BY Sukhdev Sandhu in One Takes | 27 OCT 14
Featured in
Issue 167

The Sand and the Screen

Sukhdev Sandhu on an abandoned cinema in the Sinai Desert

BY Sukhdev Sandhu in One Takes | 27 OCT 14

Abandoned cinema in the Sinai Desert, Egypt Courtesy Hotspot Media; photograph: Kaupo Kikkas

Estonian photographer Kaupo Kikkas gives good origin myth. This image, he claims, is of an abandoned cinema in the Sinai Desert that was dreamt up by a crazy French visionary. On the opening night, the generator broke down, no film was projected and, very quickly, the whole scheme collapsed. It already seems to have joined that pantheon of cinematic follies and hubristic undertakings that will forever be led by Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1981), in which the cast yomped across the Amazon basin, dragging a 320-tonne steamship over a hill.

Everything about Kikkas’s picture heaves with mystery. What are those markings on the seats? Some kind of Mayan tattoo? Graffiti from the ancient kingdom of Kush? If they’re languages or codes, then they’re indecipherable, glamorously opaque. Aerial images from Google Maps have this site resembling the crop-circle-etched landscapes that materialized across rural Britain in the 1990s. From above, the desert looks as if it’s been scarified, ritually marked by the members of an extraterrestrial jam band.

It’s hard not to see in this glorious project that was not to be a sad echo of the promises and disappointments of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. But there’s a broader allegory, too: across the world, the cartographies of classic cinephilia are becoming ghostscapes. The cinema cedes cultural gravitas to the art gallery and accessibility to the mobile phone; celluloid gives way to digital; mass audiences fragment into ever-smaller contingents who consume film on HD systems in their own homes.

Ambiguity, I think, is what makes Kikkas’s image so eerily compelling: it seems to represent remote times and far-off, fabled lands; but it also summons up the spectres – political, artistic – that may befall us all.

Sukhdev Sandhu is an associate professor of English Literature at New York University, USA, where he runs the Colloquium for Unpopular Culture. His publications include Leaving The Factory: Wang Bing’s West of the Tracks (2009) and Night Haunts: A Journey Through The London Night (2007).