• Apr 19,2022
  • In Review
  • By Abundant Art

‘Fantasies on a Found Phone Dedicated to the Man Who Lost It’: A Dreamy, Meandering Evocation of Modern Living

‘Fantasies on a Found Phone Dedicated to the Man Who Lost It’ is Egyptian artist Mahmoud Khaled’s first solo exhibition in the U.K. The ornate space that comprises The Mosaic Rooms, a non-profit gallery dedicated to promoting art from the Arab world, is the chosen host for this multi-disciplinary, audio-visual project. The period architecture of this gallery in Kensington, which to this day gestures to the building’s previous life as the home of a wealthy family, becomes a springboard for a series of interventions and subversions that have us question what sorts of stories are memorialized by the culture industries.

The premise is this: an unlocked iPhone is lost in the bathroom of a gay club. Through exploring the photographs stored on the phone and various other pieces of media – screenshots, thoughts penned on the Notes app – Khaled is able to conjure an intimate sense of this iPhone’s owner. A small booklet available in the gallery bookshop presents a compilation of the photographs and screenshots from this forgotten mobile device, producing an archive of images that do indeed conjure the identity and character of its once-owner. From these fragments, Khaled transforms the Mosaic Rooms into a fantastical home catered for the man whose iPhone he has found.

Khaled’s creation of a dwelling place for an anonymous figure in a gallery space engages in a discourse with other personal spaces that are transformed into public places. Namely, Khaled plays with the trope of the house museum, in which a famous figure’s home is turned into a museum, the assumption being that the public is able to glean a sense of the figure’s mentioned private life by entering her once-home. Famous examples include Frida Kahlo’s Blue House in Mexico and Ernest Hemingway’s home in Argentina.  Typically, original furnishings are maintained, so that we can imagine the life of the famous person more vividly and authentically; yet, of course, the house museum is curated as much as any other gallery, which suggests that the evocation of authenticity is actually quite manufactured. Playing on these tensions, Khaled’s installation takes the form of a house museum dedicated to an entirely anonymous figure: claims to authenticity are unjudgable.

Furthermore, as I found out, the iPhone and its contents are fiction, imagined by Khaled himself; so not only is this house-museum dedicated to an unknown figure but a made-up one. It’s an interesting if conceptually complicated basis for an artistic installation that probes a whole range of cultural practices.

The above analysis alone is enough to raise certain questions about why, and how, the lives of certain people are memorialized, venerated and even covertly fictionalized. However, Khaled takes his theatrical exploration of public veneration even further by injecting his pseudo-house-museum with a variety of contemporary themes. (Queer) sexual desire, modern technologies and anxiety tacitly permeate this space. At first glance, for example, the wallpaper in the first room suggests dating to the Victorian period; but upon closer investigation, the pattern repeated by the wallpaper alludes to homosexual intercourse, and in the corner of the motif is a cursor symbol that crops up on computer interfaces when information is being loaded. Then there’s a large, framed picture of an unmade bed with the words ‘I can’t sleep without you’ scribbled across it. Tradition is injected with (sometimes invasive) modern technologies, and homeliness is undermined by a pervasive sense of unrest. Desire – and in fact, homosexual desire – is at the forefront of this intimate space, a theme deliberately and notably avoided in traditional house-museums.

This vague sense of unease continues throughout the exhibition. In the second room, the windows are draped in luxurious velvet curtains and the only piece of furniture is a long daybed. Yet the evocation of leisure associated with such glamour and excess is undermined by a certain eerie quality, due in part to the disproportionate proportions of the bed and the leather bondage straps in which it is swathed. Overhead speakers play a mindfulness track aimed at helping insomniacs to sleep; yet it loops over and over, suggesting that no respite from sleeplessness is ever found. Similarly, in the room downstairs is a huge circular bed, also replete with leather straps, which takes centre stage in an otherwise dark and empty room. Once again, the comfort of sleep is sullied by hints that rest is rarely realized (for this bed looks hardly slept in); and whilst the straps evoke sexual play, there is no suggestion that this bed is often shared.

There are clearly many layers of analysis to derive from Khaled’s installation. I was taken aback by Khaled’s quiet evocation of just how intertwined technology and modern living have become. Not only, on a conceptual level, is Khaled’s fantasy couched in the idea that a person’s intimate experiences can be surmised from the media stored on their phone; but also, the exhibition highlights how even the most restful of spaces – the bedroom, the living-room – have come to incorporate modern technologies. It is perhaps no coincidence that in such an environment, our fictional insomniac cannot sleep.

I’m slightly frustrated by the idea that there are further layers of Khaled’s vision that I didn’t uncover. Whilst I liked that the installation rouses thoughtful contemplation by juxtaposing tradition with modernity, and familiarity with restlessness, I did find that the highly conceptual nature of Khaled’s work makes it somewhat inaccessible. The risk is that some of the ideas carefully gestured towards by the artist and curator are missed by the lay audience. It took me a good while to wrap my head around the backstory of the exhibition and then the nuanced tonalities of each room. I do wonder if the installation would have benefitted from a little more explanation, or perhaps interactive components that might catalyze viewer engagement.

My other piece of critique regards the venue itself. Given Khaled’s intention to play with the house-museum trope, I wonder whether a reference to this particular paradigm would better befit a gallery with more rooms. Although each of the three rooms clearly referenced domestic spaces, I wouldn’t have understood that the exhibition constitutes a deliberate negotiation with the house-museum tradition had the curator not explained it to me. I would love to know why Khaled chose to play with the house-museum tradition in order to dramatize his chosen themes, and moreover, why he finds those themes to be important and worth exploring.

Perhaps it is my impatience and preference for a directness that is at odds with the meandering nature of this installation, and the dreamy looseness of the thoughts that it provokes. The exhibition asks its viewers to feel as much as think, to mull over the contrasting emotions that it evokes, to ruminate and to let sensibilities gently marinade.

Although this isn’t an approach to analysing art that comes easily to me, I walked away with plenty of food for thought; and even if not all of the feelings and thoughts that the exhibition evoked led to lucid crystallization, Khaled’s work certainly left a distinct and deliciously jarring impression.

Photography: Andy Stagg

Sophia Sheera is a writer interested in migration, cultural citizenship, displacement and queerness with a focus on Central Asia and Northern India. Sophia is inspired by talking to the people whose stories are sidetracked by sensationalist headlines, and as such aspires to share those counter-narratives through political journalism.

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