ARTFORUM / CATHRYN DRAKE
ARTFORUM / CATHRYN DRAKE, September 2008
BASIM MAGDY: TOWNHOUSE GALLERY
By Cathryn Drake
For the exhibition “On a Better Day Than This,” Egyptian artist Basim Magdy assembled more than thirty drawings and paintings produced over the past six years, along with two sculptures and a site-specific mural. Alternating between humorous and ominous, the small images—rendered variously in graffiti-style spray paint, gouache, and collage, among others—were hung in groups to resemble cryptic comic-strip narratives. The simplistic style and acid colors of the pictures, at once bold and opaque, were meant to both parody and underline the absurd messages of mass media.
The scenes bear acerbic titles such as Real Men, 2003, with spray-painted Day-Glo silhouettes of young soldiers slinging machine guns that convey a sense of psychedelic alarm and pop irony. Unsafe World, 2003, hints sarcastically at our perilously mediated distance from reality when a soldier—aiming his gun at the viewer—observes in tragicomic understatement, “Hmmm, I think the world is not that safe of a place anymore!”
Magdy uses confusion to clarify, juxtaposing the ridiculous with the everyday and the normal with science fiction to make us question which is which. Even the innocent can become villainous, as in Blame the Babies, 2007, where the scapegoat is cute and fuzzy: IT WAS ALL THE WORK OF BABY ALBINO DEVILS. In Boxer, 2005, a windup character in black silhouette spars senselessly with a punching bag; a giant hook hanging in the background lends a tone of slapstick, while the virulent orange background screams emergency. Without Me You Are Not Real, 2008, shows a television screen stenciled with a text that sums it all up: ANY SERIES OF FICTIONAL EVENTS CAN BE MAGICALLY PROJECTED ONTO A BLANK SCREEN TO BECOME PART OF OUR REALITY. The work suggests that humor is our best weapon and blind faith our only guide—except when they are used as a form of control.
Magdy pokes fun at the irrational fears and illogical assumptions engendered by the media, which promote collective hysteria over the presence of some universal “terror”—perpetrated by anonymous but probably Arabic-speaking masked figures. Here, the nameless threat is embodied instead by the hairy flea of Expanding the Universe, 2008, whose grotesque black form is emblazoned: I KNOW THE SHAPE OF THE UNIVERSE. Of course, by satirizing the mechanisms of the media, Magdy also mimics them, risking a brand of banal mockery bordering on nothing-new irrelevance. But in the context of Egypt, a dictatorship whose suppression of the media has recently been stepped up to include torture and imprisonment of journalists, activist bloggers, and even Facebook users, the exhibition’s theme is terrifyingly pertinent.
The sculpture A Great Day for Birds of Prey, 2007, models the earth as a ripe, luxuriant fruit split in half—as sensuous as Gustave Courbet’s Origin of the World—exposing a radiant yellow interior whose terrain is being explored by tiny plastic figurines as if on holiday. The title suggests that the frolicking inhabitants demise, that of being devoured by looming predators. Nearby, the amorphous white sculpture The New World, 2008, represents the future doom of that verdant earth in the form of a new ice age.
But the real punch line is the giant wall mural You Rule, 2008, which depicts a blindfolded figure balancing precariously on a tightrope on top of a contraption that offers the choice of either slow descent by ladder or rapid slide into a void of icy white and blues. Magdy’s portrayal of the human condition implies that rationality is futile and perhaps the best approach in the face of inexorable apocalypse is to jump blindly into the abyss, enjoying the voluptuous chaos on the way down.