BEIRUT: A hundred or a thousand years from now, antiquities museums of the future will likely feature weapons and various implements of war, as they have done in the past, housing fragile relics in glass vitrines that strip down and sterilize their histories of violence. The difference is that what will ultimately be their past is currently our present. This imaginative slippage between tenses runs throughout Tarek Zaki's "Time Machine: Remembering Tomorrow," an installation of six sculptural objects on view at Beirut's Galerie Sfeir-Semler from now through June 30.
Zaki, who was born in Riyadh and currently lives and works in Cairo, casts himself as a time-traveling archaeologist from the future. He takes everyday objects and sculpts them into precious monuments. As a collector of the quotidian, he specializes in the spent remains of contemporary warfare - a discarded helmet, a trashed keyboard, a wasted electronic chip, a set of busted missiles. Echoes of America's catastrophic misadventures in Iraq are everywhere in Zaki's installation. By placing his pieces in pristine glass boxes, he converts them into found objects that may one day populate museum collections. In doing so, he offers a subtle critique on what we memorialize, and what we offer to posterity.
Zaki is one of nine artists featured at Sfeir-Semler in an exhibition curated by William Wells entitled "Out of Place." The founder and director of the Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art in Cairo, Wells has selected a compelling range of works in video, installation, sculpture, drawing and painting.
"There is almost no link" between the artists on view, says Wells, "other than the fact that each chooses to work with images, objects, emotions and concepts that are often reformatted and removed from their original place, and put into a context that offers up an alternative reading."
Mona Marzouk, who exhibited a series of duo-chrome paintings at Sfeir-Semler a year and a half ago, has contributed a huge wall mural incorporating her characteristically weird symbols merging biology and technology into a brutal takedown of the American flag.
Amal Kenawy, who has also shown in Beirut before, is exhibiting a pair of sculptures and a set of paintings drawn from her latest video animation, "You Will Be Killed."
Opportunities to see the other seven artists in Beirut have been fewer. Hala El-Koussy's video "Candyfloss Stories" is a vast improvement on the piece she screened for Ashkal Alwan's last edition of the Home Works Forum, and deserves another look from those who may have winced at that earlier work. "Candyfloss" demands a rethink of the artist's practice and potential. Huda Lufti's "Feminine Mandala" - an installation of wooden clogs arranged in a circular pattern - is a bit essentializing in its gender politics, but shows the artist at her best in terms of formal aesthetics.
Against the back wall of the gallery is a suite of colorful drawings by Basim Magdy that references video games, military propaganda, advertising strategies and the kinds of visual distractions that tend to consume the hours of young men's lives.
Equally playful is Mahmoud Khaled's video "Re/Arranged Marriage #1, California," which trounces anthropological studies of marriage rites by turning the lens on a grand American wedding that plays out as hilariously uptight.
Hassan Khan, arguably the most accomplished artist in the exhibition, has a masterful wall piece entitled "Automatic is the Voice that Speaks," made from 18 Plexiglas three-face prints. As the viewer moves around in front of the work, he or she catches sight of different images buried in the layered surface of the work - a Technicolor landscape, pages from Arabic soft-porn magazines, Tweety Bird, a graphic of a hand raising middle and index fingers beneath a stylized "Allahu Akhbar" slogan. Every image incorporated into the work was bought on the streets of Cairo for less than 10 Egyptian pounds (just under $2).
Wael Shawky, better known for his wildly ambitions installations, is represented here with a selection of rarely shown drawings that are tied in to the artist's thought process in creating those bigger and bolder works.
The Townhouse Gallery opened to the public eight years ago and has played a crucial role in the development of Cairo's independent art scene. To give a sense of the difference in scale between Beirut and Cairo on the culture front, Townhouse, which is a non-profit that serves as a platform for critical expression more so than a commercial venue for the buying and selling of art objects, currently operates five spaces and has a staff of 22 full-time employees, 10 part timers and an army of interns and volunteers.
Wells is keen to point out that the nine artists included in "Out of Place" are a disparate group - they have never shown together before and don't function in the same circles at all, whether locally, regionally or internationally. The show doesn't represent Egypt, Cairo or even Townhouse.
There was a time, five to 10 years ago, when artistic traffic between Beirut and Cairo was greater than it is today. Though important links remain between Ashkal Alwan and Townhouse (and between both organizations and the Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center in Istanbul), artists and arts organizations in both cities have lost their connections because both scenes have developed over the years, and launched numerous artists into the international art world. People are busier these days.
But Wells maintains that such links are important, and that avenues for cooperation should reopen though spaces and events in particular. "Artists shouldn't wait for larger institutions to do it," he says. Galerie Sfeir-Semler's Andree Sfeir-Semler is actively seeking to re-establish these links and foster relationships with the potential to last.
To survey the works in "Out of Place," it is tempting to compare artists in Cairo with artists in Beirut, though to do so risks generalizations tenuous enough to be meaningless. But there is clearly a street-wise sensibility, and a fascination with popular urban culture, that sets Khan and Magdy apart from, say, Jalal Toufic and Walid Raad.
"There is no question that the city of Cairo has an important impact on the work of many artists living in the city and I think it is unique in that respect. I have traveled to other mega-cities," he adds, "and never found the link to urban culture so strong ... In Cairo it is impossible to negotiate a single day without ... having to recognize the important role street culture plays in everybody's lives and its relevance to understanding how we deal with the social and political positions we are in."
"Out of Place" is on view at Galerie Sfeir-Semler in Karantina through June 30. For more information, please call +961 1 566 550 or check out www.sfeir-semler.com