Ismaïl Bahri (b.1978, Tunis) lives and works between Paris, Lyon and Tunis. He is represented by Les Filles du Calvaire, Paris. His work incorporates many cultural and aesthetic references, developing visual experiments that are both sensitive and exacting. The results of these experiments are drawings, videos, photographs, installations, and hybrids of these forms. In the video “Orientations” (2009), the artist filmed a stroll through Tunis by framing a glass filled with black ink that acted as a lens by reflecting the surroundings this questioning of art’s permeability in regards to the contemporary world generated through a quasicinematic process based on principles of recording motions, and simultaneous creation on a sensitive surface and a projection screen, all while making use of laughably inadequate equipment.
What are your sources of inspiration?
They vary and depend on each project. For specific research, I might want to delve into scientific investigation or I will read a philosopher or study the work of other artists. For instance, it was by reading a text by Marcel Proust that the series of videos of the work ‘Film’ came into being. In ‘Film’, a piece of rolled-up newspaper opens on a surface of black ink. An image of the process of ‘précinéma’ is created, as the newspaper is unrolling it gives then life to the images and writings in it, it also gives us a short summary of our word in a few centimeters, like a mini version of our world. The piece of Proust that I am talking about recalls Japanese origami that, when placed in cups of water, opens and unfolds, revealing a hidden and unexpected universe in miniature.
Which artists and/or movements have contributed most to your development as an artist?
I could talk about Paul Klee with his delicate and rigorous studies and their infinite variations or Gabriel Orozco and his ability to draw the geometry of the elements that surround him? Or Francis Alÿs and his attitude or the artist/tourist François Daireaux and his ability to combine details (like the gesture of a worker or the fragment of an object) with the context in which it all takes place. The presence of black ink defines your work, such as “Resonance” and the series “Blood Ink” and in “Orientations”.
Ink is a recurring element in my work. Its black appearance; its darkness does not appeal to me due to its symbolic significance. I happened to meet people, for instance in Cairo, who linked the use of black in my videos to something negative and pessimistic. In my case, I am interested in the ink for its basic physical properties, that is to say, for its fluidity, shiny, for its ability to reflect what surrounds it, for its ability to interfere in the interstices of things (in the pores and fibres of paper for example) or to coagulate and leave behind delicate indelible lines. In “Orientations”, you explore perceptions and views that appear and disappear in Tunis.
Is this not a distraction for your senses?
I see distraction as an element of deviation, distance. In “Orientations”, I wander around the city of Tunis through an extended, altered and weakened perception. While walking, I use a camera and a glass filled with black ink used as an optical lens that reflects the architectural elements that surround this lens. This glass works as a compass that develops and creates another view of the city. I use the term ‘developing’ to refer to the way a photographic image is developed in a dark room. In “Orientations”, I walk the city trusting the images that appear, I walk the city through the images that the glass (or the lens) reveals. This video shows the abyss of multiple images and ways or representing the city. This perception uses the black ink as a distorting filter, as an intercessor that distances the immediate surroundings. The image of the city is perceived in ricochets and the viewer reaches its environment indirectly, via reverberations and overflowing. With these undulations, the gaze loses definition, and reality weakens. A gap, a distance with my home city of Tunis that I know so well, is created.
What does Tunis mean to you now?
I left Tunisia several years ago. I go back regularly for work. I have fragmented and intermittent visions and perceptions of this city, a bit like the vision developed in ‘Orientations’. My words can therefore only be partial and superficial, but I would say that we feel the city is preparing for events and that a delicate underlying tension, even imperceptible, criss-crosses the city constantly.
To view more of Ismaïl Bahri’s work, visit: www.ismailbahri.lautre.net
This article appeared in Revolve’s Tunisia Report 2013, pages 42-43.