If you were an animal, what you would you be?
A whale. They’re too big to care.
– Basim Magdy, An Apology to a Love Story
The Future is Your Enemy reads the text printed on a large screen that appears on the poster of Basim Magdy’s incumbent exhibition at Arnolfini in Bristol. The screen appears in a field alone. No people are shown to be looking at the fluorescent projection and all that can be made out in the background are three shooting stars. Through a series of films and works on paper, Magdy illustrates a futuristic analysis of imagined utopias, offering a frank analysis of modern society and its failures.
In his first solo exhibition in the United Kingdom, Magdy plays with language and visual imagery to comment on politics and culture. Layering narrative, image and sound, the exhibition – which was part of Deutsche Bank’s ‘Artist of the Year’ programme – predominantly revolves around film. Across the films images drift together like dreams colliding in a parallel universe, appearing to have travelled many miles from many foreign lands, deciding to settle at the Arnolfini in Bristol.
An Egyptian artist working in Switzerland, Magdy questions the boundaries between reality, imagination and memory. In The Dent elephants appear on screen alongside worlds that could be from a planet far away from where the long-nosed animals are from. The text layered on top of the creatures reads: ‘In the morning he ordered his clowns and their wives.’ Where are the wives? Where are the clowns? What orders were given to these spouses? It is a mystery. ‘I have developed an interest in creating a language where image, text and sound don’t respond to or illustrate one another too literally’, Magdy has been quoted as saying, ‘This leaves gaps for the imagination, offering a different understanding of these elements.’ The films may be likened to collages as different clips are slotted together to create a complete picture. There seems however, to be no linking theme in between each of the jigsaw’s pieces, thus leading to the addition and alteration of meaning. It is almost as though the artwork has been put together as a consequence of coincidence.
The stand out film consists of a series of flowers appearing on a screen with unhappy faces drawn onto their petals in a black marker pen. As the images in 13 Essential Rules for Understanding the World, 2011, change, thirteen rules appear at the bottom of the screen. The text gives instructions such as: ‘Never let yourself fall asleep. You’ll dream.’ These orders, which are harsh, honest and a little surprising, mirror, in some sense, the visual message that their accompanying plants convey. Other plants exclaim: ‘You don’t matter. Really, no one cares!’, and, ‘Never forget that there are almost 7 billion other people here.’ The pretty pink and yellow posies that appear in the film would normally signify lightness, hope and kindness, yet the frowns stamped on their leaves suggest the complete opposite, which is only affirmed by the text pasted on top of the screen.
While Magdy’s statements seem melancholic and negative, they are in fact, full of humour. Even the mode the artist uses to manipulate his analogue film clips employs an aspect of comedy. Magdy experiments with vinegar, ketchup and other common condiments to ‘pickle’ his artworks using household chemicals. This results in the films – all made within the last years – seeming distressed and aged. Holes appear; the light flickers and scratches emerge on the surface, only adding to the peculiarities that the works project.
In Magdy’s two-dimensional work, brightly coloured beings and slogans are hung closely together so that each individual piece merges into one. An Apology to a Love Story that Crashed into a Whale, 2016, consists of a 64-part grid of text-layered photographic works. One piece asks the viewer what vegetable reminds them of clouds and then immediately explains that cauliflowers – probably the most cloud-like of all plants – makes them think about nuclear explosions. In some illustrations blue skies are invaded by enlarged hands, tampering with satellite dishes and infrastructure with tweezers, while in others, human figures appear in brightly coloured space suits in worlds that appear fragmented like pink and green diamonds. In a mix of spray paint, gouache, neon acrylic and watercolours, the static section of the exhibition materializes like a rainbow that has exploded. Even the gallery walls – that are usually empty, vapid and white – look like they have been visited by decorators from another world, and have been embellished with candy coloured stripes.
Magdy’s artworks asks the questions and makes the statements about society that a lot of us are thinking, but most are too afraid to say out loud. Layering his observations on top of one another and illustrating them visually without the spoken word, the artist creates an environment where remarks that may at first seem awkward or taboo, become more acceptable under an umbrella of watered down video clips. And, while the imagery is captivating, the silent lyrics that accompany them in the form of printed text, really steals the show.
Basim Magdy: The Stars Were Aligned For A Century of New Beginnings is on display at Arnolfini, Bristol until 6 August