Interview with Rachel Cook
Glasstire, May 2007
Cairo-based Basim Magdy has created two giant installations both inside and outside of Okay Mountain in the most ambitious show to date for this one-year-old artists space.
My first introduction to Magdy’s work was in a group show including his own work that he curated at Triangle Project Space in San Antonio. There he presented, in a small grouping hung salon-style on the wall, drawings that were brightly colored, tongue-in-cheek responses to the state of our world, fitting well with the title of the show, Threat Zone. I enjoyed the drawings’ playfulness, which conveyed their content while seducing me with their color palette and line quality. Also I remember being struck by the show itself: he brought it all in a suitcase and yet it filled an entire warehouse. Magdy seems to have a knack for utilizing space and creating a sense of fullness/completeness that does not overwhelm.
This quality of full space has carried over into his solo project at Okay Mountain, where Magdy transformed the backyard into an outdoor sculpture venue and the interior into a total sensory experience complete with astronauts, Bigfoot , piles of hay and mulch, a camper, a large chicken coop, floodlights, a radio and even a goldfish. I love the combination of items and the idea of doing a show across the globe that utilizes everything including the kitchen sink. After hearing Magdy speak about his work at The University of Texas, I was interested in asking him and Regine Basha, the curator, questions about how they put together the show, and finding out more details about Magdy’s process and the relationship between the drawings and the installation.
RC: How do you see the 2D works in relation to the 3D sculptural installations? Do you see the two relating or not?
BM: I sort of see some of the installations as bringing the drawings to life in a very real, but surreal manner. The drawings and paintings are related to the installations because they deal with the same issues. I’m always trying to present my ideas in an ambiguous manner, with images that intrigue rather than reveal. I see the drawings as fragments lifted from situations in a parallel universe, where things look familiar but function differently and coexist in unexpected arrangements. I’m always trying to capture a moment where a large number of possibilities are about to take place.
The choice of titles for the drawings is critical to my work. Titles like The Devil Is Designed to Survive a Nuclear Explosion or Learning about Geometry at UFO Park add another layer of confusion to what the drawings depict. Sometimes the installations originate in a drawing or a group of drawings. As in the drawings and paintings, I use layering strategies in the installations, but the way they are structured is different from that of the drawings. I try to keep the ambiguity, confusion and humor by incorporating small details and often unrelated objects of daily life, collected (or created) and placed in specific arrangements to make believable a situation that hovers between fiction and absurd reality.
Building an installation is always an evolving process that goes on until only a few hours before the opening of the show. In a way, the work is constantly changing and being rearticulated. In Austin, when I was creating Mud Pools and how we got ourselves to look for Bigfoot Heaven for the first time, I regularly went to thrift stores, army supply stores and sports stores, where I bought things that I wasn’t planning on including in the installation but did include eventually. I consulted the Okay Mountain staff and Regine Basha about ideas I had, and whether they could think of alternatives or take the work in other directions visually or conceptually. It is very important for me to keep this cooperation and consulting relationship going and to always include other people in my thinking process while I’m creating an installation. I want to make sure the work manages to stay intriguing enough to involve the viewers, communicate what it’s about and start a discourse, while still maintaining its absurdity and openness to different interpretations. On the other hand, when I paint or draw it is usually alone in my studio, although this recent project is opening up new collaborative drawing projects with Okay Mountain members.
RC: How do you see current installation work that involves costumes and props?
BM: When I created my first installation, The Decline of Space, at Art Omi in 2004, I stuffed costumes for the first time. I wanted to make three life-size astronauts arranged as if they had encountered a mishap that left them unconscious. The “clumsiness” of the three stuffed astronaut costumes added a layer of humor to the piece that I thought was positive for the work. Most of the props I use are costumes stuffed with hay. In a way, it’s an easy and practical solution, but also it has a lot to do with a costume’s not pretending to be anything more than just a costume: it doesn’t try to imitate reality to the point of perfection. That’s something I like about working with costumes.
In Mud Pools…, my use of the Bigfoot costume was a literal interpretation of the story that is the core of the piece: “That morning a group of scientists were on their way out of the forest after a failed week-long excursion in search of Bigfoot droppings. While hiking separately all over the forest, with their tranquilizer rifles well concealed inside their simulated full Bigfoot costumes, they repeatedly mistook one another for real Bigfoots.” In this case it was important to use a Bigfoot costume for the work to stay coherent.
RC: Could you talk about work that you like and work you dislike or feel is not successful?
BM: I think any successful work of art should be able to communicate the ideas proposed in it, leave any kind of impression that can be remembered and thought over later on, and most importantly start any kind of discourse. I also really like work that respects the viewer’s imagination by leaving enough space for diverse interpretations of the issues discussed in it. I always try to do all that when I’m producing new work. It’s a complicated formula, but I think when the work has embedded humor, the response to it is almost always positive. At the opening at Okay Mountain, I was very happy to see people sitting on tree logs inside the gallery, attentively reading the text on the wall, then getting up to look inside the trailer through its windows as if searching for clues with big smiles on their faces. Most people never forget something that made them smile.
RC: Also could you talk a bit more about the theatrical nature of the work and the use of real functional objects within the work?
BM: I like 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. The real functional objects play different roles in my installation; most of the time, they are there to add believability to a nonsensical situation. I try to use objects that people can relate to — an entry point for the work, in a way. I like the work to be absurd and confusing, but these real elements make the work more communicative through their familiarity as daily objects or through the sense of humor they are charged with. There are always hidden elements in my installations.
When I first presented In the Grave of Intergalactic Utopia at Newman Popiashvili Gallery, I showed it in a different context than I did at Okay Mountain. I built a small room around the chicken coop, giving the gallery visitors little space to move around the piece. I wanted to highlight the sense of imprisonment and humiliation and to always keep a confrontational, limited distance between the viewers and the fallen astronaut. What no one knew was that there was a big piece of cheese hidden in the mouse hole at the bottom of the chicken coop where the astronaut was caged. I don’t know if anyone ever knelt down to look inside the mouse hole, but I hoped for the possibility that at least one person was going to eventually do that and find the piece of cheese. I wonder how that person would have reacted to the find.
So when I remounted the same installation at Okay Mountain, I installed it in the middle of the backyard, surrounded by lots of space, with four strong lights projected on the chicken coop and bales of hay for people to sit on and look at the piece while they talked, ate or drank at the opening. Here, the astronaut’s humiliation and unexpected failure to reach the anticipated glory became a spectacle to be gazed upon and to be entertained by. In this case, I didn’t hide a piece of cheese in the mouse hole. There was enough space for people to kneel and look inside, which made it too easy. The trick would lose its meaning and sense of humor.
In Mud Pools… this strategy of familiarizing viewers with an unexpected situation through real-life details is more evident. I want to lure the viewers into participating in a process that resembles an archaeological dig, one that takes place in a space that is obviously a room, but that has been transformed into a forest environment to highlight the conflict between reality and fiction in the physical space and to pose it as a response to the similar conflict that is evident in the story depicted on the gallery walls. This story is the most critical element of the installation. One has to pay attention to all the details, to constantly look for hidden clues and evidence of the failure and irony that prevail in the work.
The radio in the trailer and the fact that it’s always playing local radio stations is a direct connection to daily reality, but it’s also there to create uncertainty about the time frame where this is all taking place: is this fiction, is it reality, or is it prophecy? The thick layer of woodchips that covers the floor of the gallery creates a strong, moist forest-like smell and a noticeable chill; the sound of footsteps crushing the wood chips, the dim lighting, the dry trees, the remaining ashes in the campfire, the Skamper trailer itself, dominating the space, and the light emitted through its windows all contribute to a theatrical effect that relates to the Theatre of the Absurd of Eugène Ionesco and Samuel Beckett. The decision to create this theatrical effect may not be an intentional one, but somehow it relates to the absurdity of the subject I’m dealing with and the way I deal with it. It’s all really part of the bigger question I’m always concerned with: What makes the absurd believable, and how convincing should fiction be if it is to become part of our reality?
RC: And lastly, do you think about the animation’s soundtrack as being akin to a music video? If not, explain.
BM: In Two Days to Apocalypse, the soundtrack is a functional element that responds to what takes place in the animation, as opposed to a music video where the soundtrack is created first, then somehow the imagery is built around it. Because the animation is not very long and shifts suddenly between almost unrelated scenes, it was important for me to edit a soundtrack that gradually creates anticipation and suspense in the beginning, then shifts to a much faster pace as the animation nears its abrupt end. It was also a tool to link the whole thing together and create a stronger sense of narrative, since spoken or written language was not used to play that role.
RC: Maybe, Regine, you could talk a bit about the process of curating a solo exhibition, because I feel this is very different from constructing a group thematic exhibition.
Regine Basha: Yes, it can be different. I think in almost all the solo projects I’ve worked on here in Texas (Daniel Bozhkov, for instance), my role has been more akin to that of a “producer” than a curator. In effect, you are working closely with the artist on the development of the concept and the selection of work for that particular context. In my case, context is very important. It usually contributes to the reading of the work, to the overall experience, and so a specific engagement with the place, the partners and the players of that place, or the network that comes together as a result of “the production” is very much part of the curatorial process. With Daniel, that process lasted about three years, from conversation, to selection, to mediating with partners, to seeking funding, etc…. I think I tend to work with artists who are open to this as well. I try not to meddle too much, though.
A group exhibition can involve a similar process, if you are working with a number of artists on multiple solo projects simultaneously, for instance. But if you are curating a group exhibition with a thematic logic of some kind, the role might be more akin to that of an editor than a producer. Of course, it’s not so black and white — it always depends on the dynamic between the curator and the artist/artwork, which is changing all the time, depending on personalities and on what’s at stake overall. That is why this kind of work is so exciting — every project is different. I don’t really think there is a standard approach to curating, for better or for worse.
RC: Do you see Basim’s work in relation to your other curatorial projects? I guess what I am really getting at here is how you choose to work with someone. Can you talk a little about some of your recent solo/duo projects and what interested you in working with these artists and their bodies of work?
RB: Well, comparing projects is tricky, because they are all such different artists, with different approaches to their work and different backgrounds, so it would take an entire essay to consider the relationships. I think the reason why I decide to work with any artists has to do with their deep level of commitment to their work, and with the shared understanding that their work is larger than themselves, or their careers. If the work can be a meeting point for many ideas and if it allows multiple entries into meaning through the art itself, than it’s hardly just a solo show.
Basim once asked me, during our studio visit, why my shows are all so different from one another — which kind of surprised me as a question. My answer had to do with wanting to show work that somehow best communicated what it was trying to do — no matter what the media or ideas were. I think it comes down to the fact that I began curating in a public institution early on, and from that point on, the idea that curating was a form of public responsibility set in. It’s not just about my choices — what I like and dislike, for instance — but it’s a responsibility to represent, mediate and interpret what is going on around me in the field at large. Working in a regional art scene like Austin’s has only amplified this, as we are not situated in a global network (yet). It is partially my responsibility as a curator to filter in new work that’s not being seen here and to create more links to enable the Austin art scene to continue to expand. But these are strategies that only make sense if the work speaks to a particular kind of interest already in the air — in other words, they shouldn’t be just strategies.
With Basim, for instance, I saw his work in San Antonio at Triangle Project Space, where he had curated Threat Zone, which I liked very much. Our dialogue carried on, and when I went to Cairo myself for a residency, I did a studio visit and saw more work, which impressed me. At that point, I was invited to do a show at Okay Mountain. As an artist-run collective, Okay Mountain was really into the idea of opening up their space to new ideas and work from abroad, they were already doing a show of Japanese drawings. We don’t see very much work from Cairo or the Middle East, and given Basim’s interest in animation, drawing, narrative forms and lore, I thought he and Okay Mountain should definitely work together, as much of their work reflects the same interests. Alternately, for Basim, Texas has been a great experience, and Austin’s lively culture has become a real source of interest for him, reinforcing his interest in the art scene in the US over that in Europe. I was so warmed by how well everyone got along and how hard everyone worked. As a result, Basim invited the Okay Mountain crew to join him in an exhibition in Mexico City.
This makes me very happy.
Rachel Cook is an independent curator, artist and writer. She is currently based in Houston. She has recently curated shows at Okay Mountain and The Wichita Falls Museum of Art.