Basim Magdy, Expanding the Universe, 2008, acrylic, spray paint, and gouache on paper, 15 x 20".

Basim Magdy, Expanding the Universe, 2008, acrylic, spray paint, and gouache on paper, 15 x 20".

Basim Magdy

Basim Magdy, Expanding the Universe, 2008, acrylic, spray paint, and gouache on paper, 15 x 20".

A black-and-white drawing, strategically placed at the entrance of Basim Magdy’s exhibition “A Future of Mundane Miracles,” curated by Markéta Stará, summed up what the artist’s work is all about. Titled Expanding the Universe and dated 2008, it shows the outlines of a bristly three-legged animal whose head is not easy to make out. Indeed, this creature may be headless; menacing and ridiculous in equal measure, it is, in a sense, absurd. But even more absurd is the inscription on the monster’s body: I KNOW THE SHAPE OF THE UNIVERSE. Could this ragged something really possess, let alone embody, such a profound secret? Hard to say, but such knowledge is exactly what the artist, who was born in Egypt and lives in Basel and Cairo, is interested in. Magdy is obsessed with the vision modern man has formed of the universe since the age of Enlightenment: our belief in inexorable progress and our efforts to subdue the entire world, natural and otherwise; our tendency to seek control over everything and everyone; and our conviction that we can take the future into our own hands. The artist’s work, however, evinces a deep skepticism about such positivism and idealism; such Icarian flights of fancy, he suggests, can only end with a crash landing, even if humankind seems unlikely to learn due modesty from its repeated failures anytime soon. Magdy’s slide projections, films, and drawings suggest one way of facing up to the dismay resulting from our inevitably limited control without resorting to destruction or depression, and his attempt to address the collapse of the Enlightenment’s utopian ideas is especially timely in light of recent events in his native country.

Magdy’s collages and drawings in watercolors and acrylic paints—pictures that might remind one of comic strips—seem cheerful at first glance but are rather disturbing when we take a closer look. In one representative work, a woman in a staid, 1960s-style dress stands by a monochrome painting on an easel; next to her, a fashionably dressed man wearing strangely shaped glasses holds a rocket. Meanwhile, a giant pink squid behind them sprawls before a wall decorated with a pattern reminiscent of 1950s design. Nothing fits together, and the title of this drawing—They Endorsed Collective Failure as the Dawn of a New Renaissance, 2013—might give us a jolt, for it underlines the inconsistencies of the picture and reveals its full strangeness. Crystal Ball, 2013, a black-and-white film shot in double Super 8, seems to be a utopian vision tinged with nostalgia. Here and elsewhere, historical periods seem to overlap in the artist’s work: What was yesterday is the future and vice versa. Thus, in the slide projection (an antiquated technology in itself) Investigating the Color Spectrum of a Post-Apocalyptic Future Landscape, 2013, the photographs, taken on Lanzarote, in the Canary Islands, suggest moonscapes. Yet their colors are false, having been produced via the application to the slides of chemical cleaning agents and other household products.

The absurdities, contradictions, and nonsensicalities in Magdy’s oeuvre should be read as part and parcel of an essentially parodic approach. In this way, he joins a number of colleagues, many of them likewise hailing from outside Europe, who use parody to undercut modernity’s claim to superiority. Yet what ultimately gives this work its power is perhaps not so much its attack on already beleaguered modernist ideals, but the underlying message that it is the marvels of everyday life, the “mundane miracles,” rather than its grand designs, that make it worth living.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.