ARTFORUM / NICK STILLMAN, November 2006
BASIM MAGDY: NEWMAN POPIASHVILI GALLERY
By Nick Stillman
In an obtuse tribute saturated with irony, Russian novelist Victor Pelevin dedicated his 1992 novella Omon Ra to the “Heroes of the Soviet Cosmos.” It was, after all, the Soviet Union that launched Yuri Gagarin into space in April 1961, trumping America’s Alan Shepard by nearly a month. But despite the USSR’s pioneering legacy, America grandly upstaged it by landing men on the moon in 1969, making eternal heroes of the Armstrong-Aldrin duo and a trivia question of Gagarin. In Pelevin’s sci-fi satire of the Soviets’ insufficient technology and unrelenting ambition during the Space Race, cosmonaut-hero Omon Krizomazov is asked by his aviation school to accept a one-way suicide mission to the moon. Without quite realizing as much, Omon nonetheless remains on terra firma.
A pathetic astronaut also figures as the protagonist in Basim Magdy’s installation In the Grave of Intergalactic Utopia, 2006. A drywall chamber built within the gallery contains most of the action, though our initial confrontation is with two stacked bales of hay placed just outside it. These emit a pastoral, homely, utterly earthly odor. Passing through the cube-within-a-cube’s ragged hole-in-the-wall entrance, one discovers a slightly smaller than life-size astronaut mannequin imprisoned in what looks like a chicken coop, slumped against a wall, with peanut shells scattered in his lap. A doggie pail contains a scant supply of water sullied by hay and filth. The red light of a surveillance camera blinks drowsily. The captive has become an animal in a zoo, something to gawk at. A video of grazing sheep taunts the astral aspirant with an undeniable fact: Like the pictured herd, he remains earthbound.
The identity of the figure’s captors is ambiguous, though clues from several works on paper suggest, alternately, simian thugs and menacing, red-eyed creatures packing heat. Victory is Mine, 2005, shows a chimpanzeelike beast in shorts and shirtsleeves lofting a big fish; Unexpected Olympic Winner, 2005, features a helmeted figure, which could be either human or ape, sporting a baby pink shag. Some of Magdy’s two-dimensional work is made using stencils and spray paint, graffiti-art style, to create silhouettelike shapes. His carnivalesque—often fluorescent—palette and casual figuration smacks of Chris Johanson, while his taste for the zoological and the anthropomorphic Having the characteristics of a human being. For example, an anthropomorphic robot has a head, arms and legs. echoes an ongoing trend among contemporary artists like Marcel Dzama and Ashley Macomber.
Magdy, who is based in Cairo, has written on Western curators’ preference for contemporary Egyptian art that deals specifically with sociopolitical issues, implying that this perceived fetish mimics the sensationalism sensationalism, in philosophy, the theory that there are no innate ideas and that knowledge is derived solely from the sense data of experience. The idea was discussed by Greek philosophers and is shown variously in the works of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, George with which Third World nations—notably Arab ones—are portrayed in the Western media. Madgy ensures that his iconography thwarts these expectations. By stuffing an astronaut into a coop or picturing militants lurking behind a suburban fence, he introduces ambiguity and absurdity to the imaging of idols and villains.
It’s tempting, then, to assume that Magdy’s overheated color, hints at cultural critique, and general air of unrest are calculated simulacra of an archetypical exhibition by a young contemporary Western artist, a coy subversion of the expectation that an Egyptian artist’s work should traffic in, say, oil politics or Arab identity issues. By locating his characters in absurd or incongruous situations, Magdy attempts a deconstruction of the way in which the media simplifies and decontextualizes imagery to the point of near-unintelligibility. But by hinging his critical stance on an aesthetic with escapist connotations, Magdy paradoxically invites premature dismissal as just another young fantasist.