In T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), a charlatan fortune-teller speaks of the Phoenicians, warning her listener: ‘Fear death by water.’ These words rise from the poem to haunt the anti-hero of Basim Magdy’s latest film, The Everyday Ritual of Solitude Hatching Monkeys (2014), which anchors ‘The Ones Who Refuse to Forget’, the artist’s second solo exhibition at artSümer. Heeding an admonition he feels certain to be for him, the film’s protagonist abandons life as he knows it, venturing further inland until he reaches a place where the sea holds no sway. Finding a menial job within the office of public records, he sits alone all day, his colleagues having left for the beach and never returned. In this new wasteland, the man finds that the life he fought so hard to preserve is mercilessly empty. Failing to divine a clear future in his coffee grounds, he dials a random telephone number, explaining to the voice on the other end that he must ‘guard facts’ – contained in the birth and death certificates stacked in his office – from ‘the ones who refuse to forget’. And yet, when at last someone does arrive, it is not to steal these documents but to destroy them, prescribing the hero a wilful amnesia as his only chance of actually living.
Magdy’s film shares the bittersweet irony found in the short stories of his father, Magdy El-Gohary, whose surrealist texts often find their hero at a loss, even when gaining something. Rather than attempt to create a narrative, the artist conjures a kind of dream-state of imagery cobbled together through overlapping, seemingly unrelated footage: shots of excavators devouring a demolition site or houseplants crowning a windowsill collide with a parade down a Swiss river or scenes from the monkey cage of New York’s Central Park Zoo. The soundtrack is structured through similar means, spiking the sighs of synths and woodwinds with the squawking of seagulls or the clanging of metal pipes. This aestheticizing of disjuncture extends to the text, which appears in modest captions across the bottom of the screen. The characters speak in poetic code, equally vivid and elusive; when the voice on the telephone asks, ‘Do I know you?’, the protagonist replies, ‘Would a firefly fear the fire that burns in its heart?’
Magdy shot the entire film with a 16mm camera, but he cultivates the character of found footage through manual distortions, which endow each frame with an anachronistic antiquity. The artist’s methods are simple, from adjusting the lens or unhinging the focus to produce a kaleidoscope effect, to allowing double exposure or deliberate light leaks to saturate the film with flares of colour. Another technique involves ‘pickling’ the film in household solutions like Coca-Cola, vinegar or yeast, which double as popular palliatives to tear gas. Here, these substances are not the antidotes, but the trauma inflicted. They erode the image just enough to unmoor the content, sending it drifting down a stream of siteless visual experience.
Magdy uses these effects to blur distinctions in the construction and demolition sites projected in the synchronized slide show A 240 Second Analysis of Failure and Hopefulness (With Coke, Vinegar and Other Tear Gas Remedies) (2012). He applies a similar technique to alter the selected stills and outtakes undulating in Pop Rocks colours along the wall of the back gallery. Propelled by the poetic thrust of their titles, the images flow with no tether to hold them to any one time or place. For instance, The Stars Were Aligned for a Day of World Domination (2015) captures a child astride a bronze sculpture of a beaver, while deep yellow waves crest and churn in When the Dust Settled We Saw Our Neighbors Constructing Amber Palaces for Their Protectors (2015). Like the film and the slideshow, Magdy’s photographs bear the scars of a trauma they are not capable of explaining. If, indeed, water is to be feared, it sends its spectre in this endless, anchorless stream of images, in which the ‘facts’ so closely guarded are washed away before our eyes.
First published in Issue 175