Bessma Khalaf: Yes, Even You
At Gallery Four through June 7.
A beach at sunset is a chill sight to behold. Waves roll in, and the only music that floats into the ears is their gentle rhythm of crests, crashes, and sizzles over sand before they recede. The sun sits low on the horizon in those moments just before it kisses the day goodbye, sending yellow-orange rays through the thin clouds and out over the water. The sun's golden orb is reflected on the beach, sand mirrorized by waves disintegrating and coating it with a slick wet film.
This bucolic scene greets visitors to Yes, Even You, California-based artist Bessma Khalaf's solo show at Gallery Four. The single-channel video installation "Standing on a Beach" engulfs most of a wall in the gallery's front room, where the lights are turned low to complement the setting sun's dimness. The video loop of "Standing" is short-just over two minutes-and in those 129 seconds Khalaf quietly but powerfully documents time's annihilating circle. In the time it takes to relax at the sight of this beach view's peaceful, easy feeling, it changes. Where the sun is located begins to flicker, and then it sparks into an actual flame. Soon fire is consuming the image, and there's nothing but blackness behind it. It appears this beach scene is projected on a combustible scrim of some sort, which burns patiently but thoroughly, destroying everything in its path. The waves disappear, as does their ebb and flow lullaby, replaced by fire's steady crackle. Just before it fades to black and starts again, all that's left are the tops of flames dancing at the bottom of a black void, and the faintest, skin-puckering noise of fire reducing the last of its fuel into carbon. Heaven turns to oblivion and back again.
Pablo Picasso is anecdotally credited as saying, "Every act of creation is first an act of destruction." Khalaf takes the nuclear option with that notion in her 11 works in Yes, Even You, both embedding destruction's creation (or creation's destruction) into her process and making it her subject. This confluence creates meditative wormholes that are troubling, thoughtful, impish, and sublime. This exhibition is the rare one that doesn't sacrifice emotional potency as it dares to harness intellectual tangents. And if given the time to do so, it's the lone show in Baltimore right now that has the ability to leave you absolutely floored.
That nothing about the work feels like it's trying to impress is what makes it such a sneaky knockout. Seven of the pieces are archival pigment prints featuring the natural world-black-and-white landscapes, basically, with pedestrian titles: "Dream Catcher," "Meadow," "Mountain Triptych," "Rocky Shore," "Old Faithful," "Badlands," "Double Rainbow." From across the room or even a few feet away they look like fairly typical shots capitalizing on tonal contrasts, like Ansel Adams' indelible images or the supple textures cinematographer Asakazu Nakai achieved in a number of Akira Kurosawa's films.
The longer and closer they're examined, however, the more it's apparent that something isn't quite right with each photo. Part of each image contains a burned area-a section of the composition that was set aflame, allowed to burn the photo away, and then extinguished, like the photo was tortured with a blowtorch. Whatever is left over appears to have been photographed again, with nothing but blackness behind the original image. The result is generations of textures and blacks and whites, a mechanically captured image made gestural through the invasion of the artist's hand and then mechanically reproduced once again. In some, it's difficult to discern the ridges of a mountain from the rippled effect of the paper (or whatever the original photo was printed on) being distorted by fire. Ashes become compositional flecks around the burn area, like stippling around a gunshot wound. Each piece is a photo treated like an object, destroyed, and transformed into another object by the camera again.
They're beautiful. They're creepy. And they're more than a little depressing-not with a neglected-animal sadness, more a blunt fact of existential discombobulation. All of Khalaf's works here include the destruction of nature in their process, and the source of that violence in a majority of them is fire, an extraordinarily pregnant sign. Fire, of course, is such an obstreperously destructive force that it has consumed entire cities. It's also the symbol of knowledge, of reason, of light: How many cultures feature humanity being gifted fire in their creation myths? Being able to control it is emblematic of that extra-special something that makes us who we are. It's the force that can wipe us out completely, reducing everything to the basest nothing out of which we'd have to start over. And throughout the works gathered here, Khalaf takes this symbol of humanity's intelligence and uses it to destroy the natural world-and it's frequently gorgeous. She creates something visually appealing out of something dangerous and thematically problematic: Let's destroy nature, gaze upon the ruins, and smile.
That's a sentiment Khalaf harnesses in the concrete in "Ash Mountain." A sculptural piece on a shelf built into the studio's back gallery, it's about a human wingspan wide, mounted eye level. It's a row of ashes created, per Gallery Four artist/resident Dustin Carlson, by burning individual pages of nature books one at a time.
That's a downright cheeky gesture to arrive at something that kinda/sorta resembles what's left over after a weekend cookout; in the context of the gallery and the entire exhibition, however, it's disarmingly arresting and cosmically shattering. Yes, we can use fire to destroy all that we see, but all we've really done is change the way something appears in the natural world into some other form of the natural world. It's still there, and will still be there, long after we are. Yes, even you will eventually be reduced to ash.
This k?an-like reminder of humanity's infinitesimal significance in cosmic time receives its most profound articulation in Khalaf's single-channel video "Mount Diablo." It's a stationary long shot of a huge, pine-like tree that sits atop a small hill, a flaxen grassy plain in front of it, a pale blue sky behind it. Shortly after the video's beginning, a female figure, presumably the artist, enters the frame from the left foreground. She carries a large walking stick, and proceeds to approach the tree. When she arrives right next to it, she takes her large stick and begins whacking the tree with it. She swings. And swings. And swings. The entire video lasts but 5 minutes, but for nearly four minutes of that time she is hitting it.
Try that sometime. It's exhausting to hit anything for four minutes, much less something so indifferent to the assault. The woman in the video pauses from exertion. The intensity of the swings appear to vary. At some point her stick is broken, leaving her with a smaller club. At one point she swings and drops it. It eventually splinters apart, and she's left standing there, hands on knees, visibly panting from the effort, and then proceeds to walk out of the frame to the right before it fades to a beatific white. Human force meets immovable object; human reminded how stoppable being human is. And save for the needles that occasionally dance in the breeze, the tree, naturally, doesn't appear to have noticed a thing.