Conflict in poetry, disorientation in art: revolution everywhere and the triangle of the Messiah at the UCI

Two complementary exhibitions, revolution everywhere and The Triangle of the Messiah in the galleries of UC Irvine, delve into disorientation, a sense of impending doom, and ultimately hope in the Middle East and beyond. Juli Carson, UCI art professor, curator and gallery director, explains: “The projects we commission spark intelligent debate on the subject of art in its broadest poetic and political definition.

Revolution Everywhere: Resistance Thresholds presents large-scale film and photographic installations by three artists who lived in the midst of revolutions in Beirut, Lebanon and Hong Kong. The exhibition was inspired by the simultaneous uprisings in Beirut and Hong Kong in 2019, events that activists, writers and artists in both places have recognized and embraced. These protests were discussed in an interview/dialogue with participants from Lebanon and Hong Kong in June 2020. This interview became the genesis of the title, Revolution Everywhere.

Simon Liu – Revolution Everywhere (Credit: Yubo Dong of studio photography)

This exhibition is made up of three solo installations, referring to recent revolutions. In each installation, the work of a millennial artist is inspired by what Carson calls a “political primal scene” or a childhood/young adult memory of a traumatic political event. The participants are Panos Aprahamian, an artist/filmmaker who grew up in Lebanon, where he witnessed the Armenian Genocide, and then learned of an Israeli Air Force bombing of a shelter of the UN with civilians; Simon Liu, an artist/filmmaker who lived in Hong Kong with a British mother and a Cantonese father during the political turmoil, who often revisits his home country to witness its deleterious changes; and Heather O’Brien, an artist/filmmaker whose work is inspired by the devastating reporting of Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1989) on television during her childhood in Colorado.

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Heather M. O’Brien – Revolution Everywhere (Credit: Yubo Dong of Studio Photography)

Carson explains, “I asked the three artists to expand on their primal scenes, discussing how they arrived at their aesthetic strategies – those driven by their politics – that resulted in their first major body of work… They have all chosen to represent the revolutions in which they find themselves integrated, from a position of “aesthetic distance”. Hence the poetic turn towards rather than away from the cataclysmic events of their respective cultural landscapes.

Aprahamian explores the history of his country in his work and this exhibition, bringing idealized images of Beirut. His close-up video of an intricate silkworm farm references Lebanon’s once-thriving silk industry, which is now experiencing continued devastation. His “Odorless Blue Flowers Awoken Prematurely” depict flowers blooming in the residue of the August 4, 2020 explosion in Beirut.

Liu archives what he calls “the rapidly changing psychogeography of his place of origin” through alternative documentary forms, abstract diary films, multi-channel video installations and 16mm projection performances. Some of his images depict the aftermath on the streets of Hong Kong following protests, with litter such as discarded shoes and masks, and celebrations including fireworks.

Simon Liu – Revolution Everywhere (Credit: Yubo Dong of studio photography)

O’Brien’s installation includes photos of Beirut street and domestic scenes; some with clothes hanging from lines, another with wide windows overlooking a bucolic courtyard, and others with attractive living spaces with potted plants and streaming sunlight. Some of his accompanying wall texts, often contrasted with his images, describe his immersion in the tumultuous events there. She wrote: “The sound of sweeping glass permeates the neighborhood. The port is on fire again. Whatsapp messages come and go. Do we leave the windows open or closed this time? How to escape the flying glass shards? I close the shutters and hug Liam to me. A month since the explosion. One month after childbirth. The hardest and most delicate month of my life. No one prepares you for the strength this process requires, or the depths it will require. While seeing a city you love die before your eyes.

Carson explains that the three artists’ installations are often politically oriented, adding that they allude to hope for a better world and healing, as they artfully transform dystopia into beauty.

The film The Triangle of the Messiah is even more dramatic and disturbing. The black-and-white short film is based on the life of Juliano Mer-Khamis, an actor and activist who grew up in Israel with an anti-Zionist socialist Jewish mother and a communist Christian Palestinian father. He was murdered in the West Bank in 2011 near the theater he founded. The event was appalling for those who knew him and especially for his efforts to achieve solidarity and coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis.

Heather M. O’Brien (Revolution Everywhere)

The Tri MessiahThe corner message, according to its Israeli-American filmmaker Michael Moshe Dahan, is to expose the toxic relationship between Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The film’s didactic further explains that “the messianic impulses of the three religions resulted in the greatest and most violent conflicts in history as religious and nationalist wars.”

The concept film features three actors auditioning to play the movie roles Mer-Khamis once played, making the project feel like a movie within a movie. The mood is dark, with the actors appearing suspicious and threatening, as they portray people traumatized by violent political events. They also interact defensively with the film’s conflicted director, Yael.

The disturbing scenes of the film, as well as the superlative acting, attract the viewer. Additionally, immersing yourself in the film can give hope that the cast will transform their dark mood or that the auditioning actors will resolve their issues with the director. Or as the film’s producers wrote, “Can a man’s identity not only embody conflicts older than history, but perhaps, in some version of the future, also help to to resolve ?”

Michael Dahan – The Messiah Triangle (Credit: Yubo Dong of Studio Photography)

The overall effect of The Triangle of the Messiah is to alert viewers to the gravity of seemingly intractable problems among the peoples of the world’s three major religions. And as with revolution everywherethe project is artful, transforming the Israeli-Palestinian legacy of trauma and national identity into a work of visual and literary poetry.

The art lover may wonder how political activism and disorientation can inspire art. Carson, previously a professor of art history and conservation at the American University of Beirut in 2018-2019, anticipated the protests while living in that city. With these traumatic events as stimuli, she speaks emphatically about creating art out of the devastation of failed nation states and forced diaspora. She claims that art has healing powers, especially during tumultuous times, like the times we live in. Or as a Buddhist philosopher wrote, “We must not live to destroy. We have the spiritual power to create peace and happiness.

Revolution Everywhere is on view at UCI’s Center for Contemporary Art and Room Gallery. The Messiah Triangle is on display at the UCI University Art Gallery. Both are on view until December 11; Tue-Sat, noon-6pm; [email protected], uag.arts.uci.edu.

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