Three Swiss artists' playful exhibition on a Cairo gallery ceiling

Soha Elsirgany , Sunday 9 Jul 2017

The multimedia exhibition 'I have a sensitive digestion' features an installation, a collection of drawings, and video art, on the theme of digestion, time, and the creative process

I Have a Sensitive Digestion exhibition at Mashrabia Gallery (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

With its whimsical title, ‘I have a sensitive digestion’ is the current exhibition at Mashrabia Gallery, featuring three collaborating Swiss artists: Alessandra Respini, Lorenz Rieser and Jan Bachmann. The exhibition opened 2 July and runs until 13 July.

On the opening night the walls of the gallery were empty, two visitors are lying down on one of the gallery’s benches, and along with everyone else they are looking upward, at the art displayed on the ceiling.

An upside down journey

A box of mirrors and a map are the navigation tools audience can find at the entrance of this peculiar exhibition, which includes drawings, installation, a video art piece, and a booklet of photos and drawings.

From the map we learn that the gallery is now the body of a goat, with its different compartments representing body parts; two heads, one for watching and another for eating, a giant throat, and a "super digestive system."

In the head and throat, small white-paper cutouts of different shapes, animals, trees are partially taped to the ceiling in a way that evokes an upside down children’s pop-up book.

Glowing red light-tubes, of the type used for decoration in Egyptian shops or evening events, are in the adjacent connected space, also on the ceiling.

The heart – or rather the stomach – of the exhibition, in Mashrabia’s central room, is “where things are mixed and new stories are born,” according to the exhibition statement.

In this part the artists showcase a collection of cartoon strips; very short stories drawn on white paper using different types of ink, pens and markers.

Little arrows indicate on which side each strip starts, as they unfold in the four cardinal directions; some from right to left, others from the bottom up, and vice versa.

Having the works on the celling was born out of the gallery space.

“When we decided to have the exhibition at Mashrabia, we noticed that it had a very special low ceiling, so we decided to work with that. Then many ideas came out, but we were preparing the material for this space,” Reiser told Ahram Online.

They agreed on the exhibition’s concept, they left room for each of them to do their thing, and allowed the final result to be quite spontaneous.

Yet there is no indication of who has drawn what, and viewers are left to wander and navigate through the pool of celling stories.

It is here where the mirrors have the best use, and the experience of looking down into a held mirror takes the art off the walls and into the visitor’s hands, making it a refreshingly interactive, playful aspect of the show.

“It’s like you’re walking on the ceiling. The idea of the mirrors was to have it like a game, and that’s something that I like having in an exhibition,” Reiser says.

Even though different styles can be distinguished – in technique and in the choice of subjects – the collection blends well and the sketches respond with ease to each other, sharing a degree of absurdity, and simplicity in their language.

sensitive digestion
I Have a Sensitive Digestion exhibition at Mashrabia (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

Creative cohesion

Speaking to the artists reveals that this cohesion was somewhat challenging, but was the exciting part of their collaboration.

“It was the hardest part, as we were starting from different points and had different visions,” says Reiser.

Respini felt the experience of finding a common ground was very “a good exercise of communication” and compared it to ‘having three heads and six hands.’

“You can work more rapidly, you can do more when you are not alone,” she said, pointing to the perks of collaboration.

Respini, Reiser and Bachmann were in Egypt for a residency programme. All three are cartoonists but had been working separately on their respective projects. Since they were spending a lot of time together, and were facing similar experiences and challenges living in Cairo, the collaboration emerged.

“Drawing was one thing we all had in common, but for this exhibition I think we were looking for a similar level, a place where we could meet, because we were all different artists with different styles,” Bachmann told Ahram Online.

The title is as candid as it gets, pointing to one of the things they found in common: a sensitive digestion in an environment that is new to them.

The goat is also an element inspired from this new environment, being surrounded by a herd of goats where they were staying in Giza near the Pharaonic Village.

sensitive digestion
I Have a Sensitive Digestion exhibition at Mashrabia (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

Language of metaphors

Reiser explains how the concept of digestion made a perfect metaphor for their experience, beyond bodily functions.

“It is about how an artist, creative person, or anybody really, perceives something, takes it in, and makes something new out of it. In Cairo, for example, we were seeing new things that we didn’t always understand, and we made stories somehow, some of them truer than others.”

“This part [with the drawings] is where new connections are made after everything is mixed together,” Reiser adds.

This metaphor is also manifested in the theme that binds the stories on the celing.

“The drawings all deal with the idea of time, and the passage of time, which is connected to this idea of digestion,” Bachmann says.

The time it takes to absorb and to adapt, the perspective time gives over that which has passed, are some connections that come to mind.

In her own work, Respini also uses a language of metaphors.

“I make metaphors in my own universe, for me it’s a like having a little theatre on paper. My work also has an element of absurdity,” says Respini.

True to the medium, Respini’s cartoons are both light and serious. Many of them are about relationships between humans or their surroundings.

One of her stories is about cannibalism, while in another, a man hangs like a puppet on strings. Fidgeting vigorously, the man tries and tries to reach the ground that seems so close to his feet, only to end up hopelessly tangled further in his strings.

sensitive digestion
I Have a Sensitive Digestion exhibition at Mashrabia (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

The garden of endings and beginnings

The third and final space, is the garden, where stories “are planted back into the world” as their exhibition statement reads.

Here a looping video is projected on the ceiling. The camera is fixed on a bathroom stall, and a roll of toilet paper flies in mayhem by a strong wind.

It is playful and light, but not without deliberation. For the artists, it will stand as a memorable means of reflecting on how they create work in foreign lands, while sharing it in an exhibition that is authentic, even if simplified.

“I think it’s good sometimes to do something in a playful way, not too serious or heavily conceptual,” Respini says.

The small, thick booklet offered at the gallery is a monochromatic documentation of the artists’ time in Cairo, through photographs and drawings. It adds little value to the show, yet fits conceptually as yet another way they try to ‘digest’ their experience to form something tangible.

As their residency comes to an end, the artists will return to work on their respective projects, and Respini reflects on her time in Cairo.

“For me it’s very good to be in a big city such as Cairo because I need people for inspiration. They are like big marionettes for me, weather they are smiling or fighting, they are my subjects. There are also lot of objects on the big city streets, like chairs, which is also very good for my work.”

She adds, however, that for the moment it is hard to see really what influence Cairo will have on her work.

“At the moment I am still very much inside it. I have to go back and think about it and how to transform it in my imagination.”

sensitive digestion
I Have a Sensitive Digestion exhibition at Mashrabia (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

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