10 December 2020

INTERVIEW: BASIM MAGDY

Basim Magdy "Renegade Dreams Hanging from the Clouds" at König Galerie, Berlin. Photos © Roman Maerz, Courtesy the artist and König Galerie, Berlin

"What if the sky is giant mirror reflecting our fantasies?" the movie "New Acid" by Egyptian artist Basim Magdy asks. Hosting his exhibition "Renegade Dreams Hanging From The Clouds" at König Galerie Berlin currently presents the artist's film work together with eight of his paintings. In our e-mail interview, I chatted with the Switzerland-based artist about what it was like to organise an exhibition during a global pandemic and lockdown restrictions, as well as the various sources of his inspiration for the works in the show and his practice in general. 

Mine Kaplangi: "Renegade Dreams Hanging From The Clouds" is your first solo exhibition with König Galerie. How was the experience for you to organise a solo show during the lockdown in Berlin?  

Basim Magdy: The exhibition consists of my film "New Acid", from 2019, and eight paintings which were all either created entirely during the first Coronavirus lockdown or were started years ago and were revisited and finished during that period. It was a very intense and exceptional period in contradicting ways. On the one hand, it was unprecedently difficult to live with that invisible monster lurking in the background of every detail of daily life. On the other hand, life stopped, including travel and the endless flow of emails, which meant it was the perfect opportunity to return to painting after six years of focusing on film, photography and text-based works. Those paintings were created under unusual circumstances, and even though the current lockdown was announced a few hours after I arrived in Berlin for the show, it was quite gratifying to see them hanging on the walls of the gallery with people of different ages appreciating them. That alone made it all worth its while.  

Basim Magdy "Renegade Dreams Hanging from the Clouds" at König Galerie, Berlin. Photos © Roman Maerz, Courtesy the artist and König Galerie, Berlin

MK: From the painting series in the exhibition "And the Land was Populated with Curiosities and Instantly Forgotten Dreams" painting reminded me of the "Fantastic Planet" (1973) movie which was an experimental science fiction movie from the 70s that also played with surreal dreams of the human - non-human and especially human-animal relationships in another planet. What was your inspiration for this painting and the series in general? 

BM: It’s difficult for me to articulate my inspiration for this particular painting or the rest of the paintings in the show. I don’t think it had anything to do with specific dreams, but with the surge in imagination, produced by the frequent act of lucid dreaming that accompanied this period for many people. Subjects like progress, evolution, extinction, the way history is written, unrealistic futuristic fantasies and our systems of belief have always been part of my work. Those paintings approach some of these subjects in more enigmatic ways than my films, ones that I’m happy not to even articulate in my mind. I always felt an unmatched comfort with painting because it allows me to let go without thinking, I start with a blank canvas then I start layering particles of my messy imagination on it. It’s what I enjoy about it the most, that resistance to articulation. 


Basim Magdy "Renegade Dreams Hanging from the Clouds" at König Galerie, Berlin. Photos © Roman Maerz, Courtesy the artist and König Galerie, Berlin

MK: Your "New Acid" film allows a view into animals' private text messages (see the video here). There is a particular anomaly between the images and the texts, creating a doubt in regard to their connection or relation.. How was the process of making this of this film and how is it related with the exhibition concept? 

BM: "New Acid" started with an interest in how our lives now are constantly gliding between real and virtual interaction. I was looking for protagonists whose criticism people would be more likely to pay attention to. Humans seem to see animals as cute and inferior so it only made sense for my actors to be animals. I shot the film in 3 different zoos, places where we expect spectacle to unfold, places that very casually highlight the worst in our simple pleasures. The first thing I realized while filming in a zoo is that the only thing that connects these animals is our gaze and cell phone cameras. Most of these animals, hear and smell each other but never see one another. They know of each other’s existence without knowing the shape, size and color of their neighbors at the same zoo. This observation became the main inspiration behind every text message conversation I wrote for the film.  

MK: Human and non-human relations and conversations around this relation through time and space are one of the main aspects of this exhibition, but is there a reason why you are especially interested in animals' perspectives and anthropomorphism? 

BM: I think animals have a better chance of standing in our shoes and guessing how we think of them. Despite our more evolved intelligence, we are too stubborn, snobby and proud, even, to guess what animals might think of us. Even as individuals, it is very difficult for us to capture the layered complexity of other people in our lives. Throughout history, humans have fabricated anthropomorphic or mythical characters and gods. Just consider the image we created for aliens, standing on two legs and having two arms. I wanted the film to communicate something to people, so it was important to use a familiar logic and language. It would be interesting to make a film or artwork in some other form to communicate with animals someday. 


"New Acid", 2019. Film Still. Super 16mm and computer generated text messages transferred to Full HD. 14 min. 18 sec. Commissioned by La Kunsthalle Mulhouse, France (Courtesy the artist and König Galerie, Berlin)

MK: You seem to value the dialogue between your work and the audience, as they become visitors, or even participants. Your video and film works are accessible online through your website and you invite everyone who is passing the exhibition space to share their version of stories, memories and thoughts with you through social media. I remember visiting your exhibition at Artsümer 2019 in Istanbul, and watching your 2016 film "No Shooting Stars" (see the video here): A few people around me were busy texting with their phones, later I realised that they were writing to you directly from Instagram. How and why did you decide to start this social media invitation and what types of conversations has it brought to you? 

BM: It started with the realisation that if I only allow my films to be seen in an art or film festival context, then I’m inherently catering to the particular audience of what is known as the first world. Most of the shows and film festivals that my films are invited to, happen to be there. That’s where there is more money for showing contemporary art. I’m definitely not making films for only one ethnic, economic or geographical group, so the decision to make my films available on my website seemed like an obvious one. I was also very aware of the fact that any show has a life of its own after the opening, one that I know nothing about. Visitors come and go and I wanted to find a way to engage with their thoughts, responses and discussions about my work. For my show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 2016, I created a hashtag for the visitors of the show to respond to the work in any way, create memes from it, parody it, alter it, add emojis or doodles then post their creations. Later the hashtag changed to #dearbasim and that stayed. I don’t have any concrete expectations from this interaction – it’s all about the surprises. Some people take their contributions more seriously than others; some people respond in a more personal way. In the end, it always becomes a loose collaboration between two people who will most likely never meet in real life. 

MK: How has this year during the pandemic been for you and how did it affect your practice?

BM: The honest answer is: I don’t know. This is a period in my life that I will only be able to understand and articulate my thoughts about years from now. Life before-the-pandemic-times feel like a few lifetimes ago. This period has definitely given me the chance to catch my breath, dream more intensely and organize my memories in my head. I believe that so many books will come out in the next few years about the influence of this period on human social behavior. We have unlocked unknown territories of solitude and virtual interactions. On the other hand, as I mentioned earlier, and on a more personal note, the emails stopped for a while and I started painting again, both very pleasant outcomes. 

MK: You are participating in the upcoming group show "Photography Today: Resistant Faces" at Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich. Which works will you be presenting there?

BM: The show at the Pinakothek de Moderne is curated by Jana Johanna Haeckel. We decided to show four works from my ongoing series "Someone Tried to Lock up Time", one of which was newly commissioned for this show by the Pinakothek der Moderne. Each of the works in the series comprise one or more photographs shown as one composite work, mostly including a textual element that creates a fictional account of what I see as the endless gaps in known human history. These additions explore feelings and marginalized groups, the non-warriors and non-priests of the past, but the series also transcends to the future to look back at how our present will be seen as history years from now. 

Basim Magdy "Renegade Dreams Hanging from the Clouds" at König Galerie, Berlin. Photos © Roman Maerz, Courtesy the artist and König Galerie, Berlin


until the 18th of December 
König Galerie, Berlin

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