Permanent Presence: Basim Magdy
The Stars Were Aligned for a Century of New Beginnings

His art is like a psychedelic journey into the future. Yet Basim Magdy is primarily interested in the present. The use of text and images, his poetic way of writing, the absurdity inherent in most of his works, speak of a more unbiased, individual perspective on reality. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf on Deutsche Bank’s “Artist of the Year”.
Bodiless voices speak of the evanescence of memory. In silent forests, stone monuments look at us as though they want to tell us they will outlive us all. They are surrounded by a blended aura of brilliant colors. Insects glide over the surface of a pond and buzz away. Basim Magdy’s 2014 film The Many Colors of the Sky Radiate Forgetfulness draws the viewer into a vortex of images, sound, and text, conjuring up a time in which the apocalypse seems to have already taken place. Nature recaptures its lost territory. Save for one relic, people have been forgotten. And what remains does not attest to a glorious past. We see war memorials and stuffed animals—museum objects that celebrate battles, the dead, and the subjugation of nature.

A post-apocalyptic feeling is evoked again and again in Magdy’s “Artist of the Year” 2016 exhibition at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle. Whether, in his colorful psychedelic works on paper, scattered groups of researchers roam through futurist buildings and radar stations or well-dressed people endorse our collective failure, in this world human civilization seems to have reached its end. The theme is as old as humanity and has been ever-present in modern times. Be it the horrors of the world wars, the uncertainty spawned by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the decay of the East bloc, terror, or globalization, the end of the world, or at least of culture, has been prophesied again and again. However, such apocalyptic visions are invariably followed by the vision of a purifying new beginning. Every revolution, every war, every ecological disaster held out the hope that things would now take a positive turn.

Such promises are absent in the work of Magdy, who was born in 1977. The title of his exhibition, The Stars Were Aligned for a Century of New Beginnings, sounds optimistic. In fact, the opposite is true. It is an ironic allusion to a society that doggedly makes the same mistakes over and over again, and after each further catastrophe thinks that everything will continue to move forward. In Magdy’s cosmos, however, it does not. The societies he portrays in the films The Dent (2014) and The Everyday Ritual of Solitude Hatching Monkeys (2014) are bankrupt, entangled in irrational hopes, and involved in absurd rituals to preserve the past or megalomaniac projects. His installation In the Grave of Intergalactic Utopia (2006), on view in the studio of the KunstHalle, is a swan song of postwar dreams of reaching the stars and the Space Race. In the 1960s, the artist group ZERO launched rockets and saw transcendence and future in the vastness of space. In Magdy’s work, this journey ends with a crash landing—in a banal shack reminiscent of a petting zoo enclosure.

At the same time, the installations, films, photographs, and drawings of the Egyptian artist, who lives in Basel and Cairo, emanate a tragicomic cheerfulness. In view of the shimmering colors and absurd humor, we cannot really be sad about the end of civilization. Also, many of his film shots show oddly familiar impressions: landscapes, parades, artifacts from museums. What makes these very topical scenes seem so unreal are the hypnotic soundtracks and the veil of color in which Magdy immerses his pictures: purple magenta or bilious green, among other colors. And then there is the almost old-fashioned way he uses language, as a subtitle or on tablets faded in between sequences, as in silent movies. Something like a narrative is always suggested, but it leaves things open rather than providing explanations. The protagonists in Magdy’s drawings seem to be in a state of paralysis. They desperately try to archive and celebrate human history so that future generations can draw on it. But this enterprise is apparently pointless. “The Future Is Your Enemy” is written in large letters on a billboard in his drawing The Last Day of Written History (2011).

Thus, he points to a fundamental misunderstanding. Because all futurist visions, all the conjurations of history from which we can learn collectively, represent outdated thinking in his art cosmos. Magdy believes that such thinking will probably die out, along with books, universities, and the traditional art trade. Indeed, we no longer live in the age of great, influential narratives that suggest that everything is embedded in an overriding context. We live in the age of digital information. Everything is geared to the moment, in which there is no longer a past or a future, but only a continual present and simultaneity. The information does not speak of a subjectively passed-on yesterday or a possible tomorrow. It speaks of the now, of facts. Whether it is stock-market listings, new scientific knowledge, or technological developments, it is of interest only until it is overtaken by the present. And the hierarchy of meaning of information has also been lost. On Facebook, a story about an earthquake that devastates an entire region is juxtaposed with a piece about someone who has lost a few calories. A perfect symbol for the permanent now is the instant messaging service Snapchat, where the photos and files sent remain visible to the recipient for only a certain number of seconds. Only those who constantly follow the data feed don’t miss anything.

This changed perception not only relieves us from yesterday and tomorrow, but also from the collective value systems that invoke the continuity of history, a goal, or a moral. The notion that such meaning is missing can be liberating or frightening. Magdy’s oeuvre does not show a fantastic future world, but a future taking place right now. His works are anything but eschatological. On the contrary, like the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, he employs the “end of the existing world” as an opportunity to reformulate the question of the sense of life. For Nancy, there is a fundamental difference between sense and signification. Sense is an expression of a fundamental openness, whereas signification is characterized by definition and coherence. And it is precisely constructed meanings such as democracy, freedom, and reason that Magdy critically examines in his work.

Right at the beginning of the exhibition, The Future of Your Head (2008), a sculpture incorporating a two-way mirror with a message formed out of sparkling Christmans lights, suggests that we can leave behind our old, self-reflective, causal thinking and our anthropocentric worldview. We have to bid adieu to the idea of being able to control the world and imbue it with meaning. Like all living things, we are at the mercy of this permanent present, of chance and arbitrariness, without a master plan. By the same token, this frees us from oppressive ideologies and religious fanaticism. Magdy’s fleeting narratives ask us to think laterally, to accept contradictions and open ourselves to the here and now without dogmas.

His overlapping double slide projection A 240 Second Analysis of Failure and Hopefulness (With Coke, Vinegar and Other Tear Gas Remedies) from 2012 looks like an experimental arrangement catering to more open thinking. The 160 slides, which show the razing and reconstruction of a building complex, were selected from rolls of film that were soaked in different common household substances, a process Magdy compares to pickling. The chemical reaction not only dyes the material in all shades of the color spectrum—these substances also serve as a remedy for teargas. This could be an allusion to the everrecurring cycle of collective hopes, actions, and defeats that are symptomatic of modern societies. Magdy counters the quest for a certain result, for binding truth, with unpredictable experimentation with chemical reactions that attack the picture. The artist steps back as author and lets the material work. The “pickling,” as he calls it, emphasizes Magdy’s process-oriented approach to his work, the balance between control and chance that he explores. In addition, his practice illustrates the alchemical “development” of narration and themes, of reaction and counter-reaction. This principle runs through the exhibition, which completely dispenses with chronological order, categorization, and hierarchies of certain media. Instead, it is akin to a flowing stream of consciousness that, in the digital age, continually reflects the circulation of images and information and the fluid boundaries between reality and virtuality. Those who accept that there is no past or future, no causality, but only openness, may feel like they are in free fall. The paradox is that precisely by letting go in this way, we land in a place at which we would otherwise never arrive: the present.

Basim Magdy:
The Stars Were Aligned for a Century of New Beginnings

04/29/2016 – 07/03/2016
Deutsche Bank KunstHalle