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Questions of Activity: Citizen, Participant at Darb 1718

Exploring the interaction between participation and passivity, citizenship and action, curator Pillar Tompkins Rivas brings together seven artists from four countries for the exhibition Citizen, Participant.

Displayed in Old Cairo’s contemporary art center, Darb 1718, Citizen, Participant questions not only traditional definitions of citizenship, but also the exclusivity and control of a museum space over the production of meaning.

In Citizen, Participant,the museum or gallery space are seen as a public space, where the visitor’s collaboration towards the evolution of an artwork is necessary. By drawing this analogy, the exhibition insinuates the potential transformative nature of active citizenship.

Sandra de la Loza’s works, “The Art of Lockpicking” and “The Lockpicking of Art”, allow for the visitor’s tactile handling of locks.

Gallery visitors are encouraged to rifle through the assortment of tools displayed, and try their hand at conquering the resistance of an aged padlock.

Darb 1718’s founder Moataz Nasr drew a connection between the tactile handling of these objects and the metaphysical experience of investigating relationships between open spaces and the physical obstruction locks create.

In response to de la Loza’s piece, Nasr noted that “people feel a physical release when they open the lock.” He continued to elaborate on how he views a connection between the opening of the metal lock and the opening of one’s mind. The relationship between the effects of physical actions on one’s mental state is a continuous line of inquiry throughout the exhibition.

Entitled “Practical Archive”, this work by Mexican artist María Álos chronicles the transformation of a collection of Mexican objects into Egyptian objects. Álos utilizes visitor participation to question the utility of objects in defining a culture for a given geo-political region.

Individuals are invited to take an object from Mexico and replace it with an everyday household object from Egypt. A photograph of the original object remains as a reminder of the transformation of the archive and to what extent visitors have interacted with the work. For example, where a chisel from Mexico once rested now a pen from Egypt lies. Where a metal teapot once was, now a keystands. In conjunction with other pieces included in the exhibition, Álos questions the nature of the object as art and demonstrates how action can occur when individuals are granted opportunity.

Dutch Colombian artist Milena Bonilla’s filmed piece focuses on her interactions with an olive tree in Amsterdam. Standing on a narrow strip of sidewalk in the midst of wind and busy traffic, Bonilla clings to the tree in the video and focuses on their physical conversation.

Similar to John Baldessarri’s work “Teaching a Plant the Alphabet”, the close physical relationship between tree and artist provokes questions of relationships between individuals and nature. Bonilla’s exploration of territory and displacement connects with Sandra de la Loza’s interest in people’s ability to be active or passive when confronted with different types of space; locked and inaccessible or open and inviting.

In addition to generating questions regarding activity and passivity, the Citizen, Participant exhibition investigates questions regarding identity and the understanding of culture. Mexican artist Tania Candiani’s piece displays Mexican common phrases of conventional wisdom that have been translated directly into Arabic and then translated into English. Shown in a bolded black typeset high on a wall, “Freedom is wonderful, even “if it’s fake”, or “I am not crying, I just remember” are two examples of these translated colloquialisms. Candiani simultaneously demonstrates cultural disparities between different identities but also emphasizes a common humanity based on a common literary consciousness.

It is the many interpretations of participation and citizenship that allow the exhibition to facilitate ongoing conversation about the nature of activity and passivity within the museum context. The artists in Citizen, Participant, however, also provoke themes beyond those made explicit in the title regarding the role of curator, the exclusivity of conventional museum structures, and the malleable nature of cultural identity.

Citizen, Participantis open from November 6-December 10, 2010 at Darb 1718.

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