MODERN PAINTERS / STEPHANIE BAILEY 2014
Egyptian Artist Basim Magdy Grapples With the Future
January 21, 2014
From slide projections, such as Investigating the Color Spectrum of a Post- Apocalyptic Future Landscape, 2013, to an ongoing series of captioned images, Every Subtle Gesture, reflecting on political revolution as a web of confusion, what ties Egyptian artist Basim Magdy’s work together is narrative. “But it’s important to make a distinction between a narrative and a story here, because a story has a beginning and an end,” he notes. “In my work, there is no such thing.”
Nor is there much certainty in the tales Magdy weaves out of our collective formulation of reality, peppered as?it is with gaps, missing links, and unsubstantiated truths. Spray-paint or watercolor works on paper have explored conspiracy theories surrounding the Apollo moon landing (that Stanley Kubrick filmed it on a soundstage); past installations have characterized Bigfoot as the product of peoples’ desire to understand how humans evolved from apes. With subtle humor, Magdy challenges our perceptions of who we are, where we come from, and where we are going. But there is also a futility to the artist’s practice, given his oft-expressed opinion that the world will never change. The characteristically bright, fluorescent colors he employs may temper this pessimism, but there is no escaping Magdy’s nihilism.
Much of the artist’s work conjures dystopias removed from an easily pinpointed time and place. His pieces are executed with a compositional elegance, a testament to his roots in painting (he trained at Helwan University in Cairo) and an approach to the frame as a space in which worlds removed from any exterior context might be constructed. “The idea?is to create strange affiliations between architectural structures, objects, landscapes, and things that feel both familiar and unfamiliar,” he says, “so that you might look at images differently and in a nonlogical way.” His juxtapositions can be harsh—in the film 13 Essential Rules for Understanding the World, 2011, soft super-8 images of decorated tulips are paired with a voice-over intoning the cold, hard facts of life: “Never forget?there are almost 7 billion other people here. You don’t matter. Really, no one cares!”
That theme—our universal insignificance—is also reflected in?a 2009 super-8 film, Turtles All the Way Down, whose ambitious subject is the?“100 billion individual stars within?our galaxy” and the roughly “50 billion galaxies in the universe.” Reflecting?on how little we know about our expanding cosmos, Magdy asks in the voice-over: “How can one map a moving terrain?”?The question’s impossibility is expressed in a story told at the start of the film, adapted from an anecdote in Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. A philosopher-scientist presents a lecture?on how the earth orbits the sun as?the sun orbits the center of our galaxy?and is interrupted by an old woman?who refutes the idea with her own: the world is a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise. When asked what this tortoise is standing on, she replies: “...it’s turtles, all the way down.”
This invokes a key notion in Magdy’s practice: the landscape as an unfolding temporal and spatial narrative plane in which the past, present, and future interweave, one that, like the universe, is expansive, unknowable, and ultimately unmappable. Magdy also reflects on time as an unstoppable, material process: For example, in The Moment You Realize Eternity Is a One-Way Track, 2010, a drawing of a skull emerging from a landscape.
Basim Magdy, "Crystal Ball," 2013, Double Super 8 transferred to HD video [Courtesy Hunt Kastner, Prague and Gypsum Gallery, Cairo]
Magdy’s most recent fixation is with what can and can’t be known of the future. Crystal Ball, 2013, a collection of seemingly unrelated images—a dinosaur, a field of sheep, half-built high-rises—expresses Magdy’s view that “the future will be exactly like the past and present.” The bright colors are gone (the film?was shot in black-and-white double super-8; a cracked camera lens lends the?picture a white haze). The soundtrack is incongruent with the images projected: We hear a range of sonar beeps, the sort submarines emit so “they can ‘see’ the invisible ahead of them,” Magdy says. For him, these noises are reminiscent of our own attempts to see what’s next, in that the future is nothing more than an idea—or feeling of anticipation—that rarely corresponds to the reality once it arrives.
The disjunction between reality and?its projections, then, lies at the core of Magdy’s work, which suggests the world?is a never-ending story of repetition. Perhaps the point and provocation is the question of how this certainty makes?us feel. Consider here another super-8 work, A Film About the Way Things Are, 2010, which marked a turning point for?the artist, in which he began consciously employing poetry and ambiguity so he could “get the work to become emotional.” Perhaps here lies the optimistic edge to an admittedly harsh body of work—after all, when we are moved, we might be compelled to change the world’s narrative.