Basim Magdy - Confronting the Monster in a Monster Costume

By Regine Basha

As tempting as it is to decipher the title of Basim Magdy’s exhibition, let us instead consider the experiential quality of the new work, both the drawings and film. The drawings – or one could argue they are closer to paintings - explore the intimate relationship between science fiction and the present day. Though Magdy sets a symbolic stage injected with abstract forms that recall the industrialized modern period, the figures are usually enacting a scene remotely familiar to our electronic age. Highly saturated color produces an air of paranoia and toxicity, though no actual events are taking place. The figures are often mundanely demonstrating the use of satellite dishes, surveillance cameras, bio-domes and other devices of hidden power and control of the natural environment. A particular mirrored device, which also resembles the one in the film, seems to be at once both sensory enhancing and sensory depriving; either way, the suggestion of it reminds us that our relationship to technology is rapidly one of biological dependency.

In contrast to the chilling effect of the drawings, the film, Time Laughs Back at You Like a Sunken Ship, offers a kind of portal -through poetry and the senses – but it is not clear where it lead us.  The work seeks but does not arrive, and maintains that level of ambivalence throughout. Though the film’s immersive vignettes into the natural world offer a space for intensive contemplation, they stop short of indulging in the purely meditative state. Through edits and filters, the artist purposefully derails the viewer’s attempt to achieve nirvana, so to speak and introduces images of history, culture and ancient ruin in its place. Instead, narrative arcs seem to form, families of forms seem to coalesce, and visual clues guide in specific directions, but ultimately - more like the logic of a dream or memory itself- the film only refers back to itself. It is as if the artist has endeavored to create not necessarily a film in the traditional sense of the genre, but an alternate space in which to witness time and its collapse into itself.

Central to the film, is an anonymous figure. Much like the characters that appear in his drawings, the figure is more of a proxy for ‘human’. He carries curious perceptual device throughout the natural environment (really the interior of a biodome). The device is meant to operate as a lens through which to view the world ahead, but it also simultaneously traps its user in the past by reflecting all that appears behind him; the inevitable human condition of never being able to really see the present moment perhaps? The character is hapless, like an innocent who may never know that he is the victim of his own illusions. In regards to the exhibition title, is Time here ‘the monster’  referred to in the title of the show ?

One is reminded of Walter Benjamin’s writing on Paul Klee’s painting ‘Angel of History’ (Angelus Novus)[1] “A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

The great equalizer of the film and perhaps even a character in and of itself, is the sound. I would not even refer to it as a soundtrack, because it is clear that the sound is not in service of the images, but a parallel quasi-narrative device, much like the mask the figure wears. Closest to modernist music, it constructs a purposeful driving force that insinuates itself into the images in a way that is again neither hopeful, nor disturbing – but something just beyond our understanding as a sensation. Like a hovering specter, it creates a decidedly animistic quality to everything, be it natural or unnatural. Finding ‘aliveness’ in the present moment, despite the fascistic power of time and the crushing weight of history, could very well be what the artist hopes to call our attention to.

[1] Walter Benjamin 1940 work, "On the Concept of History," Gesammelte Schriften I, 691-704.