Don’t Feed the Astronaut. No Hope for Basim Magdy at Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle
(Berlin.) And suddenly, there was the sun again. The long winter finally gone, spring has arrived in Berlin. The first week of May even made global warming seem great again. Having been exposed to yellow and blue (and in fact all other colours too) almost exclusively in paintings for a long time, many people experience the same reaction. Their body is saying: “Something’s wrong here, let’s go to sleep.” But then when they awake again, they don’t feel any less tired - a restart rarely solves a problem, and that strange thing in the sky will still be up there. “Frühjahrsmüdigkeit” in all its awkward Germanity sounds somewhat more fitting the condition than “spring fever”. It’s not the best state to be in when you visit an art show, even less if it’s Basim Magdy, Deutsche Bank Foundation’s Artist of the Year 2016. If you wish to feel better that is.
On the other hand, it sort of suits him. If he had the chance, Basim Magdy would probably tell you, “Go to bed, nothing to see here”. “Here” meaning not just art, but life, the world, all of it. A visit to his show can get really depressing. It’s titled The Stars Were Aligned for a Century of New Beginnings, and you are supposed to close the sentence with “but we fu%?ed it up, as always”. Artist of the Year does not mean Basim Magdy were Deutsche Bank’s Most Valuable Player, or: Artist, of the past season, but they chose him for their next summer hit. The decision must have been made on a gloomy winter afternoon - or should they want to prepare us for the next big crisis?
Photo collages, digital images and videos all prove the same: Basim Magdy does not like the future, or the present. This makes him kind of likable in the eyes of some, but he would not want that either. The world’s bad, it’s all sad and hopeless; life, war, and all the rest. Negativity, yeah! The Egyptian emo has a wall of computer drawings installed, digitally generated images – is this what you use Paintshop Pro for? - that expose the technique’s soullessness. People in winter clothes stand on multi-coloured polygons and hold balloons like empty speech bubbles, while evil eyes are lurking from a pit below. Perhaps the balloons are all that saves them from falling. Other images have slogans: “The future is your enemy”, or a Dinosaur skeleton on a pedestal. On a second wall, photos taken with colour filters form a dark rainbow, or kaleidoscope, and it pours, man it pours: “What are we waiting for? – A meteorite, It’s our last hope. – To kill us all? - Yes”.
The photos could be film stills, Magdy shoots his films in the same colours, using the same filters and the same subjects, random images of nature, people and stuff. They are accompanied by sounds of rolling thunder to add to the dark ambiance, to show life’s but a rainy thunderstorm. Magdy’s films tell long stories, but you need to read them as there are only subtitles and no spoken word. The beautiful language is worth it, at one point Magdy gives credit to writer (and as google tells us: his father!) Magdy El-Gohary for the inspiration.
One film is about a fisher village somewhere in the artist’s homeland. When it burned down, people decide to rebuild it, in wood again. A travelling salesman tricks them into buying “dinosaur eggs” - concrete mixers that look like bombs actually - and the villagers wait for them to hatch. Foreign biologists come to fame by searching for DNA traces of a lost past; wait, is this about old Egypt, about pyramids and pharaohs, too? But Old Egypt is no fake (if you keep out the aliens at least), or is it? Many countries and cultures know their “Wise Men of Gotham” or “... Chelm”, their “Schildbürger” and “Seldwyler”, and here seems to be a reference. The images feature workers on a site, buildings, a cemetery and (European?) landscapes in aerial view, not necessary with a direct link to the text.
More films are not fundamentally different, with stone heads and stuffed animals, somewhere a lizard is lurking. And what else? - Does it really matter?
Fine, a mirror in form of a blackboard, and “Your head is a spare part in out factory of perfection” written upon. Another writing on the wall: “After much contemplation and debate, the clowns that run this degenerating society agreed there was only one way to explain the status quo to the masses: They are clowns too which leaves everybody without an audience” (bar Basim Magdy, we presume?). A lone harlequin soon to be crushed under a geometric something. Taken by itself this last framed work seems almost cheerful, a cover design for a 1970s psychedelic rock album (there is definitely a Dark side of the Moon influence on Basim Magdy’s style). But “con- all the –text”, it just adds to the bad trip.
At one point of the exhibition, they even put two massive screens next to each other, because Deutsche Bank. There’s only one film showing on either one or the other at any given time. You could watch them on a cell phone and get the same experience (if only you can decipher the text). Basim Magdy is basically a writer who uses visual arts for illustration purposes. Take away the images, the sound from his films, and they won’t lose much, it would all be as meaningful and artistic. But take away the text and there’s not much relevance left. Photos under colour filters and computer graphics are not exactly ground-breaking ideas. To be sure, we do like Magdy, a lot, we only think he's chosen the wrong form of expression. His images are a mere background noise, the video clip to a silent song.
In the end, don’t miss the hidden installation above the shop. Here, an astronaut is lying in a rabbit hutch, eating crisps and watching sheep on TV. - Do not only androids, but also astronauts, “dream of electric sheep”? The space suit is labeled “Space Shuttle”, not “NASA”; he’s got water, light, aeration and toy animals for further entertainment. A mouse hole carved into the hutch could be a trace of some kind of outer life. Now it would be too simple to say “alien abduction”. Better think about those simple needs that we all return to no matter how high our drams might fly. Conquering space will eventually come down to this, we cannot escape our cage. True progress is impossible in Basim Magdy’s dystopian art, men will forever repeat the same mistakes, bound to the same premises. And you know what? That’s a good thing.
Now cheer up, mate!
Basim Mahdy, The Stars Were Aligned for a Century of New Beginnings, 29 April-03 July, Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle, Berlin