Constantine Cavafy: cosmopolitan of the eastern Mediterranean, Alexandrian, aesthete, sybarite, witness to history and sensual adventurer. A recurring figure in the work of Anna Boghiguian, Cavafy was, like the Cairo-based artist herself, a compulsive explorer of the past. For both Boghiguian and Cavafy, this sweeping retrospection takes in shallow and deep history, with classical, recent and personal stories indivisibly knit. In Cavafy's poems, casting the gaze back might reveal human energy descending into entropy, evoking horror and disgust.
In Boghiguian's work, the palimpsest of memory takes physical form as a rough accumulation that thickens the surface of her paintings with encaustic, pigment, salt, collage and non-specic debris. It wasn't a clean, untroubled act, wrenching these memories into the present. Born to an Armenian family living in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis, Boghiguian's studies in art and music took her to Montreal in 1970. This first retrospective reveals a ceaseless investigation of form in her works. The earliest include small, brutally wrought artist books from the 1980s, their pages fraying and saturated with paint. Her 2015 work The Salt Traders is a sweeping installation in which canvas becomes sailcloth that builds to a flotilla of trade vessels strung through a long gallery between panelled frames set with salt crystals and honeycomb. The scope of Boghiguian's interest ranges, likewise, from the fate of an individual child, to the bewildering interconnectedness of events on the world stage. Rather than disgust, Boghiguian's acts of retrospect are accompanied by profound empathic sadness. In places, it feels overwhelming.
So much of the human tragedy of the 20th century is here. A series of works - including the installation of puppets and suspended sculptures and drawings A Play to Play (2013) - bring together manifold stories surrounding Rabindranath Tagore's 1912 play Dak Ghar (The Post Office). In Tagore's drama, Amal, an incurably sick child, is unable to leave his home. He gets news of the outside world from his neighbours and dies while still dreaming that he might receive a letter from the king. Amal's enclosed state was read as symbolic of India under British colonial rule and, more generally, of optimism in terrible adversity. In 1942, a Polish version of the play was staged by a group of orphans led by Janusz Korczak in the Warsaw Ghetto, shortly before children and protector alike were escorted to Treblinka.
For Unfinished Symphony (2011-12), a version of which was shown at documenta 13, Boghiguian has installed over 100 small drawings and paintings in boards set into the Castello's windows. They glow, back-lit by winter sunshine, like panels of stained glass. The symphony in question is one of human voices within the never-ending interplay of global conflict, disaster and political machinations. The images draw on news reportage, including pictures of 'boat people' from Vietnam, a bellicose Tony Blair and Arab Spring protests. A giant ear hangs in a curtained-off, altar-like space: an exhortation to receptivity.
It is the capacity both to perceive connections and to experience connectedness that Boghiguian cherishes against the ruins of civilization. In a new series of collaged and painted works made for this exhibition, she illustrates the episode in which Nietzsche embraced and wept for a horse being beaten to death on the streets of Turin. Rather than evidence of descent into madness, Boghiguian, like Theodor Adorno (and, more recently, Timothy Morton) sees the philosopher's powerful sensation of kinship with an animal as perhaps the sanest, most progressive episode of his life. As Cavafy suggests in The City (1894/1910), the ruination of one part is the ruin of all: the recognition of profound interdependence, by contrast, suggests a location for hope:
'Always you'll return to this city. Don't even hope for another. There's no boat for you, there's no other way out. In the way you've destroyed your life here, in this little corner, you've destroyed it everywhere else.'
Main image: Anna Boghiguian, 2017-18, exhibition view, Castello di Rivoli, Turin. Courtesy: the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg/Beirut
First published in Issue 192