The entrance to MASS Alexandria, a wide flight of stairs leading down to the garage-turned-basement studio space, conjures images of secrets and sedition. With its strip lighting and lack of phone signal, the bunker-like space would be an appropriately dramatic setting for a clandestine meeting of radical thinkers or a series of experiments by visionary scientists engaged in the latest feats of bioengineering.
At the MASS 2016 final exhibition (November 24 – 27), I was assured that the sense I get from the space is not a product of my overactive imagination but the result of the 10-month program’s ethos, cultivated through lectures, workshops and countless studio hours for young artists, some with extensive training, others with none. This alternative education model, in Egypt’s context, is considered radical, and its students are indeed encouraged to experiment — in artistic form and practice. There’s a sense that everything here is constantly in progress. Curated by Berlin-based artist and theorist Berit Schuck (director of this edition of MASS), along with MASS founder Wael Shawky, the show was presented as more of an open studio than a traditional exhibition. The works were displayed with little fanfare and minimal annotation.
Descending into the abyss, we encountered two multi-faceted, large-scale works. To see Mohamed Monaiseer’s Storyteller, one had to be possessed with enough curiosity to peer behind the painted sheet strung up like a curtain at the foot of the stairs. Below it, an assortment of animal skulls and bones helped to pique curiosity. The main element was a series of hand-stitched scenes from an ancient text of animal fables known in Arabic as Kalila and Demna, in which anthropomorphic animals convey lessons on wisdom and morality. The fabrics were accompanied by a small video of a teenage boy reclining in a chair and making menacing animal noises.
The skulls, as well as the boy’s intimidating but comic performance, created a contrast between the material and the metaphorical. As a storyteller must do, we were invited to weave these elements into a narrative, perhaps our own more sinister version of Kalila and Demna, but one devoid of its forceful morals. The set-up felt like a fairytale that ends badly at the bottom of a ravine, and it was both disturbing and utterly captivating.
Monaiseer’s piece was not thematically unlike MASS founder Wael Shawky’s own work, which often employs large-scale figures and alludes to the intersection of myth and recorded history.
Yasmine El-Meleegy’s Emergency Room, even grander in scale, bordered on overwhelming. A massive army of kitschy decorative figurines reproduced in wax, gypsum and cement, dominated a large table, some of them in half-finished states, missing a limb or a head. It was as if Meleegy sought to display but also obscure her personal memories by creating these replicas. In a sea of reproductions, the original was concealed and protected in plain view. Behind it was a video projection of a Photoshop screen capture, in which the person operating the mouse erases certain parts of the image, revealing previously unseen dimensions, hidden in the photograph as if painted over. A third element of Meleegy’s installation, a video of someone carefully gluing a ceramic vase back together, was particularly hypnotic.
The artist told me she is interested in erasure through renovation, and I was reminded of the riddle of the ship of Theseus: If you replace all the individual parts, do you end up with the same ship or something entirely different? I was told the title, which seemed perhaps too urgent for the work on display, was carried through from Meleegy’s initial research interest in old buildings under renovation, specifically hospitals. Although the title felt like a tangent, perhaps the urgency lies in Meleegy’s drive to reconstruct herself, to piece something of her original ship together before it is inadvertently erased.
Sara Hamdy’s installation and performance How to Create a Complex Song like a Bird’s also tackled imitation, taking as its main metaphor the process of birds learning to communicate through mimicry. Language is seen in the work as a long chain of imitations, illustrated through a delightful series of stamps designed by Hamdy to symbolize parts of birdcalls. A series of pencil drawings meant to depict bird-machine hybrids in various states of dissection were less successful, both in their draughtsmanship and the over-literality of the metaphor. Fusing ornithological and literary texts, the highlight of Hamdy’s work was the text read out during her performance, which dissected the “infinitesimal frequencies” created by the flapping of a bird’s wings, which fuse into a vibration that “disassembles the motion of time.”
Working with a different facet of reproduction, Omar Adel’s Datum or (The Abstract Representation of an Interwoven Object) took its inspiration from French philosopher Alain Badiou’s Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art (2003), specifically thesis number four, that “there is necessarily a plurality of arts, and however we may imagine the ways in which the arts might intersect, there is no imaginable way of totalizing this plurality.” Adel’s work did not attempt to prove Badiou wrong but to illustrate a plurality of medium.
Arranged on a wooden shelf were several objects: a book filled with hexadecimal computer code, a photograph of a sheep, a speaker emitting an ominous ambient noise, a tablet displaying a representation of rope knotting and unknotting itself and a tubular LED bulb. In a cheeky nod to Badiou, the first page of the book on display spelled out his fourth thesis in computer code, while the rest was the code for the image of the sheep. Following in a chain, the sound was an interpretation of the photograph, the animation of the sound and the LED bulb was the click at the end of the cycle, bouncing off of our retinas and illustrating that fact that our vision is merely a mechanical process dependent on this light, reflecting us back to the beginning of the cycle, to start again.
The work was reminiscent of Joseph Kosuth’s series One and three (1965) in which Kosuth displayed an object (a chair, plant, hammer…), a life-sized photograph of it and a dictionary definition of the same object, prompting us to consider our perception of the real, the image and the symbolic or linguistic representation of one thing. Adel employed a similar game of Chinese whispers with computer, rather than human, language, to move beyond formal language through data representations. Behind this amusing endeavor lay an attempt to “reach the full truth” of what a “thing” actually is versus how we communicate it, as his meandering, lengthy artist text implied.
The work brought to mind Bassam El Baroni’s publication Fifteen ways to Leave Badiou (2011), in which the writer and curator (who has guest lectured during the past year at MASS) commissioned 15 artists to respond to Badiou’s theses. In that publication, artist Doa Aly (also a guest lecturer at MASS) responded to thesis four with her own text, “On the Plurality of Consciousness,” consisting of segments on madness. Adel’s work left me to meditate on the limits of our sensorial perceptions and expressive abilities — and felt as though it were a rallying cry against art itself.
Nadia Mounier’s She Said, I Swear I Saw a Light Coming out of the Side of my Eyes (Part one) was a fascinating take on the conventions that dictate how we deal with images of women. Accompanying a number of doctored photographs were a series of interviews with a street artist, a photographer of all-female, pre-wedding henna parties, and a member of a private all-female Facebook page. Through them, we see how our anonymous characters sensitively reproduce other people’s images, altering them to be more appropriate according to their subjective standards. In all cases, there was a sense of extreme intimacy, prompting a consideration of what these self-portraits represent for the women talked about, a chance at reinvention in a space outside of society’s moral grasp.
Ash Moniz’s Disappearing Pedestrians, an installation accompanied by a performance lecture titled Halting the Flow, was a research-based piece and the first chapter of a planned series titled Choreographed Economies, investigating the temporality of product circulation in the global market. Taking the Ain Sokhna dockers’ strike of 2012/2013 as its starting point, it consisted of several videos addressing the labor of visibility and the labor involved in making humans and their demands visible. The workers, who were demanding permanent employment contracts with DP World (the Dubai-based company that acquired the Sokhna Port in 2008), decided that the best way to make themselves visible was to do nothing, letting their inaction disrupt the flow of goods. The highlight of the piece was an instructional safety video released by DP World, in an ironic twist of fate, on the same day the port workers operating the container scanner process began their strike. It showed workers dressed in different colored uniforms walking across a background of colored containers, illustrating how color contrast can help keep them safe on the job.
Moniz’s work echoed Jasmina Metwaly’s (also a contributor to the MASS program) Evidence of Absence (2015), seven hours of mobile footage taken by a factory worker in hopes of using it as evidence against the factory owner, only to have the footage judged inadmissible in court. While Evidence of Absence included a full transcript of the seven-hour video, thankfully Moniz’s approach was less exhaustive, with his lecture informally explaining his interest in the social and political connotations of visibility, and the accompanying videos working to transpose the analogy to the realm of the image. But the work left me wondering what happened to the workers — the result of their civil disobedience did not receive even a cursory note. If Disappearing Pedestrians was concerned with visibility, then surely mentioning the fate of the strikers was necessary if it could claim to make visible anything beyond the artist’s own interest in the idea of visibility.
More problematic was Chitra Sangtani’s The Lotus in Absence, which combined exoticism and self-indulgence. While I am not against highly personal artworks (such as Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick, a rigorous and wonderful self-deriding retelling of her unreciprocated infatuation with a fleeting acquaintance, or Tracey Emin’s work, which takes a confessional approach to plainly displaying details of her personal affairs) Sangtani’s piece, which consisted of a crudely painted timeline of her relationship with her love interest Abdo, seemed blind to cultural nuance. It was initially envisioned as a collaborative film by Sangtani and Abdo on Egyptian moulids (the film proposal was included as part of the piece), which is already tricky terrain.
But somewhere along the way, the film turned into this sappy timeline of Sangtani’s love affair, as she discovers more of Egypt, pines over Abdo during his month-long disappearance and elevates her experience of love in a foreign land to the status of art. The video accompanying the timeline looked like random segments of the couple’s home videos, interspersed with moulid shots. The main aim appeared to be to communicate that the artist and Abdo are in love, and that, like the mystical, exotic moulids, Abdo is alluring and filled with mystery and power. I found it difficult to take this work – which was also not complete in time for the first day of the exhibition – seriously.
Other pieces left me equally baffled, if less offended. Maha Emad’s Blablabla consisted of three variations of the Arabic phrase, “You’re talking nonsense,” written in looping calligraphy along the length of a column. The use of calligraphy to convey nonsense (or the accusation of nonsense) appeared to be an attempt to subvert hierarchies within language, as a realm of order, propriety and meaning. But it seemed a rushed and lonely attempt. Similarly Sara Moustafa’s Where Sirens Go Unnoticed, an LCD screen on a pile of sand displaying a time-lapse video of Alexandria’s busy seaside road, did not offer the viewer much to work with. Likewise, I felt that Pance Ahmed’s Perseverance, an installation of plants growing through the cracks in cement, did not reach much deeper than its potted roots.
Hadia El Masry’s Heterotopia had potential to say something but only just missed the mark. For me, part one, figurative charcoal drawings on a column, evoked little to do with Michel Foucault’s concept, but part two created the necessary link. Set up in a tiny room on the second floor, I discovered it by chance on the way to the bathroom. It showed a camera trained on what appeared to be the ventilation shaft of a building. Strewn with rubbish, the space was both outdoor and indoor, neither here nor there, free from the pressure of having to serve a rigid function. I found it an aptly poetic urban metaphor: Utopias are out of reach, so we must settle for ventilation shafts.
Other notable videos included Assem Hendawi’s Excursus on a Stray Reverie, a visceral 22-second loop of close-ups of scratching, sweating and other bodily manifestations of anxiety, and Marianne Fahmy’s 31 Silent Encounters, a meditative series of still architectural shots accompanied by snippets from love letters that appeared to have been written in the 1950s/60s.
Although direct allusions to socio-economic conditions were avoided for the most part, works that did have them were less layered than they could have been. Asmaa Abdelhafez’s The Shoe and the Other plainly presented interview segments filmed with people of different background talking about the cost of things — most recurrently, a pair of new shoes. This was accompanied by an installation of old footwear in a pile, and a text that reiterated what the interview subjects said in the video.
At the entrance to the exhibition was a video by Asmaa Barakat: a close-up of a female’s mouth resolutely narrating a delirious monologue of existential loss: “A small shell, a backpack, a soul mate, and a love that wrenches he who remains – alive – from the heart. Two weeks have passed. Gradually the hate inside me turns into awe. I am bad, you know.” Under other circumstances, I could see myself enjoying this poetic narration of guilt, angst and self-loathing, but its placement at the bustling entrance did not do it justice. The audio was obscured by the drone of exchanged pleasantries, and it was impossible to linger for long before the crowd jostled you along.
At the exhibition’s opening, former Tate Modern director Chris Dercon said he found it “typical that we are not talking today about the power of the museum but the power of conversation. And it is also typical that this conversation is happening in a studio.” There was indeed an emphasis on conversation throughout, with the exhibition’s second day reserved for one on ones where visitors could talk individually with the artists about their work. But because of the sheer number of pieces, sometimes conversations would literally drown out their neighboring works.
Much like the space, the work presented by the program’s 25 students oscillated between the deeply personal (the inward looking, the isolated, the subjective) and the public, with a few pieces presenting overt social commentary. And, while it was clear that throughout the program much space was given to contemplation, the busy exhibition focused on fostering approachability and discussion in relation to the work of these emerging young artists.