Basim Magdy discusses his exhibition The Stars Were Aligned for a Century of New Beginnings with Manilow Senior Curator Omar Kholeif in the Bergman Family Gallery on the museum's second floor.
Omar Kholeif: So this is my first exhibition at the museum. And I was very particularly interested in ideas around the future and futurority and this idea that we were living in a world of perpetual technological advancement.
And I was looking at lots of artists and lots of thinkers who dealt with these ideas. And one of the ones who I've followed for the longest of times is Basim Magdy. And what particularly struck me about Basim's work was how he was very much negotiating or thinking about this future that never arrived. So many of us may have lived and grown up in the seventies or eighties imagining that by the time we'd reached the new millennium we'd be in flying cars; we'd be living in a world that looked like The Fifth Element.
But that future didn't necessarily materialize and looks like something very different, whether it's through the social media platforms that we use or the ways in which we communicate with each other through our mobile telephoning devices and so forth. And all of those ideas are explored not literally but poetically through the work of this one artist. Basim Magdy was born in Egypt in 1977 and began his career as a painter before moving into a whole swath of media.
And this exhibition, The Stars Were Aligned for a Century of New Beginnings, literally takes us through an entire survey of his work from 2007 to the present with the work right in front of me here being the newest work—a commission made especially for the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. So without further ado, I'd like to introduce Basim Magdy. If we could have a little round of applause for this fantastic artist.
Basim Magdy: Thank you Omar.
OK: You're welcome. So I wanted to just start by asking you about the beginnings. I always think people love to know what was it that made you want to become an artist. And where did your interest in visual culture emerge from?
BM: My father is an artist. So I grew up in a home that had a lot of art books. I used to see my father making paintings and drawings. He also used to make botanical illustrations for botanical scientific books. So that was also a very – added a different element to it. We always had dried plant specimens at home. And he would make these very illustrated, very intricate line drawings of these plants that are scientifically accurate.
I grew up with a lot of modern – a lot of art books about modern art. I looked at a lot of – I was also surrounded by a very interesting environment. We had a garden where I lived. So there was nature and I'd go and discover bugs and plants. And I knew a lot about these things. So it all kind of – at some point I became interested in drawing. So I would make all these drawings and it's quite – it was kind of funny for me that recently I went back to visit my parents' home and I went through my stuff and I found drawings that I made since I was five. And I could remember making every one of them. And it was a very nice thing to experience: to be able to remember making every drawing you made since you were five.
OK: And I'm curious to touch upon the early subjects that you started to explore for your works on paper. So if we look at the wall behind us we see a whole range of narratives, which evoke very much a universe of science fiction. And for me I wanted to ask this very specific question, which is: What is your fascination and your interest in science fiction? And where did it emerge from?
BM: It started with a lot of books that I read when I was a teenager about – I guess it was part of my attempt to understand the unknown, just feeling that almost everything around me is there to explore. And I started reading books about several writers. Some of them were Egyptian. Some of them were not Egyptian. I was – of course like all teenagers my age I was interested in UFOs and the secret powers of the pyramid and all those strange things. But at the same time it's not something that stayed with me for a long time.
After that I started reading about the Theater of the Absurd and I became really interested in reading more poetry. I became really interested in means of communication and using things like absurdity to communicate ideas. But then eventually when I started making these works, sometimes things are kind of like inside and they come back. I started creating this archive of images that I collected from the internet of futuristic structures that were never realized.
Or things that were realized but kind of failed and lost their purpose. But also in that archive there are a lot of images of for example satellite prototypes that were never sent to outer space. And I was thinking a lot about the fact that in the sixties there was this vision of a future that was supposed to happen now. But it never happened because it wasn't really rooted in the reality of the sixties. When the moon landing happened we started talking about moon colonies and Mars colonies and how the universe kind of belongs to us.
And of course it took a few years and six flags to be planted on the moon for us to realize that this is not going to happen. And the present that we live in now is very related to the present of the sixties. It's just the natural progression of things. So I started by – I usually start by taking these structures or elements and they become the central element in the work on paper. And I start building around it to somehow create a different future that will never arrive.
To look at this idea of the future is that we imagine that never arrive but by creating more of them, by creating more of these situations that are completely fictional and will never happen – materialize.
OK: And I think you touched upon your interest in language and poetry and literature and that also this idea of the absurd as well. And I think that definitely comes across through the titles of the works. And so I encourage you when looking at the works to grab one of these boards. So for example the image, which has two figures standing below what looks like two lobsters, is called A Recollection of Past Errors Manifested as a Crustacean. Or the piece over – the work on canvas, which is next to the door there, is actually called The Newly Discovered Gene Carried Racist Connotations.
And if you think about the title, you know it's about this idea that we have progressed or evolved into a world or universe, but there is always this element or error or failure. And I think that the titles of the works almost become works in themselves. They become not footnotes but essays that enable you to think differently about the image that you're looking at. And this idea of narrative is something that, for me I think, is very important to you. And I was curious about how it is you construct your narratives. And maybe we could talk about it in relation to this piece, which is the largest photo piece in the show, which is called An Apology to a Love Story that Crashed into a Whale; again, another beautiful title. And maybe you could tell us a bit about this piece and how it relates to your interest in narrative and storytelling.
BM: Well I'll start by talking about my interest in narrative and storytelling but also in poetry or writing in a poetic way. When I started working with time-based media or filmmaking, I was not really interested in writing. I thought of writing as something that I have to do to make a film to put my ideas in a language that people can you know understand. And then at some point something came back to me. I used to write poetry again when I was a teenager. And at some point I realized I was really bad at it so I stopped.
At some point it came back to me and I realized that what I was actually interested in is finding ways to put together all these maybe seemingly unrelated ideas in one format. And I found poetry. And I couldn't do that, so I thought maybe I could try to do it in a different way. So I started writing my scripts and whatever text I wrote for my work in a way that I was hoping would be poetic, and it was a very enjoyable process and I kept doing it again and again and again. And now it's something that's very important for my work and something that is very present in a lot of my work that has text. The titles somehow relate to that because what I do with my work is that sometimes I finish and I look at it and I try to detach myself from it completely. And I try to imagine seeing this somewhere and try to imagine another kind of unexpected way of looking at it or a different way of understanding that image.
And I write a title that brings back this idea of putting these ideas together that maybe seem unrelated but could actually make sense. They're not the first thing you would think of but they could make sense if you look at that image. For this particular work I have always – I mean I became interested in making work that somehow talks to people's emotions, not just their way of thinking. And I was always making a work about a love story. But that's also a very difficult task because how do you approach a love story? And it's also not something that you see a lot in art.
So I was developing this photography process that I liked to call “film pickling,” which produces these kinds of colors – these very vibrant colors. And I see it as a way to produce a familiar but different reality, to create a setting for fiction somehow. And then I started writing this love story in fragments. It does have a beginning. It does have an end. But it's not presented in a chronological order. And some of them, they're also – I wanted to write in a different way. Some of them are questions and answers. Some of them are very poetic. Some of them are conversations. And the idea for me was to make something that has different elements that people of all backgrounds, of all experiences – I mean we all know what love is. We all have experienced it. A part of it will at least communicate something to every person that you would look at it and you would feel something. You could relate to it. It would remind you of an experience you had or a love story you've been through.
And that somehow it would create this emotional reaction. And instead of just thinking about the work, it would make you feel something.
OK: Can I ask a bit more about this process “film pickling,” which is a term that you've dubbed? As I understand it you use household chemicals such as Coke, vinegar, bleach, and others to produce these colors. And I'm sure people would be interested to know a little bit more about how you came across this technique. And actually, what does it produce? Are these color schematics accidental or are they intentional? How do you do it? And tell us a bit – because there's a very precise and practical process that you go through.
BM: It started when I was reading photography – an experimental photography blog. And I read about this guy who put a roll of film in the dishwasher. And the outcome was amazing. It was just like full of radiant colors and so many effects. It was just so beautiful I thought, "I have to try this." But of course I tried it first in the dishwasher and it didn't look as great. But I decided to try to understand how the chemical process works.
And eventually I started using chemicals that I have at home – mainly acidic chemicals but also not necessarily. I've used things that range from vinegar to all kinds of soda, bleach, rubbing alcohol, I can't remember what else now, but other things. Dishwashing – like cleaning supplies, detergents. And it took a lot of experimenting to understand how it works, because you have three variable elements: you have the kind of film, the kind of chemical, and the period of time the film spends in the chemical. And they kind of dictate the outcome. And then eventually each kind of film if you use the same chemical with it will produce a different color because there's something – there are always different elements in each kind of film. So I started making tables of all these variable elements and what with what will produce what. And the first work I actually made with this process was the work that's here: A 240 Second Analysis of Failure and Hopefulness.
OK: Behind us.
BM: It's the double slide projection behind the wall. So I started with slides. And then at some point I decided that I kind of wanted to print them. And I wanted to add more layers to them, which is in this case the text. So I did that. But it's an evolving process. It has a lot of potential because there's so much you can do with it. And I'm constantly spending a lot of time buying all kinds of different film because the more different kinds of film I have, the more effects and the more colors I can produce.
And it's also a lot of fun because you can do one chemical after another. And one would produce for example a dominant color. It would turn the image red. But the other one would produce dots or drips. So it's like having filters in front of the lens. But it's done directly on the film.
OK: I want to ask about this piece here, which we placed in the particular position because it gives you kind of a panoptical view of the exhibition: Your head is a spare part in our factory of perfection. I call it the “Facebook piece.” Basim calls it the “selfie piece.” It's this space where you can really – if you walk around it you can see everything. But I want to hear about the genesis of this and what's the meaning behind it and also maybe the composition of the piece as well.
BM: Well it's a two-way mirror which is what they use in interrogation rooms. You know if one side is dark and one side has light the side that has light becomes a mirror. The side that's dark becomes a window. It becomes glass. It's called The Future of Your Head. And the idea was very – it's very open but also very simple for me. I wanted to make a work about this notion of perfection, the fact that we – societies thrive for perfection. We all want to be perfect. We want to do things the right way. We're told to things the right way.
But I also wanted it to be presented in an educational, in a didactic way. So it's kind of like it takes the shape of a blackboard. And it's a very didactic message. But also, it's slightly confusing because it has terms in it that are kind of ambiguous. There is “the factory of perfection.” What is that? And “your head is a spare part.” So where do you exactly fit within that? I intentionally want it to be easy to interact with, very straightforward, but at the same ambiguous because I wanted people to respond to it based on the context that they see it fit in.
It can be seen as science fiction. It can be seen as political propaganda. It could be seen as something I just found on the internet. And I like that. I like this space that I leave for people to imagine things and to kind of project their own understandings and their own experiences and their own backgrounds into the work.
OK: The piece on the back wall here, which I nickname “Islands” because the title is still too long for me to remember and it's brand new. It is a new commission you made for the MCA and I'd love for you to tell us a bit about it.
BM: I also can't remember the title.
OK: Yeah, that's funny. Don't tell people that.
BM: Yeah. This is a new work. And while I was making it I was very aware of the other works that were going to be in this show. And I wanted to make a work that is a logical departure from the last works that I have made that shows exactly where I'm at right now with my work. But at the same time, that has a lot to do with my thinking process at the moment. One of the projects I was working on this year was a new film that is not in this show. But it's a film that deals with oceans as a landscape but also as the unknown. As exotic spaces, as a place for mythology to be – you know, where mythology is created. I believe that whenever we don't understand something, we don't understand the territory, we create mythology around it. Because it helps us understand it. So one of the things I was looking at was islands as those isolated, exotic places that always keep a record of their history. They keep a record of their geology, of their creation, of the people who have passed through them, of the people who have lived on them.
They're very manageable. They're like small worlds, mini-worlds, and their isolated. So for things to leave them and to come back to them and for whatever is happening there to be influenced by the outside world becomes more difficult. But at the same time I was looking at the contradiction of them historically being a place for high security prisons, a place for banishment. But at the same time that now we see them as a place for tourism, a place for you know wonder, for exploration, for understanding maybe natural history.
There is something very interesting that I find about islands as a place that responds to a lot of the other ideas that I work with. And I wanted to make a work that has no text; that is just a poetic sequence of images that I shot at islands or items that I collected from islands that I visited. And that speaks about this idea of history and then becoming a time capsule for the world we live in on a very small scale.
OK: I want to talk about your films. For me they are the connective tissues that bind together all of your ideas. And in this exhibition we chose three very different films that kind of presented different paths if you will into understanding the inner psyche of Basim Magdy the artist. And one of the most famous perhaps is this film called 13 Essential Rules for Understanding the World, which is in this room over here. And it presents you with a series of flowers, tulips I believe, with painted faces. And within it you give us a series of reciting, a potential tool book or rulebook for a universe or a world that we live in. But there is something very—I wouldn't say pessimistic—but very painfully realistic about the way that messages come across in this very didactic way. And in a sense this is what many have commented on as your take on the instructional film or the educational film. And I wanted you to talk a little bit about the genesis of that piece because when people see that piece, they tell me often that they think that – they come out with two ways of thinking. Some tell me they think it's very tragic and dystopian. And others think it's absolutely hilarious and that the way of using the flowers as these expressive hand-painted faces on them, that that brings across this kind of humorous undertone. So maybe you could tell us a little bit about that piece, its story, and what it means for you personally.
BM: I think it's both. And that's why I think it's very realistic and very – yeah. It started actually with me doing something that I had no idea how it would end up becoming or what it would end up becoming. I started writing this list as an exercise in maybe looking at the world around me, looking at the very clear elements of the world around me, and trying to understand the world around me. So I started writing this list and I was writing on and off for about year, not taking it seriously. It was just something I was doing on the side. And editing it and not knowing what I would do with it eventually. And then at some point I had tulips at home and I started drawing faces on their petals. And then I thought that I liked them and they were funny, so I shot Super 8 footage of them. And I got the film developed. I was looking at it on my projector. And coincidentally I just had the list next to it. And I looked at both of them and they just made sense.
And it's probably the only time that I've done that because I like to work with ideas that I stretch and I layer and I work on them and think about them and give myself as much time as possible to think on what I'm doing. And this time it just made sense because what I could see in it is that yes the list is – the rules are extremely harsh. But at the same time, the humor in the faces and how they tried to respond, because that's what I did later in the editing, I tried to respond to the rules through the expressions of the faces.
There is something that is maybe funny about it that kind of tones it down and evens it out somehow. But at the same time yes I think the rules are harsh. But at the same time I think it's things we all know. We just don't think about them all the time. And I don't think about them all of the time. But somehow it was good for me to make a work like this and to present my ideas in a straightforward way instead of the layer process that I usually work with.
And the reaction I get is slightly different from the one that you heard from people. The reaction I get is like usually people find it humorous until the sixth rule, which says, "Never let yourself fall asleep. You'll dream." And then it kind of like starts getting heavy. But in the end, I think the best reaction to my work for me is people leave and are still thinking about it. And it just triggers a thinking or an emotional process.
Also it's very important for me to say that my interest in triggering and emotional response to my work started from this work. And it happened by accident also. I started seeing that people were having an emotional reaction to this. And I really liked that. I really thought this was interesting. So I started working with it more.
OK: I think that eliciting an emotional response is something that runs throughout all of your work and indeed is tied to this interest in narrative and storytelling but especially in the films, including The Dent and Time Laughs Back at You Like a Sunken Ship. You're really taking us through this process of trying to identify and locate a place, which doesn't exist. And ultimately, I feel as a viewer, you become cast within the context of these environments and you use these very complex and sonic layered soundscapes to really elicit emotion.
And that also I think is governed or dictated by the fact that you're often using analog materials such as Super 8 film or 16 mm film and then transferring it to digital. And the mechanical sounds of those things, even though you were talking often about ideas that deal with the future, also I think create this other emotional or effective quality because the viewer feels like they're somehow temporally dislocated. Are they in the future? Are they in the present? Or are they looking at something in the past?
And I think that's another kind of facet that the technology itself that you use brings another facet or a layer to this kind of emotional context, which you articulate. But I wanted to ask about one specific painting because one of our guards was asking me about this painting White Revolution, which is next to this text piece here before you enter The Dent. And you can't see it from back here. I'm sorry. It's a green painting.
We were discussing how the colors were these very ebullient things, but that the slogan in it somehow was potentially depressing or overtly realistic. And I wanted to ask specifically about that painting there if you could tell us a little bit about it.
BM: Well it started I guess with me going to a country fair. It had rides and there was a lot of – yeah, I was just really like taken by this idea that people find fear as entertainment. That people find entertainment in fear I guess. I personally never understood this. I know a lot of people enjoy going to amusement parks and getting on scary rides, but I don't get it. Like people pay money to get scared – to almost see death. But it got me thinking about societies and how societies function and how we sometimes do things like this that may not maybe make a lot of sense, but they keep us going and we consider them entertainment. And we consider them integral to our daily lives and the way we deal with that reality.
And somehow this idea of endorsing the fear related to a revolution for me—related to this fear that is in societies of expressing their discontent maybe or unhappiness with the way they live. But also, when I make these paintings, I don't really try to conceptualize them too much. Sometimes it's just good to go with your instinct and what you start – how it starts, and you just keep it going. And again the title and the text in it is intended to take it in a different direction. To look at an image and then you read the title or you read the text and you start thinking about it in a different way. I don't know if that answers your question.
OK: I was just curious about this one bit where there are these figures that are all wrapped. It's kind of a black cat suit and they're almost – like they're being tortured.
BM: Well, they're on a ride.
OK: That's what it is.
BM: They paid money for this. They're enjoying it.
OK: But why are they dressed that way?
BM: Because they're silhouettes. I don't know. I was just like unconsciously trying to say I don't understand what you people are doing.
OK: I was like it's Catwoman or something is what I told someone. That piece next the film, which is behind in this room called The Dent, which is Basim's perhaps most ambitious film work. And also one of the most layered in terms of images and sonic quality. And it was commissioned by The Abraaj Group Art Prize, which is kind of like the Turner Prize for the Middle East and South Asia. And its starting point is about this fictitious small town that is bidding or vying to host the Olympic Games.
And they start to do rather hysterical ceremonial things throughout the beginning of the film. We start to see street sweepers with sparklers on them. We start to see figures, officials doing particular things. But then the film takes a very different turn. And maybe you could tell us a little bit about this film, especially that turn in the film and how you conceptualized it.
BM: So the film started at a short residency I was doing in a small town in Quebec. And the residency was in an abandoned hockey arena that had a corrugated metal – like corrugated steel facade. And every time I walked in and I saw this dent above the entrance that didn't make any sense because of the height and the size of it. And for I think it was like a month long residency. And I kept asking people for whole month how did this happen? Like the only thing that could've made sense would have been a wrecking ball. But you know it didn't wreck the facade so it's not a good wrecking ball. And eventually someone said that the circus was in town, that the elephant decided to head butt the side of the arena. And I found this extremely inspiring. And this is actually the only thing in the film that's not fictional. But I built this whole fictional story around it. And this story starts with a group of people who live in an anonymous town. It's a small town and they want to acquire a certain level or any level of international recognition.
So they bid to host the Olympics but they party all night and the committee comes. And they're not happy with their preparation. They buy dinosaur eggs and then the giant dinosaur eggs – and then they realize they're made out of steel. Eventually their mayor tries to hypnotize them with forgetfulness. So he brings the circus to town to entertain them. At the same time the circus owner has a dream where he sees his elephants as zebras. So he wakes up the next morning and he asks his clowns and their wives to paint the bodies of the elephants in zebra patterns. And then the story of the elephant also kind of starts. And eventually the elephant sees its own reflection in a water puddle and then it decides to react to that. But the idea was to have these two stories. I was working in layers. You know the significance of this film for me is that it came after works that were a lot more poetic, a lot less layered but still had the beginnings of these layers. Like Time Laughs Back at You Like a Sunken Ship, which is here.
The Dent because I was lucky enough to win this prize and it involved some money so I could buy new equipment and I could spend some more time on it, and it was an ambitious project for me. So I wanted to invest as much time as possible in it. And I decided – this was the first film I made in 16 mm. And everything before that was Super 8. It started a process of layering of sound, image, and text that kind of continued and evolved in the rest of my work afterwards, but it also started this – or maybe it highlighted this interest I had in all these three elements not translating each other or not responding to each other literally. So you know you don't have to see something and hear the sound that it produces. You can see something and hear another sound that maybe doesn't make sense in the beginning, but then you get used to it. And it starts making sense and it starts flowing. Also the relationship between the text and the image is always like there's – I always say it works by affiliation. So it was a very critical work for me. It was a lot of work to do and I really hated making it, but once it was finished I was really happy with it. I felt like my work had gone to a different level of complexity. And for me also to do something that I like I guess.
OK: I'm going to open up to questions in a second. So have those prepared. I want to just take – there’s two different works here that I wanted to touch upon. One is the piece behind here, which is the one that you mentioned which was the start of your “film pickling” process, which is you documenting a demolition and its subsequent – the end of the demolition and the beginnings of a construction project. And you take us through that whole journey. And also this piece here which is a takeaway piece that the audience can take away, which is rather different in that it is a story that present two different scenarios and invites the viewer to really partake in choosing the scenarios. And maybe you could just contextualize both works for us before we open up.
BM: So the double slide projection work, A 240 Second Analysis of Failure and Hopefulness, is a work that came out of my interest in – again it has very similar interest to The Dent. And actually it was shot at one of the location that I was shooting footage for The Dent. So you'll see a lot of common imagery in between these two works. I started by watching this demolition site. And I was kind of looking at the work in it. I started taking pictures and then I realized they're actually about to start building, so I started taking pictures of that as well. And then I went in my studio and I looked at the images. And I saw that there isn't that much that looks different between the demolition and the construction. And I started playing with them on projectors. And I put them on two projectors. And I mixed them up. I didn't want it to be presented in a chronological order. And at some point the image kind of overlapped. The two images overlapped. And I thought also that worked with what was working on because what really struck me is the blurred lines between like when we see these things. It's very difficult to understand what's happening sometimes. And that resonated really well with something I was thinking a lot about, which is also like I said present in The Dent, which is the idea of collective failure and collective hopefulness. How groups of people work together and how they see the future and how they repeat the mistakes of the past. And then they also repeat the hopes of the past. And that things work in cycles until they realize that they've been doing these things in cycles. And then they have to decide between two courses to take. One is to keep doing this or to accept that this is going to happen or maybe to find a way to do it differently. But what usually happens is either they accept or they keep doing this. So somehow A 240 Second Analysis was a way of looking at these ideas in a different medium but also in a different way than The Dent.
There's no text. It's just images. And they're you know – I like to do this sometimes where I look at things differently. This work is an older work.
OK: It's called Last Good Deed.
BM: It's called Last Good Deed. And it's a double-sided poster. It has exactly the same image. There's a man standing on a car. He chopped off his hand, put it at the end of a stick. And it says, “Knowing he could die the next day a man desperately tries to tickle heaven.” Three dots. That's the open-ended scenario. And then the other side says, "Knowing he could die the next day a man desperately tried to tickle heaven but heaven doesn't laugh. Instead frogs start falling from the sky."
So this one has an ending but it's an unexpected, kind of absurd ending. And I like this idea that, because I'm talking about death, that both scenarios have no resolution. They don't give you real answers. And the idea for me is that people can take them for free, and you know you take it home, and then you have to decide between which side you want to hang it on. And then eventually you realize that this is actually a poster about our mortality. So I kind of like this trick I guess.
OK: So do we have any questions from the audience? Maria, my colleague here is going to hand over my microphone to you. So we have one here.
Audience Member 1: Really it's more commentary, but anyway, I was thinking about this piece when you were talking about it how it could just go on forever. Like the way you were talking about visiting these places and creating this sort of poetic set of connections about these places. It just struck me that you could make that piece go on forever.
Audience: Brief comment.
BM: I totally agree.
Audience Member 1: Yeah, and I actually really like that idea as an idea because then looking at the piece you begin to – that for me was the connection to this idea of the future ’cause it struck me right away that you could do this forever. And then I start to construct the next bit of the forever process in my own head. So I like that. And I just wanted to say that your point about this sort of retro-technology in all this struck me like that walking through this exhibit.
And I found that almost, not sentimental, but it was like I'm scared of the future. You know that's my reaction to it because I'm not a techno guy and I don't – I'm not enamored with it so these – and I'm old enough, so that this kind of technology was what I was working with when I was in college and all that kind of stuff. And it struck me like that that your whole process with the household chemicals is like you said – all this is so analog.
And that to me was very poignant somehow. And I obviously think that that really affects the perception and the relationship any viewer has to the work. It takes us away from now and creates this kind of conflict with – or kind of obsession with the future and something in the not-so-distant past that may be still floating around in the air. So that's really all I wanted to say which I really liked. And so thank you.
OK: Thank you. Thanks a lot. Yeah I was tempted to keep going forever with these but we didn't have enough space. But totally see this and this is something – I need to take a break after this show but this is something I might be working with sometime in next year again. But at the same actually what you said makes sense with something – with another series that I worked on from 2012 to 2016: this idea that something that keeps growing. So I made this series of works called Every Subtle Gesture, which is not in this show. But we also decided to make – I made an artist book that was published by the MCA and it's called Every Subtle Gesture. And it documents every single image that is part of this series. And there’s 100 images. It's an image with a line of text underneath it that responds to it in the same way that I respond to images in a kind of unexpected way. And the book also starts with a beautiful poem or verse by Omar. But this idea is something that I've been thinking a lot –
I've been exploring and working with and what I've found really interesting about working on a project for four years is that I becomes kind of a like a record of what you do, of how you change, of the way you take pictures change, and the way you write changes. And also somehow it has all these intersections with all the other projects that I worked on. So for example there are photographs in it that are of things that are – you know there's footage of them in The Dent. They're not stills from The Dent but I take pictures and I shoot footage at the same time. So a lot of elements from many of the pieces in the show kind of found a way to become part of this series that's in the book. The book is in the bookstore if you want to take a look at it. But it’s – I realize that we can't have all the work that I would like to have in this show. So this was actually a great way of dealing with it, to add another work as a book and yeah I was happy to have an artist book that documents this series. And yeah I don't really think I have anything to add to what you said about this. I think you put it beautifully. So thanks.
Zach Cahill: Hello. Thank you for the work Basim. It's a really amazing show. And thank you both for talking to us. I had one question about the future and how you think about – there is this one future that we didn't get. And we live in another kind of future and a displacement of that. What do you learn from that? How do you think about the distinction between the imagined future and the one we end up living? It's kind of an abstract question but it seems to be some of what's making you – driving the work.
BM: I don't know that make believe is popular. We believe what we want to believe and we – it takes me back to those cycles that I was talking about. These things happen and then we realize that the future didn't arrive. But I keep – like on my Facebook feed, I keep getting these posts about “this is the future,” you know, “this whatever machine or how we do this is going to happen in 2020 or 2029 or whatever.” You know I can tell that it's not going to happen. It's just – I think it's inspiring somehow.
It's inspiring to see all these things that are not going to happen. There is something poetic about it. There's something poetic about knowing that there are possibilities that were not materialized to something. It's not something pleasant but it means that we're thinking in a lot of different directions. Sometimes we fail and sometimes we succeed. And I think failure is really part of it. And I completely endorse it. I mean even with my work – I was just talking to a group of teenagers that the museum is working with.
And I was talking a lot about this idea of endorsing failure. It's part of any process. If you always succeed then there's absolutely nothing to learn from.
Audience Member 3: How has your work been received in the Middle East?
BM: I think the same way it's seen here. It's not – my work is not about the Middle East or about America or about a particular place.
I do certain things in my work that are intentional. I try to remove names or places or you know all the footage I shoot I shoot it in – the footage for The Dent was shot maybe in like 8 different countries or 11 different countries. And I keep shooting wherever I travel for shows or wherever I find myself.
But one strategy I keep making sure to stick to is to shoot footage that looks familiar but is unrecognizable. Maybe you would recognize it if you are from the city, but if you're not – I don't shoot footage of iconic buildings or monuments or landmarks. I'm trying to create work that people can relate to regardless of their background or their experiences. I want this to become something that – when I showed The Dent for the first time in Greece people said, “This is about Greece. How could you make a work that speaks so much about what we're going through right now?”
It has nothing to do with Greece. I had never been to Greece before. But this is what I'm trying to do. And the Middle East is like any other place. I don’t know if people would connect to something in it more or less but I feel like they would connect, or I hope they would connect to it based on the experiences that they've been through and their knowledge of the world around them.
Maria Jenkins: Any other questions? You can just raise your hand. I'll come around to you.
Audience Member 4: Quick question: does your work exist in other languages? Or do you use only English?
BM: This poster exists in several other languages because I have produced it and exhibited it in different countries. So I believe it exists in Bulgarian and Turkish and French. But mainly my work exists in English. That's not precise. The language I use in my work is English. Particularly because of what I was talking about – because for me English is a very neutral language. It is the language that everyone around the world sees as the universal language.
I'm Egyptian so I speak Arabic. It's my first language. But I also speak English and I feel like if I used Arabic or any specific language, it connects the work to a place right away. And it's part of the strategy of eliminating these layers that might limit the work to a specific place and make it more accessible to different people. I wanted to say something else but I can't remember it now.
OK: If there are no more questions then I maybe will wrap up with a couple just quickly. We've talked a lot about the future. But one of the things that I wanted to ask about is your relationship to the audience. You have two young children, which maybe is not something you'd necessarily want me to share publically so excuse me. But you know are a family man and someone who is putting – obviously optimistic enough to want to put people into the world. So you're not that much – you're not a pessimist.
That's what people tell me when they say he's a total pessimist. Nope he's just a realist because – or even an optimist if he's bringing people into this world I say. And so I really want to ask you a little bit about where you think we're going in terms of the future, because a lot of your interest in audience has been about – you've told us here as a museum I want the audience to be able to dialogue with the work, to comment on the work, to engage with it on social media, to take photos of the films, to share them on every platform that's possible.
And so I wanted to ask about these two questions: One is, how do you imagine or conceive your relationship to the audience? And the second one is, where do you think we're going with the future?
BM: Well actually I just remember something that I was just telling to Zach [Cahill]. When I started drawing the faces on the petals of the tulips for 13 Essential Rules not knowing what I was doing, my daughter, my younger daughter, was a baby. And she was sitting next to me. And it was mainly like, “Look we can draw funny faces on the flower.” So it does help. It makes me less pessimistic I guess. I'm not pessimistic.
All of these things kind of relate to what I do. All of these things are part of my understanding of the world and the influences and the things that inspire me. Having children changed the way I look at the world. It changed the way I want to deal with the world. It changed the way I want to communicate my ideas. It made my work more ambiguous and more – I hope more subtle in a way, because I tend to see the world as more grey than black and white now.
But I forgot the second part of your question, sorry.
OK: Where are we going with the future?
BM: Yeah. I don't know but I really think – I believe that the future is always – time always works in cycles. The future is not going to be a lot different from the present. And it's not going to be extremely surprising or shocking or unpredictable. I think there will be mistakes that will be made and we'll fix them. And then we'll make more different or the same mistakes. And then we will fix them. And that's what humanity has been doing since you know the first hunter-gatherer settlements I think.
And I don't think there will be anything—at least not in the near future—there won't be anything drastically surprising in our future.
OK: Except for great political social change and ecological disaster but we won't talk about that.
BM: No I don't think that's going to happen. I think we'll fix our mistakes.
BM: And I realize I'm being optimistic when I say that.
OK: See, he's such an optimist. Well I want to take this moment to thank you all for being here and being with us on a Saturday afternoon. I want to thank my colleagues who worked with me on this show throughout the museum, including my colleague Erin Toale at the back here who worked with me on every element of this exhibition to help realize it. I want to thank our colleagues at Deutsche Bank and my colleague Liz Christiansen who's here who are the organizers of this exhibition with us.
And to encourage you to go to the store to look at both the artist book that we produced for the MCA, which is called Every Subtle Gesture, which is in and of itself, I suppose, the final artwork of the show. But also Deutsche Bank produced and incredibly beautiful catalogue that surveys the artist's entire practice and features almost all of the works in this show. We have a series of wonderful essays including one by myself. I'm not saying that that's wonderful but you know there's also one there by me.
But ultimately thank you so much Basim for taking us on this journey with you here. We are so grateful and I hope that we will continue this relationship and that our audiences here will continue to be inspired by your work.
BM: Thank you Omar. Thank you everyone.
- Basim Magdy: The Stars Were Aligned for a Century of New Beginnings–
- Short A brightly colored geometric shape floats in a starry sky above a figure wearing an equally colorful head dress and jumpsuit.
- Long A three-dimensional geometric shape floats in a starry night sky, taking up most of the upper two-thirds of the painting. The shape is multi-faceted, with 7 faces showing. Each face has has a gradient of vibrant colors ranging from yellow to green, blue to pink, and red to black. The faces are flat and matte, stark against the spray-painted starry night sky. Behind the shape, we see black and grey stripes creating a shadow of the shape. The ground is white, as if it is covered by snow. There are four round-edged rectangles along the ground, in pastel colors. A small lone figure stands in the bottom center of the painting, wearing an orange jumpsuit with green side stripes, red gloves, dark blue boots, and a striped, semi-circular hat. The figure stands directly under the geometric shape, looking at us, and is dwarfed by the size of the geometric shape.