Art

Meriem Bennani’s iPhone-Video Collage Mesmerizes at MoMA P.S.1

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Meriem Bennani’s FLY, a video piece at MoMA P.S.1 that constitutes the artist’s first museum solo show, is, on its face, a collage of personal videos the artist shot on her phone during a recent trip to Morocco. It stitches together scenes of daily life in the old city quarters of Fez and Rabat (where she was born in 1988), interviews with family members and friends, and the frenzied pageantry of a wedding. The brilliant colors disorient: lapis and gold, deep black-blues, the crisp white of a man’s thobe as he’s silhouetted against the bright green of a soccer field. Manicured hands covered in jewels hold their iPads aloft to photograph a bride so beautiful she seems unreal.

More critically, the work acts as a startling challenge to us viewers to actively interrogate our assumptions about Morocco, internationally branded as an idyllic tourist’s haven with a stable leisure economy. Bennani accomplishes this by interrupting the intimate footage of her homeland, jamming it with her trademark surreal digital manipulations.

With an expert editing hand, she slips in hysterical blobs, glitches, and cartoon sound effects. The man on the soccer field? Bennani multiplies and shrinks his figure so that miniature versions appear alongside him, all watching the game. To a shot of exuberant wedding performers, Bennani has added gold pixels that explode off their bodies. They shimmy and bounce along to an operatic chorus atop a rollicking synth loop (also added; the original clip, which curious viewers can find on Bennani’s Instagram, shows them dancing to traditional Moroccan wedding music). The edited composition, with its virtual flourishes and highlights, makes the women seem more resilient and ecstatic, like personifications of joy.

Uncanny juxtaposition crops up in Bennani’s other drawings, designs, animations, and short films, too. In her show “Gradual Kingdom,” at Signal Gallery last year, she tackled Morocco’s status as a still-“developing” country and, in turn, sand’s status as a dwindling resource through videos and sculpture, all set to Mariah Carey’s “Vision of Love.” In Fardaous Funjab, she paired religious gravitas with absurdist fashions through the story of an imaginary hijab designer. Now, in FLY, Bennani stretches and extends a woman’s niqab until a shiny black shape pops right off her and hovers ominously nearby, continuing
Funjab‘s play with Western anxieties over Muslim women’s dress.

The significance of these juxtapositions — of documentary-style footage with surreal interjections — is in how they change the meaning of both the reality and the cartoon. Consider the piece’s first rupture with reality, about four minutes in, as the camera pans to a bucket of sweets in a souk, covered in fruit flies. A digitized, jewel-green fly (designed by artist Kyunghee Jwa) peels off from the swarm and begins to sing Rihanna’s “Kiss It Better” in a computerized baby voice. It faces the viewer, lifts its spindly arms, bends in choreographed moves, and launches in: What are you willing to do?/Oh, tell me what you’re willing to do/Kiss it, kiss it better, baby. The viewer scrambles to make sense of this singing insect as it takes flight, specifically in relation to the city unfurling below it. As the song’s plaintive, Prince-like guitar swells double in intensity, the sequence begins to feel like a love letter to Morocco, to a culture in flux.

In this passage and in others, FLY pushes against our diminishing attention spans by demanding mental agility and
focus. Scenes are projected and split across multiple surfaces of different shapes: distinctly on rectangular displays layered atop one another and on the ground, a circular plinth, and a tilted screen, and even hazily across a set of stairs on which visitors can sit. In one shot, a seated traditional singer appears alone on the plinth; the viewer must draw near to see her clearly. Through successive loops, the viewer learns to piece together the video’s various parts.

The cartoonish additions, meanwhile, deftly reveal the absurdity of the real world. We see fashion advertisements pasted on the side of a building, the smooth faces of models just as hyperreal as Bennani’s digital manipulations. On one wall of the exhibit, a waterfall of emoji-like luxury icons — designer sandals, lipsticks, fans, tiaras, Maroc Telecom logos, the Lacoste crocodile — runs continually . The crafted myths of Morocco’s bounty clash with other images of far less glamorous realities: Shoppers jostle for space in the hectic market; a family stands listless at the beach on an overcast day.

Bennani’s absurd interventions can be jarring. In one sequence, her grandmother solemnly describes how a friend’s first and second husbands both died of heart attacks. She then scrolls through her smartphone, her swipes set to a track of incongruously cute, game-like bloops and pops. The sounds offer an odd moment of recognition for life’s ceaseless mix of the mournful and silly. In more amateur editing hands, some of these characters might have appeared to be the butt of the joke. (At one point, the fruit fly sings, “Do what you gotta do” on a blind man’s shoulder as he strains earnestly to tell a story to a friend in the souk.) But Bennani manages to inject tenderness into her cartooning. She pores over her subjects’ faces, cropping, scaling, modifying, in an alchemical attempt to frame, reread, and elevate their intimate gestures.

The face of a teary-eyed woman (possibly the aforementioned recent widow) is blown out to full screen; Bennani layers the curves and nodes of a facial-recognition map atop her pained features. A simulated rainfall of gold-colored drops covers another woman’s face as she coos over how the newlyweds met; the digital frame enshrines, even protects, the story. Through her radical editing, Bennani actually invites the viewer further in — past voyeurism — to be part of the story she tells of quotidian, modern Moroccan life. It’s one of complexity, contradiction, and deep feeling.

‘Meriem Bennani: FLY’

MoMA P.S.1

22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City

718-784- 2084, momaps1.org

Through August 28