Supermarket for the masses
BY MARIAM HAMDY
Cairo: It seems that there is a recurrent problem in our culture of being unable to reach people efficiently, except on some superficial level. When people say they’re ‘in tune’ with a particular segment of society other than their own, it almost always means that they deal with a minute fraction of what they assume is a sample of it. Each social class, sub-culture, or at best, building (let alone neighborhood) is so self-involved that it ends up speaking, critiquing and analyzing itself.
Not only does this reinforce stereotypical gaps between one part of society and the other, it also reduces objectivity in analyzing each segment’s discussions and cultural production, if any. Most young artists in Egypt suffer this problem, ultimately cocooning themselves in a cycle of artwork and critique that doesn’t really speak adequately to a wider public.
Showing at the Gezira Art Center is an exhibition initiated by the Young Artist’s Coalition titled “Supermarket.” Responsible for the “Shift Delete 30″ exhibit organized earlier this year, almost the same group of artists has come together again for this new endeavor. “Shift Delete 30″ was slammed for its controversial work, which is why the group decided not to use the same name for the current exhibit. Delayed due to the presidential election, their press release explains that the idea for “Supermarket” came about two years ago with “the aim to study the thought and behavior of a consumerist society dominating the life of Egyptians.”
It’s safe to say that very little in the exhibit touches upon that idea. Yet with that exception, both exhibits were somewhat ultra contemporary in their approach. Largely uninterested in aesthetics, the work is mainly conceptual, attempting to be clever, snappy and controversial.
Again, like “Shift Delete 30,” “Supermarket” does anything but meet those adjectives.
Conceptual art in its most simplified sense favors an engagement with rhetorical questions such as ‘What is art?’ or ‘Can art be a concept that never takes material form?’ and other existentially colored types of inquiries. When given a political tint, conceptual art no longer discusses just the essence of artwork, but is given another layer of complexity that takes into consideration external factors through the usually unaesthetic approach to artistic impression. The outcome is either a satirical, scathing and witty remark on how art and politics collide, or a very loud flop. For the most part, “Supermarket” is the latter.
There are exceptions, however. A particularly literal artist in the group is Ahmed Abdel Fatah. Having presented one of the most interesting pieces in “Shift Delete 30,” Abdel Fatah manages to shock again in this exhibit. His work “Edible” consists of a stark white bistro table with two wooden cafe chairs holding a meal with a single plate setting on one end. The meal is what appears to be a chunk of a man’s hairy thigh, presumably (hopefully) that same man’s head is in the center surrounded by parsley garnish, and his large foot swimming in what appears to be chicken stock on the other end. Small plates of salad and pickles accompany the meal. Apparently, there are edible fingers garnishing the head centerpiece and available for the viewers to eat, but they were gone before I could see them. Despite the relative sensationalism of the work, if the quick digestion of those body parts by the viewers doesn’t mark the artwork successful, I’m not sure what does.
An important part of conceptual art is to engage the viewers by jolting their sense of normalcy one way or another. This can be done calmly as Joesph Kosuth did with “One & Three Chairs” in 1965, proceeding to question language, existence and perception simply and intelligently; or by presenting human parts for dinner to question the notions of consumerism with cannibalism as a metaphor. In our current state of aggression, divisions and self-righteousness, Abdel Fatah’s work stands out firmly amid the rest of the exhibit.
Nothing in the same hall, or indeed the hall’s adjacent room, has the same punch. Bassem Yossry’s piece is plainly dull, making no comment on the consumerist society in Egypt. A crossword-like arrangement of crudely drawn stick figures of sorts start in large numbers and slowly dwindle into — lo and behold — a monstrous army general’s mouth. The army general has fangs and a long Pinnochio-like nose.
It’s one thing making art accessible to a broad audience base, but it’s another assuming that this audience is as intellectually advanced as a one-year-old.
Amr Amer’s work consists of graphically reduced icons, an interesting take on the simplification of items or concepts to a few easily recognizable lines. Having done something similar in “Shift Delete 30,” the work sees few developments over its predecessor, lightly touching upon the semiotics of consumerist culture. The focus here is more on the Jan. 25 uprising, as is most of the work in the exhibit.
Mohamed Ezz creates a display of random supermarket items ranging from a paper bag and a watermelon to a bottle, all painted stark-white against a black background. The end result looks like a freshman art student’s exercise in tonal contrast. The intention, probably to remove labels and create an appreciation for the actual items or their significance, is handled in a rather amateurish way.
The remainder of the pieces include a badly curated enlarged image of a tank (again), a room with ultraviolet light claiming “This work was not displayed due to censorship” (a tired art gimmick done to death since the 1960s) and a handful of videos. Very little in the exhibit intelligently tackles consumerist culture in Egypt, and almost none displays any craftsmanship of aesthetics or curation.
“Supermarket,” though steered by a group of well-intentioned artists, is an interesting idea derailed by the distraction of current events. Hopefully for the group, the third time will be the much-awaited charm.
“Supermarket” is currently showing at the Gezira Art Center. Address: 1 El Marsafy St.
Zamalek, Cairo. Tel: (02) 2737 3298. The show ends on July 4.