Sunday, August 5, 2007

Bullet proof city-dwelling

Copan (São Paulo)
by Andreas Gursky, born 1955, Germany

Next weekend Raouf is coming to London and I will take him to the Global Cities exhibition at Tate Modern, London. Insha'allah.

I went today and I must go back. At first I believed it would not tell me anything I don't know: Cairo is one of the most densely populated cities in the world (36,500 inhabitants per km2); one-third of the planet's urban dwellers live in slums... and video installations are mostly shit. Then into the little dark rooms to sit on the bench with the other uncertain exhibition-goers to watch the screenings - possibly with no beginning or end - always starting from the middle.

I was humbled before a piece by Egyptian artist Hala Elkoussy: Peripheral Stories, 2005. Hala is a bit of a joker, and this keeps her work from being subsumed by its own pretentious overtones. Hala's is a serious message, but it springs from and plays with the surreal experience of living in modern-day Cairo, and its peripheral settlements - some exclusive and dull with their monochrome villas, and others with no rubbish collection and unsteady foundations. A series of narratives overlay the visual episodes: a boy strides in the dust swinging his bandaged arm that he wraps and unwraps as we are told the story of the boy who who fell from the microbus as it swerved over a bridge; the driver did not stop to pick him up because it was illegal for microbuses to be on that bridge; A succession of women - their heads bent backwards into the basin - eyes closed in willing submission - have shampoo massaged into their hair by a mustachioed male hairdresser; we hear that the president's wife interceded to stop the implementation of a religious decree that maintained it was 'haram', sinful for women to go to a male hairdresser. After all "only a man knows how to make a woman beautiful", the voice over tells us. The daily experience of the Cairene is far from culturally rich as the leaders put all their energy into making a mockery of the city people and none into providing them with the resources and recourses for a dignified life. The individual is culturally atrophied. Dizzy from the meaningless daily dance, he or she watches as the desert and piles of rubbish push at their door. And the army is always at the gates; snoozing perhaps, but they are there.

I wandered past the Mumbai screening, and popped my head around the door of the Sao Paulo video screening, and stayed, and stayed, although I had to leave to join my friends before the end of the 58 minutes. The Italian artist Francisco Jodice produced the documentary film, São Paulo - Citytellers during a residency in São Paulo, Brazil. It is the usual story in some respects: prosperity barricades itself against poverty; yet the details are compelling and horrible as they should be: so violent is street crime and so congested with traffic are the roads that the wealthy have built helicopter pads on top of high-rise buildings and there are more than 1,000 private helicopters that ferry businessmen and rich sorts to their appointments on the other side of the city, or for weekend jaunts to the coast. When not flying about, they move in bullet-proof cars.

This way problems are not solved, but people are divided absolutely.

No comments: