New York

View of “Azza El Siddique,” 2022. Background, left and right: Book of two ways, 2022. Center, on floor: Temple of a million years, 2022. Photo: Sebastian Bach.

View of “Azza El Siddique,” 2022. Background, left and right: Book of two ways, 2022. Center, on floor: Temple of a million years, 2022. Photo: Sebastian Bach.

Azza El Siddique

If, as science tells us, the universe tends toward chaos, then we may find relief in untethering ourselves from a linear, finite notion of time. The works in Azza El Siddique’s solo exhibition “Dampen the flame; Extinguish the fire” leaned longingly into the possibilities of cyclical states. They flowed back into themselves and continuously metamorphosed, insisting that some things always remain in the wake of loss. Inspired by her research into ancient Egyptian and Nubian death traditions, El Siddique grapples with protean matters: the inevitable collapse of everything, what happens after life, and how we may find comfort in the face of mortality.

Inquiries into such grand themes can easily fall into stultifying opacity, but El Siddique’s approach is surprisingly concrete and intimate. Making precise, discriminating use of materials such as steel and water, she grounded visitors in a hushed environment that roused multiple senses. Gridded armatures of varying scales demarcated the room, calling to mind the spartan outlines of a city and a cemetery. Their coldness was countered by the homely, cleansing scent of bukhur—incense made from fragranced wood chips—whose potent aroma filled the stairwell to the gallery. This offering transported me to a different place long before I opened Helena Anrather’s front door. The show’s themes of endless transformation and perpetual becoming were immediately recognizable as I entered the show, where standing like a sentinel on a steel block evoking a burial vault was a surrealistic cobra sculpted of dry stone and iron oxide, its long, zigzagging body topped by a head on each end.

But the focal points were three steel structures that functioned as carefully orchestrated stages for the slow yet conspicuous changing of matter. On opposing walls of the gallery stood Book of two ways, 2022, a pair of monolithic shelving units containing irrigation systems, developed by the artist over years of research. Inside them were vessels made of unfired slip clay that gradually turned to mush as water gently rained down upon and dissolved them. The resulting liquid muck, however, was reabsorbed and recirculated by the artist’s industrial-looking altars, creating a cycle of disintegration and renewal that consistently returned the clay to a workable state. Temple of a million years, 2022, was another meditation on collapse, impermanence, and renewal: Suggesting a hazardous lab setup—or, as the title indicates, a scaled-down ancient sanctuary—this rectangular, stepped tank contained filmy, rusty-orange water that pooled around a central steel block. The artist set a trio of lotus flowers crafted from bukhur upon the block, from which plumes of smoke intermittently puffed. Warmed by heat lamps, the objects liquefied into sticky mounds of charred goo, their fragrance released to anoint observers. Intoxicating in its rawness, the spillage of stuff both visible and invisible was a visceral reminder of the interconnectedness of all things, and how presence endures regardless of form.

Life always leaves its traces—this notion is at the beating heart of El Siddique’s work. A dog without a master (Rust), 2022, a wall-mounted steel panel inscribed with a welded image of a fanciful creature in mid-squat, was the most overtly personal work here, as it re-creates a painting by El Siddique’s brother, artist Teto Elsiddique, who passed away in 2017. The tribute was a subtle but powerful refusal of death’s finality. Across the room, a similarly crafted panel featured a depiction of an Ouroboros, that icon of perpetual motion and of time that loops into itself. In El Siddique’s tableaux of controlled ruin, empty vessels, and aching absence, one got the sense that the snake symbolizes less a belief in eternal life and more an assurance of a natural order in which whatever vanishes will always somehow return.