It’s difficult to imagine a title that sounds more promising that that of Basim Magdy’s solo show at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle: ‘The Stars Were Aligned for a Century of New Beginnings’. Magdy’s title envisions the future as a better, more smart and beautiful world that catches the bull by its horns and looks ahead, undaunted. One might expect a poignant exhibition that gives the viewer pause – but don’t hold your breath. Magdy, who Deutsche Bank recently selected as ‘Artist of the Year 2016’, dissects the present by casting a critical look at tomorrow. The future is less a promising new beginning than a set of ongoing illusions that have long since collapsed. In Magdy’s vision of the future, humanity writes its history with the naivety of psychic repression and obsessively invents the same utopias over and over again. The belief in progress, power and reason is carried on ad absurdum, and our desired absolution never comes.
The optimism that resonates in Magdy’s title deflates upon seeing the exhibition itself. In The Future of Your Head (2008) the viewer sees their reflection in an oversized mirror with a message shining upon it that alludes to the end of Kantian causal thinking, ‘Your head is a spare part in your factory of perfection.’ Opposite from this, a wall is covered in a tableau of acrylic paintings, the colours of which seem to spring from a psychedelic intoxication of the senses. In Our Spies Saw an Early Pollination Season on the Horizon (2013) astronaut-like creatures in helmets and protective masks explore an environment that seems strange at second glance. The idealism invoked in this space travel painting suggests a self-aware mimicking of the proto-typical pioneering belief in progress. This embodiment highlights an underlying sense of deception – that behind its colourful façade lurks something poisonous. This morbid reading is confirmed by A Poetic Exchange of Courtesies (2010), two skulls talking to one another, suggesting that humans labour toward their own extinction in their mania for optimization.
In Magdy’s oeuvre there’s no utopia that hasn’t already existed and no attempt to improve the world that hasn’t already failed. This feedback loop of collective hope, action, and failure, which the artist presents as symptomatic for modern society, becomes especially clear in the dual slide projection A 240 Second Analysis of Failure and Hope-fullness (With Coke, Vinegar and Other Tear Gas Remedies) (2012). In 160 images, Magdy documents the demolition and reconstruction of a building complex, the dark façade of which stands out against the powdery, washed-out colour of its surroundings. These were created by immersing film rolls in various household chemicals, further elaborating Magdy’s theme of cyclic building and destruction. This theme extends to the uncontrollability of Magdy’s chemical process and could be further extended as a metaphor for the future. The video The Many Colors of the Sky Radiate Forgetfulness (2014) is dominated by a post-apocalyptic spirit by which humanity no longer seems fixated – staring expressionless into the camera are only stone statues and taxidermy.
It’s a dark picture Magdy paints of humanity: having lost all connection to reality, the individual helplessly drifts into a long-since-vanished future. Despite all this Magdy’s apocalypse is easily digested in rainbow colours – there’s no real feeling of oppression. Magdy’s exhibition only becomes disturbing in the context of current world politics – and here this tender fantasy world comes off as too untroubled and shallow. Yet it seems as though Magdy has already seen through his own escapism – not without bitterness, his work The Everyday Ritual of Solitude Hatching Monkeys (2014) contains the words ‘The fruit no one eats is reality’. Either way, the stars can no longer be trusted.
Translated by Andrea Scrima
First published in Issue 25