“Emergence”, Runa Islam’s film installation in the Art Unlimited section of the Basel art fair, is big, bright – and more subtle than you expect at a fair. (It was at MoMA in 2011.) A huge 35mm film projector, click-clacking in our midst, shines a red rectangle onto a screen. At first it seems blank, but soon a faint image starts to appear in the scarlet, and then comes clear: Wild dogs are eating the corpse of a horse, on an empty square in front of some kind of archaic public building. The image continues to sharpen and gain detail, and a bubble drifts across its surface, revealing the installation’s premise: We are looking at a black-and-white print submerged in a developing tray in a darkroom, and all that red is cast by a safelight. We see that the original negative must have been a glass plate, because cracks run across its image; that plate seems to be of about the same vintage as the building it is revealing, so there’s a sense that we are watching a fractured past get recovered. And then we see it get lost again, because the image, so faint at first, gets continually darker, until it goes completely black.
Islam uses the archaic technology of projected film to document the archaic technology of the darkroom as it revives the archaic content of the glass-plate negative – and then loses it again. Reading Islam’s handout, we discover that all this is at the service of a lost moment of hope in the Middle East. Between 1905 and 1911, there was a constitutional revolution in Iran that ended mostly in failure, and Islam’s image shows us one grim moment from it. History has never seemed as fragile as in this work of art: Democracy is never guaranteed, and even recovering its traces turns out to be an unlikely and delicate business.
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