In the Book of Genesis, two angels tell Lot about their mission to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of the cities’ grievous sins. They warn him: “Escape for thy life; look not behind thee” but as he and his family are fleeing the Lord’s punishment of atomic rain of brimstone and fire, Lot’s wife, walking closely behind him, looks back at the city, and she is transformed into a pillar of salt.
Malak Helmy’s latest body of work, The Passions of the Trash Drive: A Group Exhibition, which showed at Cairo’s Nile Sunset Annex last December, was beautiful yet unfathomable.
The space’s single small cubic ‘annex’ showed a slick HD video of three segments, disturbed only by the clicking of a column of shelf-mounted slide projectors opposite, projecting what at first seemed like only blank slides on an adjacent wall, snap-snapping away to infinity. Each carousel in fact held a single image slide that appeared occasionally. Once in a blue moon these slides in each of the carousels synchronized, and you got a beautiful repeated long image of a beach, an episode of comfort in a sequence that otherwise offers emptiness and void. The piece was Score for the Occasional City (2010).
The first segment of the video, titled Chapter 3 – Lost Referents of Some Attraction (2012), shows a young woman in white peacefully eating a sandwich in a seemingly post-apocalyptic landscape of wasteland. The ground is covered with eye-piercing glowing white crystals, forming hills in the distance; the location is in fact the industrial salt lakes of Egypt’s north coast. The sky is blue and clear. It all seems so quiet and serene, like the aftermath of something horrible. Later we see the lady in white walking about with a large cubic structure above her head, which she also rotates around, like she is using it to generate some sort of force field.
I am not clear as to why Lot’s wife was punished. It is believed that as she turned she caught sight of God descending to rain merciless destruction on the twin towns, so she was petrified. But why exactly was she punished? Could it be her empathy for her doomed compatriots, which was interpreted as longing for their wicked ways? Or perhaps it was her curiosity, fatally mixed with vanity as looking at her people, by extension, is looking onto herself, to the extent of thinking she could sneak a peek on that unworldly force?
A woman in an outfit such as the one Helmy chose for her protagonist in that desolate landscape surely seems vain, at least Helmy tells us so in this chapter. And watching her behavior, one is left to speculate that this character seems to posses that common narcissistic quality of believing one is indestructible (or protected by some incomprehensible force, in the form of a cube.)
In the first segment we are the onlookers. The lady seems oblivious to the camera’s presence, and she doesn’t really look at much. The notion of a petrifying gaze only appears and is omnipresent in the video’s second segment. Here we are still at the coast, this time at a sunny beach. The camera tracks in very slowly onto four seated adolescent boys in their swimsuits; they are gazing at us, and they don’t twitch. Make no mistake, these are not Medusa’s gazes that turn you into stone, nor are they the young males’ newly acquired gazes that rob a human being of life and turns her into a sediment of matter, an object. Here, Helmy reverses the power of the gaze and its effect: the onlooker is the one who is petrified, not at the sight of God, but at the sight of you and me.
The segment doesn’t last long and it transitions into a shaky hand held shot following a man walking. It is a close shot, as if we are walking with, or behind, the man; Lot’s wife’s viewpoint. The man, of course, doesn’t look back. The shot fades out, suggesting that he made it somewhere.
Upstairs, on Nile Sunset Annex’s rooftop, Helmy gave us what could be seen as Theodor Adorno’s content sedimented into form. Adorno sees the separation between form and content as both real and illusory, and that certain types of standardized form (say a 12-bar blues progression or an African tribal mask) are byproducts of unique and special content that is ‘petrified.’
So upstairs, a cubic chunk of salt, suspended in motion on one of its tips as if blown away by a blast, was placed on top of two empty steel water tanks. Glowing in the dying sunset light, this salt sculpture perfectly blended with the odd surrounding items occupying a Cairo rooftop, where desolation and erosion reign. The picture was complete with tiny scattered colorful pearls; purple, blue and pink, the most camp-looking atomic fallout you have ever seen, very akin to the flamboyant lady in white. At the edge of it all and inconspicuously between the debris, lay a blob of grey-blue matter, like a petroleum byproduct spat by the waves on the shore, or first matter that decides to bear life after nuclear effects have cleared.
Helmy says that the locations informed the stories she wanted to tell. For example, the man in the video strides purposefully towards an abandoned compound outside the site of the controversial Dabaa nuclear plant project, scheduled to be operational by 2019. The story of that site’s appropriation by the state, the residents’ claims, the court ruling which came in their favor and was followed by their surprising giving up of the land back to the state, is not the one told here though.
Perhaps there are other parallel stories inside of us; ancient stories that we may or may not have heard before but we definitely relate to, and perhaps these stories yearn to be told over and over again, and when ancient words fail to carry any further meaning, perhaps then meaning is deposited into residues of form, like pillars of salt rising from shallow seas.
* This article was originally published on Mohammed Abdallah’s Garden City blog.