The Future Was Yesterday: Basim Magdy at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

Following the premiere at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle in Berlin and a stop at MAXXI in Rome, Basim Magdy’s “The Stars Were Aligned for a Century of New Beginnings” is now on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. In the show, Deutsche Bank’s “Artist of the Year” 2016 catches the spirit of the age.
Many people feel that the world is falling apart at the seams. In the colorful psychedelic works on paper by the Egyptian artist Basim Magdy, born in 1977, the apocalypse seems to have already occurred. And the time thereafter is surreal. Politicians have lost their power; gigantic octopuses rule the world and demand that humans sign declarations of surrender for their collective failure. Researchers stroll through abandoned futuristic buildings; skulls, crystals, and extraterrestrial spaceships appear in the sky.

The title of Magdy’s exhibition, The Stars Were Aligned for a Century of New Beginnings, which had its premiere at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle in Berlin in the spring and is now on view  at the MCA Chicago, sounds optimistic, almost euphoric. 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. The society he portrays in the film The Dent (2014) is entangled in absurd rituals to preserve the past or megalomaniac projects with irrational hopes.

But in Chicago, as in Berlin, Deutsche Bank’s "Artist of the Year" 2016 shows with great virtuosity that this failure is anything but tragic, and can even be liberating, poetic, or comical in an absurd way, In view of the shimmering colors and absurd humor, we cannot really be sad about the end of civilization. The protagonists in Magdy’s drawings seem to be in a state of paralysis, clumsy, like characters in a slapstick movie. 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). The large-scale 64-part photographic work An Apology of a Love Story that Crashed into a Whale, which was commissioned for the exhibition at the KunstHalle, also stands for the close connection between image and text that characterizes Magdy’s entire oeuvre.

“For me, making a work about a possible post-apocalyptic future is only rational looking at everything around me,“ says Magdy, “it also relates deeply to the concept of the passing of time which I am constantly trying to decipher through my work. The only possible outcome for this interest is to wish I had a crystal ball or a time machine to step into the future and bring back a record of it to the present time.”

In this sense, his dream-like works can be viewed as critical commentary on the present. What Magdy, who is one of the most important current artists from the Middle East, calls for, is radical.  All of the futurist visions, all the conjurations of history from which we can learn collectively, represent outdated thinking in his art cosmos. Magdy believes that such thought will probably die out, along with books, universities, and the traditional art trade. Indeed, we no longer live in the age of great 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. 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.

He demonstrates this with the material itself. For many years now, Magdy has soaked photos and Super 8 films in various household chemicals, vinegar, or cola. In this chemical process, which he compares with the process of pickling, he dyes and decomposes the material in all shades of the color spectrum. An example is the double, overlapping slide projection A 240 Second Analysis of Failure and Hopefullness (With Coke, Vinegar and Other Tear Gas Remedies). The 160 slides, which document the razing and reconstruction of a building complex, were selected from several roles of film immersed in different household chemicals. These substances alleviate the pain caused by contact with tear gas. This could be an allusion to the cycle of collective hopes, actions, and defeats that has continually recurred throughout history and is 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. This pickling is the antithesis of archiving and capturing historical events and collective memories. It emphasizes the fragility and volatility of reality and Magdy’s process-oriented approach to his work, the balance between control and chance that he explores. At the same time, his practice illustrates the alchemical "development" of narration and themes, which also addresses very specific contexts. Thus concurrently with the exhibition in Chicago, at the Jeu de Paume in Paris a new work by Magdy titled No Shooting Stars that explores the geopolitical role of oceans will be shown in the exhibition series Our Oceans, Your Horizon, curated by Heidi Ballet. Water fits ideally with Magdy’s visual and poetic ideas. 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
12/10/2016 – 3/19/2017
MCA Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

Basim Magdy. No Shooting Stars
10/18/16 to 1/15/2017
Jeu de Paume, Paris