How to Build an Invisible Monument
Interview with Basim Magdy by Jessica Hunter-Larsen, IDEA Curator.
From the catalog published on the occasion of the exhibition which took place at Coburn Gallery, Colorado College, Colorado Springs in 2013.
Jessica Hunter-Larsen: You’ve spoken previously about how your work is intentionally confusing or ambiguous. What response from the viewer do you feel you achieve through ambiguity?
Basim Magdy: My interest in ambiguity, confusion and absurdity as tools of communication comes from personal moments of enlightenment and revelation produced by them. The first time I watched a David Lynch movie, or heard a Bob Dylan song, or read a book about the incomprehensible structure that is the universe or even found myself in a place or situation that defied my expectations. There is a certain poetic quality to ambiguity that lingers and, like an organic entity, keeps growing and multiplying until it reaches a point where it can’t grow anymore. This is the point where either you get what the work is about or you just let it go. Both possibilities produce satisfaction. I try to introduce the viewers to this journey. If someone wakes up the morning after they see my work and still finds it intriguing, I’d be more than satisfied.
JHL: Contemporary culture, and particularly American culture, has a very difficult time with ambiguity; we prefer black-and-white distinctions and clear answers. Contemporary art can be challenging for American audiences, as oftentimes viewers are confronted with situations that are not immediately comprehensible. Yet it is only by allowing ourselves to be confused, to acknowledge that we do not know something, that we are able to learn.
BM: I totally agree that confusion is the first step to learning, but I think that the main reason behind the gap between contemporary art and audiences in any culture is the expectations on both ends. The first time I saw a rock and mineral collection at a natural history museum, I was fascinated. I wanted to learn more, and eventually I started putting together my own small collection. That day, I’m sure I saw a lot of other things that I wasn’t interested in. I think it’s as simple as this, if something intrigues you enough – be it contemporary art or a collection of stamps, you become more interested and you try to acquire introductory knowledge about it. Then, maybe, at a later stage you decide to know more. Some people believe art is some sort of high culture and others think it should be accessible for everyone. I don’t think it should be inaccessible and at the same time, nothing is accessible to everyone.
JHL: Your installations have been described as theatrical –the objects, images, and sounds are clearly arranged with a directorial eye to imply a narrative. The narrative remains elusive. How do you see the relationship between theater and installation art?
BM: Surprisingly, I only realized how my work was concerned with looking at narrative structures 4 years ago when I started working with film. When I created installations like In the Grave of Intergalactic Utopia or Mud Pools and How We Got Ourselves to Look for Bigfoot Heaven, I was more interested in creating a kind of treasure hunt for the audience to find clues and missing pieces. My intention was to mix historical and scientific references with humor and unexpectedness to reach a potential questioning of the things we don’t tend to question. When I was a teenager, I was fascinated by the theater work of Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco and I think their work still influences mine to some degree, but I never intended for my work to be directly connected to theater, although I find this connection quite flattering.
JHL: So many contemporary artists refuse to title their works, claiming that titles restrict meaning and make the pieces less ambiguous. Your titles clearly play an important role in establishing (and confusing) the narrative. Can you comment on your approach to the titles?
BM: I see titles as one of the many layers that make up any work. I try to distance myself from the work and come up with a title that looks at it from an unexpected angle. When I get an idea, it usually takes some time until I start realizing it. In between, I try to stretch it and add more conceptual layers to it. I want my work to provoke a degree of confusion. I want it to make people ask questions, even if I, or the work, don’t provide answers to them. The person asking the question may find an answer. At the same time I don’t believe the work should be too abstract. The viewer shouldn’t start this process from scratch. There are always clues. To me a title is another layer in every work and one of those clues. But generally speaking, I don’t believe the use of words – either in the title or as incorporated text in the work itself – should explain the work, but rather complement it in challenging ways.
JHL: You work in a wide variety of media: drawing, video, sound, 35mm slides, installation. What is the relationship between the different media? How do your projects in different media inform or build upon each other?
BM: I got my art degree in painting, and for a few years after I graduated I did just that, until it became obvious my work was starting to feel trapped in one medium and I was personally starting to feel bored and limited. Because my art education was very conventional and conservative, I didn’t know much about anything apart from painting, and my knowledge of contemporary art was quite limited. Right after I graduated I managed to raise enough funds for a ticket to New York through sales of paintings I exhibited at the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo. I spent three months there seeing as many shows as I could, to educate myself about contemporary art.
Because of my conventional art education, I still have to educate myself about any new medium I decide to use. This in itself is a very rich process, full of failures and exciting coincidental results. At each juncture, I choose the medium that I feel could succeed in communicating my ideas better than any other, regardless of any previous experience I may or may not have with it. Learning is part of the fun of making art. In the end there are always connections between the ways I use different media. Super 8 and 16mm film, to me, are very related, not just in the sense that they’re made of the same material, but also because the way I use them to construct narratives is similar in many ways. Both of them, along with my work with photography, borrow a sense of composition and structure from my works on paper. The attention I like to give to details when I work with installation is also echoed in the films. Even my use of text is always part of a bigger investigation into the effects of ambiguity and absurdity in constructing a narrative. This, too, is a line that runs through my work with any medium.
JHL: Can you comment on the inspiration for, and creation of, A 240 Second Analysis of Failure and Hopefulness (With Coke, Vinegar and Other Tear Gas Remedies) which uses the now nearly obsolete technology of 35mm slides and projectors? What happens when a formerly essential technology (particularly for the art world) becomes an artifact?
BM: I’ve been working with Super 8 film for about 4 years and during that period I grew interested in the quality of film and how it responds to light, but my interest was mainly focused on playing with light leaks and camera-generated effects. Recently, I came across the online documentation, produced by a small group of lomography enthusiasts, of their experimentation with applying effects directly to the film before putting it in the camera. It started with seeing images produced by a roll of film that was put in the dishwasher for almost an hour. The outcome was magical to say the least: incredible color ranges and stunning effects. I decided to conduct my own experiments.
At the time I was going through a personal struggle with my practice. A few months after the Egyptian revolution, it was obvious the utopia we all imagined after the revolution succeeded was nothing but a dream. Things were a lot more complicated, and contemplating the acceptance of failure while still trying to maintain a certain degree of hopefulness and optimism became a daily routine. My work was stuck somewhere in between all that, and it was difficult to figure out in which direction to move. The idea for this project created a way out for me. Over the course of a few weeks, I took pictures of a demolition site as it transformed into a construction site. I exposed the film to vinegar, soda and other household chemicals that were used widely and successfully for the previous year as tear gas remedies in protests all over Egypt. I used different film brands, each producing a dominant color and effect on the slide when exposed to one or more of the chemicals. The fact that film is dying made me even more enthusiastic about producing this project at this moment in time. I wanted to explore as much as possible of its potential before its impending demise. Eventually film will die, but art projects produced in film, slides, or analog photography will remain as evidence to the generosity and incredible flexibility this medium offered to generations of amateurs and artists alike.
JHL: Humor can be a disruptive force, as it arises when we encounter a gap between what we expect and what we experience. Humor can be used to address “forbidden” topics, such as cultural difference, religion or politics, by (gently) jarring loose preconceived ideas. How does this disruptive function of humor operate in your work?
BM: Humor can also be a very effective entry point when the work discusses heavy subjects like religion and our mortality. My work Last Good Deed (2009) is a double-sided poster. Displayed in two stacks of thousands of posters, each stack presents one of the two sides of the poster. Both sides depict the exact same image: a man’s desperate and seemingly pathetic attempt to tickle heaven. He stands on top of his car as he reaches up with a stick in his hand. At the end of the stick is his chopped other hand.
Each side of the poster offers two versions of the same narrative. One version is open-ended, while the other offers an absurd and unexpected resolution that confuses more than it enlightens by using a natural phenomenon that, due to common culture, is often mistaken for fiction, to trigger an avalanche of questions that mostly have no answers. Visitors are invited to take home a poster or two for free. The idea is to trick people, through the free poster, into a confrontation with their mortality. Here the twisted sense of humor is an essential communication tool. Once you own the poster, your biggest challenge is to decide which version you prefer to see everyday on your wall and how this is going to affect you and the people who surround you.
JHL: Your earlier works engage deliberately humorous elements, including displaced objects, fantastical situations, and visual and verbal puns. Later works, such as My Father Looks for An Honest City and 13 Essential Rules for Understanding the World, engage more subtle elements of irony or absurdity – it takes a while for the humorous element to emerge. Can you describe how your thinking about the value of humor has evolved?
BM: I think I just grew older and my understanding of the world around me became more complex and layered. I think the older you get, the more the world turns into numerous shades of grey. When I was in my early 20s things were more defined. Now I see the subtlety and absurdity in everything that surrounds me, and this is reflected in my work. In my earlier works, humor was often presented in a more obvious in-your-face way. Now I feel that subtle humor that is interlaced in between layers of absurdity and irony is a lot more effective. I think its ability to touch people becomes magnified. The image of my father carrying a flashlight as he treks through a wasteland of failed modernity on a bright day can be more humorously effective than a blatant joke. It’s an image that insists on becoming part of the viewer’s memory, just like the image I created in my head when I first read about Diogenes of Sinope’s philosophical stunt that I asked my father to reenact. The same goes for tulips with faces drawn on their petals and their compilation of numbered rules for understanding the world. The rules are mainly defeatist and cruel and are only interrupted by scenes of repetitive futile acts. The element of displacement and unexpectedness in the juxtaposition of the subject matter and the tulips acts as a vehicle that carries the other conceptual layers of the work, and I believe this can be more successful than a straightforward approach. Like the title of the show “How to Build an Invisible Monument” these absurd and slightly humorous gestures are icons of accepted failure and the futility of fate.
JHL: It seems as though the works have become more personal, and perhaps the use of humor necessarily becomes more nuanced as a result.
BM: For a very long time, I deliberately tried to not make personal work, but as I turned 33 big changes were happening in my personal life. I became a father for the first time, and at the same time I was starting to feel the power of the passing of time on me physically and emotionally. I became more concerned with time as a visual pattern of memories, accomplishments, failures or even simple daily routine, and how I as a person became more aware of my father’s influence on my life. It felt like time functioned in cycles, inescapable and incomprehensible. Consequently these concerns started finding their way into my work as the work itself became more personal, ambiguous and poetic. I decided to let this happen as long as the work does not become about me or become full of itself, but this called for a more subtle humor and sometimes even a dark one.
JHL: Can you describe your current interests?
BM: My interests keep changing as my work develops and evolves into new entities and in new directions, but I can safely say that my main interest is things I find myself baffled by, things that make me question what I know and make me wonder how much is left to be known. I constantly find myself fascinated by the unfathomable as well as the undefined space between reality and fiction. It’s the space where most of history is made. This is where anything ranging from a structured set of geometrical-like events can become the subject of devout belief or can turn into a soon to be debunked scientific theory.
JHL: Your essay, Walk Like an Egyptian, addresses the narrow lens through which contemporary artists from the Middle East are often exhibited and marketed. Can you comment on how you have approached this bias in your career?
I have simply made a point of refusing to take part in any exhibitions that are put together based on the nationality or geographical background of the artists in it. Shows that claim to present art from a specific part of the world to an international audience who is oblivious to the social, cultural and historical complexity of this place, end up becoming nothing but exotic spectacles. Unfortunately such shows get ample funding in the name of a very superstitious dialogue of cultures. I personally don’t believe cultures should speak to one another, they should simply tolerate and accept each other’s existence within their own particular contexts. Cultures are the outcome of many specific historical and geographical circumstances that don’t repeat or reenact themselves elsewhere. For me the bottom line is, it is impossible to expect any international audience to see anything in my work beyond it being made by an Egyptian artist, as long as I accept to present it to this audience in this particular context. I’m very proud of where I’m from, but the last thing I feel that I have to do is to justify anything to anyone through my work. The only thing my work should represent is the ideas that I choose to communicate to all audiences.
 Lomography: Photography using experimental techniques with analog film.