Neither too soon or too late: The PhotoCairo5 catalogue

The bilingual publication released last month to accompany the 2012 PhotoCairo5 exhibition continues the exhibition’s quest to shift the debate away from both whether it can be “too soon” to produce art about revolution and what constitutes revolutionary art. It does this not by simply sidestepping these questions though, but by addressing them head-on.

Mia Jankowicz, who curated the exhibition, lays out these anxieties in her text, while Angela Harutyunyan questions their framework in a scholarly piece based on her PhotoCairo5 keynote address. Malak Helmy offers a prose poem that both feels the anxieties and questions them. Then there is the art itself: images of the works from the exhibition accompanied by short texts, and three sets of fold-out “artist pages.”

Together the three longer pieces appear to say that questions about the timing and nature of “revolutionary art” not only misunderstand art, but also revolution.

Jankowicz discusses the anxieties that, in the aftermath of Egypt’s 2011 uprising, gathered around the “question of how and why to practice art at times of such profound attempts at change.” In particular the issue of art’s purpose and instrumentalization arose. Was art being valued according to how much it conveys revolutionary messages or democratizes art itself? Also important was the fundamental question of timing. Did the immediacy of the moment trump art? Was temporal distance required? Was there a danger in producing art too soon and thereby limiting and packaging the revolution itself?

The three texts warn of the dangers of production under the rubric of revolutionary art. Such artworks can empty the revolution, tame its radical effects. On the clichéd images of the uprising, Harutyunyan writes, “as with all clichés, they repeated the event ad infinitum turning it into an empty signifier, a myth.” Just as bad, she suggests, is that revolutionary art both reflected and fed into the idea of the revolution as limited in time and space, “neutralizing the disruptive and transformative intervention of the event in the social fabric.”

Harutyunyan reminds us that the consequences of an event are often delayed, and the event is also its effects; revolutions are thus better understood as structural conditions that are not always visible. For instance, it is not the shouting or emblazoning on a banner of the word “freedom” that is significant so much as “the possibility of it, a subjectivity that has transformed the complaint into a demand.”

The question of temporality is a moot one. Both those furiously producing “revolutionary art” and those cautioning that it is too soon and that distance is required are caught up in the politics of representation. The “it is too soon” and the “now is the time” camps both believe in a “temporal guarantor,” she says. They both treat the temporality of the revolution itself as limited — as if a revolution were simply regime change.

Harutyunyan seeks to lay out a “theoretical position that goes beyond the politics of representation and linear historical temporality of the artwork.”

These texts raise questions that are very much about art — and seem somewhat arcane to those not involved in the art world as producers, curators or critics — as well as questions that are very much about everything else too.

At one point, Harutyunyan criticizes those who tie commodity status to the existence of an object, arguing that it is “as if the failed lesson of the promised dematerialization of art that conceptual art practices proposed between 1966-1972 were unlearned.” If you were not already following these debates in art criticism and curation, this will probably mean little to you.

Most of the book is made up of images of the artworks in PhotoCairo5 accompanied by short texts about them, commissioned from various writers. These are on the left, English on top and Arabic below, opposite the image. The repeated layout works well, each piece taking its own double spread. This publication is less tome-like than that accompanying PhotoCairo4, which was thicker and printed on smaller paper.

The short texts briefly describe the pieces — the image may show one part of the piece, a whole installation, or a still in a video — and provide concisely expressed, and in the main insightful, reflections.

The most engaging part of the publication are these short texts and images. They are stimulating and interesting but not affective: more documentation than a reproducing of the exhibition’s dynamic.

This sense is further underlined by the book’s structure. Placing three fairly demanding texts before the art itself invites us to relate to that art cerebrally. A number of the artworks and texts point to the non-verbal and affective power of the artwork, so this is a little ironic. In her commentary on Elizabeth Price’s “The Woolworths Choir of 1979” (2012) for instance, Jankowicz suggests that the work points to how the spoken and rational is not all that moves us.

This is not to say that the publication would have been better without the three longer texts. Including them as appendices could have been less intrusive, however, because placing them at the start frames what will come next. The three texts concern debates about revolutionary art in Egypt, and as such they invite you to continue in the intellectual vein they set up — broken only by Helmy’s poetic style. They invite you to see the works through the filter of reflections on that debate, which seems narrowing and counterintuitive given the publication’s critique of the curatorial impulse to make art speak to an idea.

A page from Basim Magdy’s intervention.

The artist interventions from Basim Magdy, Mohamed Abdelkarim and Sarah Samy — addressing the time passed, Jankowicz says in her introduction — appear as part of the same artworks that these three artists had contributed to the exhibition.

Basim Magdy’s “Every Subtle Gesture” is an ongoing work. His contribution to PhotoCairo5 consisted of 21 photographs, each with a sentence in silver below, framed and mounted. Every time he shows the piece, the selection and sequence are developed. As Laura Cugusi writes in her accompanying text, the images and sentences combine to “convey an immediate sense of displacement.” The pairings produce a kind of poetry.

His intervention into the book consists of four such pieces. In one, a photo of a fox standing on a log, on a particularly green patch of lawn, is placed above “TIME MEANT NOTHING BUT THE SLOW DECAY OF MEANING.”

As with the other two interventions — Samy’s is purely visual, without text — it is as if no time has passed. In this sense, their presence points to the absurdity of fetishizing the question of time.

A detail from Sarah Samy’s intervention.

The text by Helmy, also an artist but not featured In the exhibition, responds to the “is it too soon?” question by exploring how the Toyota business model — the “just in time” model based on eliminating all forms of waste — has monopolized our ways of thinking.

In the world of Toyota production, both too soon and too late are a waste. Even poetry “is expected to have machinic productivity.” The system tries to encompass that which falls outside of it — outside of time, also — to package it, and give it a clear meaning and place. In a sense, Helmy’s piece is an assertion of liminality — of all that is betwixt and between.

She points to the unfathomable and incoherent, to caesura, to strange temporalities, strange forms, fragile states, different ways of being and non-being. Helmy definitively takes us away from the intellectual, and in the rhythm of her language evokes a similar kind of liminal feeling.

In a nod to Harutyunyan’s discussion of Adorno’s idea that “form is sedimented content,” she writes that anxiety moved “in the air, through the trees, up the concrete, into the vibrations of a room and sedimented into our muscles and made us bite at each other.” Then: “That too is sedimented content into form.”

The dilemmas that confront art, Helmy seems to show, also confront the self.

Hard copies of the PhotoCairo5 catalogue, designed by Lisa Kreutzer, are available at the Contemporary Image Collective, and it has an online extension here.

Naira Antoun 

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