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Raed Yassin: Memories are fiction

Bathed in playful nostalgia, the Beiruti artist's multimedia installations explore imagined narratives and the unsolved murder of his father.

Bathed in playful nostalgia, Raed Yassin's multimedia installations explore imagined narratives and the unsolved murder of his father, writes Kaelen Wilson-Goldie

If all artists have an albatross around their neck - a work in progress that continues to remain just that - then Raed Yassin's is an experimental film called Kairo.

Yassin, who lives in Beirut, started on the piece three years ago during a residency in the Egyptian capital. In his mind, Kairo is a mesmeric collage of 8mm film footage, animation sequences and old movie clips overlaid with a soundtrack of excerpts from an intimate audio diary. It tells the story of a Lebanese director who arrives in Cairo convinced he knows the city well, this assumption based only his lifelong obsession with Egyptian cinema.

The film he sets out to make is a tender portrayal of his close connection to the city, but a chasm opens between the city of his imagination and the Cairo he experiences on the ground. The voiceover grows hallucinatory and paranoid. The images on screen turn surreal and self-destructive.

Yassin has been developing and reworking the film since 2008. The process is time-consuming and costly and, for the time being, he is stuck. What's more, if Kairo captures one vision of a splintering reality, then Yassin now has another to contend with. Cairo after the fall of Hosni Mubarak is a vastly different city from the one he visited before.

For Yassin, that Cairo was fascinating but unpleasant. "I shot and recorded every day in extreme conditions. It was summer, it was hot, I couldn't stand myself and I felt like everyone was lying to me," he says. His encounters were a contradictory, irreconcilable mix of "Islamism, socialism, nationalism, frustration, male domination and mediocrity. The place was living on dreams but it was totally rotten".

Part of the problem, he says, is that while he speaks the Egyptian dialect well, he doesn't pass for a local. Everyone he met knew he was a foreigner and gave him a hard time, mostly in jest. "Everything about the behaviour of daily life was a kind of lie. This was interesting for me because I like to lie in my work."

It says something about Yassin's style and sense of humour that where other artists might couch their practice as a clever play between fact and fiction, he comes right out and says his works are based on fabrication and untruths. It says something else when he adds that most of his works also deal with his father's murder in 1984.

"I really did lose my father when I was a kid," he says, as if one had reason to doubt him. "And he really was murdered. In my work I'm playing around with different scenarios. I'm trying to rewrite his murder. I'm giving it a setting and a storyboard."

Several pieces - such as Disco, Tonight, Final Destination and Who Killed the King of Disco, the last of which Yassin is preparing for the forthcoming Sharjah Biennial - develop a similar narrative. They suggest that his father was a famous actor who abandoned his family in Lebanon to pursue a film career in Egypt. The actor, Mahmoud Yassin, is for real. The images we see of him in Yassin's video loops and multimedia installations are Polaroids and distorted stills from pirated VHS copies of his best-known films. But he wasn't Yassin's father. Moreover, he is still alive.

Yet some details of the story contain elements of truth: Yassin's father was a fashion designer; he was away from his family for a brief but agonising period of time; his absence was painful, then irreversible; and the circumstances of his death - whether the result of a dispute among friends or a gambling debt - offered little consolation to his son either then, at the age of five, or even now, at 32.

Just as you can never go back to the golden age of Egyptian cinema, Yassin writes in a statement introducing Who Killed the King of Disco, "you can never go back to what happened when your father died, or piece together the facts that explain his murder in any concrete, accurate way." The only things you can recover are "moments, possibilities and interpretations, all as fictional as the medium through which they are told".

Yassin is a pop-culture junkie. He has an enormous collection of comic books and a similar archive of rare Arabic pop songs on 7-inch vinyl. He has nurtured an encyclopaedic knowledge of Egyptian movies, from the "Hollywood on the Nile" era of the 1950s to the independent scene of the 1980s and the lowest-common-denominator-comedies that are today's commercial blockbusters.

He is a fan and avid recycler of any subgenre of film or music perceived as trashy, mass-produced or voraciously consumed. He constantly pulls famous figures into his work by stitching them into deeply personal narratives, imagining, for example, that the Lebanese singers Sammy Clark and Najwa Karam performed at his childhood birthday parties or appeared in his apartment for breakfast.

Yassin's projects are also deliriously multifaceted. Although he enjoys the freedom of being a full-time artist, his interpretation of the job includes playing music, running an independent record label (Annihaya, which recently released a special edition of the Sun City Girls' Gum Arabic), organising the free-improv festival Irtijal, in collaboration with Mazen Kerbaj and Sharif Sehnaoui, and curating streetwise exhibitions such as 2007's The Secret of the Peripheral City.

Last year, Yassin formed a collective with the artists Vartan Avakian and Hatem Imam called Atfal Ahdath. The name translates from Arabic as Children of the Events, but would be idiomatically understood (in Lebanon, at least) as Children of the War. Like much of the collective's work, the name takes a swipe at the older artists who cast a long shadow over Beirut's contemporary art scene.

"I see my generation doing something totally different," says Yassin. "We were kids during the war. Of course it was a big event. But I find it weird when artists from my generation copy the projects of artists from the older generation. In that generation there are a lot of good theoreticians who can really write about the war. They were in their twenties then. Some of them were fighters. But we were kids. We were more into pop songs than politics. We couldn't understand then and…now we still can't understand what was going on."

Plus, he adds, "there's so much theory in [their] work… that I began to question, where is the artwork in all of this? I got the feeling that sometimes these guys weren't taking us seriously, that they were talking to us like we were kids."

That said, Yassin's affection for pop culture, repurposed material and kitschy references to the past is not simply a rebellion against his elders. Nostalgia may be viewed as a weakness by many contemporary art critics, but Yassin believes that it allows his work to reach a wider audience.

"Nobody cares what's going on in the art world," he says. "Let's get real. We know how many people go to exhibitions. For me, nostalgia is a way into people's imaginations. When I use old material, it really hits people and generates ideas." For Yassin, rather than an abstract notion, collective memory is a vibrant jumble of pop-cultural cues.

"I'm just interested in the stuff that got lost. It's the Lebanese pop songs we listened to in the 1980s or the Egyptian films we grew up watching," he says. Beyond the pleasure of reviving the material, Yassin's works explore the mechanisms that made it popular, its effect on politics and culture and its physical degradation over time, as new technologies rendered old formats obsolete.

Kairo belongs to a trilogy of works treating the Egypt of Egyptian cinema, like the past more generally, as a territory of dreams, fictions and fantasies. The New Film, a video Yassin completed in 2008, considers the ubiquity of Mubarak's portrait in three decades' worth of films. Gang of Women, another work in progress stuck in Yassin's head, revisits the ill-fated moment when the film industry moved briefly from Cairo to Beirut (the quality of movies deteriorating considerably in the process) and then ties the narrative back to his father. "This is what I need to finish this year, to end the series on Egypt," Yassin says. This sounds like a truthful resolution, but the smile looks like it may be another lie.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie reports for The National from Beirut.