Is there such a thing as speaking precisely? Are we ever actually able to convey to others exactly what we mean? Artist Iman Issa raised questions like these in a talk she gave Saturday evening as part of the NY Art Book Fair, prompted by her recent inclusion in the “Short Stories” exhibition at the Sculpture Center. Joining her in the discussion was curator Isla Leaver-Yap, who kept the hour-long Q&A session focused mainly on Issa's idiosyncratic, at times confusing creative process. The talk succeeded in shedding some light on how the artist's commitment to “precise communication” might result in the highly-abstract installations for which she's known — but also offered insight into why these works often confound more than they clarify.”
Early on in the discussion, Issa identified the central concern of her work: “How can one represent a personal relationship to places or figures in a way that remains familiar but conveys something specific to others?” As a response, her work seems to take two basic forms. The first are individual videos, sculptures and texts aimed at pointing out the gap between our memories and the language(s) we use to express them. The second are her installations, in which she actively attempts to “fill in” that gap, using obscure combinations of media to stand in for elements lost in translation. While neither approach achieves the balance she's striving for, they yield entirely different returns, and the disparity has everything to do with how personal she tries to make things.
A good example of the first approach would be Issa's 2007 video Proposal for an Iraq War Memorial. Commissioned as part of an exhibition at London's Institute of Contemporary Art, the piece features a collage of found clips from news coverage of the war, to which a voiced-over female narrator responds with utter indifference. (“No, I don't find them powerful. I've never found explosions powerful”¦ They really have no effect on me. They're like the images they put on calendars or wallpaper, images you can use to speak about pretty much anything.”) On one level, the narrator's detached response reflects the desensitization that comes with constant exposure to violent images, a common experience to many of us. On another, it brings up the question of how the complexities of war can be reduced to standard images and symbols, and to what degree these generalities are ultimately reflected in the memorials we build. As the narrator points out, these news clips, like most monuments, work on the level of clichés (“I picture the war there to be like any other war”¦images of guns, explosions, tanks,”). They are anonymous, empty images, open and waiting to be used in projecting a particular viewpoint. In her detachment, however, the narrator sees the events as neither tragedy nor triumph, and in not taking a side, reminds us that monuments don't simply commemorate – they represent points of view.
In simply pointing out the imprecision of language, Proposal for an Iraq War Memorial is astute and relatable. When Issa attempts to add her own associations into the mix, though, things become problematic. Take, for example, “Materials” (2010), a series in which the artist devises “proposals” to replace eleven public monuments in her native Egypt. “I looked at these monuments,” she said, “and asked myself whether they captured something specific about the things they commemorated.” Finding their symbolism simplistic and impersonal, Issa offers in their place a series of sculptures with instructive titles (e.g., Material for a sculpture proposed as an alternative to a monument that has become an embarrassment to its people). These abstract forms, she says, better reflect her own associations with the figures or events in question. Which is nice for her, of course, but for her audience the artwork remains a baffling network of elements whose actual meaning is unknowable. So much, it seems, for conveying ideas as precisely as possible. In attempting to speak to so many people at once, she asserts, public monuments often end up not saying much of anything at all; in “Materials,” however, the objects she's created in response are ultimately no less symbolic — they're simply (and willfully) less direct and less comprehensible.
In all of her works, Issa asks the same questions — can place be seen independent of history, can any form of language operate on the levels of the individual and the collective simultaneously, etc. — and offers us the same answer: No. As a result, the work reinforces for us a number of basic but easily-forgotten truths: that language describes rather than encapsulates, that reality is perceived on an individual basis, and that even at their most vivid, memories are merely impressions, selective and entirely inexact. When Issa aims simply to bring these things to our attention, the work is successful and at times insightful. The problems come when she gets personal.