I Know the Shape of the Universe
Basim Magdy at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle

With “The Stars Were Aligned for a Century of New Beginnings,” the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle is presenting Basim Magdy’s first large institutional exhibition. Angela Rosenberg delved into the puzzling cosmos of the “Artist of the Year” 2016.
Space stations, barren landscapes, dubious monuments: Basim Magdy’s works on paper recall post-apocalyptic scenes from science fiction films or 1960s and 70s pop posters on which, for example, the Beatles embarked on fantastic journeys in a bright yellow submarine. Despite their radiant colors, the Egyptian artist’s pictures have something menacing about them. They are populated by masked figures and gigantic lobsters; the futuristic architecture looks abandoned, recalling a ghost town or a closed-down amusement park. The works look like illustrations of a fragmented, intuitive narrative that we haven’t completely grasped yet, whose possible associations still have to open up. Grouped in the first room of the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, the images look like poetic yet comic strip-like symbols of failure – one-dimensional and naïve conceptions of progress and modernity. Although in some works Basim Magdy addresses specific situations in his native country Egypt and the megalopolis Cairo, his art strives to be something like a universal narrative. The title of his exhibition, The Stars Were Aligned for a Century of New Beginnings, may sound optimistic, and given Magdy’s origins, some might think of the failed hopes of the Arab Spring. But Magdy is less interested in actual historical events, but rather suggests that a look at past utopias and possible future scenarios might provide information about the course of history.
His work on paper titled Expanding the Universe (2008), which merely shows the monstrously blown-up shadow of a flea, reflects man’s attempt to conquer space. “I Know the Shape of the Universe” is written on the insect’s shadow. However, it is not clear whether the universe might be shaped like a flea or whether the flea knows the shape of the universe – in any case, for a parasite, its host represents the full extent of the universe.

The absurd humor revealed by such shifts in perspective is also apparent in his installations. The Grave of Intergalactic Utopia (2006) is a kind of chicken coup, but a space traveler lives there and not a chicken. Slumped down un-heroically, the astronaut is lying there after what might seems to have been a failed mission, on straw in a wire cage, and next to him there is a bowl, plant seeds, and small plastic animals – like a home in a private zoo. There is even a television in the cage, the epitome of luxury, mounted on the wall like in a hotel room, showing a video of a peacefully grazing herd of sheep, to help the astronaut fall asleep. These animals trigger myriad associations: Sheep aren’t really known for their intelligence, human herd behavior is often compared to that of sheep, and the all-enduring sacrificial lamb, of all things, is a symbol of innocence and purity.

“What we see isn’t what we see but what we are,” wrote Fernando Pessoa in his travel work The Book of Disquiet, asking how far an individual’s imagination can go. Similarly, Magdy asks viewers to bring collective expectations of the future into line with their own possibilities. “Your Head Is a Spare Part in Our Factory of Perfection,” a line attached behind a police mirror of the object The Future of Your Head (2008/2016), is an ironic appeal to the imagination of each individual, but leaves open who might be behind this “factory of perfection.” It seems just as disconcerting to imagine our own head as a replacement part as to envision that self-observation and reflection might be part of an outsourced operation. With this work, he refers to strategies of narcissistic self-sacrifice, such as the one practiced by participants in social networks who are systematically exploited economically.

In his film trilogy from 2014, the artist extends his stories. The Dent tells of the belief in progress of the residents of a small city who seem to have lost all sense of proportion in a competition to host the Olympic Games and present themselves in an irrational and excessive way, and ultimately have to give up. When the melody of the ABBA hit SOS can then be heard above the background noise, it’s like an absurd call for help. The Everyday Ritual of Solitude Hatching Monkeys reports on the loneliness of an office clerk who remains behind after the other residents of his village go to the beach and never return. And finally, against the backdrop of a past apocalypse, The Many Colors of the Sky Radiate Forgetfulness shows that it is inevitable that we will be forgotten – only a few relics recall humanity.

What unites the often spherical, slow pictures in the film, which was shot in 16 mm, is their opulent colors and psychedelic-looking appearance. This is due to the fact that the artist maltreats his film material with different liquids and household chemicals virtually to the point of decomposition. The method, which the artist calls “film pickling,” drawing an analogy to marinated pickles or olives, is a metaphor for the individual coloring of subjective memory and illustrates that forgetting is an unpredictable, uncontrollable process. The artist also used “film pickling” for his slide sequence  A 240 Second Analysis of Failure and Hopefulness (With Coke, Vinegar and Other Tear Gas Remedies) from 2012. This analysis of failure and hope consists of 160 color slides that run in pairs on two slide projectors and that are processed with Coca-Cola, vinegar, and other substances used as a remedy for the irritant effect of teargas. Perhaps it is a not-so-subtle reference to what happened on Tahrir Square in Cairo exactly five years ago. Yet the diffusely illuminated images show unspectacular things: modern buildings, ruins, excavation sites, stuffed animals whose toxic colors elicit an uneasy feeling about how time passes and what remains in the end.

Basim Magdy: The Stars Were Aligned for a Century of New Beginnings
until 07/03/2016
Deutsche Bank KunstHalle

The exhibition, curated by Britta Färber, will subsequently be on view at MAXXI – National Museum of Art of the 21st Century, Rome, and at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.