historical baggage – by no means a pleasant or easy task.

Oscar Muñoz, working in Cali, explores photographic records of La Violenica – as the last fifty years of Colombia’s history is known – while Wilson Diaz, also Colombian, considers how music has alternately indicted and been roped into the government’s propaganda machine.

Dinh Q. Le’s vertiginous, impressionistic 3-channel video installation, Sound and Fury, explores the residue of nationalism in modern-day Vietnam, while The Propeller Group takes to the Cu Chi tunnels – a strategic site in the Vietnam War that has since become a tourist shooting range. Here, the artists capture visitors firing M16s at one dollar a bullet.

Adrian Ghenie, The Trial, 2010; oil on canvas; 79 x 143 in. (200.1 x
363.2 cm); Collection SFMOMA, gift of the artist and Mihai Nicodim
Gallery, Los Angeles; © Adrian Ghenie, photo: Ben Blackwell

Another Romanian painter, Adrian Ghenie, supplies the exhibition’s most deeply haunting work: The Trial, a large-scale painting of brutal former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife in the moment before their execution. Adjacent to this dreamlike, traumatic scene is Ciprian Muresan’s text of cut vinyl propaganda records, spelling out “Communism never happened.”

This only accounts for maybe a quarter of Six Lines of Flight (the exhibition is large and context-intensive, so set aside several hours and come ready to read), but now is the time to address an elephant in the room: the host city, San Francisco, and how our relatively wealthy, progressive city by the bay purports to share a plane with any of the other five locales included.

San Franciscans often bemoan their relatively peripheral status in the art world, compared to the likes of Los Angeles or New York, and this is, apparently, our stipulated bond with Cali and Ho Chi Minh (curator Apsara Diquinzio acknowledges the tenuousness of this comparison, but hey, the host city reserves certain privileges).

However, our delegates to Six Lines of Flight, art and design collective Futurefarmers, seem unfazed by the threat of exclusion.

Futurefarmers, A Variation on the Powers of Ten, 2010–12; production
photo: Amy Franceschini and Michael Swaine, Futurefarmers; Courtesy
the artists; © Futurefarmers, photo: Jeff Warrin

“A lot of the people here that we have surrounded ourselves with, academics and activists, are almost running away from centers, and have found this spot at the edge,” said Futurefarmers founder Amy Franceschini in a roundtable discussion last year. “We’ve been called the backyard or the shadows of the art world, but I think that is a fine place to be.”

Futurefarmers’ contribution to the exhibition is A Variation on the Powers of Ten, a reimagining of the famous film by Charles and Ray Eames. Instead of producing a single-viewpoint video about the limits of knowledge, the artists invited ten university scholars to picnic with them and discuss topics in their areas of expertise, ranging from microbiology to urban studies. They recorded the alfresco conversations as well as the food consumed and books referenced (“two bottles of red wine, red hawk cheese, one loaf of cheeseboard bread, rosemary bread homemade by Lisa Thompson (still warm), two chocolate bars, whiskey” was one such menu), and present a resulting installation in the form of ten listening stations.

Thus, in stark contrast with the other populations involved in Six Lines of Flight, San Francisco comes across as a place altogether liberated from “the nightmare of history” – an enlightened endpoint where intellectual discourse unfolds before breathtaking vistas and artisan spreads. Awfully self satisfied and out of touch, in some ways A Variation on The Powers of Ten leaves San Francisco looking the most “peripheral” of the bunch.

Six Lines of Flight runs through December 31, 2012 at SFMOMA, 151 3rd Street

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