Céline Condorelli’s The Egypt Project

Céline Condorelli, Troisieme Movement: Recover (line of flight), 2011. Courtesy the artist

Late in the summer of 2012, one could walk into the Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum (ACAF), a noncommercial art space housed in the lofty rooms of a grand old apartment in the city’s Azarita district, and find a floor-to-ceiling wall text advertising an exhibition by the artists Céline Condorelli and Uriel Orlow that had come and gone six months before. Nothing remained of the work. The space had been eerily emptied of art. This was strange but also somehow symptomatic. At that point, eighteen months after the eighteen days that forced Hosni Mubarak’s resignation and ended thirty years of a dictatorship in Egypt, countless rounds of revolution and counterrevolution had thrown the cultural life of the country into a tailspin, along with everything else. Next to skyrocketing unemployment and an economy in freefall, the freezing of an exhibition program was minor but totally understandable. ACAF’s scheduling had always been a little inconsistent, anyway.

Still, there was something almost perfectly apt about this awkward trace of an absent exhibition. What began, a few years earlier, as a series of installations and performances called There Is Nothing Left had become a large, lingering project that seemed like it would never go away. What’s more, the name of the show and the book that Condorelli and Orlow made together, which finally appeared at ACAF late in the winter of 2011 — their third try after postponing the whole thing twice — was Terrain Vague, Persistent Images. Everything about the work seemed like it was conspiring to stick around.

For years, Condorelli had a line about Alexandria, arguably the most melancholy city on earth, banging around in her brain like a sad, stubborn refrain: “Il n’y a plus rien” (There is nothing left). This was a sentiment conveyed to her again and again, whenever she spoke to older exiles who had left Egypt’s second-largest city in the years after Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized everything and turned the revolution against the country’s minorities and foreigners — peasants, merchants, and cosmopolites among them.

Since 2009, that line had provided the constant spark for Condorelli’s ongoing exploration of the ups and downs of the Egyptian cotton industry, from the fields of Alexandria to the mills of Lancashire, where Egyptian linens were for a time re-exported to the far ends of the British empire. The cotton industry as a barely visible, unarticulated system moving elliptically around two points, both of them now obsolete, is the armature beneath two substantial bodies of work — There Is Nothing Left (2010–2011), arranged in three movements like segments of a musical score, and the room-sized, ever-changing, archival installation titled White Gold, (2012). The passage by ship between Egypt and England is the third body of work that Condorelli is still in the process of making.

At its essence, a work in progress is a problem or a set of problems that runs the risk of remaining unresolved forever — held back by some obstacle, impasse, or anxiety turned inside out. As such, it’s a distress signal that doubles as an unintended invitation to pinprick an artist’s practice, particularly at a time in the art world when completed works, and the artist’s statements that sustain and explain them, have become so smooth and slick. Unlike ideas never tried or proposals never realized, there is great practical value to the fact that a work in progress is already under way. Maybe it’s half complete or almost finished. Whatever the case, it has momentum, which makes any observation and discussion of its working or malfunctioning parts not only dynamic but also totally unpredictable — and therefore fascinating as a flash of insight into an artist’s mind.

What Condorelli refers to informally as “The Egypt Project” is up against not one problem but four. First, it doesn’t remotely fit with the rest of her work in terms of style or aesthetic. Second, on matters of form, it depends primarily on images, which are things that Condorelli, preferring solid objects, finds slippery and suspect. Third, it’s personal — the artist’s grandmother was born and raised in Alexandria — and Condorelli has always studiously avoided autobiography and angled her work away from the pitfalls of identity politics. Fourth, and most obviously: Egypt and the Arab Spring and the spate of truly terrible revolutionary art that has been churned out, chock-a-block, to feed the press and serve the market. No one — and certainly no one as deadly serious or as intellectually unflinching as Condorelli — would want to associate his or her work with that.

Before February 11, 2011, the hinge holding Condorelli’s work in Egypt together was her interest in the critically distant, historical aftereffects of the 1952 revolution. But after? What could she do? Draw connections between one revolution and another? Anything she did to accommodate current events explicitly as art was bound to fall short. At the same time, for an artist trained as an architect, nominally based in London, with an established practice that otherwise looked a lot different than this, Condorelli suddenly seemed doomed to a contextual vortex that was both way too far from her studio and way too close to the present. She’d never be done with Egypt. Her project couldn’t braid its thematic strands together fast enough. The story was forever unraveling and falling apart. It would never end.

To read through the densely layered material in Terrain Vague, Persistent Images, then, is to delicately unmake her work — its plots, rumors, tangential anecdotes, diversionary details, and marvelous source materials, which all ring with a slightly different resonance now. To read through the book, in other words, is to peel back the skin of the work to see how it was made, its skeleton and its support structure, which is, not coincidentally, Condorelli’s abiding interest as an artist.

Condorelli, who is thirty-eight and carries French and Italian passports, studied music in Florence and Geneva before attending architecture school in London. Like many students who moved through the Architectural Association in the mid-1990s, she never had any intention of becoming a practicing architect and didn’t design a single building during the course of her formal education. She says she slid into being an artist because she was interested in working with space and wanted to explore how people navigated through given environments using specific objects or systems to guide them.

That chain of associations among people, places, and things eventually developed into Condorelli’s notion of support structures — such as library bookshelves, exhibition displays, office furniture, billboards, maps for public parks, scaffolding, staging, storage units, even postcards, shopping bags, and user’s manuals. For years now, she has been investigating how such support structures are and could be built, as well as what they make visible, what they make intelligible, what conditions they expose, and what they allow to happen in the end. A friend of Condorelli’s calls her the last architect in the art world. Her style tends toward the cerebral and austere. In an essay she wrote for Mousse, she defines friendship as a process of “thinking together” with someone (so much for warmth or affection), and cites her work as her most relevant friend, before launching into her (lovely) research on the lifelong, writerly bond shared by Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy.

“Support Structure” is Condorelli’s largest and most ambitious project to date. Planned as a ten-part collaboration with the artist and curator Gavin Wade, it includes an eight-point manifesto, a brick-size book, and an ongoing series of architectural interventions, which are endlessly repurposed to create new forms of social, political, and intellectual interaction. If “Support Structure” concerns itself with identifying and revitalizing the seemingly incidental objects and unseen systems that serve to hold, bolster, prop up, frame, carry, bear, sustain, and effectively embrace things — including not only straightforward things like books, documents, and artifacts, but also things of a rather more vague nature such as friendship, camaraderie, work, and an unbreakable imagination for social and political change — then the “The Egypt Project” tests out how ephemeral and immaterial that second cluster of objects and systems can get. Things like trade, business, industry, agriculture, and manufacturing seem plausible enough as linking mechanisms between people and places, but what about intellectual kinship or artistic influence? What about memory, recollection, the sharing of lived experience, or the old and ragged art of storytelling? How enduring are those bonds, when it is not the stories that are being supported but the telling that is providing the structure?

Compared to the solid, streamlined objects that Condorelli has used to carve out a space at the point where furniture, exhibition design, scenography, and architecture meet, “The Egypt Project” is a wonderfully leaky vessel, incapable of holding onto all of its melancholy and romantic material. It oozes narrative. It spills nostalgia everywhere. It is unabashedly elegiac for a time when the regions we know today as rigid were fluid and various communities were in flux. The work can do nothing to tidy the messiness of Alexandria’s many histories. Condorelli’s family connection to Alexandria is never mentioned. And yet it is very much the beginning of the story, precisely because that world is gone and there is nothing left.

But actually, the real beginning is the plant. The Nile Delta nurtures a particular species of cotton, nicknamed “white gold,” which is famous for its unusually long silken fibers. Egypt came into great wealth and became a one-crop country when the civil war in the United States knocked out the possibility of cotton being exported to Europe from the American South for a time. When the conflict ended, the old trade routes resumed and the owners and workers of the Egyptian cotton fields suffered. British and French colonial forces moved in, took control of the country, and managed the industry until the revolution in 1952.

Four years later, Gamal Abdel Nasser brazenly announced the nationalization of the Suez Canal from the balcony of Alexandria’s cotton exchange. The revolution soon took to dismantling the country’s cosmopolitan milieu. It wasn’t only that religious minorities, oblivious Ottoman migrants, and native-born foreigners were forced to leave; the sudden hostility was such that those communities were robbed of their work, their businesses, and their livelihoods when the new regime took over the country’s industries. For those forced into exile by hardship or fear, immediately and irrevocably, there really was nothing left.

And yet, as Condorelli began her research, she found a lot more of substance than those oft-repeated narratives of loss. One interview subject gave her four reels of 16 mm film, which were shot in Alexandria and other parts of Egypt in the early 1930s. The films had never been shown to anyone, had been smuggled out of Egypt in 1958 by an Italian diplomat, and had been returned to the wrong person — circuitously ending up in Condorelli’s hands. For the artist, who digitized them and turned the stills into slides that are projected onto fine cotton sheets in the first movement of There Is Nothing Left, they were “new and unknown images of a life and a family who left Egypt without images.” There is a totally seductive, incantatory quality to this work, which is to be found nowhere else in Condorelli’s oeuvre.

In the last two years, she photographed warehouses in Alexandria where cotton is still cleaned and bagged, though the industry is nothing today compared to what it once was. She went to the mills in Lancashire, including the last one to weave Egyptian cotton, a company called Peter Reed, which made bedsheets for the queen. She toured the same sites Friedrich Engels visited when he was writing The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. She took pictures of construction sites in Alexandria that may or may not have been halted to conduct archeological excavations. She made playful images of all the obelisks that were stolen from Egypt and shipped to New York, London, Paris, Rome, Istanbul, and a surprisingly high number of Italian cities.

She obsessed over the film Trop Tôt/Trop Tard (Too Early/Too Late), from 1982, by Daniele Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, a radical diptych showing the countryside of France empty, the villages of Egypt overcrowded, to make the provocative point that revolution came too late in the first world, too early in the third. The film borrows heavily from Engels and also from The Class Struggle in Egypt, 1945–1970, a book by the Marxist historian Mahmoud Hussein. Hussein, it turns out, was the pen name of Bahgat El Nadi and Adel Raf’at, two men who wrote together, went to jail together, fled Egypt together in 1966, and allegedly bawled their eyes out at a screening of Huillet and Straub’s film, lamenting the fate of their country. Even Adel Raf’at was a pen name within a pen name. Eddy Lévy, the great-grandson of a Sephardic rabbi from Aleppo, was said to have changed his name and converted to Islam — either out of political solidarity with his writing partner or because he was in love with a Muslim girl whose parents wouldn’t look at him for anything less.

Condorelli collected books about cotton plants, cotton farming, and the particularities of the Egyptian cotton flower. In collaboration with the curator Grant Watson, she gathered examples of cotton goods imported to the UK, bought a bed quilt, and borrowed other books, documents, images, and artifacts from a range of collectors, friends, and fellow artists. She pursued various leads that led nowhere or ended in the frustration of subjects refusing to speak. She pored over the American Colony Archive in the Library of Congress, which includes detailed photographic studies of the Egyptian cotton industry in the 1930s and 1940s.

It’s not only the mysterious half-told stories or the beautiful archival images that threaten to overwhelm “The Egypt Project.” It’s also the way the narrative moves around the material, allowing the cotton industry to be seen not clearly or rationally but rather like a ghost, a mirage, and a projection. In the installation White Gold, a set of muscular red steel display furniture, has the same aesthetic as Condorelli’s “Support Structure,” and is in fact a part of that project, but the modular system of tables and shelves are built for a precious archive of fragile things. What’s more, the real draw of the piece is a sumptuous, twelve-meter-long curtain made of high-grade cotton (of course) and printed with an archival photograph of a farmer in a lush landscape of cotton fields.

“The promise of wealth was shimmering so hard people couldn’t even see it,” Condorelli says. “I know that’s mesmerizing. I know that.” After a pause, she adds: “When I do an artist’s talk, I either talk about ‘The Egypt Project’ or I talk about the rest. I was thinking about the project for a long time. And the context of Egypt has changed so much since I started working there, and not always in a good way. I was working on the consequences of the 1952 revolution for so long.” Then another revolution happened. “I was so confused. I asked [the sociologist] Avery Gordon, What do I do? Do I integrate the present? I know that’s the hardest thing to do. Do I go to Egypt? Do I go to Tahrir? Do I do a show?”

She did all of those things and also made a work that allowed her, in effect, to leave “The Egypt Project” alone. Something Stronger Than Skepticism (2011) is a series of five monochromatic prints, each featuring the front pages of the world’s major newspapers — all from the first week in February 2011, leading up to the day Mubarak stepped down — piled on top of one another. Here, Condorelli’s suspicions are clear and for the most part resolved. “It’s the only work I’ve ever sold,” she said. “And it’s the only work I’ve ever made that fits in a frame.” Her trip across the Mediterranean for the third part of “The Egypt Project” won’t be so easily contained. But it will be interesting to see what holds it together, what keeps it going, and what solves its problems in the end.

Céline Condorelli, White Gold and Support Structure, Red, 2012. Courtesy the artist