Iman Issa

Bielefelder Kunstverein, Germany

To battles won and lost. To savagery. To presidents and their directives. To slavery. To religion. To many years with peace. To many without. To exploration, expansionism, capitalism. To many dead men. To fewer dead women.

Our desire to memorialize significant figures and events is curious. It is an attempt to make permanent something most likely characterized by impermanence. It is also an impossible task, since no monument can make physical the environment in which it came to pass. Displaced from context, set static within change, such forms can never attain a permanence of meaning. Like us, they live, breathe, fluctuate – vulnerable to each and every societal whim.

bkv_dok_issa_15_2.jpg

Iman Issa, Material for a sculpture commemorating an economist whose name now marks the streets and squares he once frequented, 2011, vitrine with various objects, vinyl text on wall. Produced by Bielefelder Kunstverein & Spike Island, Bristol. Courtesy: the artist and Rodeo Gallery, London; photograph: Philipp Ottendörfer

Iman Issa, Material for a sculpture commemorating an economist whose name now marks the streets and squares he once frequented, 2011, vitrine with various objects, vinyl text. Produced by Bielefelder Kunstverein & Spike Island, Bristol. Courtesy: the artist and Rodeo Gallery, London; photograph: Philipp Ottendörfer

Iman Issa’s exhibition ‘Material’ visualises the fluidity of such reliquaries of history. Collected within Bielefelder Kunstverein are ten faceless monuments known to the artist since childhood. The sites are invoked via a series of ambiguous wall texts (doubling as the works’ titles) proposing alternatives to their original designs, each accompanied by a maquette. These components sit at a disjoint. Take Material for a sculpture recalling the destruction of a prominent public monument in the name of national resistance (2010), and the recalcitrance that such a statement summons. The maquette is a delicate mahogany triangle, akin to the perch of a holy book, a tassel pinned to its tip.

Disassociation and aesthetic reduction characterise each of Issa’s pairings. Material for a sculpture representing a monument erected in the spirit of defiance of a larger power (2012) takes the form of a lounging wooden obelisk. Another, an ode to a bygone era of luxury and decadence, resembles a brass kink of Kufic script. A commemoration for a victorious army that initially appeared inferior sees a lone thread pulled taut against a wall. Its reflection winks below in a mirrored shelf, itself dissected by two blood-red lines.

While Issa’s propositions refer to actual monuments, ascription is avoided. Revolutions remain dateless; fallen soldiers, anonymous; nations, placeless. But with a knowledge of the artist’s Egyptian heritage, some can be mapped. Material for a sculpture commemorating an economist whose name now marks the streets and squares he once frequented (2011), for instance, a neat vitrine of effects, refers to Talaat Harb, who founded the Bank of Egypt in 1920 and, following the declaration of the Republic of Egypt in 1953, saw his name emblazoned on numerous thoroughfares in Cairo. Appropriately, the vitrine contains cardboard squares of black, green, red and gold, the colours flown by the Republic until 1958.

bkv_dok_issa_22.jpg

Iman Issa, Material for a sculpture commemorating a singer whose singing became a source of unity of disparate and often opposing forces, 2011, wooden sculpture, c-type print, two white plinths, vinyl text. Produced by Bielefelder Kunstverein and Spike Island, Bristol. Courtesy: the artist and Rodeo Gallery, London; phtograph: Philipp Ottendörfer

Iman Issa, Material for a sculpture commemorating a singer whose singing became a source of unity of disparate and often opposing forces, 2011, wooden sculpture, c-type print, two white plinths, vinyl text. Produced by Bielefelder Kunstverein and Spike Island, Bristol. Courtesy: the artist and Rodeo Gallery, London; phtograph: Philipp Ottendörfer

Why, when such histories lie dormant, are Issa’s proposed alternatives so visually and referentially distilled? A first suggestion: When we encounter monuments to significant pasts long passed, rarely do intricacies of design or dedication linger – time dulls such imprints. A second: We inherit monuments just as we inherit guilt, and the tenor of the former, as with the latter, alters in intensity and inflection with time. Three works exemplify this: a monument recognising ‘a nation’s pioneering development and continuing decline’, another for a blind man who became a renowned writer, and an alternative design for a monument that has become an embarrassment. The first is a coupling of wall-set speakers; the second, a television; the third, two spherical lamps on a walnut table. Like the monuments before them, the works intermittently flicker into life, bearing themselves to some while remaining concealed in the presence of others.

The monument will always return to the ground from whence it came. (Physicality, like social consciousness, is mutable.) Its trunkless legs will buckle. The dust will spoil its features. In this sense, the only true monument is no monument at all, but the lingering presence of the event – an essence that continues to shape that and those which come after. Out of sight, but not mind; open to reconsideration, reinterpretation, redesign: a delicate mahogany triangle, a tassel pinned to its tip.

Main image: Iman Issa, Material for a sculpture proposed as an alternative to a monument that has become an embarrassment to its people, 2010, wooden sculpture, alternating lights in 30 second intervals, vinyl text. Courtesy: the artist and Rodeo Gallery, London; photograph: Philipp Ottendörfer

Harry Thorne is assistant editor of frieze and a contributing editor of The White Review. He is based in Berlin, Germany.

Issue 193

First published in Issue 193

March 2018

Most Read

Ahead of ARCOMadrid this week, a guide to the best institutional shows in the city
A report commissioned by the museum claims Raicovich ‘misled’ the board; she disputes the investigation’s claims
In further news: Jef Geys (1934–2018); and Hirshhorn postpones Krzysztof Wodiczko projection after Florida shooting
If the city’s pivot to contemporary art was first realized by landmark construction, then what comes after might not...
Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018

frieze magazine

March 2018