The ever-nagging, lately pressing question of art's relationship to geopolitical strife finds cogent expression in the work of Julia Meltzer and David Thorne. Working in collaboration since 1999, the pair has produced an ambitious array of installations and videos (documentary, fictional and somewhere in between) exploring issues of history, memory, faith, violence and social engineering in the context of contemporary global politics, particularly in regard to the Middle East.
Two projects now on view at Steve Turner Contemporary highlight the artists' knack for critique that is potent without being didactic or moralistic, achieved here largely through the canny manipulation of ambiguity and ellipses.
The most gripping, "Epic," is a modest presentation, despite the title: seven minutes of footage, concentrating solely on the face of one man, a Syrian performer named Rami Farah, whom the artists met during a yearlong stay in Damascus. Displayed on a small monitor that's sunk into a wall in the back corner of the gallery, the piece demands an intimate degree of engagement and rewards such attention warmly.
(The installation appeared in last year's Whitney Biennial, along with a similarly structured but longer video with the elegiac title: "Not a matter of if but when: brief records of a time in which expectations were repeatedly raised and lowered and people grew exhausted from never knowing if the moment was at hand or still to come.")
In "Epic," Farah delivers five short, fervent monologues on a vague array of topics. Performed in Arabic, with English subtitles, they are elusive and often enchantingly absurd, weaving around what one senses to be grave, monumental issues such as war, political oppression and economic struggle, through the use of allegory or poetic implication.
"The king has the ears of a donkey," Farah begins in the first. "I can't hide the secret anymore, it is smothering me."
In another, he laments: "This spoon, with which I eat. I cannot get it into my mouth anymore. Every time it throws things, sometimes into my face, into my eye. Sometimes on my clothes, on my ear."
And in another: "I am normal, I am human like everybody else. I am entitled to have my own jet. Maybe I will make a kite out of it, put some ribbons and some threads and fly it over Mt. Kasiyoon. Maybe I will park it in front of my building."
His presence on the screen is mesmerizing. Indeed, whatever the nature of Meltzer and Thorne's involvement in the collaboration, their shrewdest move was surely to minimize all evidence of it and give the stage completely to Farah, whose animated features, soulful eyes and lithe, agile hands make for inspired storytelling.
The second project, "In Possession of a Picture," is an installation consisting of 50 small, framed digital prints, each depicting the same two elements: a photographic image of a street, building, monument or other location somewhere in the United States, and, beside it, an empty square of identical proportion.
Each empty square refers to a site, whether public, commercial or private, in which an individual was detained for taking photographs or video, or detained for other reasons and found to possess images of the given site. (How Meltzer and Thorne determined the selection is unclear.) The photograph at the right is an image of the same site, drawn from the public domain of the Internet.
The installation itself is clean but staid; the power of the work lies in its conceptual resonance. In the repetitious framing of these conspicuous absences, Meltzer and Thorne illuminate an insidious and typically invisible force at play in the fabrication of social and geographic reality.
It is a pointed companion to the Syria-born collaboration, suggesting that the injustices to which Farah's monologues obliquely refer are endemic not only to distant conflicts and corrupt foreign regimes (or the actions of our own regime on foreign soil) but to systems of power generally -- not only governmental but commercial and corporate as well.
Steve Turner Contemporary, 6026 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., (323) 931-3721, through Feb. 7. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.steveturnercontemporary.com
The ticking clock in imperial Russia
The long-standing dialogue between painting and photography finds eloquent, if not especially radical, expression in the work of Becca Mann.
Her second solo show at Roberts & Tilton presents six paintings and three drawings based on found photographs of imperial Russia. The images -- which primarily depict members of the aristocracy, their properties and their livestock -- are solemn and poignant, imbued with a sense of elegance and doom. Several involve members of the Romanov dynasty, whose gruesome end at the hands of the Bolsheviks lends a stirring pathos to their solemnity in the images.
The drawings and paintings, which range from roughly 11 inches square to nearly 5 feet across, are exquisite.