Pansee Atta, “I am not asking for the moon,” 2018. 5 3D-printed thermoplastic polymer and resin sculptures, approx. 30 x 30 x 30 cm. Accompanied by looping GIF animations.
Museums and art galleries are public spaces dedicated to the display objects of cultural and historical significance. They affirm national and regional identities through the promotion of a sense of shared heritage and the illusion of collective experience. The ritual of visiting museums inscribes the dominant values and ideals of the society. Living rooms, on the other hand, are to the private individual what public museums are to the imagined community of the nation. As the primary domestic space where many people spend their leisure time, people often arrange their living rooms so as to maximize physical comfort and to foster a sense of emotional warmth and well-being. This is often achieved through the display of décor and ornaments that represent a person’s personality, their identity, and their personal experiences. Popular living room décor includes family photographs, musical instruments, souvenirs from travels, inherited family heirlooms, flags and maps, completed or in-progress crafts and other creative projects, hand-made rugs and throw blankets, mass reproduced trinkets, sports teams merchandise, electronics such as TVs and sound systems, as well as luxury items that function as status symbols. All of these items are saturated with strong symbolic meanings that speak powerfully to the identity of their owner. Arranged in concert with other symbolically meaningful objects, living rooms become social and cultural spaces that provide a complex and nuanced portrait of the person or people who live there. If you’re lucky enough to have one, consider what is in your own living room and how it is arranged. Who does you living room show you to be?
Riffing on these ideas is Ottawa-based Egyptian-Canadian artist Pansee Atta, who has created five sculptures that are dispersed throughout the Living Room. “To me,” she notes, “living rooms are a lot like museums: both these places tell stories about the past and the present through the objects on display.” Each of the sculptures in the series I am not asking for the moon was made especially for the Living Room, responding to questions of cultural authenticity and ownership. The sculptures are 3D printed recreations of various ancient Egyptian artifacts that are currently held in the collections of European museums. Some of these artefacts are widely known and commercially reproduced as décor items, such as the Bust of Nefertiti and the Rosetta Stone. Others are more obscure, as is the case with the Zodiac of Dendera. Pansee chose to recreate these artefacts because there are extensive campaigns to return each of the original artefacts to Egypt; some of these campaigns have been going on for centuries. She explains: “Despite how inaccessible the original [artefacts] are to many Egyptians, I wondered if there was a way for me to reclaim them, re-make them, and re-distribute them: after all, these pieces are already reproduced by their respective museums as tourist souvenirs that can be found in homes around the world.”
Accompanying each sculpture in the Living Room is a QR code that is scannable with a smart phone or tablet. The QR code links to an animated GIF located on this webpage that illustrates the artefact undergoing a transformation that explodes and exposes restrictive boundaries and hierarchies. In doing so, the GIFs work as gestures of repatriation that return the objects to their original cultural significance. For example, Pansee’s 3D printed thermoplastic polymer sculpture “I am not asking for the moon,” Bust of Nefertiti – the original of which is currently located in the Neues Museum in Berlin – closely resembles the familiar icon. However, Pansee’s recreation has been painted a glossy black with the top half of the face and crown treated in a marbled swirl of gold. Crystalline shaped protrusions erupt from the left side of her face, and geometric stalactite spikes jut down from the back of the head and crown to the wood surface of the bookcase that the sculpture rests on. The accompanying GIF is a looping animation that shows the silhouette of the bust spinning in front of a golden ground before exploding into a million tiny black shards. Pansee’s adaptation of the Bust of Nefertiti attempts to disrupt the sexualized and highly aestheticized assumptions attached to this icon. She notes: “Consider the associations that are made with the Nefertiti that is most often represented in movies and other media: wealth, femininity, elegance, and timeless beauty. As an Egyptian woman, I’ve tried to add sharp, jagged elements that make it more difficult to consume, but which might make it easier to see the difficult histories that have been associated with it for centuries.” The sculptures and animations in I’m not reaching for the moon blur the divide between the ancient, the contemporary and the technocratic future moment, suggesting that all cultural objects remain living and that history is constantly being (re)written and (re)negotiated.