“A Fantasy for Allan Kaprow”

Contemporary Image Collective

The Contemporary Image Collective is located on the upper floor of a dilapidated villa that dates back to the 1920s. To get there, one climbs an elegant old staircase illuminated by a skylight and smoky glass windows. During the exhibition “A Fantasy for Allan Kaprow,” curated by Mai Abu ElDahab and Philippe Pirotte, the light in the stairwell was refracted by a metallic blue sculpture hanging pendulously from the ceiling. The shape of the sculpture, Homage to Roudah Island (The Result of One Month Listening to Oum Kalthoum While Building an Unfoldable Portable Nilometer) (all works 2009), by Mariana Castillo Deball, approximates both the narrative twists and turns of the classic Oum Kalthoum song “Al-Atlal” (The Ruins) and the architecture of the Nilometer, a structure of stairs and columns devised in Pharaonic times to measure water levels along the Nile and maintain historical records of seasonal floods. (Used well into the twentieth century, the Nilometer was rendered obsolete by the completion of the Aswan High Dam in 1970.) The stated connection to Allan Kaprow’s Scales, 1971, an action that instructed participants to carry cement blocks up a set of stairs and create a new series of steps along the way, is tenuous at best. Both works deal with the passage of time, incremental movements, and a seemingly arbitrary exertion of effort. But Deball’s sculpture of wood, fabric, and metallic paper captures a tragic sense of decay. By giving material form to Oum Kalthoum’s lyrics of lost love, it also evokes the work of another artist, the Lebanese sculptor Saloua Raouda Choucair, whose stacked wooden blocks of the ’60s represent verses of modernist Arabic poetry.

“A Fantasy for Allan Kaprow” succeeded precisely because its links to Kaprow remained so loose. Conceived as a far-flung response to the traveling retrospective “Allan Kaprow—Art as Life,” which opened in 2006 at Haus der Kunst in Munich and traveled through 2008, the show consisted almost entirely of newly commissioned works by eleven artists who grappled more with the intellectual rigor of the late artist’s thinking than with the material traces he left behind. True, the Contemporary Image Collective filled its library with a neat display of Kaprow’s scores alongside DVDs of his Happenings, environments, activities, and lectures, which visitors to the space could peruse. But the exhibition itself featured works that crucially avoided direct re- enactment or even homage.

Ali Cherri’s video installation Now I Feel Whole Again, for example, delved into intimacy in the information age, with a screen showing the artist’s face and a hand icon, that familiar tool for moving things around in various computer programs. With five motion sensors arranged around the screen, viewers triggered the activation of LED strips, which spelled out such amorous sentiments as I CAN FEEL YOU IN ME and WHEN YOU’RE AROUND THINGS HAPPEN. Cherri, who considers Kaprow’s notion of the un-artist merely an intellectual exercise for young artists working in a region racked by conflict, conceived his piece as a challenge to the blurring of boundaries between art and life, artist and audience, prescribed by his American predecessor. Where contemporary artists are marginalized and the policing of sexual freedoms is mainstream, works such as Now I Feel Whole Again reflect a desire to seek refuge from rather than achieve contiguity with the norms of everyday life.

According to ElDahab, the participating artists initially balked at the exhibition’s premise, arguing that Kaprow held little relevance in Cairo. Ultimately, he served not as a source of inspiration but as a catalyst for the artists to critique and assess their own practices. Considering Kaprow’s plea for self-examination in his 1983 essay “The Real Experiment,” that turns out to be a fitting tribute indeed.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie