Our World is Burning
February 21, 2020 – September 13, 2020
As the incendiary title suggests, Our World is Burning—or, in French, Notre Monde Brûle—at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, is a provocation in content and form. Over 30 artists focus their attention on human crises in the Arab world and the global ecological emergency at large, while the exhibition itself sparks outrage for its partnership with the Qatari-state-run MATHAF: the Arab Museum of Modern Art. Call it an act of reflexive irony that the Qatari institution pays tribute to labor practices that others have described as modern-day slavery, or that the artwork on view here confronts the destructive force of the fossil fuel industry while MATHAF depends economically on Qatar’s reserves of natural gas. The Qatari state, however, has the right to act with just as much hypocrisy as any other wealthy nation. And in any case, the artworks that make up this exhibition deserve to be experienced on their own terms. Only once we have done this can we effectively turn back to contextualize them within the institution.
Curated by Abdellah Karroum, with Fabien Danesi as co-curator, Our World is Burning fills the Palais’s lower level with a gut-wrenching call to action, even under the gaze of the self-aware Qatari state. The exhibition commenced roughly one month before Emmanuel Macron announced confinement in France. We were warned: “Restez Chez Vous,” and the museums quietly closed. With the COVID-19 pandemic locking the exhibition away from the public for two months, the masked experience of Our World is Burning post-confinement feels particularly surreal, like a final crescendo before the show comes down for good. A phrase I learned from Yveline, my elderly landlady, in one of the daily language exchanges we carried out during confinement was “Il n’y a pas le feu.” It literally translates to “there is no fire,” and means “there is no rush.” But for Our World is Burning, it feels like there is—emphatically—a rush.
Sarah Ouhaddou’s stained glass circles, Sin ithran, ur mqadan, rousn/Two Heavenly Bodies When Unbalanced, Burn Each other (2020) fit organically with the context of their display and could be easily taken for a permanent installation in the museum. The meditative pieces can be viewed from the mezzanine before descending downstairs, the light from the museum’s window illuminating the multicolored glass pieces from behind. They are reminiscent of a kaleidoscope but more nuanced in their asymmetry. One cannot help but notice the copper toes placed beneath the two glass circles: Danh Vō’s We the People (2010–14) looks vaguely familiar even if we do not know immediately that this is a piece of a replica of the Statue of Liberty, not yet discolored by exposure to water and air.
The Qatari artist Faraj Daham’s Street Language (2012), a marigold-hued diptych measuring 180 by 400 centimeters, depicts 12 figures in hard hats in a tribute to construction workers in Doha, many of whom are pressed into service. Scarves cover the men’s noses and mouths and all but one (who shuts his eyes) wear sunglasses. We are fully denied access to their world. The scarves and sunglasses shield their faces from the desert sand and harsh sun, but in pandemic times this image feels like a one-way mirror as our masked faces line up opposite theirs. The insistent aversion of their eyes, however, suggests that we cannot really see them: this is an asymmetrical comparison. This would be a more effective gesture of tribute from the Qatari state if their labor practices were not nakedly oppressive, but even with the recent dismantling of kafala—a system of sponsorship used to control foreign labor—migrant workers are still widely exploited.
Amal Kenawy’s The Silent Multitudes (2010) is a multimedia installation of over 100 liquefied petroleum gas tanks. The shiny blue containers form a room that, at first glance, reads like a wall confronting the visitor as they enter the gallery, a discomforting barricade of neatly stacked tanks. The piece feels dangerous, even with the knowledge that this is an art installation and these tanks have obviously been emptied of their highly flammable contents. In the room formed by the gas tanks, a video is projected onto the floor of yet another gas tank being kicked across the floor—a visual reminder of potential volatility.
John Akomfrah’s Purple (2017), tucked away at the back of the gallery, is the most evocative piece included in the exhibition. It is heartachingly poignant. The installation is staged in a carpeted room, womb-like and enveloping: a comforting space. But the six-channel video that plays here feels like the ominous B-side to the Voyager Golden Records: a non-linear summation of the Anthropocene. Discordant videos play simultaneously. Courageous ascents of Mount Everest are juxtaposed to the destruction of rainforests and monkeys being used as laboratory test subjects. Smoke billows forth from the chimneys of factories and refineries, and we see the ultimately destructive teleology of human “progress” come to a head as Akomfrah narrates the causes of climate change. We hear bird sounds, monkey sounds, opera, all layered one atop the next. Akomfrah’s piece is the final crescendo, a sensory overstimulation reiterating the fact that yes, the world is on fire, literally and figuratively, and that yes, there is reason for urgency. The West Coast of the United States has been in flames for weeks—we do not even need art like Purple to facilitate such spectacle when this horror is our reality.
Our World is Burning begs the question: what is it that we will do? And along with it, we must ask what is it that our institutions will do? This emotionally stirring exhibition reminds us of the tenuous line, traversed time and time again, between art and its ethically problematic benefactors. Here, the impending crises of the world at large are acknowledged, but they are also elided in an attempt to absolve both the museum and its funders. Perhaps institutional critique is possible from within the art world apparatus, but for real analysis to take place, art institutions must admit to their complicity, rather than eclipsing it with poetic gestures.