Definition of a contemporary nightmare: you lose your phone and your most intimate details are made public. Such is the premise of an intriguing new exhibition by Egypt-born artist Mahmoud Khaled called Fantasies on a Found Phone, Dedicated to the Man Who Lost It. The artist, who is based in Berlin, has constructed an elaborate fictitious narrative of loss, longing and desire around the life of an unknown gay man who mislaid his unlocked, sim-less phone in a public toilet.
“Based on the content of his phone, this is apparently a very elegant person – he has particular taste in art and history – and he’s very sexual,” says Khaled, when we meet at the show’s venue, the Mosaic Rooms in London. “But he’s also very troubled,” he adds. “He’s dealing with severe insomnia and has a lot of sleep-aid and dating apps.”
Modelled on a historic house museum, “a medium to commemorate and document certain legacies of very well known people, mainly straight men,” Khaled notes, the show unfolds like a detective novel, dispersing clues across three rooms. It opens with a sparse entrance room decorated in blue and white Victorian-style wallpaper; on closer inspection one notices the design is made up of penises and urinals. A photograph of a rumpled bed seen through a mirror nods to the artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s 1991 billboard of an empty bed in homage to his lover, who died of Aids. But that billboard “was more about coupleness, intimacy and happy times that were shared on the bed. Here we’re talking about a state of anxiety, loneliness and insomnia,” says Khaled, pointing to a scrawled note across this photograph which reads: “I can’t sleep without you any more”.
Downstairs is a bedroom dominated by a circular rotating bed based on Hugh Hefner’s, but rendered in black leather. So pervasive was the Playboy tycoon’s cultural influence that having a round bed was de rigueur for the virile heroes of Egyptian TV and cinema in the 80s and 90s, Khaled recalls. But for the artist, that bed represents a site of restlessness and over-productivity; his version is “a monument to those who cannot sleep”. The emphasis on insomnia is not simply about neurosis. In Khaled’s work sleeplessness is a metaphor for exile and non-belonging.
There’s an artist’s book accompanying the show which reveals the contents of the protagonist’s phone. Mimicking the sense of swiping, it reveals diverse visions of masculinity: selfies of naked men, images of nude statues, photos of gay porn magazines strewn in park bushes, text chats on dating apps, excerpts from James Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room.
While not tied to a specific incident or person, Khaled says that the show was shaped by his own experience of being stopped by a policeman and interrogated over his phone apps, posts and photos. “This generated a lot of anxiety and pretty much inspired the way I think about the phone as a protagonist,” he says. “The phone is not just a luxury communication device, it can also be used as evidence against you.”
The exhibition title and concept were inspired by the 19th-century German artist Max Klinger’s series of 10 prints titled Fantasies About a Found Glove, Dedicated to the Lady Who Lost It which depict a similar tale of obsession and fetishisation, in this case centred on a glove dropped by a lady at a Berlin ice rink. Khaled’s starting point was the question: “What if Max Klinger was actually living with us right now and found that lady’s phone, not her glove. What kind of work he would produce?”
Khaled has made another unconventional house museum for this year’s Brent Biennial. An iteration of his 2017 project Proposal for a House Museum of an Unknown Crying Man, the work relates to the arrest, beating and highly publicised trial of 52 men on a floating gay nightclub in 2001 – what Khaled calls “our Stonewall moment for the queer struggle in Egypt”. After their violent outing, most of the so-called Cairo 52 sought asylum abroad. Khaled decided to create a house museum in exile dedicated to one of the men whose face – depicted covered and crying in the press – became an emblem for the case. But rather than a victim, the occupant of the house museum is envisaged as “a kind of dandy persona, who has decided to flip exile into a positive, productive space of existence”.
For Brent, Khaled is presenting a video tour of the Unknown Crying Man’s home and an installation of his bedroom, as if loaned from an existing museum. “I’m very interested in imagining how can we write histories of queer lives, documenting the private spaces of people who are not really famous or important in society.”
Being about exile, The Unknown Crying Man is intended to be shown anywhere except Cairo, but Khaled has exhibited work about non-heteronormative experience there too. By necessity he’s learned to use allegory and euphemism to communicate his ideas. “As an artist you really have to always be smarter than the state in your own work,” he says.