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Coming in from Grand Avenue and the blinding, white-reflective facades of The Broad and Disney Hall, visitors to Adelita Husni-Bey’s exhibition at REDCAT undergo a somatic and intellectual recalibration. The light levels are dark; the content, unmonumental. Named after her most recent work, Chiron (2019)—one of three film-based projects on view here—the installation demonstrates Husni-Bey’s ability to tackle unendingly complex subjects (the immigration crisis, imperialism, how civilizations function) with intimate, approachable, and thus highly watchable results.
Husni-Bey has subdivided REDCAT’s box-like gallery using a network of slats and risers, creating discrete zones that give her individual projects space while also effectively moving viewers around and through the installation. Part of Chiron, processional rows of hanging banners covered in text flank the edges of the space. Glowing purple in the black-lit darkness, they reproduce documents chronicling the history of race-based discrimination inscribed into U.S. law, going back to the 19th century and up through Donald Trump’s so-called Muslim Ban.
As graceful as they are dispiriting, the banners usher viewers to the back of the room, preparing us, through their difficult data, for Husni-Bey’s film. In it, young, spiritually drained immigration lawyers discuss their fraught ethical position working in and around an immovable legal system they swore to uphold; at other times, they perform improvisational movements and humming. Video is a notoriously difficult medium to hold attention. But through artfully paced editing and a hint of narrative, Husni-Bey manages to generate empathy and a desire to see more—do more—on the part of viewers, despite being ourselves drained from the politics of 2016 onward.
Husni-Bey’s process of initiating workshops with community groups, engaging them in dramatic exercises (the lawyers’ improvisations in Chiron involve Theatre of the Absurd technique), and documenting the results, produces a compelling mix of vérité-style record and communal experiment also present in the films of Yoshua Okón, or, long before him, Valie Export. On a platform toward the center of the gallery, Husni-Bey’s 2265 (2015) considers, through the discussions and performances of a diverse group of American high schoolers, the dystopian conclusions of imperialism run amok. In Postcards from the Desert Island (2011), French school children tasked with inventing a civilization from the ground up build structures and fight for territory with help from cardboard, paper, markers, and string. Across these works, Husni-Bey manages to balance her subjects’ voices with her own aesthetic interventions, showing her mode of situational, theatrical experimentation—and her assertive command of space—to be both engaging and necessary.
Adelita Husni Bey: CHIRON runs from September 21, 2019–January 26, 2020 at REDCAT (631 W. 2nd St., Los Angeles, CA 90012).