Review of Shezad Dawood: Towards the Possible Film at John Hansard Gallery

By his own admission, Shezad Dawood has a habit of naming shows after his films. On reflection, the reason for this becomes self-apparent in his wider practice. Dawood feels that studio work is an intrinsic part of the reflective process of film-making. His diverse studio practice, which also includes, painting, sculpture, digital animation and neon works, happens alongside his films. Long production schedules provide an important gestation period for his work – a time the artist describes as “whilst the film is cooking.” Even after works are finished, there is still the process of responding to different exhibition contexts. The dialogue between finished pieces is as much a part of the conceptual process as his research. For Dawood, “the work takes place between the work.” Whilst the film is the sun around which the planets turn, the other pieces speak with equal clarity about their shared multi-dimensional worlds.

Paintings made on canvases of vintage fabrics produced by nomadic Pakistani women in the 1970s (prior to the military coup of ’79), are evolving hybrids. These textiles can be viewed in a similar way to art cinema – as experimental media. They once operated as open and destabilising forms of cultural production that sat outside of the dogmatic religious and ideological structures that finally put an end to them. They are culture as, what Bhabha (1994) terms, “empirical knowledge.” The neon works are both modern and mystical – a balancing act between formal and spiritual meditation. A digital animation of the head of novelist and scientific philosopher Robert Anton Wilson uses photos taken at different angles and ages to produce a multi-dimensional “quantum portrait.” The exhibition also includes another film, A Mystery Play (2010), to make comparisons between three types of magic – stage, screen and the occult. Here, Dawood continues to explore his interest in Buster Keaton and silent film. He does this via Keaton’s links to Houdini, together with the twin histories of Vaudeville and the Occult in the city of Winnipeg – whose masonic architecture becomes a metaphor for the loss of progress and the embeddedness of power structures.

The film at the epicentre of Dawood’s (re)collected body of work, Towards the Possible Film (2014), opens with a series of powerful images – the pyramid and winking eye of Canary Wharf, a jaguar, a Mayan pyramid – totems of power, mastery and sacrifice. As the jaguar passes across the screen, it seems to connect two seemingly different kinds of power: the mystical and the mystifying; magic both ancient and modern. From colonial Spanish Central America we travel to the Moroccan coast with its similar legacy of occupation. We then see a close-up of a blue-skinned astronaut uttering a Marcusian commentary in Berber dialect. The subtitles read: “The old sense of alienation is no longer possible. When individuals identify with a lifestyle imposed on them, and through it experience gratification and satisfaction, their alienation is subsumed by their own alienated existence.

Beyond setting the scene, description is useless in communicating the sheer complexity of the film’s references: pre-Islamic animist cultures in Morocco, the animistic landscape as witness, the triad of ancient religions in Mexico, India and North Africa connected via Phoenician trade routes and centred on myths originating from visitations by alien astronauts. Dawood problematises postcolonial narratives in the face of the complexities of globalisation – the accelerated violence of neoliberal global capitalism, paradoxically both atomising and uniting us. Persecutor becomes persecuted and coloniser becomes colonised. Obtuse allegorical references act as both pinpricks of ethical reflection and dystopian omens. A piece of lemon rind in seaweed connotes the carrion-eating low-impact lifestyles of those who reject capitalism. How do we reconcile the smallest actions with their incomprehensible global consequences? Pre-Islamic natives stomp their feet, perhaps asking the landscape for answers. They face the sea, waiting for it to speak, like the sentient oceanic planet in Solaris. What emerges are two blue-skinned visitors from another world who see this world as overlaying multi-dimensional fragments. An act of extreme violence perpetrated by a native on one of the alien colonists / tourists / gods becomes another question – like that of Meursault spoken through his killing of an Arab in Camus’ novel.

Ultimately however, it is pointless to endlessly dissect Dawood’s post-human parafield because to theorise is to close-down, and for him, art is like “shattering the bedrock of culture” to reveal new layers, new openings. Dawood’s practice is an empirical process of opening out – of making “successive openings” in the binary landscape. After all, as the artist suggests, “we are all just objects thinking we’re subjects.”

Bevis Fenner

Shezad Dawood: Towards the Possible Film at John Hansard Gallery, Southampton, until 5 September.

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Credits 1. Still from Shezad Dawood’s Towards the Possible Film.