"It was obvious nothing would be won. They decided never to fight. They planned their future just like they memorised their past. And swore to reenact everything down to the nose itch. They dug up the decaying bones of their ancestors and categorised them: the Leaders, the Followers, the Slaves, and the Martyrs. Nothing… should ever change."
- Basim Magdy, The Dent
An exhibition featuring the winning projects of the sixth Abraaj Group Art Prize, including The Dent, a film by contemporary Egyptian artist Basim Magdy, was held in parallel to Art Dubai from 19 to 22 March.
The prize awards artists on the basis of written proposals, as opposed to finished artworks. The prize money is then used by the artists to realise their projects without budget constraints.
Together with guest curator Nada Raza, the winning artists -- Abbas Akhavan and Kamrooz Aram from Iran, Anup Mathew Thomas from India, Bouchra Khalili from Morocco and Basim Magdy from Egypt -- have been trying to finish their projects in time for the March debut of the exhibition, Bagh O Bahar: Garden and Spring, at Art Dubai.
Basim Magdy is the fourth Egyptian to win the prize. He succeeds Iman Issa (2013), Wael Shawky (2012) and Hala Elkoussy (2011).
Magdy was born in Assiut in 1977, and received his BFA in painting from Helwan University in 2000. His diverse oeuvre includes works on paper, film, and paintings, among others.
Ahram Online spoke with Magdy about his winning film, The Dent.
The film was shot in Paris, New York, Brussels, Quebec, Basel, Madeira, Prague and Venice, and other locations, on super 16mm film and transferred to full HD, and runs for 19 minutes.
“The film is about a group of people that hope to achieve a level of greatness,” says Magdy through his thick glasses. "They apply to host the Olympics, and try to turn their town into a tourist attraction, they try to build things, and they keep failing, and they keep trying, until they start accepting their failure and living with it.”
Basim Magdy, The Dent, 2014, Art Dubai 2014. (Photo: Sara Elkamel)
The Dent is a visually compelling work that weaves together seemingly arbitrary events, and provokes meditation on notions of hopefulness and collective failure. It tells the story of a small, unidentified town that seeks international recognition, in vain. The visual essay that emerges is engaging but mysterious, at times you are faced with perfectly green grass swaying in the wind, at others you look into an elephant's eye. It reads like an autobiography at times, the grainy tones reminiscent of memories barely remembered. The score combines ambient noise and music, pulling viewers further into a contemplative mood.
The idea for the film emerged three years ago, while the artist was attending a residency programme in Quebec, Canada. The narrative is loosely built on stories that surfaced while he was filming in the town, including one about a circus elephant who head butted an arena, causing a dent in its façade, weaved in with other tales.
Yet right after Magdy started filming, the project came to a halt for financial and logistical reasons. But the main obstacle was that he wanted to shoot it in film, a dying medium.
Last March, while working on a project for Art Dubai projects, he was encouraged to apply for the Abraaj prize. But he almost missed the deadline. “I remember it was the day of my exhibition in New York, I had just finished installing, I was really tired but I woke up in the morning and said I have to do this today.”
He received a phone call a few months later. He could finally resume working on The Dent.
“It was really exciting because it’s an amazing opportunity to do something I couldn’t do otherwise.”
Magdy says that working, as he usually does, within a limited budget had led him to pick up skills that he would not have otherwise learned, especially since he never formally studied film. “I got really used to the idea of teaching myself how to do things. I taught myself how to edit film, record sound, edit sound, and put things together.”
He started working with film in 2007, and this is his eighth film so far. It is also his longest and biggest production to date.
All his previous experiences with art and film converge in The Dent. “There’s a bit of every film I've made in this film,” he says. “And there are also these experiences that I’ve accumulated through working on different projects, like ways of manipulating film and shooting techniques.”
Despite some references to the political turmoil in Egypt and the Arab world in recent years, Magdy maintains the film is “a pure work of fiction based on absurd occurrences and unexpected elements.”
“It’s about a group of people that could be anywhere, and about incidents that could happen anywhere and could repeat themselves in different places over long periods of time.”
And to insert a layer of distance, the footage was manipulated in various ways. For example, he pickled rolls of film in vinegar to produce a different colour on screen, which is a technique he also uses for photography slides. This yields a sometimes comically bizarre and phantasmagorical effect.
Basim Magdy, The Dent, 2014, Art Dubai 2014. (Photo: Sara Elkamel)
“You know that elephant? He was pickled in vinegar,” Magdy says matter-of-factly.
By adding different effects on each frame, Magdy renders his moving images abstract and often hallucinatory. Other experimental techniques he toyed with include creating intentional light leaks by opening the camera and letting the light sneak in. Many of the images are double exposed, resulting in the emergence of two images instead of one.
“I was interested in creating a feel for the image that is not really perfect, but that also relates to my other works in painting and photography,” he explains. “I manipulated the imagery to remove one layer of this identification.”
The resulting film is a mess of colour and conflicting visual material, which succeeds in capturing Magdy’s concept of the undulations and colour variations of cycles of hope and despair.
“I’m trying to say that reality isn’t black and white, even within people, there’s a struggle.”
The text, which appears at the bottom of the screen rather than read in narration, carried with it another layer of un-identification. He says it was his intention to create a story that was not specific to a moment in time or a group of people.
“And that wasn’t because I don’t want to talk about a certain country or a certain city, it’s because I believe these things repeat themselves, and history repeats itself. What happens here is going to happen there, in exactly the same way.”
The artist says another reason he was keen on adding a layer of anonymity was to render the story more relatable to the audience.
“When you put things in unidentified places they become more accessible to people, and you lose this layer of exoticism, your work doesn’t get exoticised easily,” he says. “And it’s a work of fiction. It gives people space to think, to connect with it and try to find out how they feel about it.”
While the Abraaj prize awarded Magdy the budget to enable him to complete the project, it has also been a way for the artist to untangle his own experiences with art and life.
“The notion of failure and hopefulness is a cycle, and they both grow and fade,” he says.