I work at an entertainment lab
It opens at 11:55 and closes at midnight.
Every night I stand on a decorated stage with ten monkeys
I pretend to train them to argue about love
They pretend to be interested and the audience laughs.
These words are spoken during a phone call to a fictional character who picks up the phone and dials a random number to “ask about reality” in Basim Magdy’s 13-minute film “The Everyday Ritual of Solitude Hatching Monkeys,” inspired by his father’s short stories. The film, with a selection of other works by both Magdy and his father — writer and artist Magdy El Gohary — is displayed at Cairo’s Gypsum Gallery as part of Two Ghosts Discuss Invisibility in Front of a Mirror. Gohary’s pieces are seamlessly curated into the exhibition, and the uncanny similarities in the work of father and son are striking, from use of color to a fascination with grand progress narratives.
Like much of Magdy’s work, “Everyday Ritual” depicts a seemingly free-associated collection of moving images strung together through a poetic narration manifesting in multicolored subtitles. This absurd and apparently nonsensical scenario marks a certain style that Magdy investigates throughout his oeuvre. Yet while his work often employs the same strategies — ones quite consistent with the fantastical world he creates — and curatorial contextualizations of it thus often seem quite similar, this particular exhibition bears distinct features that make it different. Not only are the works being shown in Cairo for the first time (one, a series of works on paper titled “Someone Tried to Lock up Time,” is making its international debut), it is also the first time that Magdy has ever included his father’s work in an exhibition.
All the works share the simplicity and absurdity of “Everyday Ritual.” Most pair images of everyday life with strange, evocative texts (titles, subtitles or words imposed on the images themselves) that have the same omnipotent tone. It is as though a character is speaking to us through the works, and one is left to wonder whether it’s the voice of the subject, a narrator, or the artist himself. Through this combination of text and image, Magdy navigates failed utopias of the past, patterns of hope we are doomed to repeat over and over, and futures that never arrive.
Grand claims, empty purposes
In a 2017 interview Magdy said that much of his process goes back to when he “started creating an archive of images from the internet of futuristic structures that were never realized, or things that were realized but kind of failed or lost their purpose.” While Magdy positions his examination of this notion of “failed futurisms” within the context of extensive ideological projects — evident in his father’s High Dam series, for instance, marker-on-paper drawings portraying the construction process of the Nasser-era structure — it retains the intimacy inherent in the act of curating his father’s artworks, using them as artifacts of their own utopias.
The aesthetics Magdy and his father employ pertain to the progress-oriented ideologies of their times. Some of Gohary’s works, such as “The Talisman” (1968), evoke a feeling of all-consuming power or near omnipresence; the watercolor-and-ink drawing depicts a towering figure with the sun as its head, and crowds of what appear to be television screens gathering below. In “Someone Tried to Lock up Time,” Magdy’s bold cinematic style elicits the same undertones of a powerful entity exerting control over a group of people; like many of his images it borrows aesthetics from billboards and other advertising mediums, including bold text in capitalized, multicolored letters. Seeing such works together, it becomes clear how both artists touch upon the implications of the visual language used during their own time in order to project government-sourced hope being spoon-fed to a nation of avid citizens.
“A Poisoned Night Rolled Over Our Pride”
“All Actions Were Camouflaged. All Colors Turned Black”
“Beauty and Melancholy Made a Blood Pact in a Rare Romantic Gesture”
“Nations Stutter and Enter into Alliance to Wail like Trapped Ghosts”
– From the series “Every Subtle Gesture” (2012–ongoing)
The semantic gesture of a “claim” seems to be a major component of Magdy’s work as well. One example is the historical claims he makes about futuristic movements. “Memories of the Future,” an essay in one of the catalogues displayed at Gypsum’s entrance by curator Britta Färber, points out that Magdy has often stated that “utopias do not work because they have nothing in common with the reality of the respective present in which they are developed.” This claim about social movements and the location of time sets a very specific frame through which the world is to be seen, or at least the world that Magdy creates in his work.
In “Every Subtle Gesture,” a series of framed color prints, the sentences overlaid on the images are overly romantic — massive statements drenched in confident determinism. In their recurrence, here and in other works, such grand, random-sounding declarations become so broad, vague and all-encompassing that they almost cancel each out other out. They don’t mean anything anymore. They become manifestations of a naked impulse to profess romantic grandiosity, without much substance.
“I am the haunting song of all disfigured mermaids.
Plagued with medical bills after a nuclear leak.
I am the unresolved childhood issues of a box jellyfish, that failed to untangle its acquired limbs.”
“From down here, sunsets look like frozen fireworks trapped inside a magic lamp.
The genie died and was replaced with a vampire squid long ago.
There’s nothing to wish for except fleeting knowledge and a final escape.”
– From “No Shooting Stars” (2016)
In the 2016 film “No Shooting Stars,” a binocular-style shot of snowy mountain peaks conveys the triumph of “reaching new heights,” bringing to mind archetypal gestures of claiming (mountain-top flag-planting, for example) and problematic tropes of accomplishment and discovery. This appears to operate as a proof of both self-awareness in terms of Magdy’s claim-making and of the (visual) language of grandiosity in state narratives. In a way this work, like others, manufactures the experience of obnoxiously gargantuan vagueness that is so often a part of promoted utopias, simultaneously providing insight into how this magnitude has been used historically and how we perpetuate it. Using the language of massive claims to communicate uneventful everyday images, like a bird pecking at a shore, a corner of a building or the costume of a Despicable Me character, somehow helps depict the space between individuals and the ideologies of progress they are made to work towards. This multi-scale flux, from massive far-reaching ideas to the personal, intimate and mundane, is heavily present in Magdy’s work.
Use of multiple scales is also present in the use of what Magdy calls “film pickling,” his invented technique of applying chemicals onto film rolls to add uncontrollable color effects to images. Because the pickling process uses mainly household items (vinegar, Coke, bleach, rubbing alcohol, detergent, dish soap, etc.), it brings a certain DIY feel to the work. By creating this framing device of amateur domesticity for his utopian futuristic projections, Magdy paints a larger picture of the way collective utopias are inserted into the individual and personal.
Cycles of history/art
As though a critique could risk carrying with it the same power and problematics, the position Magdy’s work holds seems not to be of direct opposition towards the hopes and utopian futures he engages with. Rather, his practice is situated in a space between criticality of these narratives and complete re-enforcement of them.
For example, with the sentence “There’s nothing to wish for except fleeting knowledge and a final escape” in “No Shooting Stars,” and with the image in “Every Subtle Gesture” that reads “They Fertilized Our Dreams with Restrained Innovation,” Magdy talks about these wishes and dreams while simultaneously embodying them by adopting their language and tone. In these romantic yet bizarre verses, a reflection on the impact of the ideologies inserted into people’s dreams and the way nationalist hopes have been internalized also appears to be an artifact of that same “fertilizer.” This strategy embodies the language, impulses and motivations present in the projection of power into utopian imaginations and abstract possibilities, while simultaneously questioning them.
It is also an extension of the circularity in Magdy’s work, in that there is not simply a failure, but a continuous failure that is the very foundation and reason for failures to come, as if every utopian idea of progress is based on being better than the last “failure.” The cycle of logic his work follows (questioning and reinforcing the same things) resembles the futurities he refers to (the cycle of hope and failure that history compels us to undergo). It is hard to pinpoint whether the work is indeed intended to be a response to/critique of these failures, or merely a staged artifact of them — or both.
Looking back at a future gone past
Much of Magdy’s work looks at the present moment as if looking back at history from the future. For instance, his use of film pickling appears to act as an orchestrated historical trace of futurism. The effect looks like an aesthetic alteration caused by time or history itself, conveying authenticity in its faultiness. At the same time, these potential traces of decay are intensely vibrant and saturated, echoing the colors of a certain saleable pop-culture imagery.
It is possible that the “sexiness” of this stylistic effect is a strategic tool for conveying how ideologies are literally sold, and the way the artwork accomplishes this mirrors how it has been accomplished historically. A common theme in Magdy’s work is the idea that today’s pop culture will someday have the powerful nostalgia of physical ruins, which also appear throughout the works. This is impactful in part because the pragmatism of acknowledging this one potential fact about the future contrasts with the fiction that otherwise permeates the show. In a sense, Magdy looks at the world around him as if it is already a past history; it is a form of futurism that accelerates hindsight and retrospect rather than the actual subject of the gaze.
Gohary’s “High Dam” series is also an example of this. Compared to his other works in the show, here he uses faster and more repetitive brushstrokes and linework, as if coloring the sky with railway tracks rather than careful use of solid color. This, perhaps, says something about the way he interpreted the construction itself — systematic, aggressive, impatient — especially considering that these images were made while he was visiting the actual site. One painting contrasts a burgundy background (burgundy is the color of the ground throughout the series) with bright green power lines and cranes, while three people sit watching below. It is not only beautiful but extremely powerful, accomplishing a drastic distinction between raw land and human creation, which taps into the questions of non-anthropocentrism that Magdy tackles in his work too.
In “No Shooting Stars,” the sea is the protagonist who confidently professes absurd claims as to who they are (such as “I am the haunting song of all disfigured mermaids”). The sea is not only instrumental in forming a society’s aspirations, it also represents the swallowed and sunken dreams rotting at its bottom. To the sea, humans’ grand narratives mean nothing and can be swept away by flood at any moment. There is something poignantly disruptive in addressing the power dynamics between people and the sea, especially in the context of climate change and natural forces that can destroy a utopia in an instant. It serves as an interesting reminder that there might not be any more futurisms or utopias to come, as the sea is the ultimate barrier to our ambitions.