Basim Magdy’s Universal Constructions
28 October 2020
In his films, Basim Magdy builds universes that tend to fall apart. Whether a world where gravity has become so heavy that dropping a coin could break a toe in M.A.G.N.E.T (2019), or of a man abandoned in a deserted public records office in The Everyday Ritual of Solitude Hatching Monkeys (2014).
Basim Magdy, M.A.G.N.E.T (2019) (still). Super 16mm film transferred to full HD. Colour and black and white. 21 min. Commissioned by MAAT – Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology, Lisbon. Courtesy the artist, König Galerie, Berlin; Gypsum Gallery, Cairo; artSümer, Istanbul and hunt kastner, Prague.
Magdy's moving images are characterised as much by their poetic titles and scripts as their analogue textures, with mostly 16mm footage—in the case of M.A.G.N.E.T of the volcanic island Nisyros, the Foz Côa petroglyphs, the Almendres Cromlech, and a robotics lab—filtered in acid colours that bleed across flickering, overlapping frames.
Often, these unique visuals are the result of 'film pickling' with household chemicals. A process first used for the double slide projection A 240 Second Analysis of Failure and Hopefulness (With Coke, Vinegar and Other Tear Gas Remedies) (2012), housed in MoMA's collection, with images of construction and demolition treated with teargas remedies—this was the time of the so-called Arab Spring, the Indignant movements, and Occupy, after all.
Revolution is a recurring subtext in Magdy's work, mostly as a manifestation of an enduring and all-too-human pursuit of utopia that tends to descend into its opposite. In the film The Dent (2014), for example, a small town dreams of staging the Olympics, only to fail again and again.
Embedded in these stories are critiques on collective amnesia, expressed in writing that is playful yet full of lament. At one point in The Dent, a burned-down village is rebuilt—'once again they used wood'—while birds and statues bear witness in The Many Colors of the Sky Radiate Forgetfulness (2014), as 'memories of one war are overshadowed by those of its successor'.
Animals have long been watchers in Magdy's poetic fables. But in New Acid (2019)—the first short film screened in the Piazza Grande at Locarno Film Festival, now featured in Magdy's solo Asleep in Another Dimension at M HKA in Antwerp (5 September 2020–10 January 2021)—the animals have become the narrators.
Over footage from zoos, species converse over messaging apps. They talk about sleep deprivation (it's 'the new acid'), revolution ('delicious and momentary'), and captivity ('so many loopholes, so many locked doors, so many Bitcoin options').
One beaver, remembering life before plastic plants, calls nostalgia and tradition 'racism in disguise'—a view that extends to nationalism, and which infuses Magdy's filmic parables overall.
Each story is a cautionary tale against dogmatic pursuits told with a benevolent detachment, as expressed in the films 13 Essential Rules for Understanding the World (2011), offering advice like 'Don't forget, there are 7 billion other people here. You don't matter. Really, no one cares!', and No Shooting Stars (2016), first shown at the Jeu de Paume, which describes an oceanic existence with 'no desire to make your wishes come true.'
Magdy's insistence on insignificance, that no life is remarkable, offsets the careless indifference his stories often sketch out—of chasing glory only to cause catastrophe, but chasing it again anyway.
In keeping, the artist, who once called the future a re-enactment of the present, refuses to participate in closed narratives, which extends to an aversion to being pinned down as an Egyptian, and writing texts so that anyone might find meaning in their riddles.
Themes of open access extend to the fact that Magdy's full film catalogue is viewable on his website.
Museum shows also come with invitations for engagement. Whether PINGPINPOOLPONG, or How I Learned to Laugh at Failure at South London Gallery (SLG) in 2018, involving children at SLG's Art Block devising rules for expanded ping pong; or 'loose collaborations' with social media users for shows at MCA Chicago and Arnolfini in Bristol, which emanated from The Stars Were Aligned for a Century of New Beginnings at Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, presented to mark Magdy's Artist of the Year award in 2016.
Across these exhibitions, paintings, photographic series, and installations expand the themes and aesthetics of Magdy's films, including their pickled colour spectrum and rolling subtitles.
The photographic work We're All Victims of Our Own Adopted Fantasies Here (Reprise) (2017) captures a phone call from The Everyday Ritual of Solitude Hatching Monkeys (2014), both held by Centre Pompidou, while the work on paper Every Decade Memory Poses as a Container Heavier than Its Carrier (2013) shows a psychedelically coloured geometric shape looming over a man in a lunar landscape.
The latter composition recalls the 'geometrically shaped electromagnetic fear' described in The Dent, which paralysed a town's 'ability to separate reality from its representation'. Such themes reappear in Magdy's first solo with König Galerie in Berlin, Renegade Dreams Hanging from the Clouds (30 October–22 November 2020), which presents New Acid alongside eight new paintings that subvert the minimalist grid with imaginative flair.
In particular, A Desperate Epiphany Led Us to the Elusive Phantom of Tangled Truths and Several Molecules of Future Liberties Manifesting as Baby Miracles, mark a thrilling turn, if not return, for an artist originally trained in painting at Cairo's Helwan University. At 1.67 by 2.44 metres, these are the largest works on canvas that Magdy has ever executed, and compositionally the most ambitious.
The former depicts three figures gazing at two screens with gradated surfaces covered in a grid of black stripes—a geometry reflected in the patterned walls of the room they are in. The latter centres on a UFO amid globes with faces hovering over a psychedelic landscape populated with, among other things, a black mountain emerging from a cube with eyes and a rainbow tongue—features that turn a 'boring architectural structure', the artist explains, into 'an entity with life'.
Visual connections abound, with endless points of relation that feel as open and fluid as the visual notes creating lines of connection across Magdy's expansive body of work, by now a universe unto itself.—[O]