Thursday, December 25, 2008
On the fourth floor of the Palace of Arts, the exhibition space featuring this year’s Cairo Biennale, I felt something strange.
At 2 pm at the crowded opening, with cameras clicking, the tin laughter and the inescapable fashionparade, I felt serene.
The piece before me, a computer generated installation of three trees, was titled “Dervish.”
I’d met the artist, Jennifer Steinkamp the day before, with curator Kimberli Meyer, who’d suggested she represent the US in the Biennale. We sat together for an interview at the American Embassy headquarters in Garden City. Both Steinkamp and Meyer hail from Los Angeles. It was there that Meyer first saw Steinkamp’s work in 1995 at the Acme Gallery. She’s been following Steinkamp’s work ever since.
Steinkamp’s presentation “Through line” has a notable history. While presenting a work at the Istanbul Biennale in 2003, she attended a Sufi dance performance, also known as the whirling dervishes. Inspired by their movements, she designed a group of computer animated trees whose swaying branches mirror the dancers’ movements.
“They don’t turn all the way around because trees are rooted in the ground. But they’re kind of trees going into a trance and then every couple of minutes they change seasons.”
Indeed they did. Among a venerable hodgepodge of international paintings, installations and sculpture sharing space at the Palace, Steinkamp’s work stood tall, serenely as one might experience from watching the Sufi dancers.
Occupying a room of its own, a set of three trees, projected almost to scale, swayed gracefully. Each leaf turned over itself with delicate timing, and for that moment provided a refuge from the visual traffic I’d crossed through to see it.
“I made this as a homage to the Middle East because the United States was going to war, and I didn’t understand it,” Steinkamp said.
When asked about different receptions to the piece in different locations, she replied, “That’s why I’m putting this here. I thought I want to bring ‘Dervish’ here. It showed in New York, and I wanted to see how people would receive it here.”
“This theme [of peace] started with a piece called ‘Jimmy Carter,’ which was after 9/11, and we were going to war with Afghanistan and I didn’t get it. And you couldn’t say anything against the war, because, you know, everyone was so upset. And if you did say something against the war you were unpatriotic, and siding with the terrorists.
So I decided I wanted to make a work about peace, and decided to name it ‘Jimmy Carter’ because he was a president who stood for peace. It was actually at the same time he was winning the Nobel Peace Prize, so I thought that was a nice coincidence.”
“Carter” is in fact a wall of virtual flowers. Like most of Steinkamp’s work, it is not overtly political; its visual effect strongly abstracted, in contrast to its concrete title.
“I always thought the titles are one of the key things in Jennifer’s work.” Meyer said. “Not everybody chooses to title their work. That’s why I think her work is also linguistically based, not just visually based.”
In light of Steinkamp’s pacifist stance, and outspokenness against the war, I asked her if she found it ironic to be here as a guest of the American Embassy. “I know, it’s funny isn’t it? What am I doing here?” she said with a laugh. “Well, now we have Obama.”
Meyer chimed in. “The great thing about Jennifer’s work is that you can read it in many different ways. It can be very visual and physical, and that’s pretty much the predominant thing. Then if you want to get into it more, if you want to unpack the titles, then you can go with that or not, but it’s optional. ... It’s not a message that pounds you over the head. It’s not completely apolitical, not at all, but you can kind of choose. And it is positive politics, it’s not negative, and I think that’s part of it too.”
In addition to her participation at the Biennale, the curator has also ventured out to see more about what’s happening in other parts of Cairo. She spoke of her interest in building a bridge between Cairo and LA.
“Cairo has the reputation of being the center of filmmaking, certainly in the Middle East, and we do too, so that’s a parallel I thought of from the beginning. There’s also a sort of odd similarity in the climate, and the smog,” Meyer chuckled.
“Cairo also has a reputation for being one of the most liberal cities in the Middle East,” she continued. “And LA, as opposed to New York, kind of has a reputation for being more edgy. We see Cairo as a kind of progressive urban center in the Middle East, and we want to create a sort of dialogue.”
On her experience of Cairo in juxtaposition to her home, Steinkamp concluded, “I think our highways are dreamy now. After getting stuck in traffic here, I can go get stuck in traffic there and think, ‘this is not so bad’.”