Memorial ‘Material’: Q+A With Iman Issa

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Though not affiliated with the Istanbul Biennial, Iman Issa’s show at that city’s Rodeo Gallery, “Material,” jives with the Biennial’s theme—the ways that abstract and minimal forms can carry personal significance. Each of the six sculptures in the Rodeo show (all from 2010 or ’11) takes the form of a study for a proposal to replace an existing monument (the identity of which Issa does not reveal) or memorial with some personal meaning for the artist.

Since the sculptures are abstract, the connection between the forms and their titles, which clinically but vaguely describe the works, is ambiguous. For example, there is Material for a sculpture proposed as an alternative to a monument that has become an embarrassment to its people, which consists of two large lightbulbs set into the top of a dark wood table; the bulbs are on a timer so that one bulb lights up while the other fades. A subtle humor creeps into these staid forms. In this piece, Issa told A.i.A., “something is being reborn and something is ending, but they look exactly the same.”

“Material” is the first solo show at Rodeo for the 32-year-old Cairo-born artist, who also has multi-medium work on view (through Oct. 2) at New York’s Sculpture Center as part of the “Short Stories” exhibition. Issa received a BFA from the American University in Cairo and an MFA from Columbia University. She has exhibited internationally, and was included in Okwui Enwezor’s Gwangju Biennial in 2008.

A.i.A. spoke with Issa at the gallery in late September.

BRIAN BOUCHER How did this series on monuments and memorials come about?

IMAN ISSA I start from questions like, “How can you adequately represent places, figures, events that you have a personal relationship to, in a way that conveys something specific?” I look at memorials and monuments, asking whether they could capture something specific or adequate.

BOUCHER When you started the project, what was your attitude about whether this was possible?

ISSA The language of monuments and memorials has always seemed limited and simplistic to me. At first I felt a kind of disbelief, cynicism about the language, and I don’t think I was alone in that. But I became interested in this kind of language partly because it was discarded. Recently I’ve been thinking it could be a good vehicle for conveying something interesting.

BOUCHER How do you come up with these forms?

ISSA Sometimes using personal associations, like with Material for a Sculpture Recording the Destruction of a Prominent Monument in the Name of National Resistance. [The sculpture consists of a small piece of dark wood on a plinth, propped at a diagonal, with a tassel hanging from the top.] I always imagined, since I was a kid, that the only thing that remained from this monument was the tassel from the fez in the statue. But also, with this piece, the diagonal form is ambiguous, because is something moving up or down?

BOUCHER There’s also ambiguity in Material for a sculpture acting as a testament to both a nation’s pioneering development and continuing decline, in which two speakers set into the wall play two distinct digital drones. Since you were born in Cairo and live there and in New York, I wondered whether you were referring to Egypt or America or both, since both countries could be argued to have been pioneers who are currently in decline.

ISSA These are exactly the kinds of questions I ask myself. What makes one country different from another, and how do you capture the difference? In this piece, I wanted to make a sound that would somehow symbolize development and another that would indicate decline. I started out knowing, but as I was working, I eventually had no idea which was which. But even if the project ends up being humorous, it’s not cynical, and it’s not ironic. And that’s important.

BOUCHER How have recent events in Egypt, where you were born, entered into your thinking about these works?

ISSA I started working on these a year and a half ago, so they were already in development. I don’t know how they will change now. But I haven’t totally digested recent developments, so it hasn’t yet entered the work.

Above: Material for a sculpture commemorating an economist whose name now marks the streets and squares he once frequented, Vetrine (glass, metal) with various objects, 156 x 58 cm, vinyl writing, 2011. Courtesy Rodeo Gallery.