Our author Mia Jankowicz explores Doa Aly's artistic process.
Roy is a young man standing in the sunlit corner of an ex-industrial space – metal framed thirties windows and concrete floor – and he is rotating vertically very, very slowly. He’s in a corner, and whether you’re into feng shui or not, it feels intuitively right that corners gather bad stuff and shoot it out again at spiky angles. Nobody likes to be cornered. Roy is making a slow hand gesture as he turns and he is baring his stomach, not really in an exhibitionist fashion but nonetheless his stomach does seem to be some kind of offering. Yet, aside from one moment in the single turn of his body that you watch over a period of just over seven minutes, in which his eyes heartstoppingly meet the camera, you and Roy do not at all occupy the same space, not even the suspension of disbelief contained within the viewer-actor contract. His barefoot rotation is so incredibly slow it’s hard to notice his feet move; it has an occult effect. It makes you feel as though the corner is in one time and space, and Roy is in quite another (obviously you, in the Townhouse Gallery at Doa Aly’s show a year after it was filmed and named Roy, 2013, video with sound, are in another space too, but this is not what I mean). It feels like you’re watching Roy in a time machine the exact shape, size and matter of his body. That is to say, he is re-living something. The gesture is not a symbol or sign that stands in for meaning. It is not a metonym. I’m not even sure if it’s an echo, a trace, or any sort of abstract or indexical leftover. I think the gesture is a physical object, retrieved from his body through long conversation and physical work with Aly. It’s Roy’s gesture produced out of Roy’s life experience.
Over in the cavernous Townhouse Factory space, four figures on long horizontal suspended screens are also making repetitive gestures. The figures are far more starkly portrayed, thanks to the drama of the Factory space and the geometric, spotlit, primary-coloured settings of the performances. (Lovers of Cairo will fondly rejoice in the knowledge that the diagonally-hatched backdrops have been recycled to decorate a nearby shrubbery.) The works are much more stylised and as a result, the process of working with each performer seems to have culminated in the creation of far more objectified figures: myths. Each work in the Factory is named for a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Echo and Narcissus, The Fountain of Salmacis, Byblis and Caunus and Myrrha), which themselves are a collection of stories of bodies, genders, sexes, materially and spiritually in flux. Previously, Aly’s work has made transparent use of literary source material and I think one of her ongoing questions with works like A Tress of Hair (2008, a video in which she interprets and interweaves two stories by Guy de Maupassant), was how that material is used without simply producing a transliteration or illustration of the source, either abstracted or literalised to a greater or lesser extent as ‘artiness’ requires.
Getting out of this trap is finding the difference between a reference and a source. We reference things all the time, but you can’t go further back than a source. It’s the most authentic thing, the basic root, the journalistic bottom line, the object’s first meaning, the very clearest water. Reaching it is surprisingly hard. When Ovid’s Byblis, in love with her brother and distraught after he rejects her advances, finally dies of exhaustion, a spring appears out of her endless tears. The relationship between the performer and Byblis is never clear to the viewer, and being forced to hover between the possibilities of an outright re-performance of the story, or a total abstraction, leaves me wondering exactly how and when these two figures are meant to have merged, and whose gesture they are really making. The tone, with its crisp primary colours, skintight leotards, and spotlit performers, is of tension and focus rather than revelation; maybe the focus is right down in the roots of the place where Aly connected the performer with the character. What we can imagine, though, is that we’re looking at a person who replays a formative moment in which her selfhood changed.
I think Aly’s process is the search for a common source of this kind, between her readings and her performers. She works incredibly closely with her performers in a partnership that seems one part impresario-and-ingénue, one part therapist-and-subject, and most of all using the intensification of the eroticism that exists in all intimate friendships. Aly intuits something in her performers, and then they talk and talk and talk and do movement work until both find a series of movements that … what? I think we can say a series of movements that are true, in the Roy sense. Here it’s not entirely clear how much the resultant gestures are mimetically from that memory, and how much they emerge from the working relationship between performer and artist. Let’s not kid ourselves: memory is always tinged by the circumstances that prompt it, and remains forever augmented by that encounter. Aly has inserted herself in the work much more straightforwardly before (as a performer herself).
On these counts it’s probably not an ‘ethical’ practice. In fact, Aly has called it ‘a sadistic process.’ Or, it has an ethics and it works because Aly is good at it on the necessary level: there’s simply a massive difference between properly conducted, plain old nosy, artistic, intrusive research (‘building trust’ and ‘engagement’ and mutual gain and all that other humanistic art language) and a witchlike ability to cut deep and then greedily haul out and explore and temporarily fall in love with someone’s psychological innards without giving them scars, and she has that quality. To make someone into a magnetic tape that can replay (with interference) involves a process far more powerful and incestuous, I think, than anything to do with literally re-performing Byblis.
Behind the body-stockinged performers are strange emblems resembling Rorschach blots, or butterfly paintings. They’re echoed back in the main gallery, in a series of exceedingly delicate drawings. Strangely enough, virtuosity of draughtsmanship is not something we particularly comment on in contemporary art reviews, but it so happens that the drawings barely look like they have a human origin. Intensely perfect, small, pencil-drawn forms that look like they grew on the page in a process of cramped mutation, reminding me of those godawful clusters of bones, hair and human flesh that sometimes get born instead of a baby. Or inversely, as the drawings are far more delicate than that, they grow like crystals, precise perfect form in the absence of thought and reason, and the diversion of symmetry. But if the drawings really look like anything it’s probably bones, another source material if ever there was one. Imbricated in these pelvic forms are startling little faces and people, doll-like and consumed into the material like the accursed people trapped with stones growing around their bodies in the labyrinth of Sogo.
A sculpture of geometric wooden slats (that has not yet been repurposed as garden furniture) loosely outlines the physical scope and sweep of the various gestures that appear throughout the works in one enigmatic form: it could still be considered a sort of map-legend to the performances. Another guiding work is a large text piece combining the diverse literature Aly has been reading for so long, the essence of which she has been endeavouring to work with. Excerpts from Metamorphoses, Orlando, are combined and then recombined to speak from a single voice, with a coherency that makes gender and sexual fluctuation natural and matter-of-fact, rather than carrying the clinical or allegorical tones the texts start out with. Here, amongst these medicalised and mythologised languages, we get as close as we may to the latent politics of dealing with gendered bodies in transformation, but even on the level of intention (let alone message) it seems like a mistake to attribute any form of conventional identity politics to Aly’s work. The work is neither a commentary nor a description, but a direct intervention in the forms of the world, and this in itself is self-evidently political. But given the current potency of transgender debates in the English-speaking world, the question remains, at what point these emerging politicised discourses might surface in similarly-themed work of hers in the future.
Mia Jankowicz is a freelance writer and curator based between London and Cairo.