Sharpener’s Wheel –
Mere Real Things
at Townhouse West
Mere Real Things
The Townhouse Gallery, Cairo
12.09.15 – 01.11.15
First published by Mada Masr
Somewhere on a plinth out in the private residential compound of Westown stands a wooden knife-sharpening wheel of the kind still carried on the backs of old, bent tradesmen around the city’s popular neighbourhoods. It is painted gaily in red, green and yellow and, if you ignore its everyday function, brings to mind both the fairground and the fairy-tale. It has been placed on display by the artist Ayman Ramadan as part of his exhibition of found objects, ‘Mere Real Things’. And barely anyone who lives in Westown has any idea what it is for.
Townhouse West is a survival gambit, a deal made between Westown real estate company SODIC and Townhouse. The gallery will provide artistic matter in a gutted shop space in Westown under the name of Townhouse West, and the company will contribute to keeping the doors open at Townhouse’s original art space in downtown Cairo. This is happening because state funding is extremely problematic, and the great pulses of foreign cultural funding that arrived following various events since 9/11 have slowed. Meanwhile, the state has turned the thumbscrews on NGOs, making leaders of art organisations liable to arrest.
As Townhouse director William Wells puts it, ‘We have to look for different avenues for survival, and corporate sponsorship is one way to do that. In fact, it’s even more serious than survival – it’s a battle, as corporates have a very different way of thinking than a not-for-profit funder. But we are trying to set a precedent with SODIC because they are open to it.’
So how the knife-sharpener’s wheel ended up in an annexe space called Townhouse West is not just the story of a touring exhibition, but two alien worlds living side by side and an art scene in crisis.
The exhibition is a collection of found objects selected by Ramadan that have strong working-class, handmade or folk associations, such as a foot-operated clothing iron and a worn-out broom end – objects largely replaced by upgraded technology and mass-produced imports. It is a typical gesture for this artist, whose work mines the material and lived realities of working-class Egyptians. His 2004 video Iftar, for example, is a simple and almost painterly documentation of the breaking of the fast during Ramadan at the free meals held in public space. The taboo Ayman Ramadan breaks here is not in the portrayal of a religious ritual, but in unromantically depicting the lives of the poor in contemporary art, which has long been a major sensitivity in Egypt.
With this awareness, the exhibition pins the found objects at several conceptual thresholds, at the boundaries of art object and non-art object, uselessness and usefulness, working-class trash or upper-class fetish object, which swings us right back round to art-object-or-not.
Using readymades usually confers artistic status to found objects. At the same time, though, the exhibition title ‘Mere Real Things’ – implies an immediate refutal of the art-object status Ramadan has seemingly just conferred.
This tired Duchampian hokey-cokey gets an extension to its sell-by date on some counts. The first is to do with Ramadan himself and his working-class origins: He’s no pith-helmeted bourgeois enthusiast gathering souvenirs in the foreign country of another class. His proposal of these objects as worthy of attention – his refutal of the fact that they need to be art objects in order to be valued – is potentially autobiographical, keenly felt and utterly sincere.
Secondly, he is right: many of the objects themselves are just supremely evocative. They are plain evidence of human ingenuity, resourcefulness and creation. At core, they are artistry. That’s worth noticing, no matter where these objects are placed. Notwithstanding the wheel – the undoubted star of the show – there’s other things, like two small, soft brick cone shapes displayed in a tiny glass case that turn out to be homemade spinning tops; two moulded sugar horse effigies topped off with raffish plumes of shiny plastic ( a kind of candy sold at moulids, a religious festival in Egypt ); a tiny brass intaglio attached to a worn piece of string; brooms made from fronds of date palm. They are humble, not entirely legible things. They feel as though they are from a faraway world, carefully selected to exclude the cheap imported mass manufactured objects that also now flood this socioeconomic space. This is, in part, explained by the exhibition wall text, which describes the artist’s intention to select objects from a particular era that could once have been found in bourgeois homes, but now have ‘sunk’ to the working classes, and, it goes on to say, will eventually pass out of all useful existence altogether. We are looking at wooden, handcrafted authenticity’s last stand. The almost total absence of plastic in the room indicates throbbing nostalgia toward a particular vision of class existence.
As such, the anthropological bent of the exhibition is undeniable. ‘Look, you flimsy contemporary art-goer, here are things, things that you are too rich and pampered to understand.’ A well-informed gallery attendant is on hand to talk you through what each object is actually for. Even as the objects hum alone in their awkwardness, giving off a distinct Arte Povera feels ( but if they could talk, you’d have to explain to them what that is ). The layers of cultural translation from art space to class abjection run deep, and cut both ways.
Explaining the original function of these objects raises the obvious question: why not just have wall texts? We know why – because that would be tacky, overly anthropological, a form of class colonialism, a crass way to turn the vast majority of Egypt’s population into objects for museum study. Particularly here, out in a gated private residential compound ( more on this in a moment ). But this answer strikes me as being more about politically correct anxieties than a genuine critique of how we display people, objects and culture. What’s the difference between a wall text – that tool of museological authority – explaining things to you and the bright young proto-curator, himself an instrument of contemporary curatorial authority?
The key difference that is claimed here – and it’s one I believe in very much – is that the contemporary art context offers a more tricksy, liberated, less didactic space in which we can take on the world beyond everyday means-to-an-end realities. Here, hopefully, the ethical issues of displaying the broken objects of one class of people as curiosities for another class of people take on an excusable, indeed valuable, complexity. But this crucial spot, out here in Cairo’s beleaguered contemporary art scene, is where things get very sticky indeed.
What is the contemporary art context that it allows such magic to be performed? Posing this question in Egypt, where such a context has not long existed ( and has never done so without a fight ), has provided immense opportunity for reimagining these contexts on Egyptian terms. From the position of an ‘art-world periphery’, numerous organisations ( not least Townhouse ) have constantly reconsidered the full intellectual, material, architectural and economic apparatus that purports to construct the liberatory space of contemporary art.
This can be incredibly simple. I am reminded of how Charles Esche, director of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, addressed the same question regarding education. He described a radical education project, the ‘Protoacademy’, he set up with students of Edinburgh College of Art in 1989: ‘It was simply a table with chairs around it, and one of its principles was that anyone who came to sit there was part of it.’
Townhouse West is an unplastered shop space with a concrete floor and some lighting, roughly akin to Esche’s table and chairs. In setting up Townhouse West, Townhouse has, admirably enough, refused to echo the deeply consumer-led cultural signals given off by Westown Hub, filled as it is with chain restaurants, woven plastic garden chairs and obsequious maitres d’. This backdrop, I think, explains the curatorial determination, however hamstrung by these conditions, to confront Egypt’s rich with the beautiful detritus of Egypt’s poor.
But we are missing one key detail of Esche’s formula: ‘anyone who came to sit there was part of it.’
The taxi driver who brought me to Westown was asked to surrender his ID at the gate. Westown is divided into those who consume and those who provide. The latter are there on condition of ( at least symbolically ) suspending their citizenship. But when Ramadan’s work clearly encourages us to read these objects with all the mercurial liberation of the contemporary art context, it becomes extremely urgent to reaffirm the obvious – that this context is necessarily and emphatically a public one, to which everybody is invited.
The fact that this is not the case weakens Ramadan’s exhibition. How can one propose and discuss the aesthetic beauty, cultural validity, complexity and value of these things, and the world from which they come, when the very ground one stands on is built explicitly not to be that world? This is the institutional condition of Townhouse West, and of ‘Mere Real Things’.
I have led a contemporary art organisation in down-town Cairo, and I see the long view Townhouse is taking: if the contemporary art scene is ever to wean itself off its dependence on foreign cultural funding or a bullying state, it must urgently nurture artistic appreciation within private Egyptian sources. The irony here is that Townhouse is a space that defied all cries of ‘impossible!’ in the first place, by being among the earliest organizations to attempt an inclusive model of contemporary art in a working-class downtown neighbourhood. And while we may well have to adapt to the expectations of private supporters, we must decide which compromises are investments in the long game, and which are ultimately detrimental to both art and its publics. The question that remains – as ever for the art world at large – is whether the ends justify the means.
初刊于 Mada Masr
其次，他是对的：很多物件本身是极易引起情感共鸣的。它们是人类心灵手巧、足智多谋和创造力的简单证据。就其核心而言，它们都具有艺术性。值得注意的是，这些东西摆在哪里无关紧要。尽管有转轮——无疑是这个展览的明星——还有其他东西，例如在小玻璃盒中展示的两个小而软的砖制圆锥体，转变成为家庭制作的陀螺；两个用模子制作的糖马造型，顶上有亮泽的塑料制成的俗气的羽状物（ 这是一种在埃及宗教节日售卖的糖果 ）；一个系在旧线绳上的黄铜凹雕；用椰枣树叶制成的笤帚。它们都是粗陋的，完全不是容易判读之物。它们感觉像是来自遥远的世界，仔细挑选过，排除了廉价的进口批量生产之物，后者如今也充斥着这样的社会经济空间。这一点可以通过展墙上的文字得到解释，它描述了艺术家选择来自某个特定时代物品的意图，从前在资产阶级家庭中才能看到的物件，但如今已经‘沉降’到了工人阶级当中，就是说，最后一切有用的存在都会被遗忘。我们看到木质的手工制作的本真性的最后一刻。在展厅里几乎完全没有塑料制品，这也显示出对某种阶级生活视角的悸动的情愫。
同样，展览也有一种无可否认的人类学倾向。‘看吧，你们这些脆弱的当代艺术活跃分子们，这就是那些东西，你们因为太富有和娇生惯养，从而无法理解。’一位见多识广的艺廊服务员在场给你讲解每个物品实际上是做什么的。即便这些物品独自尴尬地发出声音，让人有与众不同的“贫穷艺术”的感觉。（ 但是如果它们能够发声，你就必须给它们解释那究竟是什么。 ）从艺术空间到阶级屈辱的文化转化的层面非常深入，也有利有弊。
解释这些物品的原本功能，产生了明显的问题：为什么没有展品概述？我们知道为什么——因为那会成为俗气的、过分人类学式的一种阶级殖民主义，一种把埃及人口大多数转化成博物馆研究对象的粗暴方式。特别是在这里，在装有栅栏的私人住宅区外（ 恰恰此刻就是在此地 ）。但这个回答更多地是因为政治正确性的焦虑而冲击了我，并不是对我们如何展现人物、物品和文化的方式提出真正的批判。向你解释这些物品的墙上文字——这是博物馆权威的工具——与聪明的年轻主策展人（ 他本人也是当代策展权威的一个工具 ）之间有何区别？
送我去温斯顿的出租司机在大门口被人要求交出身份证。温斯顿被分成消费的人和提供消费的人。后者在这里是以暂时取消（ 至少是从象征意义上 ）自己的公民身份为条件出现在这里。但是当拉马丹的作品极力鼓励我们用灵活开放的当代艺术语境来解读这些物件时，重申显而易见之处就变得极端迫切了——这种语境必须而且断然是公共的，每个人都受到进入其中的邀请。