Magdy's U.S. museum debut is one of the MCA's trendiest exhibitions to date, but it reeks of familiarity.
Screening inside one of the theaters in Egyptian artist Basim Magdy’s debut MCA exhibition is a short film he made in 2011, entitled 13 Essential Rules for Understanding the World. The short parodies classic educational films, using footage of tulips with faces drawn on their petals accompanied by subtitles laying out 13 sarcastic platitudes. Since its release, the film has gained a devoted following on Tumblr, where stills have been shared hundreds of thousands of times by users of the microblogging platform. Whether he intended to or not, Magdy created a perfectly sharable piece of art that connected with audiences outside of a museum.
“The Stars Were Aligned for a Century of New Beginnings” attempts to translate Magdy’s zeitgeist-harnessing aesthetic into a gallery setting through one of the trendiest, most youth-oriented exhibitions that the MCA has hosted in recent memory. The gallery’s walls are painted in vibrant shades of purple and pink; a podium in the middle of the room offers free posters for visitors to take home, and a mirrored sculpture (The Future of Your Head) is situated at the perfect angle for an exhibition selfie. At a time when the MCA is undergoing extensive renovations in an attempt to draw new audiences into the institution, this exhibit seems to have similar ambitions.
Magdy’s artistic range is showcased with work in a variety of media, from a wall of psychedelic paintings to a collection of photographs that have been “pickled” in household chemicals (an analog equivalent of tinted Instagram filters). Duck into a theater and you can view his atmospheric films, which string together grainy footage of destruction, nature and ruins to form meditations on humanity’s futile tendency to repeat its mistakes. It’s all united by an unrelenting sense of irony (usually showcased through wordy titles like “A Monument for our Short-Sighted Heroes”)—a disaffected approach that frequently lends his work an overwhelmingly pessimistic tone.
While it’s all skillfully executed, much of the work included in “The Stars Were Aligned for a Century of New Beginnings” feels familiar, leaning on styles that are commonplace. For all the exuberance and vibrancy of the exhibit’s presentation, it lacks a centerpiece—an innovative work that sets it apart. The exhibition’s diversity affirms that Magdy is actively exploring new ways to express himself, but it simultaneously demonstrates that he hasn’t yet stumbled upon an approach that is uniquely his own.