By Mariam Elias
Whether by intention or coincidence, several art institutions scheduled the opening of their latest exhibitions on Dec. 13, the night following the opening of the 12th International Cairo Biennale. Thus, these institutions intend to create events that either rival the Biennale, or that piggyback off of the state organized show’s anticipated success.
Mahmoud Khaled’s “When Meanings Face Glossy Surfaces,” curated by Aleya Hamza, opened at the Contemporary Image Collective, while “Untitled 3 (WAM): World Agriculture Museum Part 1 (Cairo)” by Spanish artist Asunción Molinos opened at Townhouse Gallery.
Also at Townhouse is Egyptian artist Hala Elkoussy’s “Myths & Legends Room: First Story – The Mount of Forgetfulness.” At Darb 1718, curated by Power Ekrot, is “Fames: Family Vaudeville.” The Viennoise Hotel is showing “Cairo Documenta,” while the Mashrabia Art Gallery is showing Hany Rashed’s new solo exhibition, “Beware of the Chili.”
Rotterdam-based photographer Bas Princen’s exhibition “In Refuge: Five Cities Portfolio” was originally scheduled to open on the same day at Townhouse, but was delayed for legislative reasons.
On Dec. 13, the art culture was under heavy critique as artists took on the roles of notable public figures, museums as archival platforms, curators as show makers, the art itself as objects to gaze at, and the art institutions themselves as showbiz venues.
In “When Meanings Face Glossy Surfaces,” for example, the gallery space was turned into a self-critical pulpit with each room reflecting on society’s complicated conception of a work of art or the figure of the artist.
Each piece presented an inquiry about the perception of aesthetics, whether in its domestic and daily usage such as in “Niche” and “The Studio as a Work of Art,” or in its virtual sphere, such as in “Google Me/Duplicate Self-portrait.” The politics of voyeurism was critically examined in the video installation “Safety Zoom,” while the interview with a famous male belly dancer in “This Show Is My Business” revealed issues of gender perception and cultural authenticity in a spectacular art field.
In the same building where CIC is located, a sarcastic replica of an agricultural museum was found with a banner at the front door “Untitled 3 (WAM): World Agriculture Museum Part 1 (Cairo).”
Cleverly, artist and researcher Asunción Molinos turned the abandoned apartment into a site-specific that is inspired by the random aesthetics of the Agricultural Museum of Cairo.
Here, the lights were dimmed at the entrance, the wooden floor was uneven and broken, huge illustration charts with fictional data hung, a distinctive smell of naphthalene filled the location, while unidentified objects and banners were left on the ground. Everything in this built mise-en-scène became an object of display and critique: an old rotary phone meant to be used for emergencies, administrative office rooms inside the museum itself, and pedestals used for art displays.
Molinos conducted intensive research about the bureaucracy of food production in Egypt, visiting rural areas and state organizations. In her outlook at the museum as an informational site and a national portrait, Molinos created a smart spoof on the sovereignty of exhibiting where agriculture became an object of display and an economic victory that needs to be promoted.
Another critical artwork was Marwan Fayed’s looped performed lecture “Possibilities of Post Curation” presented at “Cairo Documenta.” Using info graphics, Fayed explained the typical models in which the curator performs an authorial or a specific communicative role. Fayed proposes a framework in which the curator can operate not as the maker and thinker of the show, but as a cultural worker or a network operator that helps the art process in its post-production stage.
In his ongoing exploration of the model, Fayed will turn the presentation into a process of work in which he will try to identify the “post curator” and discover the role of the institution in the proposed process, while presenting this field research on www.marwanshoukry.tumber.com.
Hala Elkoussy’s “The Mount of Forgetfulness” is part of a larger body of works titled “Myths and Legends Room;” the first part of it was “The Mural,” which was awarded the Abraaj Capital Prize in 2010.
Using the traditional art form of melodic storytelling, “Mount of Forgetfulness” runs through the narration of successive personal testimonies about defeated protagonists living in the peripheral part of Cairo. Through a medley of poetry, dance and music of fictional memories, collective unconsciousness, reality denial and absurdity, Elkoussy created a lyrical portrayal of our banal contemporary local story.
Instead of a looping video on a screen inside the gallery, Elkoussy created an alternative way of viewing her art piece by building a spectacular movie theater inside the gallery space, turning the opening night into successive screenings of the film.
In all terms, the artistic activity, the curatorial work, and the role of the art institution — within a bureaucratic state and a neoliberal economy — seemed to be a concern of many. As some might have been examining their practice within such context, others perceived the institutional discourse to be fetish or artisitically restraining, taking an opposing stance instead.
Yet, it was in “Cairo Documenta” that the issue became more complex and misleading. Despite the timing of the exhibition to coincide with the Biennale, its name borrowed from the title of the European Biennale, “Documenta,” to grab attention, its gauche statement on the institutional system, and its sponsorship by both a company and hotel, it still advertised itself as an “independent art exhibition.” It even went on to describe itself as an “alternative initiative” of a group of young artists with no “theme, curator or financial support.”
Ironically, in its press release that was written like a sort of manifesto, the exhibition criticized the art institution for being exclusive and judgmental — even though their exhibit’s selection had a lot in common given that most of the participating artists came from similar educational backgrounds, are known of their usage of digital and new media, and/or have a shared initial understanding of what “contemporary” arts are.
In fact, this art show format of revealing works under an open concept without any restriction is becoming a common practice by many — as is evident in the exhibition “What’s Happening Now?” that took place at the Palace of Arts in 2008, and “Why Not?” that was held in 2010.
However, these types of shows might in actuality be the result of a lack of vision, an enthusiastic belief in presenting an avant-garde statement, or a way of justifying the creation of a big show filled with a high quantity of unqualified works.
“Cairo Documenta” is not to be solely blamed, since most art institutions rushed to present shows that state their artistic direction and to present the best selection they had at that time. Some of the institutions showed little or no exhibitions this year, or focused most of their activity on workshops, symposiums and developmental work.
In fact, such initiative might have been valid 10 years go when Townhouse, Mashrabia and Espace Karim Francis created a joint venture to create El Nitaq Festival, an independent response to the government’s firm grip on large art festivals. Yet these repeated and scattered efforts to counter a mediocre state-organized show simply affirm the state’s authority, provoking several questions as to whether or not the public still perceives the Ministry of Culture as the official and sole incubator of arts and culture in the country.
Aside from the openings that occurred on Dec. 13, December has been brimming with shows: “About Spaces: Systematic Objects and Issues of Reduction,” a solo exhibition by Egyptian artist Hazem El-Mistikawy at Karim Francis Contemporary Art Gallery; “A Survival Guide Art Exhibition,” a group show at the Sharjah Art Gallery at AUC’s New Cairo campus; “The One and the Multiple,” an exhibition that follows the residency exchanges between hanger and Egypt artists at Artellewa; “Futuropolis,” curated by Paul Geday at Saad Zaghloul Cultural Center; and “Cairo Towers” by Mohamed Abla at Zamalek Art Gallery.
In the end, such subjective practices of the various art institutions might be a good chance for the public to have a factual outlook on the stance of each organization and see the diverse players in the game. Still, the centralized concentration of the arts in location, duration — and even date — should be revised.