Even though they commissioned me to create a sculpture commemorating New Free Syria, they still appoint somebody to watch me do my job! Hold on! I’m the artist! And this is my sculpture!
Builder Sami Ismat bounds across the gallery furiously, hoping someone will understand his rage.

CHICAGO- In the Logan Center Gallery, a visitor is in 2028 Palmyra, 1893 Chicago, and Ancient Egypt all at once, seamlessly shifting between different histories and parallel timelines. At one point, so-called “Builder” Sami Ismat (one of several) is rehearsing his script with you -he is “Zakaria Almoutlak, the sculptor, but also the actor playing Zakaria Almoutlak.” While you two workshop a scene in his father’s Syrian atelier, another Builder, distinguished by her matching blue jumpsuit, circles around silently: Builder Tasha Vorderstrasse is an archaeologist, and in between the tours she gives gallery-goers, you see her take photographs of the space and record observations in her excavation journal. Later, you meet other Builders: an accredited conservator, a professional tailor, an artist, and others. They lead you through the space, un-building realities (or building unrealities) as quickly as you start to get a grasp on them. Every Thursday between February 1st and March 17th, the Builders populated the Logan Center Gallery, filling the transitory period between Acts V & VI of Atlas Unlimited, the brainchild of Karthik Pandian and Andros Zins-Browne.

Karthik Pandian & Andros Zins-Browne: Atlas Unlimited (Acts V–VI), 2019. Installation view in the Logan Center Gallery. Courtesy of Logan Center Exhibitions, the University of Chicago. Photo by Mike Grittani.

Atlas Unlimited has its roots in 2011, when visual artist Pandian and choreographer Zins-Browne began exploring narratives of revolution and the ways they were propagated in the wake of the Arab Spring. About 8 years and several iterations of Atlas later, they began asking questions around the Arab Spring’s aftermath -questions about migration and the way we tell its stories. How does a story change as it passes from one mouth to the next? From one generation to its successors? From the Ancient World to the contemporary social media landscape? Atlas Unlimited is a travelling project composed of several Acts which, although certainly theatrical, lack the chronology the term implies. Different Acts take place at different venues: the first few of these were carried out in Belgium, while the fifth and sixth were activated in Chicago. Wherever the project installs itself, numerous sub-narratives specific to each site are looped into the primary, overarching narrative with which the first few acts were concerned: that of Syrian Sculptor and refugee, Zakaria Almoutlak.

Karthik Pandian & Andros Zins-Browne: Atlas Unlimited (Acts V–VI), 2019. Installation view in the Logan Center Gallery. Courtesy of Logan Center Exhibitions, the University of Chicago. Photo by Mike Grittani.

To impart here Zakaria’s story would be to go against one of the foundational tenets of the show: the parrafictionality of the retold narratives. A parrafictional story is one that teeters on the line between fiction and reality -something just believable enough to be real. It would also strip Zakaria of his agency as a storyteller. That is not to say that ownership of his tale is exclusive to him: it is retold frequently by a cast of Builders, and with each re-telling, it evolves, not simply by the Builder’s own devices, but often because the Builder is tasked with retrieving the story in a way that suits their talents. Builder Jane Foley, for instance, is a professional conservator who is quite literally piecing together Zakaria’s story by conserving his demolished sculpture. Therefore, to retell the narrative here, (or, at least, what I gather it to be), I would be playing into the parrafictional fabric upon which it is based and onto whose ambiguity each Builder adds with each Act. By recounting his story in my own terms and for my own purposes, I would also be participating in a culture which sensationalizes the plight of Syrian and other refugees and eventually desensitizes people to them. Zakaria’s story, as any story, is suspended in the incredibly vast narrative network of the internet and other media outlets, but in Atlas Unlimited, it functions in such a way that betrays its intrinsically amorphous quality as a story. With Atlas Unlimited, Zakaria and the artists and Builders upcycle his story rather than recycling and regurgitating it.

Karthik Pandian & Andros Zins-Browne: Atlas Unlimited (Acts V–VI), 2019. Installation view in the Logan Center Gallery. Courtesy of Logan Center Exhibitions, the University of Chicago. Photo by Mike Grittani.

One subplot interwoven into Atlas Unlimited is that of the Cairo Street exhibit: one of the attractions of the 1893 World’s Fair, which had sprawled itself across multiple locations in Chicago, including the Midway Plaisance, a strip of land just outside the Logan Center. Among other elements, the Cairo Street included a facade with mashrabiya screens which are now at the Field Museum in Chicago. As part of the project, the artists collaborated with a group of local teens in the Design Apprenticeship Program (DAP), who drew inspiration from the extant screens at the Field to design and build a series of wooden panels which are now part of a long wall that splits the gallery in two. Below the screens, the words of Emma Lazarus’ poem ‘The New Colossus’ are engraved, after having been processed in a cycle through a language translating tool -the poem represents an openness to help and shelter those in need of help and asylum. The fact that the wall was designed after the mashrabiya screens used in the Cairo Street and not just any others is crucial. The point seems not to be the co-opting of medieval Egyptian architectures into a statement about contemporary US border politics, but rather the allusion to a cultural microcosm (the Cairo Street) which’s existence had been contingent on migration: that of the Egyptians who performed in and operated the exhibit; that of the camels they offered rides on; that of Egyptian culture, through the Orientalist writing of archeologists, historians, and other 19th Century writers on the Levant; and many more. Its very existence as a boundary with such stringent connotations of cultural exchange is ironic.

Karthik Pandian & Andros Zins-Browne: Atlas Unlimited (Acts V–VI), 2019. Installation view in the Logan Center Gallery. Courtesy of Logan Center Exhibitions, the University of Chicago. Photo by Robert Chase Heishman.

Moreover, the wall is a key player in the story told by Builder Tasha in her tour of the space: in her story, it is, in fact, made of the authentic mashrabiya screens of the Cairo Street, here on loan from the generous Field Museum. For many who are unacquainted with traditional Arab architecture, it is easy to give credence to Tasha’s words, especially considering the plethora of knowledge she shares on her tours. Despite being a barrier, however, the wall’s perforated design makes it highly permeable to the transfer of small objects, gestures, images, sounds, and, most importantly, stories. It hence, perhaps, comments on the way that a more literal (and scarier) wall along this country’s borders may impede immigrants, but not the flow of stories across. Besides its history and narrative conductivity, the wall tells its own stories, unarticulated by Builder Tasha. Obscure terms like “Baby Kakes” and “Leave Me Alone” (a reference to a previous act, but visitors don’t know that) are spray-painted on the panels, alluding to a life before the one spent in the gallery. Builder Gabe Moreno, who directed the students in DAP, may be seen applying wood stain to them during the Thursday activations, forcing viewers to wonder about what other changes the wall may have underwent before being stationed in the gallery.

Karthik Pandian & Andros Zins-Browne: Atlas Unlimited (Acts V–VI), 2019. Installation view in the Logan Center Gallery. Courtesy of Chicago Maroon. Photo by Alexandra Nisenoff.

The wall is only interrupted by a temple-like structure at its center, which serves as a checkpoint for those crossing. Overseeing it is the ancient Egyptian god Horus, in the form of a 3000 year-old statue on loan at the gallery from the nearby Oriental Institute Museum -the figure is perched in a glass case right across from another one containing his crown, broken in two, a large camel bone, and a small, inconspicuous fragment of a figurine. From the crater in the bird’s skull, where his diadem once rested, a long, vertical crevice may be seen running down the statue. Builder Tasha explains that a priest would hide near the statue and speak into a long tube running through it, giving the illusion that a person’s prayers and queries were being answered. Whereas in most museums, the interactivity of many ritual objects and artworks is lost, Atlas Unlimited preserves and even reanimates the innate performativity of sculpture (and the sculptural quality of performance) in figures like Horus, who may be heard speaking to visitors as they pass him by (except, instead of a priest behind a curtain, the artists have employed a motion detector, speaker, and audio designed by Builder Jared Brown, the new voice of Horus). The artists deflect expectations visitors have in typical museum settings, de-sterilizing the image of objects trapped in exhibits to bring out their innate interactivity and even a vestige of their original function. For Act VI (Strike), the sculpture of Horus was replaced by a live actor embodying a contemporary archetype of the ancient oracle.

Karthik Pandian & Andros Zins-Browne: Atlas Unlimited (Acts V–VI), 2019. Installation view in the Logan Center Gallery. Courtesy of Logan Center Exhibitions, the University of Chicago. Photo by Robert Chase Heishman.
Karthik Pandian & Andros Zins-Browne: Atlas Unlimited (Acts V–VI), 2019. Installation view in the Logan Center Gallery. Courtesy of Logan Center Exhibitions, the University of Chicago. Statue of Horus lent by the Oriental Institute of The University of Chicago. Photo by Robert Chase Heishman.

While in Act V (Plaisance), visitors to the gallery got to sample the Activations of the coming five weeks. They participated in protest chants with Builder Sami Ismat. They listened to Builder Anthony Adcock, a fine artist and ironworker, describe his plans for his drawings on the wall and talked to Builder Jane Foley about her strategies for restoring Zakaria’s sculpture. They met Mohammed Miah, a professional Burmese tailor on board the Rohingya Cultural Center in Chicago who was building traditional Rohingya ceremonial tent in the gallery. and see the Builders come together and, well, Build. In Act VI (Strike), six weeks later, the gallery was un-built. Floor tiles were uprooted, wall drawings were smudged, and wood strips were broken. All the destruction, chaos, yelling, protesting, and storytelling was then concluded by a parade, when fragmented objects like Horus, torn canvas, and other debris were carried off by the cast of Builders sang and danced out of the gallery and out of sight. All the while, attendees were enclosed in migrant narratives, speculative histories, and archeological memories.

Karthik Pandian & Andros Zins-Browne: Atlas Unlimited (Acts V–VI), 2019. Installation view in the Logan Center Gallery. Courtesy of Chicago Maroon. Photo by Alexandra Nisenoff.

Atlas Unlimited inverts the result-oriented perspective of the conventional museum by turning the viewer’s focus from the sculpture to the act of conservation restoring it; from the artifact to the archaeological work digging it up; from the building (noun) to the building (verb); and from the story to the storytelling. Nowadays, when the menace of misinformation is ever-present, a shifted attention towards the generation of stories in addition to their content proves critical to avoid the adoption of false, potentially dangerous creeds. Visitors tend to leave the gallery a little overwhelmed, with more questions than answers, but they also leave with a greater sensitivity to the credibility and truth-value of the dozens of stories they are exposed to and tend to accept as truth everyday. Pandian and Zins-Browne offer us a new way of thinking about stories of displacement and the ways we can make art around it.

Read more from Jad Dahshan.
Image courtesy indicated in captions.


Jad Dahshan
Jad Dahshan

Having grown up in Amman, I am current majoring in Art History and Chemistry at the University of Chicago; I am interested in learning and writing about the conceptual, aesthetic, and material history of art. Beyond academics, I also run the social media channels for Logan Center Exhibitions, edit for the Arts Section of the Chicago Maroon, and perform and teach as an aerialist at the student-run Le Vorris & Vox Circus.

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