OCAT Xi’an (Beichitou Yi Lu, Yanta District, Xi’an, Shaanxi), November 1, 2014-February 26, 2015
With the use of archives and (often antique) found objects, with references to post-colonialism and identity, and with critiques of anthropology, sci-fi utopias and history—all within a fractured narrative—Shezad Dawood’s work might seem to nod at the major key-words of contemporary art. Yet his oeuvre is by no means trite or tired. His creations result not only from intensive research into his subjects but also bear deep philosophical underpinnings, with one foot deeply grounded in the “real” while the other extending through domains from science fiction to anthropology.
A wildly articulate man, Dawood has a diversity of interests and is passionate about each and every one of them. He creates the kind of work where the footnotes are so interesting that they almost overshadow the work itself.
Dawood’s recent show at OCAT Xi’an, “Anthropology of Chance,” curated by Karen Smith, was seamlessly woven together with threads of identity, the primitive, anthropology and hybridity. In physical terms, the show featured neon installation, video, video projections on Sammi textiles and canvas works—collages of said textiles with painting and silk-screened photographs applied. The fabrics (now sourced from textile dealers) were originally produced by the Sammi (a nomadic Pakistani people—no relation to the Sami in Lappland), and are woven textiles often incorporating cast-offs of other fabrics in a manner similar to the tradition of American quilting. Dawood told us that in the 1970s during the boom in the textile industry in Pakistan, Sammi tribes set up camp surrounding these factories and basically scavenged materials from them.
“I’ve never been interested in a blank canvas—rather, a dialogue with the world. I like to think of them more as ghosts, speaking with ghosts. I think about the idea of spectral presences,” says Dawood. “Spectral presences” is indeed appropriate: the Sammi textiles are painted with various overlapping layers of paint featuring images of what looks like classical statuary, cartoon characters, photographs of people, silhouettes, all gathered from his travels, which fade in and out of the picture plane depending upon the underlying pattern of the fabric.
“The paintings became a way to experiment with layering and unexpected collisions of meaning and symbolism. There are large paintings and different textiles; often you get patches where something had worn through something. I create my own interventions in the surface—a kind of push-pull method to play with the depth so that it comes out as a relief.”
Though it is hard to detect a link between the canvas works and the video in terms of content, Dawood feels that his painting and video works are informed by one another in his practice. “It’s like a creating a composition, or editing. I couldn’t paint the way I do without a strong awareness of film editing and film editing techniques. So you have a layer of digital and analogue bricolage.”
Indeed, his video works seem to borrow as well from various cultures and temporal spaces, mashing them together in a fractured narrative to create surprisingly gripping works that employ futuristic scenarios in exploring notions of identity.
“Trailer,” for instance, is a somewhat disorienting collage of scenes which tells the story of a “chosen 100” (aliens disguised as people who are sent to the earth to study and observe it). Inhabiting an alternative [Is it really future?]time and place, they are reincarnated into various bodies so that Chinese interact with characters from Pakistan and the UK—in a way we rarely see in Hollywood. The aliens masked as humans have a communal identity, despite differing outward appearances; yet at the same time, by being aware of their differences from the humans, they will always feel a sense of alienation from their adopted home. Rather than participating, they are mere observers, something that mimics in a refracted way the experience of the many immigrants working to construct a refuge of community in an often hostile environment. It is a griping video that draws the viewer in with its story and cinematography. “I don’t complain about the audience,” says Dawood, “Rather, it’s about creating more immersive work and not being frightened of seduction.”
Dawood’s work takes a self-reflexive look at the industry and the medium, making problematic the categorization of film as something which is designed to be shown either in galleries or in cinemas. “Trailer” is based on his feature length film Piercing Brightness, but it was actually made before the feature.
“There is this dual movement between cinema and gallery,” says Dawood, “I set out to make both. ‘Trailer’ doesn’t function as a trailer, not a two to three minute clip with whizzes and bangs; it points to narratives and then diverts them at certain moments.” Unlike conventional cinema, Dawood is more interested in exploring cinematic archetypes and using sci-fi to critically reflect on the present, rather than creating set outcomes and resolutions.
He employs a similar technique of fragmented narratives in “Towards the Possible Film,” a video which explores concepts of othering and primitivism. Filmed in Sidi Ifni in Morocco against the backdrop of the red, soil-striated cliffs, a group of warrior-like people are one day visited by two very fragile and effeminate alien beings, their faces blue, with intricate mechanisms implanted in their brains. They turn back to the sea as if remembering the trauma of the crash that sent them there. Violins clash together to form a soundtrack as the “natives” stomp their feet as if in collaboration with the land itself to eject these interlopers and send them back from whence they came. These highly-advanced, cerulean beings do not meet a happy end—but their fate is not really the prime concern of Dawood, who is more interested in exploring notions of inclusion and exclusion, of identity.
While doing a residency in Morocco, he became interested in the ideas of the primitive put forth by political anthropologist Pierre Clastres, who tries to challenge the idea that “the state” with a formal government and leader is the endgame of every mature society.
Dawood: “[Clastres] was into rethinking societal givens. He challenges anthropological thinking about primitive society engaging in warfare. Saying so-called primitive societies participate in warfare as a refusal to allow the emergence of a bureaucratic state. And he also questions many assumptions of fundamental ideas of indigeneity.”
The anthropological link is what, according to Dawood, links the show to the locale of Xi’an. “I was interested in my own research of the collapse of the past and future ancient sites surrounded by reconstructed Tang dynasty structures, as a collapsing of time, this idea of where historiography becomes futurology.”
His film and canvas work in the exhibition certainly telescope back and forth between time periods, incorporating found objects and looking at various “peoples” who live within different temporal frameworks. (For instance, the Sammi textiles represent a people who were nomadic, but replaced traditional materials with the castoffs of globalization; and visions of futures are evident in the video’s space travel). He additionally conducted research in Lancashire had both an archival and futuristic character—the county being home to the highest number of UFO sightings in the UK.
“I went to investigate UFO sightings with them,” says Dawood, “and through one of the leading UFO experts, I managed to get hold of the archives. I like it when the archive becomes ‘other’, and becomes a parallel archive.”[? Not very clear what he means.]
The puzzling notion of UFO archive presents itself, with the paradox of using rational scientific means to document and study something usually considered apocryphal and spurious. Perhaps the aliens can be read in terms of the violence of borders or boundaries: like “illegal” immigrants, the aliens also face a similar plight of search parties hunting them down, identifying them and expelling them.
The metaphor of “spectral presences” with the Sammi textiles can further extend this thread. Though perhaps not intended by Dawood, the figures in the canvas who are alternately visible and invisible (depending upon the background colors of the canvas) could be read as a formal manifestation of how visible minorities (i.e. Those who appear different in terms of ethnicity to the majority) [We need to define the term a bit. Not everyone is familiar.]in any society, can alternately blend in or stand out depending upon various contexts. Though issues of identity and belonging seem distinctly “foreign” when presented in the context of contemporary art in Mainland China (i.e. a problem of more obviously multicultural societies), it is worthwhile to keep in mind that this “seemingly” homogeneous society is home to naturalized minorities (for instance not expatriates, but Dai, Zhuang, Uighurs and others which comprise China’s million strong population of minorities) some officially recognized by the state and others not, who may or may not share many of the cultural practices and values of dominant Han culture. Indeed the idea of what constitutes a “minority” and even “Han” culture is one which one which can be pulled apart and contested from many angles.
[In keeping with the policy of transparency outlined in randian’s ethics policy, we would like to state that the flight transportation which enabled the reviewer to see the exhibition in Xi’an was provided by OCAT Xi’an.]