ASSEMBLED AT TELL EL AJJUL
The Mistake Room is pleased to present the third exhibition of its TMR Guadalajara series in collaboration with PAOS. This iteration encompasses a new project by Malaysia-born, London-based artist Mandy El-Sayegh (b. 1985). The show marks the artist’s first solo exhibition in Latin America.
Mandy El-Sayegh: assembled at Tell el Ajjūl is a point of entry into a practice perhaps best understood as a conceptual genealogy. Michel Foucault once wrote that the body is an “inscribed surface of events (traced by language and dissolved by ideas), the locus of a dissociated self (adopting the illusion of a substantial unity), and a volume in perpetual disintegration.” A construct rather than a naturalized entity, the body Foucault conceives is at once a site, a subject, and an object—one that is acted upon by power and so is violently made and re-made. The task of genealogy—beyond familial origins—is in fact, Foucault argues, the exposing of this “body totally imprinted by history and the process of history’s destruction of the body.”
El-Sayegh’s practice both affirms and challenges Foucault’s conception of genealogy. For El-Sayegh, the body and history shape each other, and as they change, the residues they leave behind manifest as memory. The task of genealogy for El-Sayegh is then not just to expose a historical body or the epistemic violence that forges it discursively, but rather to trace its transformations—mobilizing memory as source material to assemble complex layered trajectories that connect charged personal stories to historical circumstances and broader philosophical structures. Through the formal logics of painting, sculpture, installation, and performance, El-Sayegh expands her own family history into urgent conversations about Palestine, Arab subjectivities, and the colonial projects that continue to sustain repressed subject positions.
Tell el Ajjūl, the place El-Sayegh’s project title references, refers to an ancient archeological mound in Gaza—a place, both real and mythical, that for El-Sayegh functions as a beginning—personally, historically, ideologically, and materially. Her father, born in Gaza, was imprisoned in Israel early in his life. His treatment in that prison led to him contracting a kidney infection that would impact the way the rest of his life would unfold. A chronic condition that otherly-abled him led to a continuous attempt to remake his body’s functions by cultivating distinct physical and mental strengths. Karate and then calligraphy became corporeal acts of resistance, and a practice of constant writing about history, politics, philosophy, and other topics, became a form of world-making—a way to connect his personal circumstances and beliefs to the order of things in the world at large.
Growing up with her father gave El-Sayegh the particular lexicon of images, language, and materials that we encounter in her work. Her work however is not contained by her autobiographical condition but rather contests a past that she did not experience directly but yet has inherited in a way through the stories, images, and behaviors she grew up around. El-Sayegh’s relationship to this past, as postmemory scholar Marianne Hirsch would state, is thus not mediated by remembrance, but rather by “imaginative investment, projection, and creation.”
The various works in progress presented in the space highlight some of the formal tactics through which El-Sayegh assembles rhizomatic systems that echo well beyond the biographical to comment on marked subjects consistently re-positioning themselves in the world. An immersive newspaper installation visually overwhelms viewers, saturating our lines of sight with information of the present day that is layered over each other, abstracted, transformed into signs and symbols that collectively lose specificity, becoming instead a type of white noise image that references the velocity through which information travels and our inability to grasp enough to make meaning. Layered on these sanctioned narratives are Arabic writings collected from El-Sayegh’s father and other imagery that provide alternate realities that counterbalance what we seem to know or be told about the world. The personal and universal collide here, in seemingly improvisational ways, although an underpinning existing logic provides a structure we aren’t always allowed to be aware of.
A third layer—one of objects—is partially assembled in the current installation. Made from found materials and personal items, these totems are meant to both contain and invoke. Functioning as what historian Pierre Norra once called lieux de memoire, or loci of memory, these compositions of clay, organic materials, photographs, source images, and charred latex construct a visceral visual language that bridges the biological and political. In them, we can infer about the types of intimacies they hold, but perhaps more importantly, we can project our own desires and fears onto them—using them to activate our own memories and in turn, become a part of a broader cosmology of concepts that El-Sayegh assembles. These reservoirs of ideas, given form as testimonial objects, do not comfortably fit within categorizations of sculpture, or at times, even artwork. Even their transport, across borders, shows how they often escape language. In two empty tables in the space, originally constructed to hold a composition of these objects that Mexican customs did not allow into the country due to their inability to classify them, a series of laminated forms show how they exist in a state of indeterminacy. The inability to describe or even prescribe what they are supposed to be and how they are supposed to function by the state apparatus speaks profoundly about the global movement of objects but also people and ideas.
In another component of the project, a series of large-scale two-dimensional works, bring El-Sayegh’s formal investigations into the space of painting. Incorporating signs and symbols that appear in her other works, el-Sayegh also brings layered images of historical bodies violently acted upon into the plane, and superimposes them with found images of bodies objectified, pleasured, and consumed. In works that take the medium of art that most comfortably circulates within market economies, the body is here represented as a consumable and expendable object that is always linked to a history that belongs to all of us and no one.
These distinct conceptual bodies of work together form an archipelago that is keenly aware of its existence as a structure—as a spatial project—meant to be inhabited, traversed, disassembled, and reconstructed. This, if imagined as a body, opens up possibilities to think about subjectivity as situational and assembled—returning to the subject a particular kind of agency in how it exists, is defined, and represented. The potential of this, for El-Sayegh, but more broadly, for her generation of peers, is a renewed discourse about subjectivity after the death of essentializing subjecthood.
Mandy El-Sayegh: assembled at Tell el Ajjūl is organized by The Mistake Room and curated by Cesar Garcia, TMR’s Executive and Artistic Director.
La práctica basada en la investigación de Mandy El-Sayegh se deriva de un interrogatorio de la relación de la parte a la totalidad en los campos de la ciencia y la filosofía. Trabajando a través de la pintura, la instalación, el dibujo y la escritura, aborda el desglose de los órdenes sociopolíticos, económicos y semánticos, mientras que también explora las capacidades poéticas y lingüísticas de los códigos fragmentados. Su trabajo ha sido presentado en exposiciones individuales y grupales como Sharjah Biennial 13: Tamawuj (2017); Participando, Galeria Nicodim, Bucarest (2016); este es un signo, Carlos / Ishikawa, Londres (2016); Room Ser- vices, Feria del Libro de Arte de Nueva York, MoMA PS1, Nueva York (2016); RCA Painting Degree Show, Royal College of Art, Londres (2010) y Mash Experience, Oxford Street, Londres (2007). El-Sayegh recibió una licenciatura en Bellas Artes de Medios Mixtos de la Universidad de Westminster, Londres (2007) y una Maestría en Pintura del Royal College of Art, Londres (2009). Nacida en 1985 en Selangor, Malasia, actualmente vive y trabaja en Londres.