Great Expectations and Un-important Items
by Kirsten zurbrigg
On March 5, 1998 Khaled Hafez staged an opening and an exhibition, which attempted to initiate an important cross-cultural debate in Cairo. The exhibition was installed in a small room in the Cairo Atelier, an organization founded in the 1940’s by visual artists, writers and intellectuals, and well known for its association with the Egyptian Communist Party. The host, who met his guests in the gallery doorway, was handing out leaflets. The show titled “Un-important Items”, looked as though it was about to be hung, or perhaps it had already been dismantled. “Have we arrived just a bit too fashionably late?” was the question of the evening. It is the question of “timing” which still ligers in my mind as a key element of the exhibition, which I believe still deserves to be addressed despite the fact that the event took place in 1998.
March 5, 1998
An eclectic gathering of framed images greets us in the small gallery space: a portrait of Adel Imam (Egypt’s enduring screen idol); a drawing of the artist’s hand; and a drawing of a clothed figure… nothing is hang, yet everything is placed. Framed drawings lean singly and in small piles against the gallery walls. Lists of un-important things hang on the walls in elegant Arabic calligraphy, reminiscent of illuminated Korans. “Claudia Schiffer is not important, Adel Imam is not important, Khaled Hafez is not important…” I have arrived at this opening with specific expectations and at this moment I feel pleased by the disarray. There is something unusual here, something which moves beyond the usual play with the expectations of the exhibition; in the formal sense of how a gallery space is hung (four walls, frames, images). This is an exhibition, which breaks with the consistency of its own subject matter, in order to draw attention to the audience, and to the construction of value and culture as a subject. Hafez, very much to the key to this exhibition, is omnipresent in the writing and as host.
The leaflet, which was given to us by our host, contains our very own list of important and un-important items. Despite the heading of important items, under which follows a listing of popularized cultural icons mostly from the fashion industry, it is the category of the un-important which demands my attention. Given the title, and implied content of the show, one might expect to find a sense of futility in the artist’s voice, but instead there is an unexpected twist. By denouncing the exhibition and its parts (naming it as un-important), the real exhibition becomes the “very workings of the exhibition” and, by extension, the construction of contemporary culture. The issue of value is not contained in the relation of the author to the objects but rather finds its location in a more complicated and outward trajectory. The question of the relation of audience and artist (as individual) to the production of a popularized visual culture becomes essential to this project. Hollywood, the French Catwalk, visual academicism, and the history of Egyptian culture are all subject to quantification in Hafez’s list of un-important items. Although we may recognize a kind of personal significance in the things represented, it is the fragility of their position, their fluctuation, their ability to be un-important, which catches our interest.
It is opening night, and the Cairo art community arrives to be seen and to see—to be accounted for, and to account for. In this fabricated space though, we are caught off guard. Who and what are we supposed to be doing, or seeing? Where is the exhibition? We are, after all, coming to make an appraisal of the exhibition and of the artist. But where is the material that we are to judge? Hafez has problematized our position as viewers by removing the exhibited objects from their frames. In addition, he has taken certain liberties by pre-emptying our judgments. The sense of what is important is troubled by Hafez’s act of sabotage (by the drawings which are not hung, and by the Xeroxed leaflets which seem reminiscent of political propaganda and which function as a kind of ironic, cultural dogmatism). What we do find on the walls is unframed yet, coincidentally; it is this text, which attempts to frame the exhibition and the subject. The exhibited text, its language, and the author insist and reiterate a particular kind of relationship to the audience. The texts on the walls, and in our leaflet, not only list the items present, and absent, but also assigns to them a specific value. In this way, our task, or role, as an audience has already been put into question before our arrival. We are left with two possibilities: to agree, or disagree with the text. Ironically, both actions become positive acts. One may agree with the present, cultural judgments or one may contest, and insist on assigning a new value—a value that could make the items and exhibition important. The audience is forced to participate in a reversal of roles, as we are no longer “self-made” critics but rather an obliging public—we are here to see what has been judged already.
When our desire to critique is thwarted, we are once again reminded of our position within the structure of the cultural system. This problematic relationship between the critic, audience and artist raises questions about the way in which meaning is determined and assigned. The question is further addressed in the inclusion of a group of academically rendered drawings. How is the value of these items determined? Is the value determined for us through public systems (advertising and mass media)? By mixing popularized and intimate iconography in the same voice, that is, in the same illustrative and academic tone, we are struck by a similarly provoking demand. Are these images important because of the author’s claims, because the media has continued to reframe their importance as cultural icons, or because the critics (audience) will celebrate or denounce the images presented in this exhibition? Hafez makes no attempt to answer the questions. The installation is, after all, a sketch, and a stage for a dialogue. The show is not as we expected it to be. The show is already un-important. The material is immaterial, and yet we do feel that the thing which counts, the thing of importance, is lurking in the shadow…It is all parts of the whole—material, immaterial (gaze, custom, critique, object, audience, gallery) all locked into one particular—the event as spectacle. These parts have no meaning of their own (in installation they are titled: un-important), rather as event, as social spectacle, they find meaning. A dialogue about the position of the artist, the museum and the gallery within the society continues to be a prime concern for Hafez. Investigations into the relationship of the artist to the institution (including issues of censorship), the audience to the infrastructure of contemporary culture, the relationship of artist to audience, and of art to fashion has all become subjects for Hafez’s work but is more actively structured in their particular approach.
One goes to the museum, or to the gallery, for a particular kind of experience—or at least with a particular expectation. One goes to an opening for another reason—to be seen and to be seen seeing. Artists, artworks, gallery, audience, advertisement, journal, critic—take these elements as structural material and we begin to find the objects which Hafez is working with. The whole event becomes the work. We are as framed or un-framed as the objects presented. Our meaning is as tenuous, as present, or “un-present” as the author has suggested. We are as important or as un-important as the person as represented. Our position mirrors and completes the discussion that the author has framed for us, and framed us into. The opening and the objects present only allow the space for a social negotiation. Why then go to the trouble of hanging a show? Indeed, Hafez does not bother. With this decision, Hafez undermines our expectations of the gallery as exhibition space, and the exhibited objects as art work with a particular cultural meaning. In her book on the construction of meaning in the history of photography, Rosalid Krauss wrote that the “physical vehicle of the exhibition, the gallery walls became the signifier of inclusion” (Rosalind Krauss, The contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography, pp. 286-301). In the same way that modern painting anticipated its framing wall through flatness, Hafez’s installation draws itself outward to the matrix and bodies responsible for cultural construction. This is an exhibition that needs its context to be understood. It relates directly to those participating, and hence to the construction of contemporary Egyptian culture.
“This is not a gallery but a kitchen.” Someone whispers in the corridor.
The further attempts to account for the items which were presented in Hafez’s installation, the more evident that the real subject is somewhere beyond. The exhibition was an event—and a reframing of an art opening. Through the continual denial of significance, Hafez has drawn our focus back to the awareness of what our position is—what our real expectations are, and why we have come in the first place. The artist/performer/author relies on intrigue as the material and subject of the work. In the end, we become more aware of the forces that shape, invite and drive us to perform in this particular ritual spectacle.
At the end of the evening counts are taken, lists are made: who was there and who was not. Those who were not, become more important more talked about, than those who were actually there. Our participation becomes qualified, in part, by the inventories that we make collectively. To go back is not the point—that was the opening—that was the event. It is not a show but an intrigue.