SANAT DÜNYAMIZ / ELIF KAMISLI 2017
By Elif Kamisli
I looked and looked but I didn’t see God.
Yuri Gagarin, 1961
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me. If you refuse to let them go, I will send a plague of frogs on your whole country. The Nile will teem with frogs. They will come up into your palace and your bedroom and onto your bed, into the houses of your officials and on your people, and into your ovens and kneading troughs. The frogs will come up on you and your people and all your officials.”
The Second Plague: Frogs, Exodus 8:1-4 NIV
He held her tight as if discovering a new continent. She cried. Her tears burned his neck like flaming lava. They both knew the new world was only a few hours away. They had no future together.
An Apology to a Love Story that Crashed into a Whale, 2016
It is the 20th of September and I am on a train travelling from Northern Italy to Switzerland. The train is composed of eight carriages trailing one after the other; I sit with my back to the direction we are travelling in and watch the scenery fall away behind us. Into the past. I was hoping to read, so once I sit down, I lower the blind; the young man sitting across from me doesn’t complain. A little while later, the person in the next seat asks me to raise it again and I don’t object. I look at the meadows and mountains unveiled before me as the cotton blind is lifted away and think that this may be the most beautiful view I’ve seen in my life. My mind wonders from the piece I’m reading, the green landscape outside drawing my gaze like a charm until I cannot look away. Framed by the train window, the scene makes it seem as if time has come to a standstill. I think about the people that these mountains embraced during the Second World War while Europe was beset by destruction. A sense of peace that I recall from the landscape paintings that decorated the walls of the middle-class homes of my childhood, the postcards that drop through our letterbox three or four times a year. It’s as if the thirty-six years I’ve spent on this earth are squeezed into a single moment, as I look out at the view the past melts away inside the present. I get up, feeling the approach of melancholy. The train continues at full speed; we’re travelling into the future, to Basel station where I will meet Basim in four hours’ time; but I find myself trying to go backwards, trying to reach the last carriage. The future quickly becomes the past and I cannot stop it.
Basim Magdy was born in 1977 in the Egyptian town of Asyut on the banks of the Nile, the history of which can be traced back to the fourth century B.C.E. That same year, the president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, visited Israel, laying the foundations for the peace treaty with the country, for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978; it was this stance which led to his assassination in 1981. The artist’s first memory is of his uncle coming home to share the news of Sadat’s death. In one of his talks, he describes the confusion that this period created in terms of his perception of the world around him:
“I remember everybody was forced to stay home. During the few days that followed Sadat’s assassination, there was an attempt to start an Islamic revolution in Assiut where I grew up. I was too young to understand what was happening, but the stories I heard from my parents about those days years later were bloody and brutal. Funnily, four years later I had a heated argument with a teacher who refused to believe I witnessed the 1973 war. I was born in 1977. In my head, as a four-year old, the gunshots I heard outside were war and according to that teacher the 1973 war was the last war Egypt had fought.”
Growing up in an area beset by political ruptures, Magdy’s relationship to the world took shape during the long hours he spent examining the plants, rocks and animals in his family’s garden. The world was a threatening place where the grown-ups were all at each other’s throats; nature, by contrast, was a place of tenderness where he would undertake curious experiments with utmost patience. As he awaited a future filled with uncertainties, Magdy’s mind was nourished by the detailed drawings created by his father, a botanical illustrator, of plants from all over the world, tales of science fiction that flowed from those same hands, clutching a pen with a 0.1 nib, and the family library, rich in books on art. With his mother’s encouragement, he started to demonstrate an interest in architecture at an early age. Receiving an artistic education, Basim Magdy’s sense of profound curiosity and his powerful relationship with words, which he took from his childhood, now form an important part of the unique language he works into his artistic practice. Basim's sense of humour invites us, a generation who grew up witnessing the collapse of ideologies, to look upon all we have suffered with some distance; which lightens the weight of traumas, the events and their ramifications. Though the artist has lived in Basel for a long time, his family are what sustain his relationship with Egypt. While discussing with him the wave of hope that went through the region with the Arab Spring of 2011 and military takeover following the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, I think about how fragile these feelings are. We, the children of a period transition, are raising our children in a region where hope goes hand in hand with fear, and it is precisely at times like this that art takes on the role of providing a door to other worlds.
Magdy’s paintings and works on paper give space to the figures who became heroes as a result of the violence that surrounded him in the early 2000s. Scenes ingrained on our collective memory, from any time or anywhere in the world, are relieved of all the details that might personalise them, portrayed in a range of colours that we would not encounter in nature. Frequently the bright layers of colour also shape the form of the figures in the image. As the line disappears, volume assumes a distinctive role in space. The artist expresses the fact he cannot understand how witnessing the pain of others has been turned into entertainment, nor what place war has in the film industry. Is there some pleasure recumbent in the transformation of fear while silently watching a screen displaying disasters that culminate in great traumas, causing us to become estranged from ourselves? Are we grasping for a sense of safeness by forcing into a fictional world the terror of suddenly losing everything? Portraying time, considered to be the fourth dimension, within the confines of two dimensions, in frames deepened by words, which are independent of one another and yet talk to each other, lifts the weight of the moment we’re living in, the burden of the past, the anxious anticipation of the future. The bright, colourful palette we encounter in the artist’s works on paper, his paintings, photographs and films, invite us into the language of fantasy.
Magdy’s works on paper from the mid 2000s onwards feature phenomena from the world of science fiction, such as Big Foot, ET, UFOs, albino devils, space discoveries and observatories and in these we see the destruction of visions of the future shaped by the success of Western civilisation and notions of progress, as if through the eyes of a naughty child. When we look from the period between the 1960s to the present day, it was anticipated that our everyday lives would soon bear witness to futuristic architecture, cities filled with flying cars and colonies on the moon and Mars. Following two world wars, there was a great sense of optimism for the future, utopias whose roots would ultimately not reach the times through which they passed and generations who grew up thinking that these dreams would become a reality. In the artist’s 2007 work titled Six Flags, we see a black mark reminiscent of a meteor swaying in the endless, emptiness of space. A flag that we might recognise from several battle scenes is sticking out of the ground. This is a flag symbolising conquest, claiming what is foreign as your own (abruptly). These figures, drawn in light colours on a black background, surround a sentence painted in blood red, “The Moon Belongs To A Bunch Of Flags”, the letters drip red, hinting at some atrocity. As we behold this black hole, are we looking at the site of a murder? When you look through the eyes of the vanquished, all the steps taken in the name of progress, all that has happened in every conquered land is transformed into a massacre, into unjust appropriation. Or, are those happy days of togetherness becoming a fantasy, have we started eating each other once more, trapped by history doomed to repeat itself? Humanity, never learning from its mistakes, breaks the linearity of time, turning past into future and future into past, and this circularity of time is another perceptible layer in the artist’s work.
In a 2011 work titled The Last Day of Written History, we can see the screen of an open-air cinema; it is a still night, but the audience is nowhere to be seen. The green space is completely empty. The words “THE FUTURE IS YOUR ENEMY” are written on the screen which is framed in candyfloss pink, sky blue and maroon. It’s as if someone is prophesying, clipping our wings and cursing our future. Our mood darkens. So, where are we? Are we in a town where life moves at a slower pace? Is some conscious being from out of this world displaying this message exclusively to people who are out and about after the people who watched a film at the cinema have gone home for the night? Or perhaps, beyond the frame there are people enjoying themselves in a fairground, looking and laughing at the ominous sentence filling the screen? Is it not true that what make us most nervous are not the dark times that have passed or that may be happening at the moment, but the things that have yet to befall us? In the present moment, all our efforts go into choosing the best self from among those that seem most likely to survive in different dimensions in the future. This task, in all its calmness, positions mankind as a mythological hero that desires its own destruction. The answer to the question of how we will be able to overcome the challenge of the future as it transforms into our enemy is in the shooting stars that are falling to earth in the left-hand corner of the image. We wish on each falling star and that wish harbours hope, and wherever we are, that hope carries great significance for freeing us from the darkness that has enveloped us.
Magdy is a collector. As soon as you enter his studio, you see minerals of all colours from all over the world, lining the shelves behind his desk. His bookshelves hold row upon row of notebooks filled with stamp collections he amassed in his childhood and ones he has begun again recently. When discussing the architectural objects in his works, he opens a folder that might be considered a digital Wunderkammer. As we talk, I notice that he approaches each of the objects and the digital visuals around us with great passion. Looking at a geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller for the American pavilion at the 1967 Montreal World Fair, I feel that the line separating fiction and reality, past and future, has disappeared. But it’s the sort of future that turns quickly into the past without being experienced, that becomes an internalised, lost object. The artist’s works, which combine on paper a range of different media and techniques such as spray paint, watercolour, gouache, ink, felt tip and collage, place these things in unexpected settings and give them new life.
The Newly Discovered Gene Carried Racist Connotations is one of Magdy’s works from 2012. This small-scale canvas features at its centre a human skull undergoing measurements with a device, two experts stand on either side wearing lab coats reminiscent of clown costumes, reaching towards the enormous skull in the middle of the device. Despite the cheeriness of their outfits, the expressions on their faces, their almost burnt-looking hands, tell us that something is awry. The skull, painted primarily in shades of yellow and green, is surrounded by a halo of pink. It is sitting atop a disembodied hand, its short red fingernails stand out against the fingertips, which are turning blue. There are no clues as to where this scene is taking place. These measurement-based experiments, which formed the basis of race ideologies until the mid-20th century, play an important role in the establishment of the nation state. I remember that one of the founders of the Turkish History Theory, Dr Afet İnan, took measurements from tens of thousands of Turks for the doctoral thesis she prepared in Switzerland, the paper was published in Geneva in 1939 under the title Recherches sur les caractères anthropologiques des populations de la Turquie (Studies on the anthropological character of the peoples of Turkey). The colours in the image are inviting, drawing us in; yet at the moment of happy union, we come upon a scene of absurd barbarity. When we think about the rising tide of racism that has swept the Western world in recent years, this image is transformed into an epiphany. Underneath the colourful clothes, we see pained but undaunted hands which have lost the wrinkles that make them unique; humanity reduced to a living entity doomed to repeat its old mistakes.
A major breakthrough in Magdy’s practice came with the advent of his filmmaking using a Super 8mm camera, which has been out of production for nearly forty years. While the device was instrumental in the spread of narrow-gauge film, it is now scarcely to be found anywhere, and its nostalgic language conjures up the 1960s dream world that the artist has featured in his works on paper. The slight disruption and flicker on-screen creates a sense of detachment from the present day, the playful colours leading us away from reality and into a world of fiction. The scenes, filmed in different countries, separate from one another, form the basis of a story that tugs at our heartstrings, leaving us feeling estranged, lost in the emptiness of space. The artist wrote poetry in his youth, forming a strong bond with words, and this is a hallmark of his films. The melodious language, which Magdy creates in his storytelling by uniting media such as music, literature and film, draws us again and again into a space outside of time, touched by melancholy.
His first film Turtles All The Way Down (2009) employs an old woman as a symbol of ancient knowledge in contrast to a scientist on an unending quest to identify the universe in which he lives, trying to render the unknown knowable and find beings like himself. The film opens with a story from Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time: From Big Bang to Black Holes (1988): at the end of a conference discussing the earth’s orbit within the universe, an old woman tells the young scientist (thought by some to be Bertrand Russell) that he is speaking nonsense and that, contrary to what he has explained, the earth does not orbit the sun and that the world is in fact a flat plate balanced on the back of turtles sitting on top of one another. Following this anecdote which has been tossed about between cosmology and Hindu mythology, the film’s narrator (here the artist himself) calmly reminds us that we are nothing and know nothing in this vast space, while different stories relating to the expansion and definition of the universe link together. With almost 2 trillion galaxies and every galaxy containing 100 billion stars, we are simply rolling about in an unknowable tunnel. So how do we learn about what we cannot see, what our minds cannot comprehend? Using a telescope on the edge of the atmosphere or with a machine travelling back and forth within the universe at the speed of light? Or from the traces left behind by a meteor that fell to earth one fine day? Magdy’s film uses the universe as a metaphor for the person. Lives following an unknown, relationships formed with a sense of discovery, systems committed to the power of the mind. We learn that everything must have a cause and a consequence. Our youth must be spent in passion, our middle age in anxiety, our old age in peace. Like the world itself, we observe a certain trajectory while our individual bodies reflect the passing of time. Yet the universe, with all its mysteries, represents an endless expanse of time that stretches far beyond us. The film’s nihilistic tone repeats that we are of no real importance in this great mess. As we approach the end, I think about how badly we need an old woman to help us snap back into this world, to make us forget what we have been taught. While we try to imagine the universe, we have to remember where we are right now.
I watch the film 13 Essential Rules for Understanding the World, created by Magdy in 2011, at the Galata Greek Primary School with my infant daughter in my arms, just one month old; in the warm, dark room, I look at the expressions of surprise drawn onto the tulip petals. Tulips, yellow and red. Amidst this strangeness, a voice advises me that I won’t want to miss a single word of what it has to say about life. The first statement says, “Never assume or pretend to understand anything. We all know you don’t, just like we don’t”; as I listen to the second statement, I remember the teachings of Buddhism that I dwelt on in the early days of my youth while trying to define my relationship with the world: “Never try to change anything. You can’t even change yourself.” The aphorisms continue and in that dark room I begin to feel a warmth developing inside my heart. At this time, when my very individuality has been shaken by motherhood, the words are like a balm, soothing the void that has opened between the past and the present day. It’s one of those days where my mind is shaped by the strange dreams I had in the night and the sixth statement warns me “Never let yourself fall asleep. You’ll dream.” A series of stories that come from the dark caverns of our unconscious. For Sigmund Freud, it was a place filled with millions of neurons, presenting us with all the tools we needed to solve the problems the troubled us. A matrix. When the film ends, I find myself unable to leave the room, I look carefully at the screen, wanting to be sure that I haven’t missed anything. In that hot room, the baby’s skin sticks to mine; in the course of a five-minute film, my short life has passed before my eyes. It is towards the end of the summer of 2013 and as I try to seek refuge in rationality, my hopes and fears for the future cause me to stumble. You can’t control everything. As the film ends, the artist’s voice says “Life is a tangled web of unexpected events. Never claim or believe that anything is certain” and I think about everything ahead of us, everything that could happen. An unexpected relief. In the years to come I think of these words, presented in the face of the unpredictability of the world in which we live, turning them over and over in my mind like a mantra.
Magdy views his films as a never-ending experiment. His interest in the Super 8mm and his work that began with techniques he learned from YouTube videos transformed into a new medium towards the end of the 2000s. The different chemicals he uses on his films create a brightly coloured effect that makes his works unique. The artist stresses how important self-teaching is for shaping his practice and explains that his ongoing research into different media adds a process-based aspect to his work. Yet no effect that we see is coincidental, the colour transitions and physical interventions are created with great precision, prepared using information compiled through extensive work.
At the back of his studio sit dozens of cameras, screening devices and a mounting table, like the archaeological ruins of recent history. While describing his laboratory, Magdy describes a space sequence only familiar to people who use this technology, explaining that different countries must be brought together in each film in order for production to be able to begin and be completed. I think about what it means to choose this camera which has now become such a rarity, in contrast to the role it once played. For a person who occupies himself with the passage of time, the fact that a vanishing technology could become an indispensable tool in the production of art reminds us of the sense of loyalty that lies in the internalisation of what is lost.
The Everyday Ritual of Solitude Hatching Monkeys, filmed on Super 16mm film in 2014, takes place in an abandoned town. Our hero is the only one left, having heeded the words of T.S. Eliot “fear death by water” and stayed away from the sea. Time has lost all meaning in the tunnel he has been trapped in by loneliness, he looks into his coffee cups seeking the future, or the end that he hopes will come. There are birth and death certificates that he keeps under surveillance out of the fear that those who refused to forget would take them away. Above the colourful subtitles, scenes emerge from memories, proceeding like a flow of consciousness: train tracks, net curtains buffeted by the wind, jellyfish swaying in the darkness of the ocean, a tourist ship sailing along the coast, the hypnotic beauty of the full moon, colourful boxes balanced on a pineapple, a Ferris wheel, monkeys looking at us from the water’s edge… The story switches course as the hero dials a random number on the telephone he sees in the office. A broken soul enters into a dialogue with another voice, indicating the hopelessness of his existence: “Would a firefly fear the fire that burns in its heart?” … “Tell me, how do you deal with the relentless repetition of reality?” … This person is responsible for the memory of a town that no longer exists and now his questions are met not with compassion, but with anger: “We’re all victims of our own adopted fantasies here. All that’s taken us centuries to accomplish is proving useless. Any branch outside your window had a better life than any of us. And you’re calling to ask about reality? A quince pie is reality. The fruit no one eats is reality.” The tension that works itself into everyday life filters into us with a story fed by the dark myths of a collective memory. Performances about love put on every day by monkeys, a voice responsible for responding to the audience’s expectations. Two strangers who are able to lament each other’s situations, uniting as sound waves floating on a telephone line, merging and becoming one. The film ends with the people of the town returning, handcuffed and humiliated; a monkey emerging from the crowd announces that the hero is now in charge of the unforgiving hell in which they have found themselves: it commands him to destroy all the population records and start again, the screen goes dark and life begins anew.
This text, inspired by the science fiction stories written by the artist’s father in the 70s and 80s, seems to speak to billions of people obliged to take on roles they do not want, waiting a lifetime for their luck to change. At one point in the film, the line between fantasy and reality disappears. You can’t help thinking about the loneliness you find yourself trapped inside crowds, the roles you have been stuck with, the forces that draw the sharp limits of your life. Throughout history, the stories of ordinary people have been erased and rewritten time and again. The colours created by Magdy’s choice of medium (16mm film) and his method of “pickling the film” embrace the sense of placelessness and timelessness in the images that is instantly memorable. Knowing that you could be watching this film anywhere, at any period in time, gives you a sense of searing lostness. Individuals continue to do what they are doing in the face of totalitarian ideologies, continuing to act in spite of everything. On the one hand, repetition of an action is transformed into resistance against the passing of time, but on the other hand it allows the system to continue.
While Magdy is rolling an idea for a film around inside his mind, he makes recordings with his camera at on the trips he takes and at home. After the filming period, which can last for months, he begins to work on the text that will form the story. He finishes the sound element that links the words and images after transferring the film onto a digital format. He works on each stage by himself. It is important to him that the films’ display is digital for two reasons: due to the quality of the screened image and the fact that films can be uploaded onto his web page and made available to people who do not have access to museum venues. Eagle-eyed viewers will notice that every film includes an object which was not present in the film before it, over time the narrator disappears, the subtitles change colour, kaleidoscopic scenes are added in, some scenes go backwards and GIF images of a telephone application that is no longer used bleed into the gaps. The artist stresses that his ultimate aim is to awaken feelings in the person watching his films. In a world that is host to millions, we all follow the same trajectory regardless of our origins, all carrying the same fears and the same excitement, yet unaware of each other: we are born, we fall in love, experience heartbreak, our hearts harden, we repeat our daily habits and one day we die. And this has repeated itself for thousands of years and will keep on repeating itself. Eventually every one of us will turn into a star, lost in the universe.
Among the countries scattered through No Shooting Stars (2016), there is a fugitive seeking refuge in international waters, cyborgs who have turned to cannibalism and a ghost seeking its ancestors who finds itself in the ocean: “Down here there are no shooting stars; down here there is another existence that has no desire to make your wishes come true.” This incomprehensible brain turns into dreams that shine without verbalisation in an order that disappears during the film, into an octopus’ memory, into migrants traveling over the sea, into mermaids exposed to a nuclear leak. Words bearing the traces of a battle lost with the future turn the viewer into the hero of this eerie story. As we watch the islands which define the limits of the collective unconscious, we are looking for ourselves in a later line of text. In response to the obsession with making the unknowable in humanity known, the artist celebrates the unknown and tries to envision how we appear to the oceans, which make up 71% of the planet on which we live. Fireworks, buildings being demolished, thousand-year-old graves, a sea shell tossed upon the waves, mountains following a poem. The ocean does not mince its words and says “I am your fear, I am your enemy and I am your only hope. A make believe rainbow after a storm. I am not you and you will never understand why I’ve become this way”. As he sinks to the bottom, a person drowning in his own mistakes wants to take with him a world that has not been stained by language. So, are we able to elude this destructive pride and look at the other beings with whom we share this planet? Could the harmony we find in listening to their voices, their rhythms, break the cycle we’re trapped in? We don’t know, aside from the fear for the future, we can only hope by seeking refuge in the common sense of the artist.
The final work that I wish to look at in this essay is An Apology to a Love Story that Crashed into a Whale (2016), an anatomy of love realised on 64 C-Prints which cover an entire wall. Magdy follows the story of the point where two love stories intersect in a world where violence constricts life on a daily basis. Love, beginning with an indefinable feeling that drops like a meteorite in amongst an unending bombardment of information, ceases as this mysterious figure is brought down to earth with the revelation that comes with great many questions. While the magic hidden away in dreams, in the heavens, in memories, gives way to banality, the heroes of love always hope to return to that point of meeting; to the time before they knew each other, the strange, indefinable times where the excitement of discovery imprints itself upon their sleepless nights. The artist asserts that this feeling, which obliterates the past and spawns excitement for the beautiful days to come is like the incomparable feeling of being home, even if your home is beset by civil war and torture. And then what happens? The path we have chosen from among possible futures disappears in the darkness of the universe like fading constellations. Anecdotes alluding to different geographical formations and structures, featured in 17 scenes dominated by brilliant, metallic colours, carry traces of dizziness and optimism that spread to us. The intense relationship with the unknown that the artist establishes in his earlier works now finds its way into a feeling for which language is insufficient. Like the joy of winning, the pain of losing carves the passing of time as new lines on our hands. Is love the only thing that still distinguishes us from artificial intelligence, even if we are in hell? Though they are full of personal calamities, the emotional oscillations that make mistakes, errors, flaws remind us that we are alive.
As one of the most important artists of his generation, Magdy’s idiosyncratic language takes its strength from the personal production process through which he creates his works, a process which he develops by dwelling on the passing of time, a topic with which he is greatly concerned. Since beginning his work in the early 2000s, the artist has refused to stop testing things out, learning continuously. Like his films, his two-dimensional works are composed of several layers brought together – skilfully selected words combined with carefully prepared film music become powerful tools for expressing the world. His determination to not forget the violence under which he grew up and to which he still bears witness is a significant part of the sincerity in his subtle but striking works. It is no coincidence that he begins his work on love by talking about fascism, oppressive regimes and lives lost.
As we came to the end of the eight-hour studio visit, Magdy talked about a theory of physics that has recently been occupying his mind: M-theory. This idea, which claims that the universe is actually composed of 11 dimensions, was proposed in a talk given by Dr Edward Witten of Princeton University in 1995. At the beginning of “The Grand Design” (2010) which he wrote with Leonard Mlodinow, Stephen Hawking says that M-theory, which he had worked on for a long time, could be the “theory of everything” which could describe all the unknowns relating to the composition of the universe, asserting that physics had taken the place of philosophy in the century we are living in. While thinking about what it could mean to exist in different forms in different dimensions, Magdy shares his belief that everything we believe to be a coincidence in life could actually be a response from another dimension. Earlier that day, as we arrive in Basel, I return from the walk I’ve taken to shake off my melancholy to see the young man across from me being arrested. I watch as the security officer, his hands level with my eyes, takes the young man’s late 90s-style mobile phones and places them in a clear bag, and I think that this cannot be a simple coincidence. As midnight approaches in the studio with its lush green garden, its thousands of piles of information, where the grey floor highlights the colours inside, we tire of talking and look at each other. There is no room for coincidence in this universe where we are all connected to each other by invisible ties. As if frogs have started to pour down from the sky in buckets, all of our troubles, the importance of all those knotted stories suddenly disappear. We feel ourselves lighten.
 Jacob Fabricius. Series Series: Basim Magdy, A Very Flat Field Where Only One Crop Grows (2016). Pork Salad Press: Denmark, pp. 7-8
 “The Waste Land”, T.S. Eliot (1922)
Translated from Turkish