Sometimes called an alchemist, Azza El Siddique treats the act of making as just the beginning of a process that the artwork carries on. Her sculptures themselves have a collaborative hand. As a result, El Siddique’s artworks make erosion, decay, and decomposition more alive than processes concerned with their prevention. This is doubly impactful: nestled within an artistic statement that feels so poetically charged is an urgent critique of museological approaches to the preservation of art.
Installed downstairs in Bradley Ertaskiran’s Bunker space—with its low ceilings, exposed and intermittently tarnished piping, and partially cemented brick walls—her exhibition that which trembles wavers feels right at home. The goopy, uneven contours between the Bunker’s brick and cement surfaces create materially harmonious frameworks for El Siddique’s sculptures and installations. For instance, Still waters (all works 2023), a rust painting on a steel canvas, is displayed beneath the straight line of a row of bricks, the wall here creating a border for the work.
Walking down into the space has the feel of entering a tomb, but instead of encountering symbols of death, the works in that which trembles wavers are subtly and evocatively alive. They are unconcerned with your presence, like machines chugging on, or like the systems of a biological body busily at work on its own reproduction and preservation.
El Siddique made these works specifically for the space, and it shows. The steel beams that make up the massive sculptural frame of the exhibition’s eponymous work, create a labyrinth-like grid resembling scaffolds or a cage. A large double-headed porcelain serpent sits in a steel water basin inside one of the grid’s segments. In other places, the steel beams create cubes, framing the metal heat-activated chambers of Sandalia, a perfumed oil made of sandalwood, that sit within them. The steel bars also almost perfectly mirror the gallery’s own exposed beams overheard.
An irrigation system draws water up from the pool surrounding the porcelain double-headed serpent, then drizzles the water in slow drips over the serpent’s body. The porcelain will degrade and tarnish over the course of its stay in the Bunker and beyond, if it lives on after the exhibition’s closure. A coiling pipe in the corner of the pool mimics the movement of the snake, which, according to the show’s exhibition text, is a symbol of power that adorns Nubian and Egyptian artifacts. But what does it mean that this symbol of power from ancient Egypt (a culture which was once a superpower) decays in the gallery, or—if we are to take literally the visual simile matching the support structures of El Siddique’s sculpture with the gallery’s own—because of the gallery?
The decay of El Siddique’s sculptures seems directly at odds with museology’s interest in custodianship. Museum practices of care for cultural objects and artifacts traditionally take for granted the goals of preserving these objects in a frozen state and restoring them as closely as possible to their so-called original condition. But why is conservation such an important aim of the museum’s? Common sense dictates that these practices stem from a respect for these objects and their culture of origin. But the history of museum collections tells us otherwise. Their provenance is often bound up in colonial violence, theft, and black-market trades. Looting Egyptian graves supplied many of the items in the current collections at our history museums. The provenance (or biography) of an art object tells us so much. Are these travels and transformations not also part of the object’s life, each change not equally as meaningful to the artwork and our understanding of it as its initial shape?
Finally, museum practices are shifting to investigate and acknowledge their stolen collections, as calls for repatriation coincide with and accelerate reckonings around care and display. Around the time that the editors at Momus asked me to review El Siddique’s show, news reports announced that the British Museum would no longer use the word “mummy” to describe the mummified remains in its collection, as the word dehumanizes and abstracts their histories. If not performed out of respect, the act of preservation might be interpreted as a power move. By freezing these artifacts in time and putting them on display—irrespective of the many culturally specific practices around care and conservation particular to these objects—conservationists often participate in serious acts of othering, disempowerment, and sterilization of cultural objects. What is so threatening about the aliveness (the ability to transform) of an art object? Are we trying to belittle the power of the culture of origin? To kill it? Or do any signs of decomposition remind us of our own bodies’ capacities to decompose? Are we simply afraid of death?
Previous exhibitions of El Siddique’s have made a case for the close association of life and death as they exist in works of art. Her 2021 duo show, fire is love, water is sorrow – a distant fire, was a collaboration between her and her brother, Teto Elsiddique, who passed away in 2017. Making art in response to paintings Elsiddique produced prior to his death not only allowed El Siddique her own kind of mourning ritual but also activated Elsiddique’s artworks differently, breathing new life into them. Every time an artwork is reinstalled, new meaning is evinced through contexts, dialectics, and discourses. In this case, El Siddique created a sculptural frame to literally reframe Elsiddique’s paintings and produced sculptural counterparts—siblings—for each painting. She also worked with a computer engineer to make an algorithm that produced “speculative paintings” pulled from aspects of Elsiddique’s style, palette, and source materials. In this way, the artist’s signature carries on after his death, allowing his paintings to reproduce themselves, similarly to how El Siddique’s works become her collaborators by evolving on their own after she has crafted them.
El Siddique has said before that she attempts to understand death as a way to understand life. The Sandalia she displays in heat-activated scent chambers was used in Muslim burial rituals. Beyond death practices, scent summons life. Its evocative power to conjure the past can bring memories of our deceased back to us—like when a whiff of the perfume worn by someone who has passed brings them to life. The use of scent in El Siddique’s art, particularly in these scent chambers (which, though open, are suggestive of glass display cases and their distancing function), provides a stark contrast to the sterile, deadened lack of scent typical of our museum experience.
In the Bunker, a triptych of black porcelain urns on one wall are made from the same material as cracked African masks hanging opposite. El Siddique’s ceramics are unfired, so the clay remains moldable and changeable. To fire clay would be to preserve it, to finish it. Unfinished from the start, these works emerge through decay over time. Time, then, is another collaborator. El Siddique applies water in places to erode the clay, creating cracks in the urns that look like gashes, but the result is also distinctly vaginal, and sort of erotic. This happenstance process conjures the life-making motif of fertility. These urns are birthing themselves. And the African masks, though in pieces, are displayed on steel mounts, in an ironic nod to museum displays. The cracks contradict the myth of custodianship: the institution’s best efforts at conservation, and the false facade of care and respect symbolized by these types of displays.
By juxtaposing her African masks with museum-style display mounts, the artist draws a direct link between museums and the violent histories surrounding the objects her work references. Here, the display mounts may even suggest that the violence of colonialism causes the cracks in the masks, which in turn reveal cracks in museology’s own facade. Although museum custodianship directs care towards objects from different cultures, this care is not necessarily extended to the cultures themselves.
By showing us that her artwork is alive, El Siddique reminds us that a work of art, in general, is always alive. Despite museological efforts at preserving objects as if suspended in time, the life force of an artwork is inevitable, enduring, as time itself is inevitable, enduring. Time always brings change, even if an artwork does not physically undergo the kind of material transformations that El Siddique’s do. As Walter Benjamin reminds us, all art has an afterlife, signifying “a transformation and a renewal of something living—the original undergoes a change.” Contained in an artwork’s afterlife are traces of the history preceding and molding it, its realization in its own time, and its potential to carry new meanings as it maps onto a future history. This, we must nurture.
In the pool of water beneath El Siddique’s serpent, swirling rust created pretty patterns, reminding me of how, as a kid, I used to look for rainbows in parking-lot puddles of water colored by leaking gasoline. Pollution causes decay but may also generate something new. The exhibition makes such a strong case for the idea that decay does not necessarily signify death and ending so much as life’s ability to change and evolve. As we let go of traditional museological models of preservation, we may be able to engage differently with the material world. Leaving the exhibition, I noticed a rust stain on the floor of the gallery upstairs, and was struck again by the same sense of admiration I felt as a kid in parking lots. Rather than trying to preserve what is past, beautiful accidents alert us to our present condition. Let’s not end with conservation. If preservation remains our end goal, we may be dangerously limiting our own ability to evolve. In fact, our final reading of that which trembles wavers may be ecological. Maybe, from civilization’s ruins, we can birth new life.