This review of Francis Alÿs’s show “Knots n’ Dust” at Beirut Art Centre appeared in the March-April issue of Flash Art International:
Paradoxes are knotty statements that fold back on themselves, as in “Sometimes winning is losing / Sometimes losing is winning.” Finger written by the artist on a windshield, following a sandstorm that covered Beirut in a film of dust, these words appear as bilingual (English and Arabic) captions in one of four postcards commissioned for Francis Alÿs’s first solo show in this war-torn region. The sepia-colored photographs from which the cards are made recall Tornado (2000–10), a half-hour video that captures the artist’s repeated attempts to penetrate “dust devils.” In conversation with Beirut Art Center director Marie Muracciole at the opening, Alÿs likened the experience to being inside a monochromatic James Turrell installation.
At its core, “Knots n’ Dust” associates two disparate images and actions bound together by a spiral motion that informs the show as a whole. The lone man pitted against the whirling mass of the tornado has his counterpart in a female figure ceaselessly doing and undoing a knot in her hair. This intimate gesture is captured in a vast body of animation drawings that make up Exodus 3:14 (2014–18). To reach the animation proper, projected onto a matching paper support amid the 640-odd drawings on view (roughly half their total number), visitors must walk around them, performing a spiralling movement with their bodies.
Placed next to Exodus 3:14, Untitled (The Liar, The Copy of the Liar) (1994–95), an earlier work in which Alÿs explored the convoluted nature of gender and sexual identity, invites a similar reading of the new animation piece. Indeed, its mostly female protagonist has male hands, just as a contralto tenor sings the haunting lyrics of the looping soundtrack: “I am that I am” — yet another paradoxical formulation, this time drawn from the Bible. Fittingly, the biblical passage in question (whose exact reference happens to tally with the irrational number π) relates how God in the guise of a burning bush bids Moses to lead the Hebrews into Canaan, the promised land that lies in the Levant.