October 2007, appeared in In the Arab World… Now, ed. Jerome Sans. Published by Galerie Enrico Navarra.
Audrey Mascina : Your work is peopled with heroic icons like Superman, E.T, astronauts why did you decide to set them as the key figures of your artistic world ?
Basim Magdy : I’m very interested in the space between reality and fiction and how it is systematically filled up by media-distributed knowledge. Astronauts are a symbol of the only modern achievement that is globally perceived as a source of human intelligence and prevalence. The first moon landing was witnessed by millions all over the world on TV screens. On the other hand a conspiracy theory proposes, with what its supporters claim is evidence, that what millions believe is man’s most glorious moment in history is nothing but a staged act that took place on earth, and that it was nothing but a political manoeuvre to give the United States the lead in the space race at the time.
Every year on the 6th of October Egyptian TV plays patriotic songs to commemorate the Egyptian Army’s victory in the 1973 war. For years I believed the grainy black and white footage of fighter jets taking off and soldiers crossing the Suez Canal that accompanied these songs was authentic. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I realized that most of this footage was created for movies that were made a few years after the war ended. The first air strike and the Egyptian Army’s crossing of the Suez Canal were not documented properly because the element of surprise was critical for this attack.
The possibility of delusion and the use of fiction to create a reality that eventually becomes historical fact is what I’m mostly interested in. My intention is not to investigate the authenticity of events, but rather, how we tend to affiliate certain fictional imagery with reality. Fictional characters like Superman or E.T. have gradually become part of a global culture. Surprisingly, most people are more familiar with these fictional characters than they are with the names of their countries’ previous rulers. By presenting those characters and events in unfamiliar contexts I try to trick the viewers and play with their expectations. We are constantly being tricked by the media and prevailing culture into believing things that in a logical world wouldn’t make sense at all. .
A.M.: Is that why your drive those familiar heroes in absurd situations ?
B.M.: I like to use absurdity as a tool to propose a different understanding of power structures and expose the authoritative practices implemented by the media. Absurdity perplexes a lot of people. I think we tend to think more about the things we don’t understand, because they challenge us, than the things we do. This, for me is where confusion could become the means of subversion. I try to approach absurdity with varied amounts of sarcasm and humor that pave the way for confusion. The media’s strategies for defining good and evil, and outlining a vision for its targeted audiences of what is to be feared, are systematic and organized. Surprisingly, the outcome is usually absurd. Such absurdity is rarely noticed on a collective scale due to the credibility that the media has acquired over the years as the ultimate source of information. I believe that questioning the image of authority, power and heroism that is presented by the media and deliberately creating confusion about the roles of its icons could lead to a better understanding of the idea that any mass media representation is an inaccurate and usually a biased interpretation of reality. My strategy is always to propose an unexpected situation that is not just the opposite of what is expected.
It’s also important for the work not to be too absurd to avoid it becoming completely abstract. While I’m building installations, I really like to talk to people and ask them for what they think: is this funny enough? Is this absurd enough? Is this too absurd? Does this make sense to you in any way? What would you put add to it? How would you make this absurd situation more believable?
A.M.: Where does your obsession with absurdity come from?
B.M.: when I was a teenager I was introduced to the work of Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco and Jean Paul Sartre. I feel that my readings during that period indirectly influenced my personality and the work I’m making now. It became obvious to me that absurdity is a powerful tool that changed my way of thinking about many things.
The first time I watched a David Lynch movie I woke up in the middle of the night trying to make sense of it. This is what I’m trying to accomplish; to create work that offers many possibilities and leaves enough space for the viewers’ intelligence to interpret and put together the pieces of the puzzle that the work offers.
A.M.: Isn’t there a form of disenchantment in your work ?
B.M.:There is irony and sarcasm but I always try to neutralize or maybe add up on that with some humor whenever possible. Maybe I’m more interested in issues that are not particularly pleasant, but I have to say that my favourite reaction to the work I make is when people look at it and smile or laugh.
A.M.: The theory of evolution is widely represented in your visual vocabulary and the Gorilla often takes the shape of a human, what do they stand for in your process ?
B.M.: The theory of evolution is another example of what lies between reality and fiction. It is the – still – disputed and controversial history of mankind. Again, I’m not interested in defending or dismissing the theory. I’m interested in the mystery and confusion that surround it, maybe more specifically in a “missing link”. I want to build on top of the idea that man is the product of a monkey’s evolution and take it to unfamiliar areas where gorilla-human hybrid creatures rule a structured universe. There are a lot of mysteries and gaps in the history of human evolution like the unexplainable extinction of the Neanderthals. I would like to propose different alternative directions that this monkey – human evolution could have taken in terms of physical appearance and behavior, and to explore the products and consequences of this assumption. I think the modern day Bigfoot is an obvious example of how we long for a connection with our ancestors in the Animal Kingdom. When I showed Gazing at the Miracle of Civilization for the first time, a lot of people asked if they could be photographed next to the Human-Gorilla hybrid creature I created for this work. I find it fascinating that some people reacted to this situation the same way they would react to seeing an accomplished human celebrity. How much my work manages to communicate the ideas it discusses and how viewers react to experiencing it is very important to what I do.
A.M.: Can you talk about how you compose installations out of your drawings and the way you actually stage real fiction settings, like a movie maker or theatre director?
B.M.: My installations and drawings deal with the same issues I’m concerned with in an ambiguous manner that tries to intrigue rather than reveal. My installations usually include drawings and photographs among other elements, and also when I exhibit my drawings alone I always present them as drawing installations in different arrangements where light or the lack of it plays an important role to add another layer of confusion to the work.
The starting point for my installations could be an idea that appeared in a previous drawing that I wanted to elaborate on or a short story as was the case with Mud Pools and How We Got Ourselves to Look for Bigfoot Heaven. In any case, for me building an installation is an elaborate process that is structured with details and affiliations between many objects. The idea is to bring together a number of often unrelated realistic-looking elements in a specific context and arrangement to create a nonsensical situation that is believable, ambiguous and unexpected. Constructing such absurd but believable experiences means that sometimes the use of elements like sound, smell, photography, light, drawings, props, costumes, live animals and chance together is critical to communicating my ideas. The work usually includes a lot of collected objects, bought from thrift stores as well as objects that I make myself. I always want my installations to become a memorable experience, where people look for clues and eventually come up with different versions of what the work is trying to communicate to them. I always use materials with distinctive smells like hay and wood chips that are usually affiliated with specific environments to familiarize the viewers with an otherwise unfamiliar situation. In one of my installations I included a radio that was tuned in to a 70s music station and had it playing throughout the duration of the show to propose questions about the time frame of the situation presented in the installation. I’m constantly trying to capture a moment where a large number of possibilities are about to take place and lead the viewers to explore those possibilities.
A.M.: You’ve written a text which is named WALK LIKE AN EGYPTIAN, on the way western curators approach Egyptian artists work, why did you decide to position yourself on that question ?
B.M.: At the time I wrote this text there was a wave of western curators coming to Egypt to select work for inclusion in shows which have a regional/geographical theme and title. My main problem with this kind of shows is that most of the time this way of exhibiting limits the way the artwork is viewed and comprehended to only one context; in this case the “exotic other”. It also eliminates most of the interest in the work itself and the issues it discusses, while viewers who are alien to the discussed theme of the show are directed to view a country or a region through a few artworks that by being shown under a regional title intentionally or unintentionally becomes sole representatives of the art practices in this region. This ends up creating stereotypes of very diverse and rich cultures and art scenes. I’m against participating in such shows but I’m constantly trying to find ways to address this problem. Boycotting alone is not the solution, that’s why for example sometimes I participate in publications that may have a regional theme as long as I have space to express my point of view. Hopefully this will expand the discussion and make more people aware of this ridiculous labelling of Egyptian artists.
My work is intended to be ambiguous and open to different interpretations. It’s about confusing expectations. Showing in such shows where the work is limited to being interpreted only in the “Egyptian” context defies the purpose of my work.
Audrey Mascina is a writer and musician / vocalist in the musical collective Liquid Architecture.