Banana art on the River Nile

December 2, 2008

    It looked like a perfect picture story, with all the right elements — the Nile, a fountain, 2,000 large inflatable bananas heaped in the shape of a pyramid, all set in a framework of Austrian conceptual art theory. The idea was that when the fountain began to shoot water into the air the bundles of bananas piled up from the base would explode and the bananas would disperse, floating gently down the Nile.

    “The numerous, individual elements of the floating bananas are not only supposed to change the river’s colour but also, while drifting down the river are expected to develop distinctive dynamics, individually and through mutual interplay,” read the blurb from the Austrian Cultural Forum/Cairo (acf/c), which dreamt up and organised the event.

    “For a few hours ‘Going Bananas’ draws special attention to the daily metamorphosis as the core of our lives, intentionally posing the pivotal questions of life: ‘Why?’ The acf/c’s motto for this year — ‘Everything is in a state of flux’ — thus culminates in its grand conclusion,” the Austrians added.

    The idea, they said, was that boats would follow the bananas down river to the Nile Barrage,  monitoring both their movements and the reactions of the local people. At the barrage they would collect all the bananas, which were about 1.60 metres long, and give them to children’s homes. At the launch ceremony on the terrace of the Grand Hyatt hotel, overlooking the Nile, cultural forum director Clemens Mantl hinted at the bureaucratic hoops he had to jump through to set up the event. The governor of Cairo had agreed to sponsor it and the river police were out on the Nile in force to make sure it all went smoothly. Mantl called the project ‘a masterpiece of bureaucracy’.

    So there we were, sipping our soft drinks in the stiff northerly breeze and awaiting the explosion of bananas. About 10 minutes behind schedule the fountain started up, sending a jet of water maybe 100 feet into the air. But the breeze was so strong that it blew the plume far off to the south and the water fell back into the Nile, leaving the balloons immobile. In the meantime the wind was blowing the odd banana off the basin of the fountain and the police boats were zipping around to pick them up and put them back in the pyramid. But the plume of water stubbornly continued to fall far away from the bananas. Mantl said all should be well when the fountain people turned on spouts around the base of the basin. The spouts did start to spurt water but it was a feeble trickle and the bananas firmly stayed put.

    By this time the spectators had began to drift away, and I went with them. The Austrians said later that they finally dispersed the bananas by hand and boats picked them up well before they reached the barrage. “Obviously it didn’t go as planned, but when all the boats went out to pick them up, the interaction with the people was very nice,” said one of the Austrians.

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