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Arts Editor Ed Grimble gropes around in the murky, surreal world of artist and filmmaker Basim Magdy, whose first UK exhibition is currently running at Bristol’s Arnolfini.

‘I am an eye. A mechanical eye’, wrote pioneering Soviet documentary filmmaker Dziga Vertov in a 1923 manifesto on the movie camera. ‘I explain in a new way the world unknown to you’. They are fragments of quotation which aptly suggest the mood of Egyptian artist Basim Magdy’s films. Shooting on 16 millimetre film which he often ‘pickles’ in household chemicals (a strange, organic alternative to Instagram filters), Magdy’s works have a conspicuous and overt artifice; they are very obviously the products of a mechanical process. Riddled with spots, scars and bright lens flare, these are explicitly the results of a man looking down a camera, rather than attempts at accurate representation of reality.

And yet, for all the obvious presence of the artist moving his camera lens, the sweeping shots presented to the viewer are disconcertingly empty of human life. In his 2016 No Shooting Stars, an eery meditation on the ocean and humankind’s relationship with it, sweeping panoramas capture a vast emptiness, populated only by mist-shrouded landmasses and shipping tankers, dwarfed to model-size by the surrounding expanse on which they float. Shots of the decks are nothing more than rusted, windswept metal gantries, apparently unpopulated.

Sitting as Magdy’s films loop around again and again is to be surrounded by a fog of cynicism and melancholy

This absence of vitality only becomes more noticeable as one watches more of Magdy’s films. In The Everyday Ritual of Solitude Hatching Monkeys (2014), inspired by the short fiction of the artist’s father, Magdy El-Gohary, the viewer catches unsettling glimpses at the entranceways to disused and overgrown bunkers, and close-ups of ruined multi-storey concrete buildings. Much of the world Magdy presents is decaying and crumbling. The stained and scar-ridden film itself evokes a world that is perhaps only semi-real; each new shot is strangely uncanny.

Basim Magdy, ’13 Essential Rules for Understanding the World’ (2011)

Magdy’s visual medium, coupled with a melancholic soundtrack evocative of composers like Philip Glass, show the world as altered and defamiliarised. It is almost as if everything is slightly out of focus, or on the cusp of slipping out of existence altogether, a once-vibrant and wholesome world that is slipping towards the ethereal. Seemingly disconnected images follow sequentially, flickering in and out of existence as the shots on the film bleed into one another with all the unpredictability and irrationality of a dream.  

Basim Magdy, ‘The Dent’ (2014)

Magdy’s films seem like a lamentation for the present in which we find ourselves. No Shooting Stars talks of the ‘morbid inventors’, grimly working in ‘the land that law forgot’. The camera travels through vignettes and landscapes with resignation, always grimly asking the question of what kind of future such a bleak present can ever hope to foster? In The Dent (2014), Magdy narrates the story of an anonymous town and its failed attempts to host the Olympic games. The pervading mood is one of endless, perpetuating failure, a relentless cycle of aspiration and disappointment. ‘The circus elephant caught a glimpse of itself in a murky puddle’.

Alongside these three films, housed in the cavernous first floor gallery room, is Magdy’s floor to ceiling mosaic of 64 prints, An Apology to a Love Story that Crashed into a Whale (2016), as well as a selection of smaller works. An Apology is an awesome work, dominating the far wall of the room. It demands a curious, active viewer, who is willing to allow their eyes to trace new and exciting paths through the dozens of images and portions of text which make up the larger grid. The work is a narrative cornucopia, at once a meditation on love and human relationships; pessimism, social cynicism and the limitations of language; and a reflection on the information-saturated world we all try daily to negotiate, carefully separating the authentic from the fantastic.

Basim Magdy, from An Apology to a Love Story that Crashed into a Whale (2016), 64 C-Prints on Fujiflex Metallic Paper

Despite the splendour of An Apology, however, the rest of the space is disappointingly empty. Several smaller works on paper are framed on the room’s other walls, which have themselves been given a wild lick of purple and pink paint. These irregularly hung collages of acrylics, oils and spray paint examine the failed utopian vision of the second half of the twentieth century, when humankind looked to the possibility of bright, technologically-enhanced future. They may have an eye-catching 70s aesthetic, but their vividness appears largely superficial; I found myself hurriedly scampering back into one of the smaller rooms to be entranced by more of Magdy’s film work.

Sitting as Magdy’s films loop around again and again is to be surrounded by a fog of cynicism and melancholy. His images drift calmly, almost peacefully, in and out of vision, ghostly traces of a decaying present which offer little towards the prospect of a utopian future. ‘What are we waiting for? A Meteorite. It’s our last hope. To kill us all? Yes.’ 

‘The Stars Were Aligned for a Century of New Beginnings’ runs at the Arnolfini until 18th June 2017. Entry is free.


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