I’m squatting on the floor in the middle of Nile Sunset Annex, watching Walid ElSawi‘s stop-motion animation video series on a large LCD screen. A porcelain rooster wanders into the frame; it turns around what appears to be the base of a lantern, makes one single loop, like tying a knot, then exits from the opposite side.
Familiar objects have a tendency to withdraw; the idea of their concrete materiality recedes, we stop sensing them, they stop affecting us. We observe them absent-mindedly, usually while thinking of something else. When an artist finally notices the object, its rediscovery usually coincides with an idea. The object’s potential is revealed through consciousness; a yearning recognized with the recalling of a dream.
Words scroll on the screen: “One of my heinous nightmares is that I’m locked up in a cage, ps. I don’t want to wake up.”
In another video, a small white plate is revolving around the edge of a florid tray. The caption reads: “Years back I used to stutter and mumble, and now my masturbation is not quite pleasurable.”
We see two pieces of cushion foam, bright red as if soaked in paint, they are circling, eclipsing one another. “I always wanted a clone of myself, just to poke him in the eye, and cry over myself.”
ElSawi’s videos are short animations of mundanity — objects from the home, jolted to spin and loop forever like dizzy planets in jagged orbits. The viewer is teased by transcendence. Scrolling text creates a close horizon of absence. With the unsettling helplessness of adolescence, the admixture of suggestive thought and clockwork repetition generates jerky, disrupted emotions. Without providing the viewer an outlet for agency or choice, “Do-Mystic Uni-Verse” (2012) offers one verse, one point of entry into a domestic world whose familiarity and mystique are promised and denied simultaneously.
ElSawi uses repetition to provide a direction to the drifting, lost state that we find ourselves in, being orbited by these familiar objects. The happy repetition that earnest viewers fall into with comfortable art is gone. Instead, an unhappy repetition, which neither reminisces nor transcends, creates its own dogmatically experienced perception. My trajectory is preset by these rotations. I’m exploited in the artist’s painstaking journey to self-discovery, like the objects, and, as he randomly pokes at his deepest fears, I’m constantly yearning for relief.
On the walls of the gallery there are neon light boxes, displaying sentences cut out in black vinyl (“A Contemporary Artist vs. A Con Artist,” 2012). “I DON”T HAVE A MAC.” “I’M NOT INTERESTED IN POLITICS,” “I WATCH EUROPEAN MOVIES,” “I DON’T CARE ABOUT THE CONCEPT.”
There’s a stark difference between this language and the language used in the videos. Arbitrariness here pokes at the art world, curatorial preferences and institutional discrimination, as opposed to the artist’s own doubts and inhibitions. The uncompromising tyranny of the videos seem to be more inclusive, in comparison.
On the fourth wall there’s an untitled looping slide projection, a serial narrative of photographs: The artist is sitting at a kitchen table with a knife in his right hand, he takes it to his wrist, chops his hand off, he takes the knife to his arm, and chops the rest of it off, he then sits quietly looking at his severed limb, he disappears from the picture and we see the lingering remnant of an arm on the table.
I watch this piece a few times, sometimes in reverse. Here again the randomness of raw violence unmasks the strategies of repetition and precision. Repetition fails (and we feel that failure) because the repeated moment is unfathomable and utterly arbitrary; precision creates an emotional distance from the horror of any action at all. The photographs, like the videos, lock the viewer in a state of conditioned perception where each next moment arrives in exactly the shape, and at the time, that it should.
Walid ElSawi is spinning the wheel of recollection, literally and figuratively, affirming with every frame his unhappiness in repetition and his refusal of life’s tedious monotony. This rebellion, both unsettling and frustrating, could be either a metaphor for the promiscuous art economy, or simply a symptom of its slowly-turning gears.
This was the young Alexandrian artist’s first solo show in Cairo, comprising a fresh and strong body of work in which the cycles of life count themselves off in fragmented frames.
Walid ElSawi’s solo show was on at Nile Sunset Annex from December 19 2013 to January 22 2014.