From floor plans to furniture and emptied-out ruins, Gypsum Gallery’s most recent group exhibition, titled They Are Impersonal, Yet Habitation is Augmented by the Pressures of Their Indifference, navigated the multiplicitous potential of habitation as a site of intimacy, trauma and pleasure.
The first exhibition curated by Sara al-Adl since she first started working at Gypsum in 2018, and the second to take place in Gypsum’s new space in Maadi, where the gallery relocated in May after years of operating in Garden City, the show emphasized aspects of Adl’s ongoing writing and research practice, which focuses on intimate spaces, homes and habitats, and also made use of Gypsum’s new space: a villa with a courtyard and a large, central kitchen that gives a palpable sense of domesticity.
With precise attention to spatial arrangement and locational context, the works of the six artists presented bled into the different functions of the gallery’s architecture. Video installations were camouflaged into the gallery’s kitchen and office/meeting-room, and ornamental furniture was laid out in the exhibition space — not as mere display, but as though it were actually dressing the interior design.
One of the works on display, “A Babylonian Temple for Living: London Vertical House” (2019) by architect Samir El Kordy, functions on the same level that a floor plan for this exhibition might. It includes a series of abstract architectural drawings for a house, highlighting elements of repetition and reconfiguring a potential logic for the way that angles, curves and compositions suggest domestic familiarity. Although this is not mentioned in the accompanying text, Adl told me that the drawings were in fact those of a house Kordy had designed for a client in London that was never realized. It creates a structure where the logic of function has collapsed on itself, or as the exhibition text says, “where attic can be heart and the basement, an epicentre.” This autopsical rewiring of the residence as site reflected the broader questions tackled by the curatorial impetus and the other works in the exhibition.
Basma AlSharif’s “Deep Sleep” (2014) is a 13-minute video recorded between Greece, Malta, and Palestine that depicts sites of modern ruin in slow ambient shots. The artist is seen in moments of the video holding a microphone as if enacting the capture of these spaces, by producing binaural beats (the auditory illusion of a third tone perceived by a listener through the dichotic presentation of two different, pure tones) based on sound waves from Gaza. This alteration of perception, in viewing sites of ruin, affectively situates the viewer within a meditative moment, instigating bi-location to places one may not physically be, as if the third tone perceived is the third locality made present through the (im)possibility of being in those sites of ruin. Through the dreaminess encapsulated by the graininess of the image, the highly edited effects, and the tone set by the visual/aural ambience, a trance-like state is evoked. Sleep, potentially the primary “function” of a shelter or habitat, serves as more of a hypnosis than as a rest.
The evocation of absent life through sleep, and the invitation to collective memory, with all of it entails, allows us to collectively remember the disappeared protagonist within Mahmoud Khaled’s installation “Fig. 1. Daybed (The Owner Series)” (2019). Here the duration and depth of sleep is more of a state “between wakefulness and dream … two seemingly important elements of [the protagonist’s] persona,” embodied by the sleek leather furniture installed on a platform, adorned with plants in a vase. While what we know about this “anonymous” and “strangely attractive man[‘s]” character is narrated in the wall text, his absence is made present through the empty daybed, forming an oscillation in the space between index and artifact.
Seeing this work specifically as a continuation of Khaled’s recently recurring method of positioning objects as if they are what was left behind by disappeared and exiled protagonists — as in 2017’s “Proposal for a House Museum of an Unknown Crying Man,” for instance — adds a layer of potentiality to it, in its possible allusion to histories of violence, loss, and escape that such previous works encapsulated.
The “description” panel on the dark gray wall performed its own didacticism, obscuring whether the subject of the work is the owner of the daybed, the one who auctioned it, or the person who is peering into their life (the voice of the text that “narrates” it). The acute particularity of language through which Khaled’s work communicates lies some place between proposition and record, between the impulse to invent stories and the stories that invent us. This mode of storytelling refers to a reality that we might only see the scraps of. But knowing this magnitude exists (in the lives of all of the people that this protagonist could be), it cuts deep into the way one engages with unlived and disappeared futures.
As if corresponding to the scenography implied by Khaled’s interior design, on the opposite wall hung Yazan El Zubi’s series of five gradually scaled photographs, “A Call for a Sensitive Ranger” (2019). The images depict pants, plants, and figurines surrounding a posture that appears to mimic a photograph of the singer Dalida. The objects in the photographs parcel together a certain persona within a selection of still images in a seemingly domestic space, as if they were material traces of the “alternate persona” of the “inhabitant”. Through ornament and gesture, the absent space where the persona performs itself surfaces as an object of fascination.
From collective memory and protagonism to the artifacts of persona, aesthetic approaches within the exhibition revealed the inherent aspects of subjecthood that are tied to a personal space or owned property. The relationship between housing and lifestyle identity is made ridiculously apparent within Neil Beloufa’s work “People’s passion, lifestyle beautiful wine, gigantic glass towers, all surrounded by water” (2011). Discreetly installed on a monitor in the office/meeting room of the gallery, the video depicts bourgeois Americans standing in front of luxurious glass condos (the kind favored by real estate developers), talking about the amazing world that such housing provides, along with kitschy transitions in the post-production. The video is the result of a game in which Beloufa asked people to defend their city and their lifestyle, and “they had the choice that if they didn’t believe in it, they could lie, but I just wanted only positive arguments, […] So half of the people were serious, and half not,” he says.
In the spirit of this unseriousness, Beloufa implies a certain inevitability of the neoliberalism that his work reflects. He mentions that this video “had been bought by a Chinese collector because he owned buildings [depicted in it].” The absurdity of knowing this information gives this work more “ironic” value, and is, in a sense, a perfect case study of capitalism eating itself. In Beloufa’s aim to reflect this aspect of society, he is in fact further grounding its supposed inevitability. Although the backstories of clientele and exchange were not made clear in the exhibition (nor with the fact that El Kordy’s work was an unrealized proposal), seeing the show from this perspective casts light on how each contract assumes a different extent of inevitability, unrealizedness, or unlivedness. The backstory that accompanies Mahmoud Khaled’s installation, meanwhile, is an integral part of the work: the text panel tells us that the “daybed has been purchased from a local auction house,” and goes on to relay what little was known of its owner. Here, the site of exhibition is incorporated into the narrative economy of the furniture’s life.
The home as testimony of a possible life and the anticipatory ontology of a promise contest within the work of Helene Kazan, through the drastic tonal shift from value (Beloufa’s inevitability) to threat (the inevitability in Kazan’s work). Kazan’s “Masking Tape Intervention: Lebanon 1989” (2014) is a video installation that was set up in the gallery’s kitchen, depicting a time-lapse of sunlight coming through a window, casting a crosshatch of shadows seemingly from a fence or metal door grating. Upon closer inspection, and through the testimony of the voiceover, the crosshatch is revealed as masking tape that had been placed on the glass by the residents of the house as a means of protection against the possibility of flying shrapnel shattering the glass during bombardment. Along with interviews with family members (some from BBC archives), the film is entirely generated from an individual archival image of the flat where Kazan’s family lived, only months before their migration in 1989. The work operates on several levels while maintaining a very nuanced simplicity. It is not simply a record of a particular method of protecting glass, it is a record of the potentiality of violence as it is witnessed in the singularity of this act. Not romanticizing the tradition of this phenomenon, but questioning how a potentiality can be witnessed within a record of itself.
“I started to think of photography itself, much like using tape on windows to stop glass shattering, as a small-scale action that takes place in the home in order to protect it and those within its architecture, but which somehow induces that future threat into the present … the act of taking the photograph induced the moment of departure into the present,” Kazan says in an interview with Hyperallergic.
The question of potentiality becomes an anchor positioned between the different works in the show. The speculative potential of the propositional offer (or of the inevitability assumed by Beloufa) as it manifests archaeologically in traces and records, questions the locatability of lived and unlived experience. As this propositional impulse is embodied in the act of modelling a space (as in El Kordy’s abstract diagrams), it accentuates the role of design within the act of responding to a potential future within the present moment (as in Kazan’s masking tape). It situates the agentive act of design within the ominous crevice between comfort and protection, between necessity and improvement, plan and persona.
This excavation of possibility and potentiality is also greatly present in the way that Alsharif puts into motion a way of imagining “that moves us beyond Palestine, that tries to consider Palestine as part of a larger human problem, a microcosm, a way of looking at other pasts, of considering different futures … attempting to create a voluntary collective memory that … gives us the agency to move forward,” as she explains here.
While the curatorial statement refers to a shapeshifting architecture, I see in this a shapeshifting subject tied to personal architecture. From the autobiographical to the protagonistic, and from the collective to the unindividuated, violent abstractions are embedded in the intimacy of habitative place-making. Morphing from the absence in an unrealized commission, to the absence of empty ruins or furniture, a space is modeled for potentiality to reside. My writing within the space between/through the different works is a response to the type of positionality offered by the curatorial design of the show, positioning us to imagine a possible world where the daybed and taped kitchen window all furnish the same house, not as a composed singular entity, but as a space “mutating into a multi-limbed creature that can’t handle its own elements”.
This “multi-limbed creature” is quoted from Adl’s text “The House Has A Condition,” which she wrote during the Ashkal Alwan HomeWorks Program in 2016-17. Having personally read this text around that time, it is refreshing to see how her own personal concerns and imaginative constructs have been persistent in the way they manifested curatorially within this exhibition. The show offered a view into her curatorial style as a proposition for this city, exploring the implications of the dominant questions in her work in relation to Cairo, where intimate spaces become a necessary replacement for a murdered dream of publicness. It provides an exciting impulse, one that maybe wasn’t fulfilled in its entirety through this exhibition, but might nonetheless be part of a journey that her curatorial practice fleshes out in the future.