Iman Issa

The Monumentality of Surfaces

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Iman Issa, work in progress, 2006-, video, courtesy of the artist

She’s placed a glittering cube on a stretch of deserted road in the Sinai. She’s pasted a luscious image of a waterfall along the side of a Cairo public bus. She’s also staged a spectacle for an imaginary audience on a dusty city rooftop consisting of thousands of lights emitting an ebullient fluorescence. At Rome’s MACRO, she presented prints of a sparkly, incongruously gilded bus stop. The artist Iman Issa is obsessed by monumental surfaces.

Originally from Cairo and recently relocated to New York and Columbia University’s MFA program, Issa is up to her old tricks in her new surrounds. Her current work in progress is a multi-channel video piece marked by alternating images taken from an anonymous city. Or is it? Images of flashing lights, pedestrian traffic, a fountain set against a modernist backdrop and a public park hint at things urban, familiar and concrete but also stylized, trite and anonymous. Issa resists the token aestheticization of everyday banalities; her works are often flat, denying the easy climax of the cinematic or photogenic. In collaboration with her husband Brian Kuan Wood — a graphic designer and sound artist with epic hair and impeccable taste in vintage Casio — she is at work on a soundtrack, at times seductively rational or alternatively discordant, which amplifies the confusion at hand. To Issa, the architecture of her surroundings suggests a value system that is at once specific and universal, mythic and stubbornly real.

Looking at frames drawn from the new video work, one can’t help but wonder what it is about this place or any other that is in fact of this place and no other? Is our sense of place independent of history, and how does the frame of the image inform our experience of a location? By deliberately staging ambiguity (is this Cairo, New York, or Hong Kong?), Issa lays bare the role of the frame, the place for preconception — or is it misconception. How can one use, moderate and instrumentalize visual references without disclosing a specific location or destination? What baggage do we each bring to the table as viewers? Issa asks us to engage with these ambiguous moments, removing herself, as if to say, this is your reality — make of it what you want.

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