Art newsCulture

In ‘Dust,’ the past is present

Xenia Nikolskaya’s collection of photographs, “Dust,” currently on display in the Townhouse first floor gallery space, opens the doors to a host of forgotten spaces in Cairo, Minya, Alexandria, Port Said, and elsewhere in Egypt, presenting the fading image of a lost era, frozen in time.

Nikolskaya’s work is the product of six years of research, exploration and shooting, which began when she visited the abandoned Serageldin Palace in the central Cairo neighborhood of Garden City in 2006. The palace was built in 1902 and was meant to serve as a residence for Kaiser Wilhelm. World War I interrupted the Kaiser’s plans, and the palace was eventually bought by Fuad Pasha Serageldin, who lived there until his death in 2000. Since then, it has remained unoccupied.

At first intending only to shoot the outside of the palace, when Nikolskaya was unexpectedly invited inside, she was awed by the dust-covered, luxurious space she found, a perfect representation of the Belle Epoque architecture that gave Khedival Cairo the nickname “Paris on the Nile.” That lost era is most visible today in abandoned buildings like the Serageldin Palace, the interiors of which are rarely seen, and scarcely documented.

The images she took that day set off years of work capturing this architecture, culminating in her current exhibition at Townhouse, and the publication of her monograph, also entitled “Dust.

“When you take photographs, you are getting to know something. It is about recognition, about collection, and it is a way to learn things,” says Nikolskaya.

Nikolskaya visited palaces, hotels, and apartments to create images that would act as visual representations of the past, offering up history as a tangible presence. This is an idea she began to articulate in 2009 when, on a special after-hours visit to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, she encountered the Vermeer painting “The Milkmaid,” and saw it as not just a portrait of a sad young woman, but also a portrait of her absent lover, implied in the surrounding objects.

“I thought, this is what I am doing: absent portraits,” she says.

In choosing her images, she searches for implied narratives, or as she describes it, “A little bit of suspense, a little bit of Hitchcock.”

Abandoned buildings, holding the fragments of lost purposes and disappeared occupants, have long been an intriguing subject for photographers. In recent years, this visual obsession has centered on the American Rust Belt, where countless photographers have worked to capture abandoned factories and destroyed houses in cities like Detroit, Pittsburgh and Syracuse, formerly thriving metropolises that decades ago lost the industries that kept them alive, leaving behind the empty shells of prosperity.

Such work has been given the derisive moniker ‘ruin porn’ and been criticized for wallowing in the irresistible aesthetic appeal of suffering cities, without offering any critique of the social and economic circumstances that brought those cities to ruin.

Nikolskaya’s work  exists within a similar visual language,  with large, carefully composed, beautifully lit images of decrepit spaces, exemplifying the appeal of abandonment for photographers, capturing so poetically the passage of time and the irrevocable loss of the past.

But Nikolskaya is interested in these forgotten interiors not as sites of total destruction, of an era destroyed, but as time capsules, trapped in a moment, but still maintaining the possibility for a new future. The spaces she photographs are suspended and hidden and in their frozen, dust-covered state, act as poignant illustrations of the stagnation that has gripped Egypt in recent decades and the epochal evolutions that have marked the history of the country.

Nikolskaya emphasizes that these spaces do, potentially, have a future, even if it is an uncertain one. The spaces that she chooses to shoot are not all abandoned. Some are still in use, with fragments of their current occupants visible in such details as a just-finished cup of Nescafe, or a recent pile of papers sitting on a hotel lobby table. And some of the spaces she has photographed have changed significantly even since she visited them. The Radio Theater, for example, which appears in several images, recently played host to the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival, opening its doors for business for the first time in over a decade. 

Within the broader scope of the project is a very careful attention to visual detail. “Each image was chosen for how it looks,” says Nikolskaya.

This careful attention to aesthetics is not simply about the desire to create something beautiful. Nikolskaya’s images are valuable as documents, but they are also arresting visual objects that evoke the life and history of the spaces they depict, and had they been captured in a more casual manner, they would not perform this function so effectively.

The photographs are filled with soft light and just enough of a hint of human presence to bring the space to life. An image of the Radio Cinema make-up room is satiny and quiet, the drawers of the light-up vanity pulled out as though the stars of the past only recently vacated the space. Another image captures the kitchen of an empty apartment on Mahmoud Bassiouny Street downtown, empty pots and pans stacked up on a counter as light streams through the window, filling the room with the same soft glow that is so remarkable in Dutch interiors like those of Vermeer. With such images, “Dust” provides a privileged window on the past, and brings the past to life.

The exhibition is on view until 13 June, from 12:00 to 9:00 pm.

Related Articles