The emigrants Céline Condorelli interviewed about their past lives in Alexandria, Egypt, often arrived at this conclusion: “Il n’y a plus rien [There is nothing left].” Condorelli, an artist of Italian and Egyptian descent currently based in London, found that Alexandria was experienced, even in the classical age, as a a city “that has been”. She sees melancholia in the architecture of a place which constantly figures inevitability of its destruction. This idea, she recognizes, has implications for the city’s current inhabitants. “There is always a shadow in statements like this, I wanted to look in the shadow.”
This search resulted in a constellation of materials which Condorelli exhibited as Il n’y a plus rien, last year at the Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum and Manifesta 8 in Murcia in 2010.
There is something almost funny about this (over)statement; the city, the artist reflects, “hasn’t been bombarded … there hasn’t been an earthquake.” But this vision speaks to the reality experienced by those who are forced to leave the city in which they have built their lives.
Condorelli spoke to exiles who had left the country in 1956. A large population of Italians, Jews and Greeks worked in the cotton production industry, and many immediately lost their livelihoods when it was nationalised. “They didn’t exactly have to leave violently, but became poor overnight.” The cotton exchange was also the stage for Nasser’s declaration that he had nationalised the Suez Canal Company. The cotton exchange was, with the Bourse, at the centre of Alexandria’s commercial district, whose heart was Midan al-Tahrir (Liberation Square). Under the French it was called Place des Consuls, then renamed after the Ottoman governor Mohammed Ali. Condorelli’s work attempts to recover histories of this space which have been overlaid by recent events, and examine how it is reproduced in cultural memory. She is, she says, looking for what is “embedded in the square”.
These exhibitions present found materials alongside “semi-fictional post-cards”, new footage from the city, archival research into the cotton industry, and historical research into the former revolutions. With this, the project’s interest in history as repetition becomes clear. If there is a melancholia to this work, it comes from the idea that the revolutions of the present may, in the future, become the failed revolutions of the past.
The first ‘movement’ of this project traces the journeys of ‘Egyptian’ cotton through India, Italy, and Lancashire. In the second, the painful journeys of the exile, constantly looking back at the ruins of a former life, is measured against the tireless movement of trade.
* Part of this work can be seen at the Social Fabric exhibition at the Rivington Gallery in London (until March 11th) and then goes to Oslo.