CHICAGO — If the title of Haig Aivazian’s exhibition isn’t intended to refer to Kanye’s decade-old hit, the connection is nonetheless appreciated. All of the Lights fills the chapel-like gallery of the Renaissance Society, where the Beirut-based artist presents two single-channel videos. The surroundings are dramatic; black walls awash with the white light of high-powered, steel-girded halogens. A chalked grid is traced over these vertical surfaces, its lines interrupted by the circular imprints made by thrown sacks of white powder, now left lining the gallery floor. Overlit and strewn with audio-visual detritus, the space appears like an abandoned concert stage after a riot.
Like the visual artist Arthur Jafa (who has himself worked with Kanye West), Aivazian masterfully manipulates found video footage and sound, producing supercuts with harrowing, evocative juxtapositions. In Prometheus (2019), images of the Gulf War stream alongside excerpts from the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. A towering, mechanical figure of the Titan god speeds across a stadium in its opening ceremony, chased by sparks and surrounded by dancers clad in flame costumes. The civilization myth of fire’s warmth and light is disrupted by scenes of oil fields ablaze in Kuwait and news footage of US bombers raining ordnance over the Persian Gulf.
All of Your Stars are but Dust on my Shoes (2021) demonstrates a more refined sensibility, weaving its thesis from the same sorts of material, though its conceit remains primordial: the dichotomy of light and dark. The now-familiar format of a vertical cellphone frame appears often, notably in video of a man climbing over the high fence surrounding Beirut’s Électricité du Liban, shouting into the darkness at the officials who continue to collect fees while the city’s infamous rolling blackouts grow longer each day. Footage of protests there and further north in Tripoli show crowds gathered in city squares, cellphones raised and waving like the lighters of yesteryear, each glowing dot representing an individual occupying public space in defiance of power.
The new revolution in Lebanon, spurred in late 2019 by government failures to sustain civil society, reached a terrifying crescendo last summer, when 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate stored illegally at the port of Beirut exploded, killing more than two hundred and decimating huge swathes of the city. It was as if the full force of the sun came to Beirut that day, leaving a city veined by rubble and covered in dust.
Later in the video, an injured Beiruti sits upright in a hospital bed and defiantly declares “All of your stars are but dust on my shoes,” a chant repeated in another clip by a circle of protesting Beirutis dancing in the street. The original Arabic phrase is less poetic than Aiviazian’s English translation, but the sentiment remains as profound as it is ambiguous. Are the stars here the thousand points of light from mobile phones raised in protest, or are they the GPS systems on those very same devices that track the demonstrators’ movements? What of the starred epaulets of generals deposed?
The gallery walls, mapped by a grid and marred by stellar projectiles, reflect this paradox: every light cast into the darkness reveals not only what it illuminates, but also the coordinates of its source. Science fiction writer Cixin Liu dubbed this the “Dark Forest” theory — the hunter, equipped with a lantern to help him see, will inevitably become a target himself. With Aivazian’s exhibition, both darkness and light are posited to have a kind of power when deployed in resistance to authority. But as forces of nature take no sides, they must instead be seized.
Haig Aivazian: All of the Lights continues through March 21 at the Renaissance Society (University of Chicago, 5811 South Ellis Avenue, Cobb Hall, 4th Floor, Chicago, Illinois). The exhibition was curated by Karsten Lund.