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Off Biennale: The city tomorrow

In spite of some of its darker offerings–oil paintings of ghostly figures, photos of gutted Cairo landmarks, a large work called “Dark City”–the Futuropolis exhibition currently on display at the Saad Zaghloul Cultural Center is not, according to curator Paul Geday, pessimistic.

“A city is difficult,” he said, walking through the center’s cluster of small exhibition rooms. “But it is also beautiful and captivating.”

The 13 contributors, local and international, were urged to consider not only the city as it exists today or existed in the past, but how it might function in the future. This perspective seemed particularly relevant to Egyptian artists, many of whom reflect in their work a natural obsession with Cairo and the often overwhelming experience of living in the mega-city but whose gaze is either turned to the past (not always nostalgically) or rooted in the present, focusing on the daily machinations of a city whose constant mutations make it, if not a piece of art, certainly a piece of work.

“If you live in Cairo as an artist, most of your work is going be about the city,” Geday said. “You cannot pretend that it does not exist.”

And, although the exhibition is not limited to reflections on or predictions for Cairo, some of the more interesting pieces directly address the Egyptian capital. Photographs from Tarek Hefny slice the third dimension off of well known Cairo buildings, like Tahrir Square’s imposing Mogamma and the hotels that line the Nile, rendering the actual buildings–enormous structures dwarfing Cairo’s past–mere facades.

The ground he exposes by stripping, for example, the back three quarters of a Nile hotel–a formerly low-income neighborhood–may not exist in its past manifestation, but the idea resonates: for Hefny, the future of a city includes transparency and veracity, seeing the buildings both for what they are and for what they keep hidden.

Another photographic contribution, “Genius Loci,” is also Cairo-focused. Heba Farid’s panoramas, taken beneath a bridge overpass, are remarkably still and silent, portraying both the uniqueness and the universality of some of the more overlooked (in this case, overpassed) spaces of the city. Farid’s landscapes have more to do with, as the title suggests, the “spirit of a place,” or its “atmosphere.” Because her work exiles the most common (and commonly derided) features of Cairo life–the traffic, the congestion–from the frame, it focuses on the grand engineering skeletons of the giant city and the contemplation provoked by such relative nothingness.

Geday’s contribution takes photos from his Facebook page–small sketches of tools and a series depicting the preparation of an evening meal–encouraging the viewer to consider the future city, and its art galleries and kitchens, as an online one. He seems to ask, What is “the original” and what is “the reproduction”? Mounted on foam for the Futuropolis exhibition, Geday’s photos of Facebook photos of sketches of tools or a kitchen’s mise en place are works the particular existence of which depends on the mediating steps–but are they more or less meaningful than the painted wrench or actual wrench, photo of raw vegetables or cooked meal?

Geday’s work is an ongoing experiment, hinging on the contributions of Facebook users, both in terms of commentary and in terms of violation of intellectual property rights. Russian artist Xenia Nikolskaya also presents existing work in her video installation, “Leningrad 2069,” in her case an 8-mm video taken by her uncle of the Russian city now called St. Petersburg. The piece depends upon the poignancy of a simple fact–that the city being recorded no longer exists by that name–in order to illustrate a fluid timeline.

Other works in Futuropolis address the city in a more direct way using more traditional medias. Nermine al-Ansari’s painting, “Black City,” collages pictures of Cairo over a large, dark glut of buildings from which featureless statuettes fan out like gargoyles. It’s a troubling prediction of immobility, oppression and entrapment–feelings echoed in Ahmed Nosseir’s quixotic works.

For an exhibition focused on the future, one might be surprised to learn that more than one of the exhibitions date to the mid-eighties (although most of the pieces were produced with the exhibition in mind). Frederick Mouille’s “Jungle of the Cities” was produced when the French artist lived in Cairo in 1985. The brightly colored panels take their name from a work by Bertolt Brecht, and is alienating in much the same way the German playwright was–the panels keep the viewer from ever becoming fully immersed in Mouille’s work.

The exhibition is dedicated to the late Egyptian artist Mohsen Sharara, whose death in 2006 coincided with the destruction or disappearance of most of his work. Sharara served as mentor to Geday, and though his work at Futuropolis is meager, it is meaningful–and may be the best predictor of the city's future. And it is a prediction that is not without hope: for it’s not about what we experience when we’re here, but about what we leave behind.

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