Christopher Bernard on Words and Places: Etel Adnan (California College of the Arts)



Etel Adnan at work




Etel Adnan at work


Why is a Solar Ray Burning My Eye When the Sky Still Lies in Ice?”


Words and Places: Etel Adnan

California College of the Arts Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts

Through June 29


A review by Christopher Bernard


This retrospective of the artistic and literary career of the Lebanese artist, poet, novelist, essayist and journalist Etel Adnan is a major event, not only for the local art and literary community, but also for members of the Middle Eastern diaspora in the San Francisco Bay Area, and for the many, displaced by conflict and war, who have had to bestride cultures in an attempt to maintain a complex identity in a constantly and often violently changing world. Etel Adnan’s resilient spirit, her vitality and warmth, glow in the work like a tough flame.

San Franciscans are fortunate to have this wide-ranging exhibition of drawings, paintings, poetry, videos and films by, or about, one of the most important living writers of Middle Eastern descent – it is one of history’s minor ironies that Adnan, who was born in Beirut in 1925, then moved to Paris, where she was just young enough to meet the ageing André Gide, lived in the Bay Area for several decades and only now is getting a major exhibit here (she currently lives in Paris again).

The centerpiece of the exhibit, for me, is Adnan’s arguably most dazzling creations: her leporellos, or folding art books: accordion-like “scrolls,” from a couple of feet to several yards long, some made up of ink or ink-and-watercolor drawings on separate panels or smeared and blotted between folds, others painted in large strokes like Japanese foldout landscapes – displaying drawings like abstract ideograms, smudges of explosions or flowers, of a striking energy and delicacy. Other leporellos include scraps of verse, surreally enigmatic aphorisms, and entire poems, including what may be Adnan’s masterpiece, from 1968: “Funeral March for the First Cosmonaut,” on the death of Yuri Gagarin.

Another leporello of note is “Late Afternoon Poem,” also from 1968, in which the poet and artist asks the perennially relevant question, “Why is a newsman caught in a crossfire while reporting something he does not care to know?” and later asks the profounder one: “Why is a solar ray burning my eye when the sky still lies in ice?” Other leporellos include “Five Senses for One Death” and several smaller ones, including “Sausalito” and “View From My Window.”

The exhibition is of interest not only for the light it sheds on Adnan’s exuberant synergy of talents but also because it places her work in a context of work by other important artists whose work addresses similar themes and follows similar approaches: filmmaker Chris Marker, director and visual artist Rabih Mroué, and the artist collective, The Otolith Group.

Marker, the late doyen of experimental cinema, is represented by his film Junkopia, about the outdoor statues along the bayside in Emeryville, which he made on a visit to the Bay Area in the early 1980s. There are rhymes and echoes between his shots of the bricolage spooks and cast-off avatars on the mudflats of the East Bay and the lively explosions of black, like midnight roses, that populate many of Adnan’s ink paintings.

Fellow Lebanese Moure is represented by a short film of a house in Beirut being blown to pieces, the film shuttling back and forth in time, so that the exploding house seems to move from ruins back to wholeness, then ahead again to ruins, in a jagged, jazzy rhythm, while a voiceover speaks about the tension between remembering and forgetting, or rather the compulsion to remember and the need to forget: “I am not telling in order to remember. On the contrary, I am telling in order to make sure that I have forgottten, or at least to make sure I have forgotten something . . .”

Lining the walls of the gallery are drawings and oil paintings that Adan has made over the decades: the paintings are often simple geometries that evoke landscapes and still-lifes, some with an awkward luminosity reminiscent of an abstract Morandi.

Also included is a slideshow of articles Adnan wrote in the 1970s for the francophone Beirut newspaper Al-Safa, and a table displaying Adnan’s books, including the modern classics of displacement, Sitt Marie Rose and The Arab Apocalypse.

In the back gallery is an installation where a film about the poet by The Otolith Group is screened, titled (quoting from a poem by Adnan) I See Infinite Distance Between Any Point and Another. The French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard is quoted as saying it is almost impossible to film a person reading – the experience is entirely internal, indecipherable: the only filmable signs are the blinking of the eyes, pursing of the lips, a deepening frown of concentration, a body changing position on the chair, in bed, on the beach; the turning of a page. How does a person reading Jane Austen look different from a person reading James Joyce or Karl Marx? How would you be able to see the difference from outside? Perhaps the only way to film it would be to film how that person acts after the reading is over: the reader of Jane Austen tries to say witty things to her lover; the reader of Karl Marx organizes a revolution. This film tries to answer Godard’s challenge by filming the act of reading aloud by Adnan of one of her poems, “Sea and Fog,” with intense close-ups of the poet, thus emphasizing the bodily presence of this most spiritual of acts.

Several films will screen during the exhibition, including Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, Soad Hosni’s Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni, and the delightfully frank and engaging Autoportrait, a filmed self-portrait (perhaps the first of its kind) by Simone Fattal, Adnan’s longtime companion and publisher.

Along the back wall, an installation film Adan made, a celebration of the California landscape, screens in a continuous loop.

Last but surely not least, as part of the exhibition, local artist Lynn Marie Kirby has created a short, witty online collaboration with Adnan, called “Back, Back Again to Paris,” that can be seen at It is a kind of love letter to the poet.


Christopher Bernard is a poet, novelist and critic living in San Francisco. His novel A Spy in the Ruins was published by Regent Press ( He is also a co-editor of the literary and arts webzine Caveat Lector (




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