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Review: Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear
April 15, 2013
Tate Modern, London (November 9, 2012 – February 17, 2013)
Contemporary Image Collective, Cairo (March 17 – April 13, 2013)
Curated by Kasia Redzisz and Aleya Hamza
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It is rare for an exhibition at a small non-profit in the Arab world to exhibit the work of artists from outside its local scene or bordering geographies. This is a reality perpetuated by a number of different factors, including but not restricted to very specific funding regulations for non-profit art spaces and the perceived demand from and needs of the local artistic community. The Contemporary Image Collective in Cairo (CIC), an organization originally set up with the intention of supporting photography-based practice, has over the years shifted its focus to a much more international scale, most recently with a collaboration with London’s Tate Modern entitled, Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear. This touring exhibition, which launched in London and continues to Cairo, is indicative of CIC’s unique programming strategy, which seeks to focus on the theoretical and formal aspects of contemporary artistic practice. It was refreshing to see such an exhibition in London, as opposed to the all too familiar geographically rooted curatorial frameworks, which often seem to collapse contemporary artistic output produced in North Africa and the Middle East under the curatorial rubric of “Arab world.” Indeed, such was the case at the other end of the city, where the Victoria and Albert Museum was presenting its new collection of Middle Eastern photographs with Light from the Middle East.

Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear took French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard’s 1969 film The Joy of Learning (Le gai savoir) as its starting point. The curators begin their accompanying catalogue essay by informing us that Godard’s motion picture reveals the impossibility of film “embodying” reality. It is this fascination with the veracity, potency, and agency of images that sets up the context for the exhibition. Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear proposed works that elucidate a fracture between what is shown and what is seen.

This logic can be clearly evidenced in Lars Laumann’s visual essay, Morrissey Foretelling the Death of Diana (2006), a work based on an obscure online conspiracy theory that Morrissey’s music with The Smiths foreshadowed the death of the late princess in a car crash in 1997. This is achieved through a detailed decoding of the work of The Smiths’ 1986 album The Queen is Dead, all the while, the audience is uncertain whether to trust his or her reality or to be subsumed by the film’s unwavering paranoia. Entertaining as it is, Laumann’s film captures the brutal mechanism by which media can re-code and mystify particular historical acts.

A different kind of questioning abounds in Maha Maamoun’s Night Visitor: The Night of Counting the Years (2011), an 8-minute single-channel video, whose title takes its inspiration from the landmark film by Shady Abdel Salam, The Mummy: The Night of Counting the Years (1969). This elegiac piece is a collage of YouTube footage, illustrating a public break-in within the headquarters of State Security in the aftermath of the uprisings, which led to the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. The title of the film, according to the artist, relates “to the [common] practice of secretly arresting political activists in the dead of night.”

Another potent work by Maamoun also on show within the exhibition is 2026 (2010) – an homage to Chris Marker’s iconic film, The Jetty (La jetée) from 1962. Marker’s film revolved around a survivor of a nuclear conflict, imprisoned by scientists in the aftermath. Maha Maamoun re-appropriates this context and re-plays out the iconic scene of the protagonist confined to a canopy. The difference in Maamoun’s rendition, however, is that the film’s protagonist is quoting Egyptian novelist Mahmoud Uthman’s The Revolution of 2053, a unique Arab science fiction novel from 2007. The voice over narrated by the helpless captive here recites two trajectories, a daunting journey into the future while simultaneously grappling with memories of his past. The curators describe the film as a “mirage” of expectations – disbelief is constantly suspended, hurled forward, before being brought back to a pessimistic reality.

These two works form the highlight of an exhibition, which also showcases Manon de Boer’s renowned Dissonant (2010), which recounts a rhythmical dance and Sherif El-Azma’s Powerchord Skateboard (2006) – a visual foray through a 1980s broadcast environment, among other works.

The program forms part of a unique initiative by Tate Modern within its Level 2 Gallery, which allows its more junior curatorial staff an opportunity to collaborate with different international institutions, such as the CIC, in this case. Time after time, the collaborations have formed some of the most compelling exhibitions within this behemoth institution – a reminder, no doubt, that some of the most integral members of museum staff are the curatorial assistants who form its backbone.
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Still from Patricia Esquivias, Folklore #2, 2008. Copyright Patricia Esquivias, courtesy of Tate Modern, UK.
Still from Herman Asselberghs, Speech Act, 2011. Copyright Herman Asselberghs, courtesy of Tate Modern, UK.
Still from Maha Maamoun, 2026, 2010. Copyright Maha Maamoun, courtesy of Tate Modern, UK.
Maha Maamoun, The Night Visitor: The Night of Counting the Years, 2011. Copyright Maha Maamoun, courtesy of Tate Modern, UK.
  
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