12 February 2010

Walk like an Egyptian

I'll admit I was a tad reticent about going to see Cairo - The breaking up of the ice at the Cornerhouse. Firstly, I'm not all that into video art, and this show revolves around a short film. Secondly, the exhibition is a collaboration between Jacob Cartwright and Nick Jordan, the latter being someone I know by association. I therefore neither wanted to cause offence if I didn't like what I saw nor did I want to say I loved it, darling, just because I happen to know one of the artists by sight.

I needn't have worried myself. It's actually a fascinating collection. The film of the title takes centre stage, with various artworks, found objects and background information supporting it, and providing emotional depth and historical insight.

Cairo is a ramshackle town in the Deep South, which grew up at the convergence of the rivers Mississippi and Ohio; an important trading point, once. At its zenith, in 1907, paddleboats clogged the waterways and the town boasted 20,000 residents; 100 years later, only 3,000-odd people remained. Extensive flooding, economic recession and social decline had done their work, and Cairo (2009) features various shots of tumbleweed strips not unlike those usually seen in gunslinger movies.

Every year, the Illinois midwinter causes the waters of these mighty rivers to freeze, and it was the tale of the entrapment of French-American savage ornithologist (he shot specimens to draw them for his revered reference book Birds of America) John James Audubon's flat-bottomed "barque" in 1809 that sparked this installation. Cairo follows on from two other Cartwright and Jordan shorts about Audubon, New Madrid and West Point, and completes The Audubon Trilogy.

The back story of Audubon is interesting, but it's the wonderful juxtaposition of Cartwright and Jordan's varied observation of the demise of a civilised world with the triumph of nature that makes the project truly remarkable, and totally original.

The show runs until Sunday 28 February in Gallery 1 of the Cornerhouse. Entry is free.

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