Image: The bowels of the world dissected by artist Mandy El-Sayegh at the Thaddaeus Ropac gallery
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The bowels of the world dissected by artist Mandy El-Sayegh at the Thaddaeus Ropac gallery

January 4, 2022
Paris Marais

By Thibaut Wychowanok 

Translated excerpts from the French original: 

Mandy El-Sayegh's new paintings, presented at the Thaddeus Ropac gallery in the Marais, grab you in the gut and the heart before you can even analyse them. They function like rebus intended for our unconscious. The young British painter deploys multiple references - silk-screened texts and images whose origin is sometimes unknown. She plays with several techniques, mixing figurative and abstract painting. Each work fixes on the canvas the insatiable flow of information, colours and noise that saturate the contemporary world. They include pages from fashion magazines, names of Israeli military operations (the artist's father is of Palestinian origin) and above all blood and bodies. She dissects our heterogeneous era where everything is mixed, the sacred and the profane, the anecdotal and the great story. A "violence of flattening" which is echoed in the paintings. The body, often represented, is fragmented as much as the information of our digital age. A dislocated and suffering body which the artist takes care of in her paintings by offering it, as well as all the subjects and objects she places in it, a burial place: a house.
"When I look at a canvas, I perceive its thickness. And this thickness is similar to that of flesh, as opposed to skin, a simple surface seen from a distance. I always exist between these two ways of seeing", explains Mandy El-Sayegh in the introduction to her exhibition. Painting is an open flesh for the artist as much as a skin. She works with it in layers, and the exhibition shows the whole process: from the totally abstract final result (the canvas is covered and "held" by a grid of colours, the silkscreens disappear under the paint) to the first stages (a canvas that is still almost white, where the images are silkscreened). There is something of the French author Annie Ernaux in Mandy El-Sayegh's method: a way of looking at the world, and her own personal history, in the manner of a forensic scientist. Above all, a belief in art as a suspension of moral judgment, where anguish, stupor and obscenity have their place. Not out of morbid taste or egotistical neurosis, but because it is necessary to look the world in the face, in its fragmented reality, and to pay attention to the other - to desire it - not as an abstract fiction but as a very human body, in order to be able to repair it.
Numéro art: You reproduce certain images - many fragmented bodies - and decontextualised phrases on your canvases. Some of them actually refer to political events, news items or to your personal and family history, others are taken from fashion magazines. Not all of them are necessarily identifiable by the public...

Mandy El-Sayegh: I work from a multitude of elements that constantly surround me in the studio. Things that attracted me at a given moment: fragments, sentences, books, newspapers, archives, images... I never throw anything away. My studio is filled with this waste that eventually finds its way onto the canvas. This idea of saturation is similar to the one you can feel on Instagram or Google Images where you can scroll endlessly. This ultimately forms a multiplicity of layers on the canvas where it is indeed almost impossible to grasp each reference independently. When creating - a painting or a sculpture - these 'unconscious' materials come together in an almost natural way. And yet, at the origin of this process is the very conscious act of leaving all this lying around in the studio. Also present at the moment of creation is a sense of composition: a need to add more violence to the canvas, or on the contrary to lighten it, or to add elements from what is lying around me that correspond to the aesthetics of the piece in progress.
Your pieces physically express the flow of disparate and heterogeneous images from social networks. Yet you often use magazines, newspapers and books that do not belong to the digital world as source material.

I am very much influenced by the analogue world. I like the materiality of these elements, their textures. Looking at my work, one might think that I am an artist of a certain age [Mandy El-Sayegh is only about 30 years old]. I don't mind that. I like the idea of turning the digital world into something that looks older, more textured. I want to treat digital in the same way I treat latex, as something that is aging and dated. I also love everything about typography for example. I play with it a lot in my work. A typeface can be very fashionable one moment and, a few years later, seem totally obsolete, specific to a particular era. It characterises a discourse. The typography of a fashion magazine will not be that of a daily newspaper. In this idea of decontextualisation and recontextualisation, I use, for example, the typography of a fashion magazine to write the names of Israeli military operations in the exhibition at the Ropac gallery...
Death and violence are themes that haunt the exhibition, from dislocated bodies to references to news stories or a dissection table. But beyond this brutality, you seem to look at these bodies and stories with great benevolence.

This is one of the axioms that recurs regularly in the workshop. The dissection table is also a place for repairing the body. My entire practice is built around this idea. To be attentive to a body other than one's own. This pattern is not always visible but it is always present. Repairing is the only thing you can do in the face of precarious things. It gives a home to all these messy objects and detritus.
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