Iman Issa, ‘Triptych#4’, 2009, photographs, text, notebooks, installation view

Iman Issa’s recent untitled triptychs each comprise 3 elements: a small photograph of a cityscape, a larger, framed photograph of a still life, and a cryptic object, which in the case of ‘triptych #4’, 2009, is a handwritten ledger.

Issa’s modus operandi : first, she photographs urban spaces that remind her of others; second, to create a minutely detailed work as a reconstruction of the memories triggered by the cityscape, where her reconstructions render the original cityscape unfamiliar, transformed; finally, she uses this still life as a point of departure for a new art work. Thus Issa’s process is, in order, investigative, reflective, and critical. Her untitled triptychs possess a transparency akin to works by artists such as Elad Lassry, as she concerns herself with stripping away texture in order to approach a pure image. Issa’s position is not lofty; she is committed to articulating a personal, yet common experience of familiarity as directly as possible.

'Proposal for an Iraq War Memorial', 2007, single-channel video 
‘Proposal for an Iraq War Memorial’, 2007, single-channel video

The artist’s studies began at the American University, Cairo, on a liberal arts course, where she later majored in fine art. In subsequent years, Issa produced a number of architectural works the surfaces of which were adorned in decorative material. ‘Golden House’, 2003, for example, a glitter-clad shelter located in the Egyptian desert, equally entices and dumbfounds those who happen upon it. Such constructions led to the development of imitation architectural proposals, including ‘Proposal For A Crystal Building’, 2003, which is a tower designed to be located in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, a sparkling, mute reflection of its surroundings that suggests symbolism but gives no clues as to its significance.

In 2005, Issa moved to New York, where she gained a Visual Arts MFA from Columbia University in 2007. The works she produced during this time bear witness to her mapping of these new, inner city, surroundings. The videos and photographs that comprise ‘Making Places’, 2007, depict a search for locations empty of identifying features, which she then makes specific by inserting a human figure in the foreground–a figure that appears to perform ludic gestures in correspondence to the formal qualities of the architectural environment–a continued instrumentalisation of featureless urban space.

'Proposal for an Iraq War Memorial', 2007, single-channel video 
‘Proposal for an Iraq War Memorial’, 2007, single-channel video

In 2007, she was invited to make a new commission for Memorial to the Iraq War at the ICA, london. the resulting work influenced the shape of her future practice. ‘Proposal for an Iraq War Memorial’ is a short film collage of news footage from the Iraqi invasion and clips from Alexander Korda’s feature film The Thief of Baghdad, 1940. A female voice comments on these scenes with apparent indifference. The disinterested voiceover indicates that the speaker has no stake in the content, and thus Issa posits such a narrator as the most constructive voice in contrast to the charged voices of hawks or pacifists. the callous switch from reportage to fiction (the film’s Baghdad backdrop is actually Basra) demonstrates how the media’s impressions of far flung places are cultivated and disseminated to the point of saturation, while also taking on obscure or false qualities. ‘The Revolutionary’, 2010, meanwhile builds on ‘Proposal for an Iraq War Memorial’. Broadcast as a series of radio works in Art Dubai, 2011, the work indicates the artist’s renewed faith in the potential of the monument and symbolic language specifically as a way to explore cliché. Cliché creates a privileged site for communication, ‘not confusion but a vacuum’, says Issa. It is a place to hide meaning in plain sight. ‘The Revolutionary’ is a short characterisation of a radical, voiced using text-to-speech software. There is something distinctly unstable about the narrative; expectations are thwarted and contradictions skirt the construction of the character’s profile, leaving the listener uneasy and without conclusion.

Issa’s optimism regarding the monument’s potential is also evident in her new series of works ‘Material’, 2010–ongoing, which propose existing memorials be re-made in new forms. Alongside a caption that describes the memorial’s significance, such as ‘Material for a sculpture acting as a testament to both a nation’s pioneering development and continuing decline’, the artist presents a maquette of the proposed sculpture.

'Material II', 2010-ongoing, installation detail 
‘Material II’, 2010-ongoing, installation detail

The monument will always be a reflection of the authorities that erect it, whether that authority is benign or abusive. Further, the monument says as much about forgetting as remembering. It tries to speak to many in a single gesture, yet if it attempts to speak to everyone, it says nothing. At its most potent, the monument both represents and enforces power. Issa acknowledges this when she reinvests them with meaning by proposing a review and amendments to what these monuments fail to signify. Of course, this is not a failure. Where there was once a monument there is now a structure with additional associations and significance.

Unlike the uncommunicative crystal tower in Tahrir Square, these new proposals speak of the monument as personally experienced, now re-incarnated in simpler, ambiguous forms that bear the weight of this lived significance. The fact that the artist does not occupy an authoritative position, nor seek to police the public realm, gives rise to a freedom that reality does not offer. “Truth is not a matter of exposure which destroys the secret, but a revelation which does justice to it”, writes Walter Benjamin. Iman Issa’s work is an ongoing exploration of the familiar, in which she tries to do it justice.

Aoife Rosenmeyer is a writer and curator based in Zürich