Cairo rendered unfamiliar at Townhouse's new sound and light installation

Sara Elkamel, Friday 6 Jun 2014

Magdi Mostafa's sound and light installation translates Cairo into pulsing electric currents that poetically and subversively capture its energy, chaos, and melancholia

The Surface of Spectral Scattering installation at Townhouse. (Photo: Sara Elkamel)

Sometimes you walk into a gallery and forget where you are. This is exceptionally and eerily true of Townhouse’s final show this season, which opened on 31 May.

 A large-scale, multi-channel sound and light installation now occupies the Townhouse Factory Space, engineered by contemporary multidisciplinary artist Magdi Mostafa. Dubbed “The Surface of Spectral Scattering”, this show runs until 25 June at the downtown art space.

This installation is exactly what would be expected from Magdi Mostafa; he is part of a movement of contemporary Egyptian artists zealously traversing the realm of conceptual art. Yet nothing about this show is predictable.

This site-specific installation, which stretches out over 600 square metres, pulls visitors into a pool-sized pit of darkness interrupted only by the 10,000 hand-embroidered LED lights sprinkled carefully over an elevated stage-like structure at the centre of the space to resemble a map.

Using Cairo as a blueprint of sorts, the artist translates the city into a grid, its energy pulsating, fading, disappearing and reappearing.

Fitting a city within a gallery space is a bold task that triggers reflection. Perhaps the work is not about Cairo as a city, but it is about everything that Cairo entails; crowds, chaos, contrast, and change. 

Since 2001, Mostafa, 32, has been engaged in research-driven projects, and has worked mainly with site-specific, multimedia installations and experimental music. The dialogue between sound and space has been the primary concern of his work to date, sound being the harbinger of past experiences and emotions.

In this project he continues to explore the conceptual relationship between sound and space, with light -- a medium he has previously toyed with -- featuring more prominently than ever before here.  

After cautiously ascending a set of rather precarious-looking stairs, the visitor descends upon Mostafa's large-scale installation. Standing on the ledge, you are suddenly looking out of a plane's window, approaching Cairo at nighttime. That sensation pulls with it a pinch of nostalgia, as you reminisce about the times you have made it back home after a trip abroad.

The experience is then significantly altered when you make your way down (after another set of similarly precarious-looking stairs) and into the room where the installation is spread out. Suddenly, it is like being in space. It is as if the ground is shifting. It is like being at sea at midnight. You are transported; the installation is a fully immersive affair, in which the pitch-blackness is interrupted only by the yellow and neon lights flickering on Mostafa's makeshift stage.

A conversation between Townhouse curator Ania Szremski and the artist, printed and handed out at the installation’s unveiling on 31 May, reveals that in designing it, Mostafa was keen on creating a very basic structure, in which members of the audience make their way around the black cube at the centre.

Their journey would then be reminiscent of one of the pilgrimage rituals Muslims make by walking in circles around the Kaaba in Mecca. Symbolism aside, the artist merely meant to challenge the public’s physical engagement with the installation, and observe the routes they will decide to take to navigate it.

Because the stage-like structure that Mostafa has built features different elevations and dips, and the lights continue to flicker, at times it is almost like the ground is shifting. On opening night, Mostafa stood still in a blue shirt inside the space, arms crossed, eyes intently on the visitors -- watching, listening.

It almost feels like no moment is like another; it is silent at times and almost overbearingly loud at others, particularly as you walk beneath the large speakers mounted on the wall.

In this installation, the artist brings familiar elements together -- the view you would see from an aircraft, for example -- to ultimately create an unfamiliar environment. It is like being in the middle of nowhere. Will you panic? Will you feel unsafe? Would you stay? Would you leave?

With this installation, Mostafa sought to activate the senses; he manufactured a space in which the audience is trapped in a dark room, set up to experience alternative emotions.

It took the artist three years to finally build this installation, and it involved significant physical labour. Given the timeframe in which this project was realised, its start date coinciding with the January 25 Revolution, its subversive element cannot be overlooked. The artist has sought to map the energy of the city, in its intricate grid of rage and jubilation.

In a way, then, this installation is an abstraction of countless protests unfolding over the course of three years, sprawling across the city, marching, chanting, and disappearing.

The way in which lights flicker and fade, flicker and disappear, your eyes still picking up their traces highlights how this project emphasises "the deep memories that are increasingly known only by the shape of their absence," as the artist writes in his statement.

In one of his previous sound installations, Sound Element (ongoing since 2007), exhibited recently at Project Space in Doha, a space launched by Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art and dedicated to showcasing innovations in artistic production and curatorial practices, Mostafa presented a sound installation set in a pitch black space.

In this work, which features field recordings that the artist had been collecting since 2007, and emphasises significant elements in otherwise mundane, ambient noise, the artist invites the audience to rely solely on hearing, putting all other senses on hold.

In The Surface of Spectral Scattering, however, the artist builds an installation that engages both hearing and seeing very intensely. He does retain the blackness from earlier works, which in a way forces the audience to consume the work without distraction, or perhaps to become consumed by it, also without distraction.

Perhaps what is interesting about this project is that while in previous projects, the artist focused either predominantly on the space and context of the work, or predominantly on the audience, this installation is at once a self-sufficient installation and a performative piece.

The way in which the audience interacts with the structure now, this summer, is perhaps as important as the three years in which Mostafa created it.

Some of the artist's previous works were more overtly autobiographical, such as Sound Cells (Fridays), exhibited as part of the 21st Youth Salon in Egypt in 2010, and which featured sounds of women doing their laundry on Friday mornings.

This autobiographical print appears and reappears in his work, as he continues to rely on personal memories and experience in his construction of these multimedia installations.

This installation at the Townhouse Factory Space takes you elsewhere. But it is not the middle of nowhere.

Exhibition runs until 25 June.
10 Al-Nabarawy St, off Champollion St, Downtown Cairo

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