In Focus: Iman Issa

Fragmentary fiction and cryptic objects

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Iman Issa, Triptych #6, 2009, photographs, texts, dimensions variable. All images courtesy: the artist and Rodeo

Iman Issa, Triptych #6, 2009, photographs, texts, dimensions variable. All images courtesy: the artist and Rodeo

The cryptic work of Iman Issa rarely denotes its subject matter nor reveals the artist’s creative process. In many of her recent projects, there is a tacit insistence that Issa’s materials – which include sculptural objects, photographs and video – speak of far more than their content suggests.

This is also true of Issa’s work in that most content-laden of media: fiction. Her book of one-page stories, Thirty-Three Stories about Reasonable Characters in Familiar Places (2011), which she considers both a work of literature and of art, almost completely omits names, places or adjectives. The sto­ries are more like fragments in which the reader must locate a narrative arc from a brief spark of disappointment, a passing thought or a disagreement between a handy­man and his client. Issa’s writing suggests that what ultimately characterizes a situation, event or concept may not lie in its own self-evident, specifically described form or content. Rather, it might extend itself from an association, a memory or an otherwise insignificant detail.

In making a work, Issa often proceeds as though she has a hypothetical relationship to the medium or subject matter, then alters her position during the development of the piece as a tactical measure. For example, in her series ‘Triptychs’ (2009), Issa created the three elements in each work by assuming a different artistic subjectivity in relation to a source. In Triptych #1, for instance, she began with a snapshot she had taken of a bland communal waterfront space. Treating the photograph as though she had never seen it before, Issa then developed a second piece in response. The third work in the triptych was likewise created as though she were unaware of the first two, and had simply imagined the connections between them. Whilst this may seem a curious process to adopt in order to communicate a personal memory or sensation – involving as it does more alienation than proximity – the elements of the triptychs nonetheless resonate with one another.

‘In art,’ Issa recently told me, ‘you can show someone a chair and say it’s a table, and they might believe you. The magic is in the possibility that the chair is both unique to itself and that it can signal a lot more besides.’ At the heart of Issa’s practice is this distinction between identification and recognition, with the former being to know something at face value, while the latter is its immaterial and unconscious corollary. I may see a sculpture and be told its title and medium, but it is the alchemical process of recognition that will make me accept the object as an art work. Circulating between and around us in constant exchange, recognition can turn chairs into tables in the eye of the beholder.

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Iman Issa, Interior / Practice (s) (Missing Detail 8), 2011, framed c-type print, 60 x 40 cm

Iman Issa, Interior / Practice (s) (Missing Detail 8), 2011, framed c-type print, 60 x 40 cm

In the series ‘Lexicon’ (2012–ongoing), Issa remakes existing art works in totally new materials and forms, which she considers suited to the condition suggested by the titles of the original works – Labouring (2012), for instance, or Destiny (2013). Seeking to inhabit the original artists’ conceptual drives and rationale for making the works, Issa attempts to re-create pieces according to her own sense of how the works might communicate to an audience just as successfully in a new form. When a piece from ‘Lexicon’ is displayed, the viewer doesn’t get to see or know the author of the original; instead, Issa presents a museum-style descriptive label in the place of the source art work. Destiny, for example, comprises a three-minute stop-motion animation of wooden rods against a black background, which rearrange them­­-selves into various loose patterns. The text presented alongside the film reads, ‘A 1949 ink drawing on paper depicts a seated female figure with long straight hair’, and goes on to mention style (chiaroscuro and cross-hatching) as well as basic details such as size.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the relationship between the description and Issa’s piece. The absence of the original work, in any case, signals that an exact match is not the point. As I watch Destiny, I find numerous associations are activated: the rods in the animation form cross-hatching at times, and their constant rearrangement suggests less ‘destiny’, perhaps, but purposefulness and the search for an inevitable conclusion. Ultimately, Issa privileges her intuition: the margin of error intrinsic to her creative process is an inevitable condition of the encounter between an artist’s intention and an audience; the difference here is that Issa’s work is focused on this paradox, raising the stakes to a level that makes the attempt itself the territory of her practice. 

Iman Issa is an artist based in Cairo, Egypt, and New York, USA. Her work is currently included in ‘Tea with Nefertiti’ at the Institut Valencià d’Art Modern, Spain (until 26 January); and ‘Meeting Points 7: Ten Thousand Wiles and a Hundred Thousand Tricks’ at m hka, Antwerp, Belgium (until 16 February). In 2014, she will have an exhibition of new work at MACBA, Barcelona, Spain. 

Issue 160

First published in Issue 160

Jan - Feb 2014

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