There is a false step one takes when approaching ‘Cite Your Sources’, Mandy El-Sayegh’s first institutional solo show in London. Verbal language dominates and hits you like a wave; pages from the Financial Times are pasted up the gallery walls and underfoot; silk-screened advertising copy, schematics and Arabic calligraphy are layered on top of maps, passport-photocopies, grids and each other. Stainless steel vitrine-tables hold magazines, newspapers compressed into misshapen cubes, iPhone cases and bars of imperial leather soap, among other objects and images, are carefully arranged in a manner resembling an archive, like an elevated junkyard sale.
We recognise this framework; of image bordered with text; of sentence structure; of supposedly factual rhetoric, and it prompts us to try and read the works presented here as if they too can be picked apart and analysed as sentences.
However, these are artworks that do not hold the same direct logic of the spoken or written sentence. I find myself held in an interesting suspension between a subconscious prompting to try and unpick and a big-picture awareness of the formal qualities of this referential material. It is clear that objects, images and text have been chosen for the references they point to and are assembled like brushstrokes. This handling of material seems informed by the practices of Sigmar Polke and Albert Oehlen - Oehlen particularly in his description of himself as an abstract painter; silk-screened advertising slogans are used in his paintings like a wash of pigment. El-Sayegh is similarly like an abstract painter who has banned themselves from using paint, instead choosing everyday material for their physical and aesthetic qualities.
It speaks to the way we are conditioned with assumptions as to how certain frameworks load the information presented, for example:
Minimal + Linguistic/Verbal = Conceptual, Intellectual, Rational.
Gestural + Painterly = Sensuous, Emotional, Irrational.
The grid, heavily laden with Western Modernist references, is another motif frequently used in El-Sayegh’s work and a fruitful concept to keep in mind here. In an accompanying interview with curator Ellen Greig, El-Sayegh points to the grid’s dual function of blocking our vision while allowing us to see beyond it. A third function I noticed is that it also frames our vision. Mike Kelley comes to mind in the way he similarly played with contextual framing devices, alongside his interest in free-association, the abject body and psychoanalysis.
I have the optical sensation of a constant zooming in and out, as if a Rauschenberg combine-painting has been 3D scanned and made into a virtual-reality tour, allowing me to move around it to-scale, but also shrink myself down and move inside it.
It feels fitting that I find myself whirring through a list of references while navigating a show whose title is a direct quote from one of El-Sayegh’s old tutors at the Royal College of Art who claimed she could tell if an essay was going to be any good from looking at the bibliography.