Sites of Passage bridges America, Egypt
The Mattress Factory, a museum of contemporary art, showcased modern artwork created by Egyptian and American artists as part of Sites of Passage, an installation that began in September and will continue until Jan. 8. Co-curator and performance artist Tavia La Follette guides visitors on a tour of an array of artwork that includes photographs, paintings, film, music, and other audio. Much of the politically driven work evinces social consciousness and expresses solidarity with the protests in Tahrir Square that began in January, as well as with other international resistance movements.
The Sites of Passage exhibit is the outgrowth of the Firefly Tunnels project, La Follette’s brainchild. As the Firefly Tunnels project’s website explains, La Follette found inspiration from her trip to Egypt in the summer of 2010, where she participated in Artists Residency Egypt, a contemporary arts and culture collective. On the trip, she came up with an idea for an artistic dialogue between Egyptians and Americans, and the Firefly Tunnels project was born. The project is a three-week performance art and installation workshop, which in turn created a global network of experimental artists who exchange ideas and create art through a virtual performance art lab. Within the network, artists can upload work to display to fellow artists as well as respond to and edit their colleagues’ work.
According to La Follette on the Mattress Factory’s website, “The Firefly Tunnels are metaphorical passageways for the exchange of ideas through the language of Performance Art. One can think of them as an Underground Railroad that crosses the borders of language, a system of tunnels [aided by the internet] that doesn’t believe in the barriers of countries or the obstruction of segregated tongues.”
The work of these artists, both American and Egyptian, is displayed in a series of adjacent rooms in the Mattress Factory. La Follette guides visitors from one work to another, explaining the message that each artist hoped to convey. Each work of art is poignant and political and will either disturb or inspire.
In particular, Noha Redwan’s “Over My Dead Body” attempts to re-create the experience of Egyptians traveling on the subway during this year’s revolution using a variety of media. The experience is both powerful and unnerving. Redwan incorporates seemingly mundane objects, such as seats from a coach bus, a map of Egyptian subway routes, and steel grab bars as part of the installation. In addition, the artwork includes audio of riveting commentary by Egyptian artists discussing brutal crackdowns by loyalist police forces. In the background, one can distinctly hear the rhythmic clacking of a departing subway train. The effect is eerie and atmospheric.
Paintings and graffiti by artist Matt J. Hunter surround the subway facsimile. Pictured are Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and victims of his police forces, as well as Khalid Said, whose death at the hands of Egyptian security forces arguably galvanized popular dissent. Subway passengers are also made to look like skeletons, peering through the windows of a train. Heavy use of reds and oranges invokes bloodshed occurring aboveground, and cadaver-like depictions of subway passengers elicit feelings of impending death. Each piece is similarly interactive, allowing one to also become an active participant of the exhibit and feel its emotional tenor.
One flaw, however, is the lack of any evident collaboration between artists. Sites of Passage is the result of cross-global communication between American and Egyptian artists, who provided each other feedback and critique throughout the creative process; as such, the exhibit would have been more cohesive if the exhibit had shown these interactions between the artists. Instead, the exhibit moves from one work to another. Each work is given its own physical space and a statement about the piece by the respective artist is provided. Nonetheless, the works that comprise the exhibit are compelling, and the experience is powerful.
La Follette has a clear vision of what she would like the artistic dialogue of the Firefly Tunnels project to achieve. “This exchange has been focusing on how metaphor is the missing link in the translation of ideas,” she said in an email. “As the aesthetic interpreter to the heart, I believe metaphor can help us better understand our own humanity.... I never underestimate the power of symbols. Symbols help me to say what I cannot say with words, they tap into our emotions. Emotions, like religion, help us recognize our values. Values, like cultures, contradict. It is this common contradiction that interests me.”