Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1245, (7 - 13 May 2015)
Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Issue 1245, (7 - 13 May 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Stories of creation

This year the Venice Biennale, opening on 9 May, will see a vigorous Egyptian presence, Rania Khallaf reports

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Egypt’s official presentation at the Venice Biennale this year, organised by the Ministry of Culture’s Visual Arts Sector and entitled “Can You See”, is the work of Ahmed Abdel-Fattah, Maher Dawoud and Gamal Al-Kheshen. Commissioned by Hany Al-Ashqar, its theme is peace as a means to harmony — a paradise that is different for each individual. The project was chosen out of eleven proposals submitted to the Sector.

According to the exhibition catalogue, peace is the principal element of Creation. It is the neutral alignment of nature and the balance between construction and destruction, the twin ideas played out by the installation, which consists of five grass-covered three-dimensional shapes that together form the English word “PEACE”. The viewer can use an augmented-reality application on their mobile phone or laptop computer before entering the hall which allows them to choose between positive and negative images on the installation screens as they pass.

The five letters thus become 10 scenes with which the viewer interacts, trying to extinguish a fire or running away from a wild animal.

The idea is for each viewer to reach their own vision of paradise, to achieve their individual peace. Reflecting the Land of Peace envisaged as the paradise of Islam, the hall is painted white — a neutral colour that nonetheless includes the whole spectrum — while the five screen-flanked paths opened up by the shapes at the centre will be surrounded by green, another colour associated with paradise, together with a warm-cool colour mixture representing the positive and negative sides of each one.

The visitor may not be able to read the whole word due to the complicated format of its presentation, but they can walk through it as they walk through life with the ultimate object of attaining peace.

“And here, in this miniature universe,” Al-Kheshen told me over Facebook, “the viewer can visualise a small universe and assimilate their real position in that universe and is thus enriched by the inner peacefulness.” Al-Kheshen said the team was inspired by “the general mood of combating terrorism, and the general feeling of instability”, which “forced us to rethink our vision of  society as a whole, and ways to attain stability and peace”.

He went on, “This mood of rethinking the concept of peace as a universal destination is the message the artists actually agreed on visualising artistically, so that the audience from different parts of the world would opt for their own concept of peace positively or negatively.”

The idea developed through “a number of brainstorming sessions allowing artists of different styles to approach a unified vision that comprises installation, graphics and mural painting together in one space without compromising their perspectives and philosophies”.

Should art reflect politics, however?

“Not necessarily,” Al-Kheshen says. “Art and politics are not correlated. However, we opted for a semi political theme to be featured in an indirect way in the most significant Biennale in the world. It is through our interactive project, the viewer will be able to choose his own version of ‘peace’.”

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Elsewhere in the biennale, ten out of 136 artists participating in the main exhibition, “All the World’s Future” are Arab: Abou Naddara (Syria), Adel Abdel-Samad (Algeria), Ala Younis (Jordan), Hiwa K (Iraq), Inji Aflatoun (Egypt), Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige (Lebanon), Jumana Emil Abboud (Palestine), Massinissa Selmani (Algeria), Mounira Al-Solh (Lebanon) and Nidhal Chamekh (Tunisia).

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Another Arab feature is “In the Eye of the Thunderstorm”, a group show by, among others, Khaled Hafez, Haytham Nawar and Ahmed Al-Shaer from Egypt. Commissioned by the Contemporary Practices art journal and curated by Martina Corgnati, the project includes painting, video and installation as well as language to image. The exhibition deals with the idea of a quiet spot surrounded by chaos. The idea, as Corgnati explains it, is that art lies at the core of current events but always on the safe edges of the storm.

“At first glance, one can observe different creative practices from the Arab world featured in this unique exhibition,” Corganti says, stressing the significance and the richness of the geographic region on the political and cultural levels. “However, on careful scrutiny we notice tangency points and common concerns among visual artists who share one Arab Mediterranean culture, though each has a very special local perspective.”

Artist Khaled Hafez exhibits an interdisciplinary video art piece utilising six screens and entitled Sonata of a Temple of Mirrors in Six Movements. In his statement he says the project was inspired by his painting work, and is a comment on the propaganda of globalisation. The viewer enters an ancient temple expecting Pharaonic paintings on the walls but within 15 seconds the semi-hieroglyphic calligraphy figures and motifs derived from military iconography — tanks, snipers, helicopters — begins to move in such a way it evokes compulsive mass immigration.

Hafez first discussed the project with curator Ihab Al-Labban in Paris in 2011 — a video art exhibition was to be held at the Mohamed Mahmoud Museum Ufuq 1 Gallery last September but was delayed for administrative reasons.

In the last round of the Biennale, Hafez participated with a three-channel video installation entitled On Noise, Sound and Silence, which was a poetic voyage through the black box of memory. The project featured memories as mind islands whose shores are subject to erosion, continuous loss of resolution and progressive virtual drowning as time passes. Those islands of human memory are juxtaposed with true islands that are physically eroded and undermined by the forces of nature. Just as memories are continuously fading and perishing, the artist suggested, so do communities living on thousands of small islands face a similar fate.

Haytham Nawar’s contribution to “In the Eye of the Thunderstorm” is The Seven Days, the Heavens and the Earth. Evoking ancient Egyptian mythology, Nawar debates the story that the universe was created in seven days. In his statement, he discusses historical ideas related to the creation of the universe from ancient Egyptian mythologies down to Darwinian evolution — and its religious detractors.

In the process the Creator’s hands are  discovered by the audience, visually, through mythological, religious and historical lenses, questioning the relation between the creation on the one hand, mythology, knowledge, information technology and theory on the other. The interactive show includes seven short animated films that represent the seven days of creation. They are projected on a handmade book placed on a display table, featuring the artist’s research on the creation of the universe. The show also includes seven ceramic sculptures placed in a glass display box.

Ahmed Al-Shaer’s project, on the other hand, is entitled Green. “Green is a manipulative colour,” Al-Shaer says, “which enjoys different shades. It is also used as a religious code, as most of mosques and churches are decorated in green”. Inspired by a video game he came across in New York in 2012, the piece is the reconstruction of the fight between a red-coloured US-China army and a green-coloured terrorist organisation. Al-Shaer bought an insect-like item for US$5, and changed it to fit his installation, making it the narrator of his 25-part narrative: the story of the colour green.

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