When you see death with ruby eyes and an alligator tail coming at you, spit out your gum, camouflage yourself and play dead. This is a tip that the Egyptian artist Basim Magdy (1977) gives his viewers in the film FearDeathLoveDeath, now on display in an exhibition at KM21 in The Hague. It’s a weird tip, but why not? Quietly sucking on a piece of chewing gum, death comes towards you and out of politeness you take it out of your mouth, just as you used to learn that you were not allowed to address people with chewing gum in their mouths. At the same time, allow the dying that moment of leisurely chewing because you have no idea where you are going.
You have no idea of your destination, dead or alive, with Magdy anyway. His film about death is about worlds in transition: from the oldest petroglyphs we end up in a dreamscape, a language with only one word (banana), cities that look abandoned, tombstones and children with painted faces looking straight at you and starts about an alligator. Science fiction, a violent trip or the world after you die? Magdy leaves it in the middle. One thing is clear: the world after you die is pretty absurd as far as he’s concerned, and that might be a more comfortable starting point than nothing.
Orb of light from your skull
The absurd and surreal is actually in all of Magdy’s work, which stood out at Art Basel this year and now is An alligator in the clouds has an exhibition in the Netherlands for the first time. Skulls has lyrics like ‘And the hand said to the other hand: I will protect you from the wind‘. Blue heads with red eyes laugh at each other, elsewhere plants or balls grow out of men’s skulls, or you see only the feet of severed lower legs. You tend to interpret the works politically, but the question is whether it will help you much.
Maybe it’s because Magdy is Egyptian that you tend to look for a political layer in it. At least that’s what happened to him when he made the film in 2014 bulge shown in Egypt. It tells the story of a city that wants international recognition, organizes everything to end up on the world map, but fails every time in that plan. Everyone who saw the film saw the desire for change in Egypt. After all, the Arab Spring had failed, and that is why it was hidden in this film. The artist himself has lived in Basel, Switzerland, for a long time. He therefore rejected the interpretation and emphasized that the film was a work of fiction.
Something similar happens to you in KM21: is the movie FearDeathLoveDeath an attempt to give death many faces, to illuminate it (or not) or is there still a political idea behind it? Is it a movie about how you can distort your world as much as you want, but the basics (ancient civilizations) always leave their mark? In any case, this deadly dream world is fictional, that’s for sure.
When Magdy explains the exhibition, Magdy himself states that history is always written by victors or by people who are good storytellers. This means, according to him, that “there is therefore an unknown endless history of people that we know nothing about. We have no idea about their lives because either they were not powerful or their history was not passed down through written language. As a result, so much has been lost, not only physically, but also in memory as memories fade.”
That fading and retelling is also what you see with Magdy. Fragments of a crane, a car roof, pictures that are smudged so you think they were taken a long time ago, show collectively The empty desire to populate imaginary cities, as the collection is called. Whoever looks at the pictures has an idea that they are just as failing as in the city bulge. For Magdy herself, it’s about the absurdity of chance – and it sounds as intangible as it sounds.
What Magdy brings is not beautiful or pleasant, but an opportunity for worlds and moments. Sometimes it’s about what goes unnoticed in everyday life, sometimes it’s about making sure we don’t look around anymore. The text is next to a photo of a forehead Eventually everyone had a drone and we stopped looking each other in the eye. It is an unexciting picture of the future, but how seriously or lightly to take it, Magdy leaves to the other.
Also read: Does escapism save art or does it make art redundant?