BY FAWZ KABRA
A Steady Progress of Nothingness, Basim Magdy's most recent solo exhibition, opened on 4th April 2013 at Newman Popiashvili Gallery in New York. The space, transformed into a black box, contained an assemblage of three separate works that operate in concert, bouncing information from one to the other. A video projection, a small painting and two synchronized slide projectors oscillate between fiction and the reality of Egypt's new building developments and transformations. A soundtrack (meant for the video) washes the room with the sound of rain, creating a hollow tenor in the darkened space.
Grouped under the meta-narrative of a progress that never ends, the three distinct works on show take part in a dialogue that counters rationalisation. The individual elements are clear – they belong to the world: demolished sites, roads, skeletons of buildings, stray dogs and construction workers. Yet, each rational element exists in an irrational world when viewed through Magdy's lens. Here, the artist pursues an irrationality to the cycle of demolition and (re)construction. Highlighting the vague processes of transformation, the works portray a refusal to retain a convincing purpose.
In the video projection My Father Looks for an Honest City (2010), a desolate construction site in a sandy area is home to a clan of stray dogs that rummage through the detritus. A man – Magdy's father – carries a flashlight and walks through the dusty, sun-bleached construction zone. Walking in the daytime with a flashlight references Diogenes of Sinope, a Greek philosopher who maintained a simple lifestyle and found corruption in society and the institutions it built. He believed that ethics came through one's actions rather than theories. Diogenes is known for walking with a lantern in the daytime, searching for an honest man. In Magdy's work, the protagonist also shines his light during the day – it barely produces a significant beam – onto the elements around him: a dried up tree with barren branches and a bush of desert vegetation are amongst his findings. Shots of an outdoor electricity closet, a fake palm tree and the vacant construction site flip between Magdy's father and the landscape that contains no apparent honesty. The five-minute video ends and loops back again, continuously. This recurring episode of a father seeking an honest city amongst the ruins of demolished buildings and the skeletons of new ones never reveals a promising end.
The underlying tone of uncertainty and doubt continues in A 240 Second Analysis of Failure and Hopefulness (with Coke, Vinegar and other Tear Gas Remedies) (2012). In this series of slides, Magdy uses 165 transparencies and two synchronized projectors to present artifacts that further expose other relics: nostalgically-hued images (think Instagram filters) of heavy construction machinery, cranes, demolitions and construction workers. Magdy doused the slides in home remedies for tear gas such as Coca Cola and vinegar. The results are distant and dreamy images enveloped in hazy greens, cyans, pinks and violets of a demolition site and its reconstruction into a new building development. The slides overlap slightly when projected onto the wall, creating new hues at their intersections. It is a moment where a third realm brings pause between destruction and reconstruction. The wearisome turning of the slide carousels harmoniously illuminates these images, which at first seem sentimental. But they are only documents to the endless process of building and demolishing in a post-Egyptian revolution town.
The small canvas installed facing the slide projection refers back to Magdy's beginnings as a painter he describes as 'fragments of scenarios that could become films'. In The Newly Discovered Gene Carried Racist Connotations (2012), two men in checkered robes and scientist-looking caps stand on either end of a skull that is held by a strange hand. The painting is Magdy's visual representation of the absurd. It maintains the search for that which has not been revealed. A painting assembles a constellation of bewildering components: a skull, a hand and two clownish scientists. It invokes Magdy's concept of a 'steady progress of nothingness', where human achievement perseveres amongst the continual failures of the ages.
Magdy's representations of how he sees the absurdity of the world begin to surface with the awareness of the purpose – or lack thereof – of each work. This cynical, Diogenic outlook assumes a defeatist stance. The work however, does not attempt to resolve this assumed decrepit nature of the world. Magdy's aim here is to shine the light towards the doubt, ruins, and aimless (re)constructions – their fate is in a continuum of demolition and restructuring. It is in his use of film where the importance of process can be found. Magdy's insistence on the manipulation of this waning medium seeks to maximise its potential before it disappears. Perhaps this measure and the determination to resuscitate a fading medium, follows Magdy's notions of progress that leads nowhere. It is an action of revival that circulates in an endless process of building and demolishing. The search for somewhere in between that might provide pause before another disappearance occurs.
Basim Magdy, A Steady Progress of Nothingness, will be showing at Newman Popiashvili to 11th May 2013. See www.npgallery.com for more information.