Basim Magdy's art of the ambiguous and absurd

BEIRUT: Basim Magdy's studio is a mess. An artist who lives and works in Cairo, Magdy rarely throws anything away. Because he is both multidisciplinary - he makes drawings, sculptures, animations, wall-size murals and enormous installations - and prodigious - he has had eight exhibitions, four of them solo, in the first six months of 2007 alone - his workspace is packed with the refuse of past and future projects. On any given day, one might find Magdy in his studio surrounded by a suite of half-finished drawings, a sculpture in progress, bits of collage and the original stencils for every image he has ever spray-painted onto his work like a signature.

Magdy, 29, also literally works where he lives - "I find this situation very convenient," he says, "it saves me a lot of driving and it also saves me a lot of time and energy" - so his studio is that much more chaotic. What's more, he is the process of moving half of his life to Switzerland - in the near future he will divide his time between unwieldy Cairo and orderly Basel - so the usual mess is further compounded by the haphazard art of packing.

Despite the clutter and sprawl of materials, the heart of Magdy's artistic enterprise lies in his computer, specifically in a folder called "work sources." This folder is full of images Magdy finds or creates, including pictures he downloads off the Internet and photographs he collects or takes himself.

"Work sources" abounds with images that range from the bizarre to the banal. Magdy amasses pristine pictures of complex architecture, along with candid snapshots of random people in animal costumes. He has a worrying number of images, movie clips and illustrations related to Bigfoot sightings, material that fed into a massive installation earlier this year for an artist-run space in Austin, Texas, called Okay Mountain.

The computer file and the stencils provide telling clues to the twinned concerns that course through Magdy's artistic practice. On one hand, his work wouldn't be possible without certain advancements in digital technology, such as the ease with which he appropriates and alters images on his computer. On the other hand, his pieces are tactile. The look of his drawings, for example, is all lo-fi arts and crafts - pen to paper with pools of watercolors and the soft, diffused fuzz of spray paint. His installations often appeal to multiple senses at one - not only sight and sound but also touch and smell.

Magdy's arsenal of images includes variations on a gorilla that bears a striking resemblance to Chewbacca, military helicopters, saucer-shaped UFOs, rockets, space ships, soldiers, astronauts, tanks, a monkey with Paul Frank cool, flags, palm trees, block-like buildings, distant hills, television sets and characters from old-school video games.

An exhibition entitled "Brief Encounters with Semi-Imaginary Worlds," featuring one sculpture, seven photographs and 20 drawings produced in the last two years, just closed over the weekend at the Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum (ACAF), an artist-run space in Egypt's second largest city. On view were several photographs Magdy took in natural history museums, "full of taxidermy animals that try to look as alive as possible," he says, and a slice of meteorite from Mars, "a small piece of physical evidence [attesting to] the existence of a world where no man has gone." A touch for the absurd gels his disparate pieces together, as does a cultivated sense of ambiguity. 

An installation of Magdy's colorful, child-like drawings is currently on view at Beirut's Galerie Sfeir-Semler, where an exhibition of nine contemporary Egyptian artists, curated by William Wells of the Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art in Cairo, has been extended until July 21. If one were to walk into the Beirut show blind, without the benefit of wall texts, one would be hard-pressed to tie all nine artists to the Egyptian capital. Magdy's work defies geographic expectations most thoroughly of all. This is deliberate, and Magdy has written a particularly sharp essay on the subject of regionalism in current curatorial practice. His drawings could easily be the work of a young artist in Los Angeles or New York. They are clever and they are funny. "South Park" or "Simpsons" humor, Magdy explains.

Only a curmudgeon could stand before the drawings and not laugh or at least crack a smile. But if the tongue-in-cheek humor hits viewers immediately, Magdy's conceptual interests surface slowly, like an accumulation of ideas that take time to come together and create meaning. The drawings at Sfeir-Semler are from a four-year period between 2002 and 2006. Like most of Magdy's projects, they concern the acquisition and exertion of power, false knowledge and lies that pass for truths, if only for a little while.

Magdy was born in 1977 in Assiut, a small city by Egyptian standards, in the Nile Valley south of Cairo. His father is an artist and Magdy grew up surrounded by art and a library of books about art, mostly modern. At 14, he decided he too wanted to be an artist. He liked bright colors, Joan Miro and Paul Klee. He read Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre and - who didn't? - Jim Morrison's poetry collection "Wilderness."

At 19 "my work was very personal," he recalls. "Teenage revolt, anger and confusion about the concept of death were very evident in the work I created at that time. It was influenced by the Surrealists and the Dadaists. I used collage a lot."

The Townhouse Gallery opened while Magdy was studying at Helwan University's School of Fine Arts in Cairo. (Magdy has said the only thing he learned to do in art school was stretch a canvas; her later learned this too was wrong). An independent art space, Townhouse has done more to energize Egypt's contemporary art scene than any other institution, paving the way for more recently opened spaces like the Contemporary Image Collective and ACAF. Magdy noticed a scene was percolating as he was about to graduate. He submitted his work. His first solo show opened at Townhouse in 2000.

At the time, instead of settling in, Magdy traveled. He did residencies and workshops in Switzerland and South Africa. He went to New York. About five years ago, he started to make work about representations of war. Then he curated a group show in San Antonio called "Threat Zone."

Soon, says Magdy, "there will be a whole generation that comprehends the word 'threat' only as an equivalent of terror. The work I selected ... dealt with personal phobias, obsessive hygiene, alter egos, growing up in religious societies and how teenagers deal with the idea of belief, having no home and no land and no identity."

Magdy wasn't interested in engaging geopolitics directly. He wanted to get at the subject obliquely. And he wanted to use his art to ask questions: Why do we always believe in imminent danger? Why do we think soldiers, from whatever army, are heroic? Why do political allies become enemies and vice versa and how does the media just recycle the same story in reverse? Where does power come from and how is it sustained? And what about knowledge?

Such questions, curiously enough, led Magdy to astronauts and archaeology. "When space exploration started many promises were made. We were supposed to build utopian colonies on Mars and the moon," he says. "We dreamed of intergalactic transportation systems. We saw astronauts as our saviors ... Those promises were not kept." Sure, there were a few trips to the moon and a flag erected, but "there are still no space colonies," he says. His disappointment is both satirical and mischievous.

If space exploration failed in its promise to deliver future knowledge, archaeology, in Magdy's view, has likewise faltered in its quest to uncover knowledge about the past. As it plays into his work, this fumbling archaeology "searches for something we don't know, and sometimes are not even sure existed in the first place," he says. "It's a very strange practice." Anything strange, as it enters into the orbit of Magdy's work, is an opening, an opportunity to twist things around and expose a prevailing logic as potentially false.

"I want my work to confuse and subvert," he says, "rather than make statements. We're surrounded by people trying to make statements." And anyway, Magdy has some packing do.





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