A battered old box spring affixed to the wall, slat side up, bids visitors to Fiendish Plots' exhibition space “welcome.”
Across the gallery, a wall of wooden dowels, small metal water pipes and PVC piping run through holes in boards hangs beneath the admonishment “Don’t hang anything on popes” handwritten in English and Arabic.
Those pieces bookend Bassem Yousri’s “Where Do We Go From Here?,” a stimulating installation constructed from junk that’s a critique of Egypt’s “institutional aesthetic” that extends, to some degree, to the U.S.
Yousri, an adjunct art professor at Cairo’s American University, began his critique in a show at Egypt’s Ministry of Culture in which he made a “big mess in the gallery” and affixed comic book-style drawings that were pointedly critical of the rundown, trashy aesthetics of Egyptian government institutions that is “characterized by clutter, in a way, and functionality that disregards the visual significance of the message.”
That aesthetic, Yousri said in an interview at the exhibition’s opening, trickles down through Egyptian society -- “My proposition is that people start adopting this institutional aesthetic and they start fixing things in a very improvised way without paying much attention to the visual significance of how this is done.”
So the literal trash, gathered in Lincoln and assembled by Yousri in the week before the exhibition opens, stands in for the deteriorating, less-than-clean Egyptian world -- e.g. a microwave with no glass in the door and a battered sewing machine attached to the wall below a sign reading, in English and Arabic, “Business hours 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.”
Yousri’s critique, however, is neither didactic or bombastic. Rather, it’s infused with humor -- e.g. a “Trash goes here” sign pointing to a battered trash can hanging 15 feet above the floor -- where no trash, obviously, could be placed, a scrawled “Use Other Door” sign pointing to a constructed wooden door labeled “Authorized Personnel Only” that goes nowhere.
“I personally highly dislike the snobby art that pretends to be too important to be understood, for example, and of course we see a lot of this everywhere,” he said.
“So, I just like to make big jokes or little jokes, but any kind of jokes. So, I hope that the effect of my pieces on the viewer is just a big smile, or even a loud laugh. So, if I hear a loud laugh. I'm actually very happy.”
While it appears to be sloppy and haphazard, the work in “Where Do We Go From Here?” is actually carefully crafted and, in many aspects, highly formal -- reflecting Yousri’s training as a painter -- he’s got an MFA from Temple University.
“When I looked at the objects, they started inspiring,” Yousri said. “The idea for a specific piece was there. That’s how I built the whole thing. Even the drips in the paint and the lines are specifically there. We had to go back and put in some of the drips, to make it look the way I wanted it to appear.”
Unlike nearly every show, the art in “Where Do We Go From Here?” is presented without a price. It’s destined to return to junk after the show closes Feb. 23.
Until then, it will hang in the gallery, an examination of how a trashy aesthetic has taken over Egypt -- and, by extension, how similar “official” aesthetics, be they governmental or corporate, work their way through our society so efficiently they are almost unnoticed.
Reach the writer at 402-473-7244 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @KentWolgamott