Shezad Dawood: It was a time that was a time
September 11th to November 1st, 2015
Pioneer Works, Brooklyn NY
By ISABELLA ELLAHEH HUGHES, OCT. 2015
Shezad Dawood (b.1974) has a most interesting mind – this London-based artist eschews linear-based thinking and expected cultural reference points. Effortlessly jumping between histories both real and imagined, his work weaves the past, present and future into a kaleidoscope of possibilities and unexpected narratives. Working with mediums as diverse as neon, antique textile, experimental and feature-length film and installation Dawood, who is also an educator and Senior Research Fellow in Experimental Media at the University of Westminster, ultimately has a practice that compels one to reconsider societal truisms. On the occasion of his first solo exhibition in the United States, in Red Hook’s Pioneer Works, Dawood speaks with Isabella Ellaheh Hughes about the process of creating his newly commissioned film, It was a time that was, what a typical studio day looks like for him and the process of orienting community engagement in the creation of his work.
Isabella Ellaheh Hughes: A strong characteristic of your work is your ability to work across a broad array of mediums, intertwining them into fantastical, narrative amalgams, both visually and conceptually. Going back to the “beginning,” so to speak, when you were earning your MA at the Royal College of Art, was this weaving of mediums always intrinsic to your practice, or something that developed after you left school?
Shezad Dawood: That’s very kind of you to say so, and I like the concept of the narrative amalgam as a basic working method. In fact I was already interweaving media on my BFA at Central St. Martins, editing homemade video footage one day, and painting the next. I’ve always seen the flow between (and betwixt) media as a very creatively energizing place to be, often because of the tensions that naturally occur between them.
On a separate note, I remember people being somewhat confused when I started producing paintings on my MA at the Royal College, where my MA was in photography. I was nevertheless remaking iconic film posters using photo-collage and then commissioning film scene painters ‘to remake the remakes’, so for me it was very much about the recirculation and repurposing of the image, and entirely appropriate to a conceptual understanding of photography. Happily that sort of conservative outlook on media specificity has moved on.
IEH: Your reference points are even broader than the mediums you employ, lending your practice a very multidimensional and beguiling mysterious quality. If one were to get inside your head, what would they hear you thinking about?
SD: Well I’m very interested in our potential as quantum beings, with more rhizomatic and less linear thinking mechanisms, so I’m always making unexpected shifts and juxtapositions, which I think is critical as a thinker. I guess I’m usually thinking (and researching) about multiple strands simultaneously, from historical narratives to philosophy, to improv music. So for example I’m currently thinking about the post-Soviet condition as also being a pre-Soviet condition - in relation to contemporary geopolitics, as much as to particular textile trade routes. I’m also looking at the Kyoto school of philosophy’s debt to early Indian (4th century) logical philosopher Nagarjuna, and its mirroring in Modernist architecture in India and Japan (for a show I’m working on for Jane Lombard for next May). And I’m listening to a lot of Robert Wyatt, which I’m finding an inspiration in thinking of choreography and working with actors. So that’s kind of a good snapshot of my head at this moment.
IEH: Your home-base and studio are in London, even though you operate quite globally. What’s a typical day in the studio look like for you - assuming there is a typical day?
SD: Thinking about the above, in between several cups of tea and some drawing and sketching of ideas. And the occasional Skype or phone calls with one of any number of unique practitioners I’m collaborating with any point. And allowing those different approaches to bleed into each other in my sleep and then further thinking about the above!
IEH: Much of your work is incredibly site and even more so, historically and community-responsive. You frequently create pieces that are in direct dialogue with the histories of the place you are making your work in/for. How does community come into play with the actual creation of your work?
SD: I’d almost reframe the question and ask the question: how does it not? There is always a community involved in an artist’s work, whether it is your peer group, or the writers and curators you’re in dialogue with. I personally thrive on interactions; they widen my gaze and force me to rethink or become aware of my preconceptions and continually challenge them. Then with my film projects that take me into specific locations and communities for extended periods of time, I’m extending and testing a core method into the wider world. I think it’s important to field test any set of questions or assumptions. In both cases community directly informs and deepens my thinking. For example in my 2010 film A Mystery Play, I was able to examine the Masonic and Vaudevillian history of the city of Winnipeg by directly interfacing with the visual arts, film, performance and burlesque communities that are a very active presence in the city. The project itself comes out of a series of group and individual conversations, to challenge and question my research and writing based on that actual constituency.
IEH: You’ve been extensively exhibited both in solo and group exhibitions all over the world, but this current solo exhibition at Pioneer Works is your first US solo that debuts your film, It was a time that was a time (2015, 16:27 min). This new film is an ode to a very Hurricane Sandy-inspired, post-apocalyptic New York. How did the idea for this work come about?
SD: I was out at Far Rockaway the previous year for a show Klaus Biesenbach was curating, and happened to be staying with a very dear friend, who was very involved in Hurricane Sandy. Through him I met a lot of other activists, who really got me thinking of the wealth inequity and disparities that Sandy revealed across the different boroughs. And then the same friend took me to meet the team at Pioneer Works, and we hit it off and they told me about the residency program, and were very interested in my film projects. And they helped put me in touch with various members of the local community in Red Hook, who had been very affected by Sandy, and these individuals with their individual narratives around Sandy became my working group.
IEH: It was a time that was is described as “an experiment in collaborative filmmaking.” What does this mean?
SD: To extend this idea of a working group, what we (there were 12 of us, no biblical symbolism intended) did was to workshop collectively, a very simple premise. If the 12 of us were the last, or one of the last sporadic communities around the New York State coastline, after a much larger flood event, what would the rules be? The exercise passed very quickly from discussing gender and relationships in this new future, to an attempt to collectively embody it via movement and touch. One of the rules was not to make a fictional film, but to document ourselves being this community in some alternative timeline. This became a very alchemical principle, and for me really shifted the work into a space I couldn’t have imagined or got to on my own.
IEH: Reimagining, revisiting and revising history, or at the very least, somewhat obscure, but nonetheless very real truisms, seems to be a recurring theme in much of your work. Quite a few pieces included in your current solo show at Pioneer Works, such as A Mystery Play (2010, 14:02 mins), which investigates the Masonic and Vaudevillian heritage of Winnipeg; New Dream Machine Project (2010-ongoing), a reimagining of Brion Gysin’s 1962 stroboscopic device; and when you went to Karachi in 2002 with the intention to remake Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 film, Blow-Up. Can you speak about your interest in reimagining, revisiting, and revising?
SD: Thinking of the very simple proposition that history is authored by the “winners,” I like to think of history or a text of any kind as being, to a relative degree a work of fiction. Brion Gysin also invented something that has been termed the “cut up method,” which was then taken up by his friend and close collaborator William Burroughs (while at the same time being an extension of the Surrealist exquisite corpse - did you know that Gysin was briefly affiliated with the Surrealists, but was expelled by Breton?). This involved the act of cutting up and folding into each other existing works of art or of fiction. So this is what interests me, the possibility of parsing multiple texts into one another, till they start resonating in new ways, and producing different forms of affect. That in short, makes us see the world differently. This practice is something that has also been very much part of my practice as an educator as much as an artist and filmmaker. I often involved my students in walking tours and dialogues with different practitioners, as well as constructing larger performance projects with students at IUAV in Venice and the Beaux-Arts in Paris, based around reconstructions of the Spanish conquest of the Incas, or intricate murder plots in Italian giallo filmmaking.
IEH: When I saw you in London earlier this year, you seemed to suggest that you will be continuing to make more films. What projects are you currently working on and any forthcoming exhibition news to share?
SD: I’m in early development for my next feature-length film, which looks at references as diverse as Fassbinder, Ulrike Ottinger and Mike Kelley - it’s a costume drama! So watch this space.
And otherwise I’m working on the next chunk of my occult conspiracy novella and it’s accompanying animated series, which can hopefully be seen (all being well), next October for a solo project at my London gallery Timothy Taylor. WM
Isabella Ellaheh Hughes is the Artistic Director and Co-founder of the Honolulu Biennial Foundation, in addition to being a curator, editor and critic focused on art from the Asian continent, Pacific and their Diasporas. She's written for a variety of printed and online publications, including: ArtAsiaPacific, Brownbook, Contemporary Practices, Frieze, Harper’s Art Bazaar Arabia and Ibraaz.
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