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‘I am Not There’ has a strong presence

A wall of text can be daunting to confront in the context of an art exhibition. It asks the viewer for a straightforward but time consuming engagement. One cannot simply wander about “I am Not There,” the exhibition that comprises the visual arts arm of the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival, taking in visual objects with casual interest. Viewers must read, and read a lot.

Mia Jankowicz, Art Director for the Contemporary Image Collective and curator of “I am Not There,” which is housed in the Townhouse factory space, has put together a show that examines the various obstructions that take place in the space between the completion of an artwork and the exhibition of that work. Each piece in the exhibition was chosen for the story of why it was not shown or not shown correctly, and so there are no actual pieces of art in the space. The walls are covered in stories of the censorship and logistical failures that made it impossible for the works in the exhibition to be shown, creating an intentionally frustrating viewing experience.

“I am Not There” descends from a long history of exhibitions that interrogate absence. While this might be Egypt’s first “empty exhibition,” the history of such examinations of nothingness is so venerated that it was recently the subject of a retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. “Voids” consisted of one floor filled with differently sized rooms, each one referring to an empty exhibition of the past, each one a pristine white cube containing nothing. In writing about the surreal spectacle, critics took note of things like the invasiveness of the bright red exit signs.

But “I am Not There,” though devoid of artworks, is rich with content — with the stories of frustrated plans and intentional misunderstandings.

While presented in a semi-radical style, the inspiration for the project was more prosaic. Jankowicz explained to Egypt Independent that a part of the impetus came from the difficulty of navigating the practicalities of Egypt after 25 January, as the director of a cultural institution.

“There was all this creativity, but certain things became harder to do. How do you plan? How do you make things happen?” asked Jankowicz.

“I am Not There” is full of grand intentions thwarted, and makes these frustrations tangible to the viewer. Although it might be most obviously perceived as an exhibition about censorship, it is more accurately an examination of various roadblocks that can prevent an artwork from reaching the public. Not a single piece in the exhibition was actually censored by a government censorship board, in Egypt or elsewhere.

Rather, you have situations like that explicated through an email back and forth between Jankowicz and photographer Susan Hiller, as Jankowicz attempts to arrange for the exhibition of Hiller’s work in Cairo. Jankowicz asks Hiller if she would be willing to allow her images to be reproduced locally because of the difficulty of importing work into Egypt. The response she receives is short, negative, and unsurprising.

But other works demonstrate more straightforward censorship. One tells the story of Nermine Hammam’s photographic series on mental patients in Egypt, “Metanoia.” Already not allowed to depict patients’ faces, Hammam’s work was further censored by the Health Ministry, who barred a selection of the images from being exhibited because of the conditions that they showed the patients to be living in. The story itself is both sad and intriguing, and the suffering depicted in the banned images echoes through the collection of blank cardboard panels hanging opposite the text, evoking the absent images. It is a simple, but effective mechanism employed throughout the exhibition that leaves behind the aura of the works perhaps more strongly even than if they were physically present.

And some of the pieces, even ostensibly absent, still manage to take on a life of their own. Ayman Ramadan’s lost dog poster is just the last in a long chain of reactions to one initial event: when Ramadan witnessed police poisoning a group of dogs. The traumatic episode led him to create a dog sculpture out of trash, and when the sculpture disappeared in the night, Ramadan put up lost dog posters for his artwork. Now, with this exhibition, he has recreated the poster as an echo, in black and white and with a new phone number. Ultimately the installation is as much a part of the saga of the poisoned dogs as a reflection on the disappearance of the work.

The exhibition suffers from sloppy installation, and the wall text often contains mistakes and missing letters — a serious distraction in an exhibition comprised mostly of text, with no artwork to overwhelm imperfections. There are plans to fix mistakes in the text and polish the presentation, but the semi-neglected state of the space has left the impression that the visual arts was the first area of D-CAF to suffer from a limited budget.

It is a shame because as a part of “I am Not There,” Jankowicz has lined up an impressive collection of performances and artist presentations, all of which are intimately connected with the concept of the exhibition, each one dealing in some way with absence, obstruction and ephemerality.

Last week, the exhibition launched with a welcome address by Young Hae Chang Heavy Industries, a duo of web-programing artists whose flash-animated work lives online, and who did not speak but simply played one of their creations. Next Sunday, there will be a talk by artists Goldin + Senneby, who never appear in person, but rather send an emissary, Angus Cameron, to represent them and their work on the performative and virtual aspects of financial systems. Later, Khaled Hourani will discuss his project of bringing the Picasso painting “Buste de Femme” to Palestine, a process that required complicated maneuverings through international law, and Egyptian artist Iman Issa will discuss her work “Materials,” which proposes elements for monuments never meant to be built.

Each of these, as well as the other presentations in the program, build in diverse ways on the examination of absence and obstruction begun by the “I am Not There” installation, acting as both explications and elaborations on the concept of the exhibition. Such a strongly curated, emphatically un-spectacular project (and one so lacking in actual artwork) might seem a counterintuitive choice for a festival like this. But through the incorporation of performances and events into the concept and the very space of the exhibition, the subdued arts section is given a small dash of spectacle of its own, and the quiet, word-filled rooms of the factory become alive.

"I am Not There" can be seen until 14 April from 12 pm to 8 pm at the Townhouse factory space. The events program can be found here.

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