Sherin Guirguis’ sculptural installation Qasr El-Shoaq at LAXART appears as an imposing, isolated object. It consists of a pair of immense teardrop shape Bedouin earrings, each cut out of wood and standing almost eight feet high. The two larger-than-life forms are conjoined at the top and angle out towards the floor, forming a wedge that, when nudged, rocks back and forth like a metronome on two identical rounded bases. As the piece sways in the gallery, rocking from side to side, it conjures up a host of connotations: a clock marking time or the repetitive bowing which so often accompanies prayer and meditative chanting. Yet, like a sharp pastry blender, the piece is also threatening. Its to and fro could be taken as a slicing motion, which cuts the gallery in two. More obviously, the rocking motion mirrors the movement of an earring when dangling from the ear of its walking owner.
The title of the sculpture translates to “The Palace of Desire” and is taken from the title of Naguib Mahfouz’ second book in The Cairo Trilogy, an epic charting the public and private lives of a Muslim family living in Cairo during the first half of the twentieth century. Such titling provides the work with a rich secondary discursive register, which, like its formal lineage, can be gleaned through further research outside the gallery confines.
Qasr El-Shoaq’s teardrop forms come from mashrabiya screens. Iconic and ubiquitous architectural features of Middle Eastern homes in urban environs, these wooden latticelike elements are used to delineate public space from private space. When installed as windows in the second story of street-facing homes, they allow one to see the outside world without being seen, making them common fixtures in women’s quarters, where privacy is of the utmost importance. In the gallery, the large, industrially fabricated structure, complete with wood veneer, effectively mimics not only the look but also the effect of oversized mashrabiya latticework.
The result is a work that comments subtly on the forms that both hide bodies in private and decorate bodies in public, and the social customs that determine such uses. By making two Bedouin earrings into one strange, daunting object, Guirguis repurposes these decorative accessories as a kinetic partition that bisects the gallery space. The installation, which has rich Minimalist antecedence, makes the viewer undeniably aware of her body, especially as she must carefully navigate the cramped space around the moving object.
Guirguis’ sculpture also exhibits a Claes Oldenburg-like transformation in which a banal object is dramatically enlarged, so much so that its original use value is completely shattered, leaving one no choice but to consider its peculiar formal characteristics, heretofore hidden connotations and, consequently, its social ramifications. Such a move makes design a political act. If Oldenburg taught us anything it’s that objects, especially ubiquitous objects, exert profound influence on our physical and psychological sense of self. The trinkets that populate our lives have meaningful histories and potentially profound ramifications. Guirguis has learned this lesson well, and like Oldenburg she has no qualms creating work that seems to say, “Deal with me or get out of the way.”
Tucker Neel is an artist, critic and curator based in Los Angeles