‘Six Lines of Flight’ overwhelms senses at SFMOMA

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6. Carlos Mayolo and Luis Ospina, Agarrando pueblo (aka The Vampires of Poverty) (production photo), 1978; 16 mm film transferred to video, black and white and color, sound, 28 min.; Courtesy Luis Ospina

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The best way to enter the exhibit “Six Lines of Flight” is to walk up the SFMOMA’s four flights of stairs, through an arch and onto an indoor bridge where the walls are bathed with light and you are in a sort of whitewashed paradise.  Before you is a giant map of the world, borderless and boundless, upon which are labeled six cities from which all the art you are about to see will come. At this point, the exhibit is incredible, but by the end it is barely interesting. People who are going to SFMOMA around this time are probably there for Cindy Sherman, not for “shifting geographies in contemporary art.”  If they muster up the energy to see this exhibit, by the time they have parsed the arid academic prose and the buffet of intricate art installations, they will most likely be hungry or have forgotten most of what they saw.

The exhibit is titled “Six Lines of Flight” because it features art and artists from six major cities around the world, cities that are usually not considered centers for contemporary art — Ho Chi Minh City, Beirut, Cluj-Napoca, Tangiers, Cali and San Francisco.  A “line of flight” is a sort of pathway that establishes connections between places — something this exhibit was supposed to do.

The exhibit does have beautiful moments.  One part of the exhibit features a series of photographs taken in Beirut by Lebanese photographer Abdallah Farah during the Lebanese civil war.  Created from purposefully damaged negatives, they depict the serene bright blue of the Mediterranean Sea and the smoking buildings of Beirut, juxtaposing calm with chaos and water with fire, as well as make a compelling statement about the duality of war.  A series of joined photographs of a hotel show the hotel progress slowly from majesty to destruction, and though these images are still, they are also in motion — telling a story instead of capturing a moment. The photographs are printed on postcards, to be carried around in pockets or sent as messages — fragments of a city splintered by war.

Each installation in the exhibit is layered with so much meaning and so many elements that it is a shock to the senses.  The paintings inspired by James Joyce are relegated to one corner. In another, there is a life-sized nonlinear timeline with mixed media that chronicles the history of Beirut and includes a series of 1,001 projected images of the same cityscape — causing elements of the city to vanish and reappear.  If you pick up some wooden cone-shaped earphones, you can hear a set of conversations on sundry subjects while looking at photos of various professors (some from UC Berkeley) on a picnic.  There are four short films screening in one room but one film being shown on three screens in another room.  Three separate walls are full of handmade posters, handmade maps and charcoal silk screens.  In case you haven’t had your fill, there are also supplementary interviews with the artists explaining their work in more detail.

But after the first few art installations, it becomes a chore to be there.  For fear of information overload, your mind tells you to pick up the pace, glance vacantly at the walls and get out before you go crazy.  Though the art of these different artists may connect, it should not have been crammed into one small space to be glazed over by the tired eyes of museum-goers, unable to appreciate it and overdosed by its profound complexity.  While Cindy Sherman is deserving of four or five rooms to display different versions of herself, it is disappointing that Lamia Joreige has only one small wall to tell the history of Beirut since the dawn of human civilization.

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