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GRRRR: An eclectic account on gentrification

It took them several months to renovate the rundown building in Downtown Zurich into the fancy Design hotel. Greulich (Horrible), read the sign on its newly painted façade before the paint cracked and fell off. GRR23: a one-minute video piece at the GRRRR exhibition at the Alexandria Contemporary Art Forum (ACAF)

The black and white animated video currently showing as part of the GRRRR exhibition at ACAF engages the audience in many ways. For some, it resonates with urban gentrification schemes that took place previously in Alexandria along the coast and in Cairo by the Nile Corniche and are now happening in the downtown area of the capital. For others, it was seen as an example of bad planning in a faraway country, Switzerland. To many it remained a fictitious story that offered the audience the room to situate it in any context they wished to develop their own narratives.

It is in such inclusive and emancipating qualities that the beauty of storytelling as an art lies. And the GRRRR exhibition is highly successful on that front. In GRRRR, Swiss artist Ingo Giezendanner – alias GRRRR – shows a selection of picture books, videos and wall drawings based on his numerous travels throughout the USA, Europe, Asia and Africa over the past 12 years. In each city he visits, he creates intricate ink drawings of old and often abandoned buildings as well as shop windows, billboards, newsstands and dump yards. GRRRR focuses on those things that are most common and banal; objects and places that most urban dwellers overlook in their bustling daily lives. Those drawings are later developed into picture books, murals and T-shirt designs and are animated to produce short videos. Giezendanner’s loose narratives situated in often familiar settings tend to blur the divide between the storyteller and the listener, inviting the audience to actively participate in the production of meaning.

At the GRRRR exhibition, most of the videos are looped and the picture books are left open at random pages, allowing the gallery visitors to engage with the narratives at different points and decide how they want to approach them. In his Zine Baku & Back (GRR41), Giezendanner has stacked drawings from his 2009 trip from Zurich to Baku passing through Bulgaria, Turkey and Georgia. The journey to Baku and back to Zurich can be traced by flipping back and forth through the book. Only through the appendix can the audience locate the drawings to the various towns he visited, if they wish.

Despite the thoroughness and detail of the drawings, Giezendanner is cautious to make no overwhelming claims of documentation or representation through his work. The work is highly personal, mixing reality with fiction. The drawings include surreal characters drawn in comic book style, multiple scenes overlapping on a single plane as well as visual gestures of partiality and selectivity such as a framing a particular street scene with two opposing hands. This playfulness draws the audience to look more closely at the work and develop their own narratives.

Reflections on his previous trip to Cairo are presented in his picture book Urban Recordings. In addition to huge billboards around the 6 October Bridge and movie posters such as Heya Fawda (Chaos) movie by Egyptian director Youssef Chahine, Giezendanner drew downtown window shops, newsstands and a tree trunk at a small garden. Revisiting these places last week, he found that most things were unchanged with the exception of the park. Most of it was turned into a construction site.

Starting with strict authored narratives in his early years such as 9/11 video available on his website, the artist has moved to freer forms of storytelling and is now experimenting with abstract representations of his experiences in the cities.

In the GRRRR exhibition, Giezendanner is the perfect storyteller, whose influence on the stories is visible to all. However, he succeeds in implicating the audience into the narratives and hence including them as active storytellers.    

GRRRR is on display at the Alexandria Contemporary Art Forum (ACAF) from 31 October to 25 November 2010

10 Huseein Hassab, Flat 6, Azarita, Alexandria
The gallery is open daily from 15:00 to 20:00

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