I have just returned from an exhilarating trip to Cairo to present a paper as part of the Downtown Conyemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF) being held at a number of venues across the city centre. I was asked to contribute to an exhibition called ‘I’m Not There’ at the Townhouse Gallery hosted by the Contemporary IMage Collective and curated by its multi-talented curator/director Mia Jankowicz.
As its title suggests, the exhibition comprised a series of ‘absent’ artworks – missing because they had been censored, destroyed, banned, stolen or otherwise prevented from being shown. Instead of the works themselves, therefore, the exhibition space was filled with the ‘biographies’ of the missing works and, in some instances, empty frames and/or wall-spaces whare the works would otherwise have been.
The result was a rather austere exhibition consisting almost entirely of english and arabic text in black and white telling the stories of the various absent works. The idea of an ’empty’ exhibition is not a new one – as the curator happily acknowledged – but in the context of the ongoing revolution in Cairo it took on a very particular resonance. The Mubarak regime was extremely censorious (though apparently presented itself as doing those being censored a favour because it saved them from future trouble and/or civil unrest) and the habit of censorship seems to be one that is continuing. The prospect of the Muslim Brotherhood winning forthcoming presidential elections in Egypt, and promising to introduce Sharia Law, has raised fears of even tighter restrictions in the future.
My own contribution stemmed from my involvement with Swedish performance artists goldin+senneby‘s ongoing project ‘Headless’ for which I act as spokeperson/emissary. Headless concerns, among many other things, the ways in which contemporary offshore finance uses legally structured absence and agency (e.g. in the form of shell companies, tax consultants, impenetrable private trusts, etc) to conceal wealth and other nefarious activities from the tax and regulatory authorities. In the context of Headless, I stand in for the artists whenever they are innvited to exhibit and/or speak about the project – as they put it, they engage in an ‘act of withdrawal’ (multiple puns intended).
I was, therefore, in the strange position in Cairo of being the only part of an actual ‘artwork’ present, though of course standing in for the ‘real’ artists. In light of this ambiguous position, the paper given was a rather rambling reflection on the representation of absence entitled ‘The art of not being (t)here’. (The Prezi accompanying the talk can be found here).
Having foollishly imagined that the visual arts would offer a wide range of examples of the representation of absence, in fact this is a far trickier topic than anticipated. Fortunately, I was rescued by a combination of earlier reflections on money and boundaries but more importantly by Rosalie Colie’s fascinating but largely neglected study of the use of paradox by Renaissance poets, writers and artists – Paradoxia Epidemica.
Not only was Colie’s analysis relevant to my own profoundly paradoxical situation (having flown to Cairo for 48 hours to stand in an empty exhibition standing in for two people who were absent), but had a resonance with the wider context of the exhibition. Colie quotes a letter by the poet and master of the paradox, John Donne, that gives a flavour of why (with Dr Donne’s apologies for the pre-orthographic spelling):
“Only in obedience I send you some of my paradoxes; I love you and myself and them too well to send them willingly for they carry with them a confession of their lightnes. and your trouble and my shame. But indeed they were made rather to deceave tyme then: although they have been written in an age when any thing is strong enough to overthrow her: if they make you to find better reasons against them, they do their office: for they are but swaggerers: quiet enough if you resist them. if perchaunce they may be pretyly guilt, that is there best for they they are not hatcht: they are rather alarums to truth to arme her then enemies: and they have only the advantadg to scape from being cald ill things that they are no things: therefore take heed of allowing any of them least you make another.”
John Donne, letter to an unknown friend, early 1600s (emphasis added).
The highlighted sections caught my eye in particular. The first emphasises the playful aspect of paradox – something that certainly applies to Headless, but also to many other contemporary art works (e.g. a lot of the grafitti that has sprung up all over Cairo during and since the Revolution). The second is more complex. On the one hand it suggests that the paradox is weak – it simply collapses in on itself if examined too closely. However, it also alludes to the way in which paradox holds a mirror up to the powerful – power itself is a paradox that ‘swaggers’ a little too much and that can always, therefore, be resisted. Paradox, this suggests, playfully mocks power in a way that can both wrong foot it, and higlhlight its own contradictions and vulnerabilities. It also allows for a mode of political commentary that defies censorship by making a virtue of (apparent) banality. As Colie put it:
“The paradox does not commit itself, nor does the paradoxist: another reason why in the melee of Renaissance ideas, there was a paradoxical epidemic, affording man the chance to postpone a philosophical or religious choice he might live to regret. Indeed, the paradoxical form denies commitment: breaking out of imprisonment by disciplinary forms and the regulation of schools, it denies limitation, defies “siting” in any specific philosophical position.”
Rosalie Colie, 1966, Paradoxia Epidemica: 38