The future is a maddening concept. It is immediate and forever on the horizon; celeritous, bearing down on us. Such a concept requires art similar in scope and diversity. Utilizing multiple disciplines, techniques, and mediums from video, photography and painting, Basim Magdy's kaleidoscopic works provide thought-provoking ruminations of what is to come. The Stars Were Aligned For A Century of New Beginnings, on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, is Egyptian-born artist’s first museum survey in the United States, spanning from 2007 through the present. Marked by brilliant colors—whether achieved via spray paint, acrylic, gouache, or vinegar—and intricate layers, Magdy calls into question the very essence of civilization: that we are forever headed toward something greater, and forever doomed to fall short.
Magdy is an “artist who is thinking very specifically about the future,” says Omar Kholeif an MCA curator, at a press preview of the show. Kholeif sees the artist as neither inherently pessimistic nor optimistic about the future. “I don't think Basim's work is at all defeatist,” Kholeif says, merely “honest and sincere.”
The installation A 240 Second Analysis of Failure and Hopefulness (with Coke, Vinegar, and other Tear Gas Remedies) consists of 160 color slides shown on two synchronized slide carousel projectors. It is a slideshow of the urban life cycle: building gets knocked down, new building gets put up, until it becomes old and/or unwanted enough or its land becomes desirable enough to have it get knocked down again. Magdy's films were bathed in Coke, vinegar, and tear gas remedies, in a process the artist calls “pickling,” resulting in otherworldly blues, pinks, and greens with the hazy buzz of old 3D images or ancient photos.
In his works on paper, we see screaming prismatic shards, beasts—a giant squid, a crustacean the size of a city bus—and people, often masked, like Ned Kelly, or, in the form of skulls, reduced to masks. Equal parts psychedelic and typic, something like Dali's Dream of Venus, the works can be read as fun or frightening. According to Kholeif, the MCA survey has the largest amount of works on paper shown in a Magdy show so far, and their colors are echoed by everything from the walls to the blown-out photo stills and films.
Magdy manages to get across complex themes and ideas by keeping his images free from geographical or national descriptors and vibrating in uncanny colors. The conceptual layers in Magdy’s works are revealed both literally and thematically in the work’s titles, which Kholeif notes serve as little evocative essays in and of themselves.
“I think that maybe that's the one thing that connects all these things in the show, that there's always layers,” Magdy says. “There's layers of text, there's layers of images, there's layers of sound, but what's most important for me is how they relate to each other. How they don't interpret each other literally, they don't explain each other, they don't describe each other, so they hint to each other. I always think they work by affiliation.”
Magdy says of his work, “It's not meant to be understood in a didactic way. There's always room for imagination. This room, this space, is very important to me because I want people to relate to the work, and respond to it, based on their personal experiences and their knowledge of the world around them.”