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View 1
Live Cinema/In the Round
Installation view
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Live Cinema/In the Round: Contemporary Art from the East Mediterranean includes video, installation, and performance works by six artists—Ziad Antar, Inci Eviner, Gülsün Karamustafa, Hassan Khan, Maha Maamoun, and Christodoulos Panayiotou. Over the course of the last decade the contemporary art institutions and initiatives in the countries of the East Mediterranean have created more opportunities for mutual cultural exchange and dialogue. A number of artistic residencies and funds now exist that encourage artists to travel between cities such as Cairo, Istanbul, Beirut, and Nicosia. The artists selected to participate in this exhibition often present their work in this part of the world and are known to the curator due to this proximity. The East Mediterranean region encompasses countries east of the Mediterranean Sea and situated on a continuous landmass. The Anatolian region of Turkey shares a border with Syria and from there the Mediterranean coastline leads to Lebanon, Israel, and Egypt. The island of Cyprus lies within the horseshoe of the Mediterranean formed by these countries. Historically this region was known as the Levant, a term applied to an understood cultural way of life and trade relations, rather than a specific geographically defined area.

Each of the artists in the exhibition responds differently to aspects and tropes of cinema, often using backdrops and scenery to compose a stage for their works. The title, In the Round, takes its cue from theater-in-the-round, in which the audience surrounds the stage, allowing for a more intimate experience for the viewer and a more realistic performance from the actors. In terms of this exhibition, “in the round” refers to the exploration of a broader understanding of the development of cinema, one that stems from live theater to the suspension of reality of cinematic presentation and to cinematically inspired practices in contemporary art. It also hints at the physical presentation of this exhibition in multiple spaces in the Museum—five of the artists’ works can be found in the galleries of modern and contemporary art, and three works by Inci Eviner are installed in areas dedicated to the arts of Europe and Asia.

View 2
Live Cinema/In the Round
Installation view: Hassan Khan, G.R.A.H.A.M., 2008 (Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel)
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Hassan Khan’s video installation G.R.A.H.A.M. (2008) is essentially a portrait. Its classical exploration of the individual seems an appropriate fit for the context of the Museum. Portraiture has a long-established tradition in the history of art, one that is well represented in the Museum’s galleries. Among the most illustrious examples are Jean-Antoine Houdon’s Bust of Benjamin Franklin in gallery 284, Louise-Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun’s Portrait of Madame du Barry in gallery 283, and Édouard Manet’s Le Bon Bock in gallery 161. G.R.A.H.A.M. consists of a continuous, ten-minute real-time shot of the artist’s friend Graham sitting, slowed down to last fourteen minutes to subtly enhance every detail. Despite the fact that Khan is interviewing the subject about his life, the piece is silent as Graham was asked not to answer the questions verbally, but to maintain continuous eye contact with his interrogator. Khan has worked on ideas related to portraiture throughout his practice and he sees the portrait as a “site where it is possible to make a statement on the nature of what is general, which he proposes to be both productive and dangerous.” 1 The isolation of this work in gallery 179 presents G.R.A.H.A.M. as a distilled version of his own reality, or, as Khan describes it, “Graham as a corporation….The idea of a corporation here has nothing to do with the banal understanding of the term (as a socioeconomic unit) but rather comes from the Latin root corporare, ‘to combine or form into one body.’ Separation, distance, and unity are the elements of this portrait. An understanding of what an individual is. At the end, [Graham] was actually very gracious after these pretty uncomfortable ten minutes of Graham sitting there being Graham. Ten minutes can be a very, very long time.” 2 G.R.A.H.A.M. is a reflective piece that presents a portrait as both subject and audience. At one point during the video, Graham lights a cigarette in the most perfect of cinematic gestures; this stands out as a key moment during his “incorporation” within a dialogue that shifts the positions of mutual authority and submission between the artist and his muse.

Khan is well known for his live music and video concerts. To enhance the live element of this exhibition he was invited to perform INCIDENCE at the Slought Foundation on the opening evening of Live Cinema /In the Round. INCIDENCE is a seamless, continuous stream of Khan’s improvisational pieces and musical compositions accompanied by video sequences specially shot by the artist, such as a monochrome red that slowly shifts in color, vertiginous dreamlike tracking/crane shots of solitary public lamps at night, and the portrait of G.R.A.H.A.M. (this time accompanied by music), so linking gallery 179 to the live performance.

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Live Cinema/In the Round
Installation view : on the left Gülsün Karamustafa, Bekledigimiz Günler (The Days We Have Waited for), 2007 (Courtesy of the artist and Rodeo) and on the right Maha Maamoun, 2026, 2010 (Courtesy of the artist)
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Gülsün Karamustafa’s Beklediğimiz Günler (The Days We Have Waited For) (2007), is a very different portrait, that of a time and a place: Istanbul. Originally produced for an exhibition presented in the Yapi Kredi Gallery in the Beyoğlu district in Istanbul, Karamustafa’s work refers to the old-fashioned film theaters that once existed in this area of the city. The gallery has an impressive archive of documentary films dating from the 1950s on, and Karamustafa delved into this depository in the hope of bringing some of them to life again. Beklediğimiz Günler is composed of newsreels from the 1960s and 1970s, which, at the time they were made, were screened after the advertisements and before the programmed fiction films that played in local cinemas. In Karamustafa’s condensed version, the promotional clips make up the entire work and the film proper never begins. Instead, a pack shot (an advertising term for a close-up image of a product) divides each sequence, creating a rolling chain of material that connects a series of historical events that occur over a period of several years. The films speak about a liberal time, when Istanbul was a paradise of sand and sea. Important events such as the 1971 visit by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and the opening of the first bridge to link Europe and Asia across the Bosphorus Strait are the main subjects of some clips, while others focus on weather, lifestyles, and fishing. Today the films appear strangely self-promotional as they describe to Turkish audiences how, for example, their own “country is a paradise.” By bringing these clips together Karamustafa makes clear how powerful the use of cinema was considered as a social tool of communication. Through the title of her work she suggests the idea of looking both back and forward in time, as if this past period of pride stands at once as a memory of something lost and something deeply desired again.

In a similar vein, an earlier work by Maha Maamoun, Domestic Tourism II (2009), “looked at the various ways in which [the Egyptian pyramids] are reappropriated from the timelessness of the touristic postcard, and reinscribed into the complex and dynamic narratives of the city,” as described by the artist. For Maamoun, the “minimal” pyramids have come to appear bizarre in juxtaposition to Cairo’s chaotic city structure. For years they have been festishized through their distinct separation from the urban confusion as objects of touristic splendor and cinematic imagery. Maamoun’s most recent work 2026 (2010), on view at the Museum, considers the pyramids’ setting sixteen years from now. Based on a passage from the recent Egyptian novel The 2053 Revolution by Mahmoud Uthman, and referencing a related scene from Chris Marker’s iconic 1962 film La Jetée, 2026 presents a vision of the pyramids’ plateau, and by extension of Egypt, looking back from the future to the year 2026. Like the character in La Jetée, the protagonist of 2026 > has the ability to mentally travel backward and forward through time. What he encounters is a dystopian future staged against the same historic background. As time collides, so do the filmic genres and the historical structures that Maamoun has taken for inspiration, yet what she presents in the arena of a contemporary gallery can only ever be understood in the vocabulary of our present. For Maamoun, 2026 attempts to express “how the symbiotic relationship between the pyramids and the megalopolis at their feet is weaved and re-weaved across time.”

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Live Cinema/In the Round
Installation view: Christodoulos Panayiotou, detail of (Untitled) ACT I: The Departure, 2008 (Courtesy of the Collection of Nicos Pattichis)
Philadelphia Museum of Art
(Untitled) Act I: The Departure (2007) and (Untitled) Act III: The Glorious Return (2008) by Christodoulos Panayiotou consist of two scenes, the first an act of arrival, or introduction, and the latter of return, or finale, for the Museum’s exhibition. (The middle act of the series, (Untitled) Act II: The Island, is concurrently on view in the exhibition Hydrarchy: Power and Resistance at Sea at Gasworks in London.) Panayiotou’s two works on view at the Museum each present a found, renamed, and folded theater backdrop with a small reference photograph of their unfurled images as they would look when hung onstage. Imagined together, the backdrops unfold several possible synopses for a play, but they exclude speech or actors. Panayiotou commonly omits the actors from the scenes made to host them, which entices viewers to imagine their own gestures, iconography, and sounds as accompaniment, symbolically redefining their own position relative to the production of culture. Panayiotou’s backdrops, which assume a sculptural dimension once installed, intimate the moment when the theatrical backdrop became redundant to developing strategies of cinema. At the same time, they remind us of the potential of live performance, as these backdrops seem to be waiting for a story and script to be written. The negative presence, or absence, of what may come to be is an important concept in many of Panayiotou’s works. In the Museum, Panayiotou’s two backdrops are presented in different galleries (173 and 178) to allow viewers to encounter them as if in a theatrical scenario, first seeing one scene and later the other.

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Live Cinema/In the Round Installation view: Inci Eviner, Nouveau Citoyen/New Citizen - I (top), II (middle), III (bottom), 2009 (Courtesy of the artist and Galeri Nev, Istanbul) Philadelphia Museum of Art
Located in galleries 223, 259, and 288 are three video works from INCI EVINER’S project Nouveau Citoyen (New Citizen) (2009). The term “new citizen” (novus civis), has historically defined the first member of a family to serve in the Roman Senate. Eviner uses it to refer to the movements of immigration that have begun to, as she says, “change the definition of ‘European culture’ from within.” Eviner’s new citizens inhabit three decorative backdrops, lifted from wallpapers, fabrics, and tiles that now adorn touristic postcards. In the videos, moving female protagonists and their disconnected body parts play out set choreographies that deconstruct the patterns that surround them. By means of their content, color, and motifs, these scenes are recognizable designs plucked from particular cultures and periods. The Çintemani tile design, for example, is now a common touristic image of Turkey. Eviner here frees the blue, symbolic symmetry from its status as an innocent ornamental pattern, allowing it to move within the medium of video, while angry, youthful faces spin and dance, blurring and replacing the traditional decorative motifs. In the other two videos, awkward feminine gestures dwell atop a European ruin and a Chinese floral design. Just as each postcard presents one section of a repeating pattern, a common feature of these applied ornamentations, their alien inhabitants can be imagined infinitely replicated across the surfaces they occupy. Eviner’s videos have been specifically installed in Museum galleries that contain tapestries, tiles, and wallpapers, where their display encourages the audience to more closely scrutinize patterned materials that are often considered nothing more than decorative backgrounds.

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Live Cinema/In the Round
Installation view: Ziad Antar, still from La Souris, 2009 (Courtesy of the artist)
Philadelphia Museum of Art
ZIAD ANTAR creates short, precise videos that defy clear definitions or explanations of their content and meaning by offsetting obvious expectations and conclusions. In this sense it is only because of the medium used that they can indeed be considered videos; it may be more precise to define these works as translations of Antar’s ideas in the realm of the moving image. Usually either the artist himself or one or two protagonists perform a simple activity. These performances are not intended to be read as narrative stories, but rather they simply delineate the systematic progression of each role Antar has requested to be played out in front of the camera. In La Souris (2009), a toy mouse is wound up by the artist and directed at a real mousetrap over and over again. The scene is a simple, empty stage where the mouse is the only performer. As the tension builds, the toy appears luckier and luckier in its escapes, until inevitably the final act closes with the trap snapping shut. The mouse manages to cheat death, however, by remaining outside the trap, and quite incredibly, ends up sitting parallel to it, in apparent complicity with its former enemy.

While the artists in In the Round hail from the same geographic region, their inclusion in the exhibition was motivated primarily by their interest in performance-based practices and in particular the cinematic references in their work. This is clear for those videos that make use of found footage or reconstruct known film scenes, whereas for others it becomes apparent in the dialogue created between them and other works in the Museum. While Khan’s G.R.A.H.A.M. acts as a steady, contemplative platform for the exhibition that refers back to the genre of portraiture, it is offset by the dense content and clear film references of Karamustafa’s and Maamoun’s works. Panayiotou’s backdrops appear to open and close a conversation between all the works in the exhibition as well as remind us of the defining role of the actor or narrator in a film, or the lack thereof. Eviner’s videos have escaped the borders of the official video gallery to spread virally throughout the Museum. These short loops enliven static, historical imagery and hint at the problem of labeling by nationality or, in the case of the Museum, by medium and period. Finally, Antar’s video La Souris prompts the audience to question what it is they respond to and then choose to see within a work of art.

1. Quoted from the artist talk “I Am Not What I Am” by Hassan Khan

2. Quoted from “Thinking through Images #2” by Clare Davies and Hassan Khan in Triple Canopy