To battles won and lost. To savagery. To presidents and their directives. To slavery. To religion. To many years with peace. To many without. To exploration, expansionism, capitalism. To many dead men. To fewer dead women.
Our desire to memorialize significant figures and events is curious. It is an attempt to make permanent something most likely characterized by impermanence. It is also an impossible task, since no monument can make physical the environment in which it came to pass. Displaced from context, set static within change, such forms can never attain a permanence of meaning. Like us, they live, breathe, fluctuate – vulnerable to each and every societal whim.
Iman Issa’s exhibition ‘Material’ visualises the fluidity of such reliquaries of history. Collected within Bielefelder Kunstverein are ten faceless monuments known to the artist since childhood. The sites are invoked via a series of ambiguous wall texts (doubling as the works’ titles) proposing alternatives to their original designs, each accompanied by a maquette. These components sit at a disjoint. Take Material for a sculpture recalling the destruction of a prominent public monument in the name of national resistance (2010), and the recalcitrance that such a statement summons. The maquette is a delicate mahogany triangle, akin to the perch of a holy book, a tassel pinned to its tip.
Disassociation and aesthetic reduction characterise each of Issa’s pairings. Material for a sculpture representing a monument erected in the spirit of defiance of a larger power (2012) takes the form of a lounging wooden obelisk. Another, an ode to a bygone era of luxury and decadence, resembles a brass kink of Kufic script. A commemoration for a victorious army that initially appeared inferior sees a lone thread pulled taut against a wall. Its reflection winks below in a mirrored shelf, itself dissected by two blood-red lines.
While Issa’s propositions refer to actual monuments, ascription is avoided. Revolutions remain dateless; fallen soldiers, anonymous; nations, placeless. But with a knowledge of the artist’s Egyptian heritage, some can be mapped. Material for a sculpture commemorating an economist whose name now marks the streets and squares he once frequented (2011), for instance, a neat vitrine of effects, refers to Talaat Harb, who founded the Bank of Egypt in 1920 and, following the declaration of the Republic of Egypt in 1953, saw his name emblazoned on numerous thoroughfares in Cairo. Appropriately, the vitrine contains cardboard squares of black, green, red and gold, the colours flown by the Republic until 1958.
Why, when such histories lie dormant, are Issa’s proposed alternatives so visually and referentially distilled? A first suggestion: When we encounter monuments to significant pasts long passed, rarely do intricacies of design or dedication linger – time dulls such imprints. A second: We inherit monuments just as we inherit guilt, and the tenor of the former, as with the latter, alters in intensity and inflection with time. Three works exemplify this: a monument recognising ‘a nation’s pioneering development and continuing decline’, another for a blind man who became a renowned writer, and an alternative design for a monument that has become an embarrassment. The first is a coupling of wall-set speakers; the second, a television; the third, two spherical lamps on a walnut table. Like the monuments before them, the works intermittently flicker into life, bearing themselves to some while remaining concealed in the presence of others.
The monument will always return to the ground from whence it came. (Physicality, like social consciousness, is mutable.) Its trunkless legs will buckle. The dust will spoil its features. In this sense, the only true monument is no monument at all, but the lingering presence of the event – an essence that continues to shape that and those which come after. Out of sight, but not mind; open to reconsideration, reinterpretation, redesign: a delicate mahogany triangle, a tassel pinned to its tip.
Main image: Iman Issa, Material for a sculpture proposed as an alternative to a monument that has become an embarrassment to its people, 2010, wooden sculpture, alternating lights in 30 second intervals, vinyl text. Courtesy: the artist and Rodeo Gallery, London; photograph: Philipp Ottendörfer