Ismail Bahri: Light Gestures in an Agitated Landscape

La Verrière
Hermes Foundation’s art space
Brussels, Belgium
Until 1 December 2018
Curator: Guillaume Désanges
Ballistic Poetry Season

Franco-Tunisian artist Ismaïl Bahri presents a solo exhibition as part of the “Poésie balistique” (“Ballistic Poetry”) season, launched by curator Guillaume Désanges in 2016 at La Verrière, the Brussels art space of the Fondation d’entreprise Hermès.

Since the late 2000s, Franco-Tunisian artist Ismail Bahri has developed a body of work based on minimal situations and gestures whose inexorable logic ultimately generates a kind of magic, a state of grace captured in the essence of his materials. Balling and smoothing out the pages of magazines, until the ink has transferred completely from the paper to the hands, gradually obliterating the printed image1. Stretching an invisible thread, materialised only by the droplets running along its length, which gradually form a puddle of water in the exhibition space2. Filming a clear droplet of water on a wrist, its barely perceptible tremors revealing the pulse of the arteries beneath the skin3. A white screen divided by a trembling, vertical black line that gradually reveals itself as a ball of thread being unrolled against a backdrop of snow4. A journey through an urban landscape, represented by its reflection filmed in a glass of ink5, or the white of a piece of paper placed in front the camera lens6. Gestures that pay heightened attention to fine detail, and to the accidents and minute variations generated by unplanned events in the real world. In his work as a whole, and in the detail of individual pieces, Ismail Bahri’s practice enacts a gradual process of insistent investigation and revelation of his motifs, based on elementary experimental conditions; formal resolutions over time, based on the principle of photographic development. Emulsion, capillarisation, unravelling, denuding: often, very little stands between the work’s subtle materiality, and its complete disappearance. But the radical simplicity of Bahri’s protocols emanates quiet, underlying emotion, too: a mixture of surprise and anxiety – a clue, perhaps, to the hidden agenda of his work.

Invited by La Verriere to present his first solo exhibition in Belgium, Ismail Bahri has devised an ambitious project that transforms the architectural space into a kind of optical instrument, interacting with the play of light and shade, discovery and concealment, as revealed in the building’s interior, or entering from outside. The aim is to exploit La Verriere’s essential energy – chiefly, its light – while at the same time concealing its source. The installation combines two kinds of projected imagery: digital, and natural. Projections of forms, objects and drawings, but also shafts of natural light, accompany videos screened on an overhead projector. The environment brings together recent works, including some created for the installation, drawing on observations and experiments centred around storms, wind and chaos – disruptive natural states that ultimately form fleeting, variously ordered visions.

Ismail Bahri’s work is presented as part of the current ‘Poesie balistique season at La Verriere, examining the disconnect between the defining programme of specific works of art, and their impact or effect – in other words, between intention and intuition or perception in certain programmatic, conceptual artistic practices. Bahri’s work seems to me to go to the heart of these issues, and to apply them in his own, unique way. As such, based on arbitrary but rigorously applied protocols, Bahri’s work springs from an initial, intuitive experiment conducted by the artist over an extended time-frame and in a circumscribed space, with no fixed horizon, which is another way of saying that the experiment is conducted with no specific intent or projected outcome as to the form(s) that may result. Through this subtle interplay of unpredictability and control, the artist delegates his creative authority to chance, or the wind, to fortuitous encounters or the prevailing light, in other words to contingent situations that are created more or less ‘blind’. In the context of this implacable logic of chance, control resides solely in a fierce refusal to fix or freeze the work’s inherent possibilities. At the same time, the forces at play are focussed on preserving the viewer’s passivity. Paradoxical? Ismail Bahri’s art is a rare homage to the invisible energy of the static intercessor. The tensions at work within each piece are the source of its fragility and power alike: two manifestations of the same sustained attentiveness to the world of materials and things, through clearly defined, evident forms which, in this context, we might call ‘poetry’. Direct, raw poetry, of almost transparent clarity, but notable for its refusal to signify. In effect, the work remains open to endless appropriation and interpretation: a kind of non-negotiable polysemy. But in its determination to eliminate facile external references, and to assert its distance from any readily identifiable geographical, cultural or political context, it nonetheless resonates with much of the trouble and tumult in this world. The forms which are gradually made manifest to our senses and intellect are precise and impalpable in equal measure – Guillaume Desanges

Ismaïl Bahri, Scotch
(research material), 2018
Courtesy of the artist

1 Ismaïl Bahri, Revers, 2017, video series, HD 16/9, stereo sound, various lengths. Produced by the Jeu de Paume, Paris.
2 Ismaïl Bahri, Coulée douce, installation in situ, 2006-2014.
3 Ismaïl Bahri, Ligne, 2011, video, HD 16/9, 1 min loop.
4 Ismaïl Bahri, Dénouement, 2011, video, HD 16/9, 8 min.
5 Ismaïl Bahri, Orientations, video, 2010.
6 Ismaïl Bahri, Film à blanc, six videos, SD, 4/3, colour, silent, varying lengths, 2013.