x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Egypt displays an artful legacy at the Venice Biennale

With the tribute paid to the artist Ahmed Basiony at Egypt's Venice Biennale pavilion, art sheds light on Cairo's uprisings.

Visitors to the Egyptian pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale watch videos of the uprisings in Tahrir Square, which were filmed by artist Ahmed Basiony, who was killed during the protests.
Visitors to the Egyptian pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale watch videos of the uprisings in Tahrir Square, which were filmed by artist Ahmed Basiony, who was killed during the protests.

"Bring your food, your clothes, your water, masks and tissues, and a vinegar bottle", was part of the final Facebook post by the Egyptian performance artist Ahmed Basiony, shortly before he was killed in the uprisings in Cairo in January. "Believe me, there is but one very small step left," he continued. "And if they want war, we want peace - and I will practice proper restraint until the end, to regain this nation's dignity."

This statement greets you on the wall of the Egyptian Pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale. The pavilion is a tribute to Basiony and a documentation of his final exhibition at the Palace of Arts in Giza. Along with this is video footage of Tahrir Square, which was shot by the artist, in the early days of the uprising that led to Hosni Mubarak's departure from power on February 11 and the artist's own death on January 28.

"He went down to Tahrir Square on January 25 in a single-piece blue suit, white shoes and was just filming random scenarios," explains Aida Eltorie, the youngest curator to ever take the reins of the Egyptian pavilion. "He wasn't sure what he was going to capture. Everything was so abrupt; no one expected the revolution; no one expected he would die; no one expected he would be in the Venice Biennale."

Eltorie, in collaboration with artist and curator Shady El Noshokaty, pushed hard to get Basiony recognised and in the pavilion. "The fact that we're here is a huge statement," she says.

While Egypt is a regular at the Biennale, the pavilion has become known for exhibiting the work of the old guard. "We've had comments from people telling us that they've seen the Egyptian Pavilion for 20 years and not once have they seen anything other than the traditional crafts in art. They were stunned to see that there is new media art in Egypt and that we were presenting that here."

Basiony was a fierce exponent of new media art. Creating digital codes from physical movement, translating that into visuals and finding ways to involve the viewer as a participant in the work were all key tenets of his practice. As a professor mentoring a new generation of Egyptian artists at Helwan University, Basiony emphasised to them the vitality of art forms that went beyond the traditional mediums of painting and sculpture. With all notions of digital art and anything like it quite at odds with the traditionalism of Egypt's art academia, Basiony used every method he could find - often online - to research and disseminate the expressive possibilities that lay beyond the canvas.

The exhibition in Giza that was filmed was called 30 Days of Running in the Place, and it was eventually brought to Venice. For one hour every day, for 30 days in February, 2010, Basiony jogged on the spot draped in sensors. Every drop of sweat that he exerted would be logged on these sensors, the movement of his feet in a small glass-walled space was noted by microchips stitched into the cumbersome plastic poncho he wore. This data was then instantly rendered visually on a huge screen in front of the artist. The sweat was turned into a grid of flashing squares and glowing lights.

"The work was all about not going anywhere - staying in one place,' Eltorie explains. "Yet also about showing that you had a technology that could change things for you. He was using a digital medium to change the language coming out of his body - the codes came from sweat: it was wasted sweat that could become a piece of information." Eltorie agrees that 30 Days of Running in the Place was a work about frustration.

As we watch the footage from the performance, we see anonymous faces peering in at Basiony from beyond the glass walls. The public, bemused by this fruitless jogging, look on. Then the huge screens in the pavilion cut to Basiony's videos of the Egyptian public in Tahrir Square: "A ton of lentils is more expensive than a ton of steel," states one unnamed protester in an ardent monologue. "All shops pay 15 Egyptian pounds for trash cleaning, but when do you ever see anyone picking up trash?" asks another.

These statements are, in a way, like the dots that flashed up on the digital grid in Basiony's final exhibition. Wasted sweat, perhaps, but once shared and accumulated via the digital medium of social media, they charged a public to take to the streets in search of change.

Watching what happens when that grid in front of Basiony becomes full with flashing squares is another matter altogether. As sweat pours from his body on to the suit lined with sensors, and his jogging becomes erratic, we watch the grid before him slowly disappear into a mass of fizzing lights. Basiony runs to nowhere in that humid space, and the audience is left with a reminder of the individual pushed to the limit.

When the grid became full, in the broader way that this work suggests, the revolution overtook Egypt. But what about the individual? A full grid means overheating, exhaustion, a body pushed to its breaking point. And in this way, the pavilion's power as a tribute, to an artist who represented the most forward-thinking element in Egypt's art scene, becomes clear.

Basiony's presence at the Egyptian pavilion wouldn't have happened without the events of the past six months, and there's a refreshing immediacy about this show. As we watch scenes of Tahrir Square in the dead of night, the glowing rectangles of cameraphones dotted throughout the crowd are a reminder that the urge to document, record and disseminate is powerful and universal.

"All artists were citizens and all citizens were artists on that day," says Eltorie. "The artists lost Ahmed Basiony, and the first thing they did was to put his name, his face and the word martyrdom on a huge banner to be held up in the square.

"A phrase quickly spread among the protesters," she explains: "'Meet me at Basiony.'"