Alex Ayed, Untitled (Beit El Hmam) (Pigeon House), 2019, steel, plaster, and pigeons, 12' 1⁄8“ ×  3' 3 3⁄8” × 4' 3 1⁄8".

Alex Ayed, Untitled (Beit El Hmam) (Pigeon House), 2019, steel, plaster, and pigeons, 12' 1⁄8“ × 3' 3 3⁄8” × 4' 3 1⁄8".

Alex Ayed


In 1991, Judit Polgár, a fifteen-year-old Hungarian chess prodigy known for her unflinching stare and imaginative approach to the game, broke Bobby Fischer’s record by becoming the youngest player ever to receive the title of grand master. Defying convention, her playing style was marked by flamboyant risk-taking and a near-reckless fervor that kept her opponents constantly off-balance.

Polgár’s inventive strategy provided one catalyst for Alex Ayed’s exhibition “Soap Opera,” but it is safe to say the two play fundamentally different games. If, as the artist believes, chess is predicated on prediction, his work revels in the gray areas of expectation: superstition, coincidence, chance. Such spontaneity was right at home in the cavernous former warehouse of B7L9, the Kamel Lazaar Foundation’s recently launched art space in Tunis’s Bhar Lazreg district. Formerly as agricultural farmland, the neighborhood took root in the wake of the 2011 revolution, when the absence of government oversight meant warehouses, apartment buildings, and mosques lacking permits (or even architects) sprouted up seemingly overnight. Literally propping open the gallery doors to the community, Ayed cast this improvised settlement as his co-collaborator.

In counterpoint to the permeability of the gaping central hall, Ayed anchored a tightly composed ensemble of works in a single stand-alone room at the front. For Untitled (Marble Chessboard) (all works 2019), a grand slab of creamy, ivory-toned Italian marble was cut to a gentle slope and centered on the floor, recalling both a tombstone and some kind of opulent, indeterminate furniture. Engraved on its surface were the shallow outlines of a chessboard, whose warped contours suggested a transparent film had floated down from above and simply stuck as it landed. The artist completed the arrangement with the body of a striped insect he had collected abroad. Facing off on opposite walls were two prints inspired by the story of a blind chess player. In an attempt to render the mental space of the chessboard, Ayed created calligram-like poetry out of the notation from two different matches, including one featuring Polgár.

Just beside the room’s arched entryway, the long limbs of a dried starfish strained outward toward the door, as if it had been sucked into some kind of vortex. Indeed, the larger gallery space seemed to exert its own gravitational force, drawing objects and actors in from the surrounding neighborhood. Dimly lit bedsheets, caked in plaster and lightly scented with soap, were strung up to evoke linens draped over clotheslines, while on the back wall layers of Tunisian olive oil soap on wood panel produced a moody abstraction in muddy greens. But the real “soap” of the titular “opera” derived from the myriad anecdotes driving the production process. Ayed let the spontaneous interactions with the neighborhood lead him in assembling his elements, which were intended to remain in flux for the duration of the exhibition. For example, the steel support for an abandoned marble sculpture took on new life as the assemblage Untitled (Sergio), after the necessary addition of a short leash and a bowl of kibble for the eponymous dog, who occasionally haunted the exhibition. A few feet away, Untitled (Beit El Hmam), a towering homemade dovecote, sheltered some of the thirty-six pigeons Ayed purchased on a whim for the show. (According to the artist, the seller assured him he was purchasing seventy, then shrugged off the difference.) More pigeons could be found in the back garden, huddling alongside some rabbits that were offered to the artist when word got out he was purchasing animals. These living elements coexisted with small objects and bits of ephemera—a chunk of a failed sculpture, a piece of driftwood balanced on a bar of soap, a photograph of a serpent tattoo on a man who had helped Ayed rid a serpent from his car—that took on talismanic properties. And yet, as in the show’s eerie original soundtrack, which was composed by artist Rehab Hazgui using field recordings from the area, the stories and sources behind these items remained occluded. Instead, the artist invited the Paris-based clairvoyants Extra-lucide to read visitors’ fortunes. It seems that, in Ayed’s world, there is still such a thing as a predetermined outcome.