Last month, the British Museum launched its Modern Egypt project, an attempt to address how it will “represent Egypt in the 20th and 21st centuries to present-day and future audiences” through an upcoming exhibition at the museum and, more particularly, to explore ways in which Egypt can be represented through objects.
The British Museum has always sought to collect contemporary objects to ensure the collection remains relevant and representative of all world cultures. Contemporary prints and drawings, Middle Eastern and Japanese Art, contemporary currency and ephemera such as postcards all contribute to the stories the Museum collection can tell about cultures past and present.
‘Come’ said my friend, Professor Omnium, one clear morning, ‘let us take an excursion round the world’…‘My dear friend’, said I, ‘it is among my dreams one day to visit India, China, Japan, California, but at present you might as well ask me to go with you to the moon.’ ‘You misunderstand’, replied Professor Omnium. ‘I do not propose to leave London. We can never go round the world, except in a small, limited way, if we leave London… Ten thousand people and a dozen governments have been at infinite pains and expense to bring the cream of the East and the West to your own doors.’
— Moncure Conway, Travels in South Kensington, 1882
The launch, which took place in the Kodak Passageway in downtown Cairo from October 12 to 19, included a display of a selection of the objects that have been collected so far. The display was accompanied by presentations by the curator of the project, artists, collectors and Al Ismaelia Company for Real Estate Investment, which provided the exhibition space.
Integral to Al Ismaelia’s vision for the revival of Downtown Cairo is the patronage of the arts and promotion of Egypt’s culture. Encouraging the arts will therefore be one of the priorities of the advisory board. Since its establishment, Al Ismaelia has offered subsidized rent and short-term free space to a number of institutions and artists in order to preserve the reciprocal relationship between Downtown Cairo and the arts in Egypt.
— the website of Al Ismaelia for Real Estate Investment
The display consisted of a central table on which objects were placed side by side. Around the table, there was a headless mannequin in an evening dress, an old trash bin and a massive red Coca-Cola box. A few newspaper clippings and magazine covers were framed and hung on two adjacent walls. The objects on the table included photographs, a typewriter, a radio, a mahogany chess set, two sewing machines, kitchen tools and a hand broom.
With the “object” as its focal point, the project could be situated within a long-standing tradition of using and appropriating objects in modern and contemporary art that contests both official linear historical narratives that undermine the significance of the quotidian and the anthropocentric nature of art exhibition that has created a sharp distinction between object and subject, assigning a superior agency to the latter. The display of the actual object, as opposed to a human representation of it through a painting or photograph, has sought to challenge this distinction and superiority.
I don’t want to exhibit something to someone any more. I want to do the reverse: I want to exhibit someone to something.
To answer your question more directly, I’d say what it means for me is that you can talk about, or rather involve yourself with objects, without continuous recourse to concepts and critique. Not only approaching them as though they are only organized by language, by us. You can try and empathize with them on a whole other level.
— Mark Leckey, curator of The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things, 2013
The Modern Egypt display opened up questions not only about loaded concepts such as “Egypt” and “modernity” and what delineates them, whether spatially or temporally, but also about the very definition of the object itself. Is the “object,” for instance, restricted to the sphere of inanimate things, or does it also include compound objects such as factories, corporations and classrooms, and living things such as plants, animals and even humans?
For on the one hand, art does not function by dissolving white whales, mansions, rafts, apples, guitars, and windmills into their subatomic underpinnings. Quite obviously, artists do not provide a theory of physical reality. But on the other hand, they also do not seek the first table, as if the arts merely replicated the objects of everyday life or sought to create effects on us. Instead, there is an attempt to establish objects deeper than the features through which they are announced, or allude to objects that cannot quite be made present.
— Graham Harman, The Third Table, 2012
Modern object-based art traditionally sought to bring out properties of the appropriated object, which provoke a deeper contemplation about the nature of the object on display or its relationship to other objects. From Marcel Duchamp’s readymades (from 1914) to Meret Oppenheim’s Object (a fur-covered tea cup, 1936) to Man Ray’s Cadeau (1921), everyday objects were manipulated, transformed and decontextualized in order to both challenge the principles that have governed the making of art and politics of exhibition and to offer new possibilities within the object(s) on view.
Unlike these examples, the objects that constitute the Modern Egypt display were neither altered nor grouped in ways that highlighted possible relationships among them to reveal properties within the objects otherwise unseen. This does happen in the work of Huda Lutfi, for example, who gave a presentation of her body of work as part of the launch activities. Among the works she discussed was her solo exhibition Making a Man out of Him (2010), where she used miniatures, dolls, mannequins and images, among other objects, to highlight the ways in which masculinity is represented and the construction of gender through contemporary everyday objects.
What happens when a sewing machine is placed in a space that is at once detached from its practical use and incapable of provoking any deeper contemplation into what it is beyond its mere physical reality, into qualities that are never entirely exhausted by the limited set of relations that have thus far defined it? What could be seen in this sewing machine without pairing it with an interpretive text that highlights its “story?” And what if the social relations highlighted in the exhibition’s curatorial text are restricted to a cross section of society who “used, owned, bought and sold such objects,” excluding the process by which it came to being in the first place? What narratives are perpetuated when the object is reduced to an epitome of observation, fascination and eventually fetishism?
It is however precisely this finished form of the world of commodities – the money form — which conceals the social character of private labour and social relations between the individual workers, by making those relations appear as relations between material objects, instead of revealing them plainly. If I state that coats or boots stand in a relation of linen because the latter is the universal incarnation of abstract human labour, the absurdity of the statement is self-evident.
— Karl Marx, Capital, 1867
In the form they were exhibited in, the commodities neither revealed any concealed nature they had, nor were they capable of truly revealing the human relations that had created them.
Because the project is essentially a “representative” one, it is possible to argue that commodity fetishism in such a context is acceptable, since it says something about the prevalent mode of material relations within a bourgeois society. But it is one thing to represent the discourse of a society and another to perpetuate it, both in the publicity preceding the exhibition — in which this fetishism was accentuated by selecting, isolating and magnifying particular commodities against a white background — and in the selection of the objects on display.
The choice to display sewing machines, typewriters, old newspaper clippings and black-and-white images, as opposed to contemporary objects, fits perfectly with the nostalgic belle-époche discourse promoted by Al Ismaelia and their narrative of reviving a decaying downtown Cairo. On the company’s website, phrases such as “revitalizing the historical neighborhood,” or the “deterioration across the district” are recurrent, and the visitor is reminded that Al Ismaelia’s intention is to “inject new life into the all but forgotten buildings of Downtown Cairo that have suffered from fragmented ownership and generations of neglect.” And, whether intentionally or unknowingly, cultural producers can be implicated in perpetuating the company’s discourse by adopting a nostalgic aesthetic that strengthens it.
Whether these particular objects in the downtown exhibition end up making their way into the final exhibition at the British Museum or not, the display of any object under the narrative of representing, or simulating, a particular culture is problematic on a whole other level. The audience present at the launch — as well as many artists and academics across the city — were asked to donate objects to the museum, under claims of a limited budget. Egyptians were therefore asked, having previously experienced decades of British occupation, to make free contributions to the museum so that it can better represent their modern culture.
The meaning of an object is inflected, even re-invented by the context in which it is displayed; the removal of objects from a colonial periphery to the imperial center profoundly alters the ways in which they are understood… A museum is comprised of objects ordered into taxonomies, whose interpretation is determined by labels, guides and catalogues, by lectures and tours, and (in the case of South Kensington) by buildings encrusted with didactic texts and images.
— Tim Barringer, Colonialism and the Object: Empire, Material Culture and the Museum, 1998
Even with the complex network of players and narratives that impose multiple limitations on the project, there is still potential for questioning those limitations within the project itself, since it is a work-in-progress. This much-needed self-reflexivity is manifested in the exhibition 100 Objects that Represent the World (1997), for example, where Peter Greenaway adopted an ironic tone that questioned the very notion of representation and the museums’ obsession with taxonomy. To quote the catalogue introduction: “This list of 100 objects seeks to include every aspect of time and scale, masculine and feminine, cat and dog. It acknowledges everything – everything alive and everything dead… Since every natural and cultural object is such a complex thing, and all are so endlessly interconnected, this ambition should not be so difficult as you might imagine.”