There is an artist book by the Chinese conceptual artist Song Dong about a sentence that’s untranslatable from Chinese into English. Each page depicts the same script in Chinese, followed by a different translation attempt executed by various translation services. The grand sum of decryptions makes up the phrase “Doing Nothing.” “Doing Nothing” stands as mnemonic for a project, but also for the lighthearted yet equally serious humor of dealing with artworks. The exhibition “What are you doing, object?” (on view at Gypsum Gallery from June 2-July 7, 2015) shares this etiology with Dong’s artwork.
The genealogy of the exhibition — also simply known as #WAYDO — goes a few years back. At the time, Gypsum Gallery was still a rumor, and Nile Sunset Annex was putting together its second exhibition, “What are you doing, drawing?” in sharp-witted retort to a show at Beirut, “What does a drawing want?” (itself a spin-off of WJT Mitchell’s book, What do pictures want?). In the little and long time since the rumors concretized, Gypsum Gallery has changed spaces, Nile Sunset Annex has moved from the abode of one NSA partner to another, and Beirut, aptly, no longer exists.
Drawings encompass time. The thing-ness of a drawing is important, like the thing-ness of an object. The exhibition curated by Nile Sunset Annex — a duo currently comprising the artists Taha Belal and Jenifer Evans, who is also the culture editor at Mada Masr — operates on the good will of forgiving (or forgetting) as it shows quite a number of works that have already made their debuts at NSA and other spaces. The exhibition is astutely blunt, almost hinging on an anti-curatorial logic, and has struck an effective chord with artists and audiences.
This is an exhibition about objects: no elaborate themes, no complex matrices of relationships. Why? Well, because object-based artwork is hard to come by in Cairo galleries. That ingenuous claim aside, the exhibition offers up some nice works huddled in Gypsum’s gorgeous new Garden City premise.
There is a reproduction of Untitled (1996), an old work of polished wood by Alexandria-based artist Mona Marzouk, which was previously on exhibition at the coastal city’s Greek Consulate. The work, a dominating structure built out of 80 identical pieces of erect wood arranged into a perfect form, has a strong architectural quality reminiscent of devotional structures. For the art aficionados who have a memory of Marzouk’s earlier work — which is now rarely exhibited in Egypt — seeing this sculpture is purely delightful. Peering through the recesses of the structure, a world of geometric formation starts revealing itself.
From a particular angle, the edifice frames a 3D-printed head by up-and-coming artist Sarah Samy, who also comes from Alexandria but now resides in Berlin. Its name is Solid, and it stares into a corner. The black, elongated head is an unmistakable reminder of the pharaoh Akhenaten. Samy’s figurine is a tad too familiar, though, as it was part of her solo show at Nile Sunset Annex last September. On the other hand, Navigation #1 (2015), an oversized set of puzzle pieces on the floor, is a refreshing, cryptic addition by Samy. It features a haze of blues, sea animals and floating Arabic-Indic numerals.
The exhibition also features other works recently shown at Nile Sunset Annex and other spaces: take Dina Danish’s Brass Replica of Stone-Age Chewing Gum (2013), from her solo show at NSA’s new premise, or the more recognizable sculptures by Doa Aly corresponding to her video series, Metamorphoses: The Sequences, first shown at Townhouse in 2013. Additionally, there are two iconic collages on loan from Cairo-based collectors by the en-vogue late artist Mounir Canaan. The two paper-based works stand out a little — not only for their wall-mounted stature in a show that claims to be soley about objects, but also because they are evidently not for sale, politely refuting the raison d’être of the gallery as a space dedicated to the commerce of art.
Among the most exciting “objects” I encountered was Kareem Lotfy’s Untitled (2014), a large-scale tapestry “based on a digital drawing made by generating data using online visual cryptography tools,” the curators told me. Through my conversation with them, I came to understand Lotfy’s work as a dense encryption in which there is a finite reference system in the “making-of” the work that makes it seem very timely, and yet where time doesn’t matter at all. The backstory of how Lotfy’s work is made, and particularly his references, reveals complex and curious details that contribute to the art-hood of transforming a textile into an artwork.
Last year, I met Lotfy in Amsterdam (I had not yet seen the tapestries, which were in progress), and we had a lasting discussion on the experience of perceiving patterns or connections in random and meaningless data, a symptom known as apophenia. We also discussed pareidolia, an experience whereby psychological phenomena involving image or sound (think: an encounter with an art object) are perceived as significant. The Untitled tapestry is a manifestation of these and other references, which are remarkably well-encrypted. But the absence of labels or didactic material throughout the show, albeit a quirky gesture, means that the facts and fictions that lure us into the loves and lives of such objects are a luxury only to be attained through direct contact with the artist or the curators, to whom we may not always have access.
At the very far end of the space is a new work by Mahmoud Khaled, The Crying Man (Memorial) (2015), a 1940s mirror on a wooden stand that performs itself in the manner of a ready-made. It makes reference to the Queen Boat incident of 2001, when 52 gay men were arrested off a boat in Zamalek and charged with debauchery. Intent study of the mirror surface reveals scratches and shadows that give form to the figure of a crying man. The commemorating words that accompany Khaled’s piece resonate with the language of Iman Issa’s Material series (2010-2012). In this show, NSA presented one work, Fortune Teller (Study for 2013) (2013), which stems from Lexicon, an ongoing series of sculptures accompanied by texts that proceeds from Material.
Fortune Teller (Study for 2013) is a photograph of a glowing white object alongside its own vignette, which reads: “The walls in the room are covered with drawings of fish, cats, eyes, hands…” While the description goes on, you might pause and take a step back from the wall-mounted work. As you throw a glance behind you, your gaze meets the elements of Samy’s puzzle on the floor. In that instant — even if you don’t fully know it — you have intercepted a perplexing instant of seamless synchronicity: this is the moment when two objects connect.
Then it happens again. Issa’s photograph of a lit sphere is frozen and concretized in Hassan Khan’s Dense Object (2013), originally crafted by jeweler and artist Zeinab Khalifa — Khan’s mother. The object — similar in scale to a roll of toilet paper — is cast out of stacked rings of aluminum, brass, copper, iron and stainless steel. There are other objects in the show, too: A double mirror that appeared in Khan’s dream (a new work), a plastic-like blue rock by Malak Helmy (an old work), a ruler by Ahmed Badry that is made of carton, but makes a really good impression of being made of wood (also new).
#WAYDO marks an interesting moment of collaboration between two types of institutions (an artist-run initiative and a private gallery), and also stages a little party, a get-together of works that otherwise wouldn’t necessarily meet. It would have been nice to see NSA more wholly embrace the curator-hat function and give some more context for the artworks, but it is always good to turn to the beginning and ask ourselves what we are doing, which they did. And so, I draw on the wisdom of a Chinese artwork and the productive failures of Song Dong’s collection of translations of “Doing Nothing.”
“Doing Nothing” is an artwork from another time and place that gives a sober answer to the question this exhibition is posing. In fact, one could argue that it is the only possible answer to the question being demanded of these objects. “Doing Nothing” cannot be reduced to an idiom or an artwork, and “Doing Nothing” is philosophically less trite than taking ourselves too seriously, and thinking that we are “Doing Something” — particularly at this time.
“What are you doing, Object?” June 2 – July 7, 2015. Gypsum Gallery, 5 Ibrahim Naguib Street, Apt 2, Garden City, Cairo. Opening hours: Daily 12-8 pm, Friday 4-8 pm, Sunday off (or by appointment). Contact: [email protected]