DROSTE EFFECT / GOWRI BALASEGARAM 2015
Basim Magdy: The Many Colours of the Sky Radiate Forgetfulness
February 3, 2015
Diogenes of Sinope, the Greek philosopher, was one of the founders of the Cynic philosophy. An irascible yet formidable character, Diogenes displayed his disdain of Athenian convention by living a spartan lifestyle and begging for a living. Known for his incisive epithets and spiny repartees, (which he did not spare in his derision of Plato) Diogenes was also the master of idiosyncratic practices, one of which notoriously included walking around the city at daytime with a lamp in search of an honest man.
In his film My Father Looks for An Honest City, 2010, Basim Magdy, the Egyptian-born artist, re-enacted Diogenes’ search for an ‘honest man’ by filming his father wondering through an urban desert-scape, flashlight in hand. Magdy’s film, like Diogenes’ act, shuttles back and forth between hope and disappointment, optimism for the future and the hard reality of the past – the repetition and perseverance of the act only highlighting the sense of the absurd and the futile. In Magdy’s film, confusion and ambiguity reign: the city appears to exist in a flux between construction and destruction, calling to mind corrupt governments and bloated, inefficient bureaucracies; the sound of rain on the audio contrasts with the lurid sunshine that drenches Magdy’s father in his hapless search. These are themes that proliferate his work, as is Magdy’s fascination with the inexorable passing of time, and the relationship between the past, present and future.
In his first solo exhibition at Cecilia Brunson Projects, Magdy returns to the theme of the future, conflating hopeful visions of utopia with the forgotten mistakes of the past. The exhibition also marks Magdy’s first UK solo show, which is timely considering the artist’s recent career trajectory – in 2014 he won the Abraaj Art Prize, Dubai, The New:Vision Award at the Copenhagen Film Festival and participated in flurry of international exhibitions.
On show at Cecilia Brunson Projects are recent works: The Many colours of the Sky Radiate Forgetfulness, 2014, (a super 16 film transferred into Full HD); an 80-slide piece, wall projection Investigating the Colour Spectrum of a Post-Apocalyptic Future Landscape, 2013; and a suite of photographs A World Within a World Within a World, Within a Green Coral Wall and A World Within a World Within a World Within an Orange Coral Wall abstractions of walls in a city built from coral. Restricted by space, the gallery has maintained a focused selection to recent works on the thematic of science, science fiction, and natural phenomena. The works demonstrate the protean nature of Magdy’s work, elucidate his experimentation with different media and techniques, as well as hint at new directions, setting useful context for audiences new to Magdy’s work. It also whets the appetite for a future display, one which would include his earlier works on paper and illuminate the development of his extensive ruminations on the concept of the future.
In The Many colours of the Sky Radiate Forgetfulness, the soft, seductive grain of super-16 conjures up a verdant ecosystem which appears to flit uncomfortably between utopian and dystopian fantasies. Hues of strident, kaleidoscopic colour permeate Magdy’s imagined world, the results of the artist’s experimentations with a ‘pickling’ technique in which the film is exposed to household chemicals. Also present is a dazzling kaleidoscopic spectrum of colours and blurred imagery – the effects of layering images on top another – as well as other deliberate and chance wear and tear on the film acquired through the production process. Together they evince the physicality of the medium and lend a sense of texture and tactility, as well as remind us of the medium’s obsolescence.
Like most of Magdy’s films, time and place is indeterminate, leaving us to project our own perceptions onto these and other deliberate gaps. The film opens with a bleached yellow screen, which flickers to red, before revealing a cropped visage of a monument. This image is supplanted by a volley of white text spilling out onto a black frame, as if written in real time, and relates a conversation about a devil throwing up waterfalls. What follows is a compendium of images interwoven with text: lizards, taxidermied bears, a hand stroking an animal skin, rich, verdant forests, and a monument to the war dead.
Magdy’s use of text in the film manifests as different threads of narrative which exist without beginning or end. Reappearing throughout, they link back and forth both, blurring the concept of time within the film, accumulating meaning as the film progresses – its effect not dissimilar to the way audio and visual appear at times to be operating almost asynchronically. The nonconcrete, shifting nature of narrative in Magdy’s film can be compared to memory itself, and its imprecise nature as a web of images and associations where nothing is graspable.
Frequently enigmatic, sometimes absurd, and at times poetic, Magdy’s text, has the impression of containing a deep meaning or conundrum, inveigling the viewer into the film. The indeterminate personality of his voiceless narrator suggests a collision of the wisdom of the old with the naive imagination of the very young, and demonstrates the many different ways in which Magdy plays ambiguity and confusion in his ode to obsolescence and memory. With wry cynicism, we are told at the end of the film that it’s better that we forget the mistakes of our past.
The consequences of our deliberate forgetting, however, are suggested in the ravaged terrain of Investigating the Colour Spectrum of a Post-Apocalyptic Future Landscape. Stark imagery of a people-less world bring to mind the arid landscapes invoked in Planet of the Apes and other futuristic films of the past and conveys the future of a world already set in future, recorded by a medium of the past. Magdy’s pickling technique is fully exploited in these slides, making for vivid, arresting imagery that is further enhanced by the compositional elegance of the image. The colours created by the pickling add a layer of separation and hence augment the credibility of this destroyed world, each colour tone lending their own sense of pathos.
Two photographs of natural coral systems extracted from the sea and constructed into the built environment appear to be a magnification of this post-apocalyptic world. Although the title of the work conveys we are looking at coral (Magdy’s titles both edify as well as obfuscate) – itself a dying material – we are unsure as to whether the searing reds and deep viridian colours suggest the possibility of regeneration or utter annihilation.
Thematically, the works exhibited suggest a more urgent and poignant emphasis than Magdy’s earlier works. There is a more serious undertone to the work – Magdy appears to be shaking his head at a world riddled with social and political turmoil, his cynicism of a bright, utopian future tempered with a more subtle nuanced humour.
This apparent pessimism, (‘apparent’ because hope still lurks in Magdy’s work, if only in the rich imagery and our own projected perception that the ambiguity of the work invites), brings to mind another anecdote of Diagones the Cynic, who when asked why he begged alms of a statue replied that he did so only because he wanted to get practice in being refused. Magdy and Diagones, through the trammels of time, both appear to raise their hands in mock despair, the repeated actions and failures of our past, they tell us in defence, is the surest way of predicting the future.
Basim Magdy, The Many Colours of the Sky Radiate Forgetfulness, Cecilia Brunson Projects, London through 27 February 2015