Basim Magdy, 'No Shooting Stars'

Basim Magdy Exhibition at the Arnolfini in Bristol

25 June 2017 | London Calling

Human beings have always needed utopias. Our heady, squeezed fraction of time and space on this planet means too little to too many unless we can dream of better things beyond, and what is art if not the stuff of dreams? Make of that what you will - Basim Magdy makes a lot of it. In his debut UK solo show, the innovative Egyptian artist uses dreamlike visuals and surreal, pointed slogans to predict the future. It's an exhibition that veers between earnest crackpot revolutionary and sarcastic millennial on mushrooms, in which Magdy explores, mocks, and admonishes the modern world through a trippy blend of video installation, painting, photography and sculpture.

At first glance, the artwork of Basim Magdy can be disorienting. It would seem that this is absolutely by design, for, as the exhibition booklet explains, his art is 'rooted in dreams, scientific theory and failed utopian ambitions'. Once you stitch these together, you find yourself with a trio of concepts corresponding suspiciously closely to Freud's famous model of the psyche: utopian ambitions as the superego, scientific theory as the ego, and dreams as the unconscious, or the id. Displayed as part of Deutsche Bank's 'Artist of the Year' programme, The Stars Were Aligned for a Century of New Beginnings is full of the pyschic vagaries and overlapping images from these three systems of thought, and the result seriously messes with your mind.

Image Credit: Basim Magdy, 'Every Decade Memory Poses as a Container Heavier than its Carrier'

The title sets the tone for the exhibition. On the one hand, it conveys the pompous optimism of a society that assumes it is taking great strides through the battlefield of progress, even invoking fate in reference to the stars being 'aligned'. But this is in fact charged with irony. Like Bill Murray in the first half of the film Groundhog Day, the world remains unaware that it is repeating the same old mistakes and stuck in a cycle to which it is oblivious, instead drawing on great wells of confidence - 'a century of new beginnings' - wrung from its own delusions. In this exhibition, Magdy visualises this central vicious circle in various ingenious ways.

Image Credit: Basim Magdy, '13 Essential Rules: Rule 4'

The ground floor gallery space at the Arnolfini is currently showing No Shooting Stars (2016), a fifteen-minute-long video artwork made up of a roving patchwork of spliced footage. Magdy’s recent films tend to resemble a psychedelic stream of consciousness, featuring a fast-paced series of superimposed images and narratives, the soundscapes hovering ominously between spacey and sinister. The film is beautiful and strange; its central theme is our relationship with the ocean. Antithetical images are juxtaposed: a darting school of fish merges against a group of candle flames flickering against the darkness, highlighting their uncannily similar jerking, synchronised motion. Grainy blue shots of the sea are then interspersed with a craggy, desert-like landscape, as though seen through binoculars. The moment you've made any clear links, the narrative abruptly moves on.

Image Credit: Basim Magdy, 'No Shooting Stars 1'

Magdy used various post-production techniques to add texture to his footage. One of the most intriguing is his predilection for ‘film pickling’, whereby he dunks the rolls of 16mm film in household chemicals for extended periods of time. This produces the hallucinogenic effects of odd colour washes, flashes of light and areas of degradation in the resulting film, and lends the footage a curiously timeless quality, like stumbling upon old episodes of Star Trek while channel-hopping. The photo essay An Apology to a Love Story that Crashed into a Whale (2016) employs simiilar techniques, and is as delightfully bizarre as its title suggests. It is comprised of a wall of vibrant photographic prints where the opening panel reads, 'If you were an animal, what would you be? A whale. They're too big to care.'

Image Credit: Basim Magdy, 'An Apology to a Love Story that Crashed into a Whale'

Humour is a device often used by Magdy as a route through this difficult, diffuse subject matter, but it is underpinned with melancholy. His colourful, graphic paintings are frequently embedded with a critique of the anthropocene, this term used to describe an era defined by humans, and the forces that drive and maintain it. In the watercolour/collage They Come in Threes Like Fireworks (2011)  three disembodied heads resembling members of the Blue Man Group hover jauntily against an abstract background. In The Last Day of Written History (2011), a lurid green billboard-sized screen blares out the slogan: THE FUTURE IS YOUR ENEMY as shooting stars pass in the background overhead.

Image Credit: Basim Magdy, 'The Last Day of Written History'

Perhaps, in his work, Magdy is in fact trying to kill off that most human of things: the utopian vision. His films and artworks often seem to imagine a future in which the 'grand narratives' we currently live by will no longer exist, often pointing to a post-anthropocene world. As the artist himself says, cryptically, all futures remain subject to the ravages of time. ‘Any future, may it be progressive or not, catastrophic or utopian, time will end it.’

Basim Magdy: The Stars Were Aligned for a Century of New Beginnings is on display at the Arnolfini in Bristol until 6 August.

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