New York

Brian Conley, Cairo Oblique (detail), 2014, eighty ink-jet prints, each 24 x 36".

Brian Conley, Cairo Oblique (detail), 2014, eighty ink-jet prints, each 24 x 36".

Brian Conley

Pierogi

Brian Conley, Cairo Oblique (detail), 2014, eighty ink-jet prints, each 24 x 36".

On March 28, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi won his second term as Egypt’s president in an absurdist victory for Western-style democracy: The counterrevolutionary strongman garnered 97 percent of the vote in what was essentially a one-man race. Three days later, San Francisco–based artist and educator Brian Conley’s solo exhibition of photographs, “Cairo Oblique” (in which Sisi’s mug is a recurring motif), opened at Pierogi. Egypt receded from the international news cycle long ago, so why this exhibition would appear in as navel-gazing a city as New York was puzzling. Why would anyone care?

I myself cared: I lived and worked in Cairo for six years, and in 2013 I saw Conley give a four-hour talk at the now-defunct art space Beirut. Conley’s engagement with Egypt was somewhat more penetrating than that of the average parachuting artist; he made several trips before and after the revolution, returning in 2014 for an extended five-month stint as a visiting artist at the American University in Cairo. And he had some familiarity with the concerns of the region, acting as an adviser to Rijin Sahakian’s Baghdad-based arts-education initiative, Sada (also, sadly, now defunct). Now that both of us have resettled in the United States, I was curious to see how he would share his experiences.

The works on view were culled from a series of 1,418 iPhone photographs he took through the windows of moving vehicles during his Cairo residency. Ninety prints (ten medium-size photographs and a grid of eighty small-format pictures) flanked the front gallery’s focal point: a wall-size map tracing Conley’s meanderings through the city, with various landmarks highlighted and accompanied by didactic texts explaining their significance. In a second room, three slide shows quietly churned through the entire series of images.

I was disappointed. The work squarely fell into that maladroit genre known as “residency art,” in which an artist attempts to situate a practice in an unfamiliar terrain as well as to “report findings”—resulting in generic observations and equally generic images. I recognized the obligatory sights and scenes that have attracted the lenses of artists and tourists alike: the pyramids; the mosque glowing green at night; the towering, rose-colored blocks of informal housing units; the battered old cars in traffic. Also on view were the usual shots of the post-revolutionary landscape: the burned National Democratic Party building; political graffiti; poster after propagandistic poster bearing Sisi’s profile.

Perhaps it is more interesting to consider Conley’s embrace of bad images (many are blurred and smudged, some speckled with visual artifacts, all of them purposefully banal), which he explains was a response to the difficulties of capturing the city in its vexed political climate. Western visitors have long found taking street photos in Egypt complicated, and have been surprised when people objected to their poverty tourism. In the wake of the revolution, state officials became concerned that outsiders might circulate pictures unsympathetic to the regime. After 2011, fear afflicted many resident artists, who responded by grappling with the unique challenges of producing images in a landscape hostile to their creation (see projects by Kaya Behkalam, Adelita Husni-Bey, Fatma Bucak, and many others). In his drive-by series (which relied heavily on the iPhone’s compositional tools), Conley was similarly trying to picture that which couldn’t be pictured, to acknowledge the impossibility of any kind of “truthful” portrait of Egypt, while still finding a way to make art.

Looking at Conley’s work in the broader scheme of international artist residencies forces a tougher question, one to which I am deeply sympathetic: What are you supposed to do when you are essentially a cultural tourist at a time of violent political upheaval? This wasn’t our country, it wasn’t our revolution, and when the regime renewed its human-rights abuses, we were able to leave. While we might have felt the deep impact of what we witnessed, what right do we as foreigners have to translate that traumatic reality—Conley with his photographs, I with my words? This problem haunts me. Trying to make sense of historical events is at the heart of much artmaking (and writing), but in our search for a responsible way to represent what happened, not everything we make needs to be put up for sale.

Ania Szremski