The first piece we encounter in the entrance to Sharjah Gallery is a photograph aptly titled “Map.” The second, “The Dictionary of Imaginary Places.” They give the visitor clues by which to explore Rana El-Nemr’s stream of thought.
With refined intuition and introspection, El-Nemr deals with the intangible — a subtle quality she finds in the spaces she encounters, be they urban, literary, personal or imaginary.
This subjective quality in turn opens these spaces up to having malleable margins and meanings that El-Nemr refers to as inner voids. Assembled in Streams of Synonyms is her journey in conversation with these voids.
Though highly personal in her approach, El-Nemr’s oeuvre examines the relationships of people to their surroundings, providing an invitation for reflection.
“I leave little clues into my process to connect with viewers,” El-Nemr revealed to Ahram Online.
Like a conceptual treasure hunt, or a physical mind map, the exhibition’s leaflet walks you through the space, with the title and location of the different works indicated on the floor plan of the gallery.
“What is perceived is both transient and perpetual,” the artist writes as part of the text in one of eleven different pieces in the exhibition.
Using phrases like “structures of meaning,” “constructed scenes” and “scapes of the imaginary,” El-Nemr creates a dynamic snapshot of how the artist takes in the world around her and within her.
With the notion of perception as a space with physical properties, the shape of these voids compared to mysterious black holes, where the intangible can be placed, reconstructed, combined, or left as fragments pending a trigger.
In the scope of the exhibition, reality is dealt with not as a fixed thing to be hit or missed, but rather as a parallel field that is just as floating as the imaginary world we all have inside us. To El-Nemr, the experience of both the private and the public is intimate, “in the sense that its discovery or creation is the result of the unique encounter of subjectivity with a space,” she writes in her artist statement.
Even with all these clues, the key to the exhibition is contemplation, spending time with the pieces and feeling the connections, noticing the subtle conversations between them.
“Multiplicity creates a possibility for association,” El-Nemr writes.
Primarily a photographer, this time El-Nemr has chosen a wide array of mediums to express the fluidity of the concept. There is a sculpture installation of a life-sized streetlamp, a sound installation, videos in different formats, in addition to text.
Though at first, the photography may appear random and out of context, we later discover deliberate and careful choices that give pause for thought, making one ponder what the artist was connecting with as she framed the creative scenes.
The images El-Nemr has chosen frequently feature plants, with very rare human appearances on the peripheries.
There is an underlying contrast between the city of cement, solid and supposedly orderly, versus unruly nature, which may be reduced to shadows as in her piece Depot.
Some of the pieces echo and respond to each other. For example, the video titled 'The Department of Squares and Roundabouts' can be better understood after reading the text associated with project entitled 'Extent.'
The world according to El-Nemr is one of quiet contemplation; still shots that do in fact radiate stillness, as she plays with elusive notions and records them.
'Extent' features text taken from Alberto Manguin’s book The Dictionary of Imaginary Places alongside five large photography pieces.
The text tells whimsical stories of the city of words and the city of numbers, with princes and kings and miserly aunts. Here, you are clued into the inspiration behind the exhibit’s title, as you learn why the people in the city of words speak in streams of synonyms.
The photography aspect of 'Extent' features three photos of imposing red brick buildings stacked side by side, with barren land in the foreground. The two other photos also depict red brick buildings, however vegetation takes up most of the frame, reminding you of the subjectivity of the medium.
The placement of the photos with the text intrigues the viewer, allowing a conceptual play, comparing and contrasting the fictional city of words with these images of realistic Cairo.
The artist came across this book in the middle of her research, and connected with how this unusual dictionary reads as fragments, like still images.
“This is the part of my work that deals with language as a symbolic medium between reality and the imaginary,” adds El-Nemr.
Perhaps the most reflective of the subject’s exploratory nature is the piece 'Assembled in Streams of Synonyms', echoing the exhibit’s title.
For this project El-Nemr engages the most mediums under one title by employing photography, video on an LCD screen and video on three small screens, as well as animation.
The abstract animation is the exhibition’s poster in motion, and was created in collaboration with graphic designer Ahmed Aiyad, who designed the poster.
Based on the floor plan of the exhibit, and in line with El-Nemr’s theme of dealing with spaces, Aiyad’s design communicates layers of meaning that are in different dimensions but in conversation with one another.
This exhibit is the third one from the AUC_LAB project, with former exhibits featuring Hassan Khan and Malak Helmy respectively.
AUC_LAB is a series of solo shows as part of the Sharjah Gallery’s mission to link its remote venue with the active art community in Cairo.
As the gallery’s director, Kaya Behkalam, elaborates, “it works both ways, benefiting the art students here by exposing them to contemporary artists, and offering the Sharjah Gallery as a fertile space for artistic dialogue in the region.”
A book series is set to launch soon, titled AUC_LAB Notes on Practice, which will invite writers to respond to and critique each of the exhibits in the series.
Rana El-Nemr will also have an artist talk on Thursday, 4 December, at the Sharjah Gallery, in light of the exhibition.
The exhibition runs until 15 January 2015
Sharjah Art Gallery, The American Universtity in Cairo, New Campus, Gate 1