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I have recently returned from a frenetic two days in Cairo during which I presented a paper entitled ‘The art of not being (t)here: on the representation of absence’ in the context of the exhibition ‘I’m Not There’ at the Townhouse Gallery.  Curated by British curator Mia Jankowicz (who runs the Contemporary Image Collective in the city), the exhibition consisted of the ‘biographies’ of a series of ‘absent’ art works.  All the (non-) exhibits had, in one way or another, been destroyed, censored, stolen, banned or otherwise gone missing.  They were represented in the gallery space by text panels telling their stories in both English and Arabic and by empty frames and/or wallspaces where the actual works might have been exhibited.  The result was a very sober, thought-provoking exploration of the life of art objects beyond the objects themselves all of which were strongly present despite their evident absence.  Although this is not the first such ‘empty’ exhibition, the particular context of past, present and (possible) future censorship regimes in Egypt and the ongoing revolution in the city, gave it a very particular poignancy and power.

Alongside the exhibition, Jankowicz had organised a series of talks and films exploring similar themes.  During my short visit I was only able to catch one of these – a wonderful film by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joriege called ‘The Lost Film’, that traced their search through Yemen for a missing print of one of their earlier films.  This led them to various crumbling cinemas and archives throughout Yemen – a country where film is regarded by many as sinful and regularly cesnored or banned – highlighting both the particular problems faced by artists in many parts of the world, but also the extent to which those of us living without such vigorous censorship regimes take our access to the arts for granted.

My own contribution – in my ongoing guise as spokesperson for goldin+senneby – reflected on the playful power of paradox as a mode of critical expression.  My own position with respect to both Headless as a project and in the immediate context of the exhibition (in which I was, strangely, the only ‘real’ element of an artwork present, but then only as a stand-in for the absent artists), prompted reflection on the long history of the use of paradox in the arts – particularly during the Renaissance – to explore difficult, heretical or dissenting ideas in a manner that was both relatively ‘safe’ in being playful, but nevertheless powerful in holding a mirror up to the contradictions of power.

During the day of the lecture, and ongoing in the city around us as I spoke, a huge and noisy demonstration by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood – in anticipation of their likely victory in forthcoming presidential elections – gave a very particular context against which to consider modes of political expression.

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