Rehab El Sadek at Big Medium
by Tara Barton
To enter the shadowy forum of The Memory Palace, coming in from the bright courtyard of the Canopy complex, is to open a portal into a dimension that shifts with your perception, that expands with your attention. Indeed it must, as in some ways it serves as both a retrospective and an autobiography of the artist, Rehab El Sadek, a sprightly “Egyptian Texan” who in 2017 was our first City of Austin Artist-in-Residence. She’s made and exhibited her work in many far-flung media and cities for over 25 years, often with a bent towards social practice, planting seeds of curiosity and change. She says, “Throughout my career, I’ve tried to create works with conceptual structures that rewards different levels of viewer engagement.” The Memory Palace, her first solo show in the United States, certainly rewards the curious.
To one side, a row of unreadable books beckons, their pages thrust open for perusal but obscured. The world of their pages shares a neighborhood with models of houses bearing street addresses that sound real enough: “3 Zahret Aflaton St.” and “1173 E. Stadium Dr.”, the latter constructed from books, plastered together in an off-kilter pile, both houses sitting atop mirrored platforms. Just across the way, “Haram Xafra” prevails, a pyramid of cubes, built of wooden sticks and glue. Its delicate but imposing shadow looms, forming its even larger double on the wall. To travel from one side to the other, you may walk the alleyway formed by the title work—which dangles from the ceiling, a long stretch of delicate, black fabric encased and etched with incredible detail—and its magnified projection on the wall behind it.
It’s a cluster of somewhat confounding objects in neutral tones and intriguing textures. El Sadek says “I borrow a lot of colors, textures, materials, etc. from antiquity and the Egypt of my memory. In a modest way, I like to think I’m contributing to a vernacular that’s been around for thousands of years.” Sand makes the surfaces of the oddly proportioned houses gritty. Raw wood pokes out here and there from the pyramid. Strands of the hot glue holding its cubes together catch the light, while scraps of gauzy, hand-dyed fabric in tans and grays filter it and enrich the texture of the pyramid’s shadow replica. In “The Memory Palace” piece, layers of fine threads interwoven are brilliantly illuminated, dazzling and changing as you walk along that corridor of winking light and shadow. The immaterial images cast on the wall are clear as photographs. Some of the open books also bear dainty, feminine-seeming fabrics. Others are gritty, pages cemented together. One, as a result of its pages being repeatedly hammered, remains defiantly light and airy, the rifling of its delicate pages made permanent by this treatment.
El Sadek points out one pair of books: “7adret el-set” and “Cairo”, two dictionaries with large, white postal envelopes adhered to their surfaces, addressed in Arabic. The envelopes are replicas of an ancient one, preserved by her grandfather and addressed to an unknown “her majesty”. On one envelope, she has replaced some details, so that is addressed to her imaginary self of antiquity instead. Indeed, this is a city inhabited by the past, by fiction, by memories and long-gone relatives, as well as the specter of the work that went into the exhibit, on display in the honesty of its architecture.
She states “For me, the creation process and the intense personal reflection that transpired while fabricating the objects in this show are one and the same. It’s deeply personal work. I can’t imagine scribbling a design on a napkin and ordering a studio full of assistants to fabricate it. To deny yourself the meditation that transpires while methodically building something bit by bit. On the other hand…I’m making this kind of work to connect with others more than just to be heard. I want viewers to not just create their own meaning but also complete the ideas and be my collaborators.”
Although the nature of memory is inviolable, as inaccessible and infinite as the pages of the never-to-be-read-again books on display, El Sadek here dares the viewer to play along with the paradox of her putting her memories on display. Memories are present in all their diversity of form: stories your family tells you over and over—a moment of shift in perspective her mother experienced, when a familiar building suddenly felt like it was upside down, architectural drawings made by her grandfather, books her father passed on his preference for, like Invisible Cities, snippets of which are scrawled in Arabic all over “Haram Xafra.” And “Haram Xafra” is itself a memory palace, the mnemonic device the title of the exhibit references, imbued with the recollections that transpired as each unique cube was created. The viewer sees only a shadow–wink, wink–of what the structure contains and represents for the artist. “Those who can read Arabic will be able to decipher the snippets of passages from the novel I adapted into personal narrative on the exterior of the work. A layer on the surface for a specific viewer.”
There are many layers to peel back in this work. Details catch the eye or the viewer’s imagination or curiosity and lead down a path of further exploration. In the same way you can literally play with parallels in perspective by walking around and moving up and down the pyramid sculpture, causing lines of the irregular cubes to align and cross, to dance with their shadows, so to you can do a mental waltz with the concepts and ideas that underlie the work. For example, of Invisible Cities, which is written in short, block-like chapters grouped into recurring categories, El Sadek says, “Rather than create a visual interpretation of the places described in the novel, I applied the logic of the structure [to the pyramid].”
…El Sadek here dares the viewer to play along with the paradox of her putting her memories on display
You do not have to delve too far into Invisible Cities to see further conceptual parallels. Calvino too plays with the tension between what’s revealed and what cannot possibly be shown. He writes “I could tell you how many steps make up the streets, rising like stairways, and the degree of the arcades’ curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know this would be the same as telling you nothing…The city, however, does not tell its past but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.”
It is tiny scratches and indentations that make up every segment of “The Memory Palace”—painstakingly rendered images of stairways and banisters, as well as the intricate turrets of a mosque, a pleasure to behold up close—yet the realistic detail and the scale of the various places projected in shadow allow the viewer an experience akin to wandering through the heart of a city, marveling at the architecture of the buildings and all they’ve lived through and represent. You may travel the paths of the miniature city of The Memory Palace any number of times, taking different routes, and will uncover more each time, more details and ideas that make the work rich and alive. You can even have some fun trying to locate “3 Zahret Aflaton St.” and “1173 E. Stadium Dr.” on Google Maps, only to be led down a rabbit hole of references, from flowers and Roman architecture, to Plato, to paradoxes about moving rows, which always wink at you in motion.
The Memory Palace is on exhibit at Big Medium through July 3, 2019.
All photographs by Scott David Gordon.