Alien encounters at Art Basel Hong Kong 2013: conceptual artist Shezad Dawood – interview

Conceptual artist Shezad Dawood talks ancient astronomy, archetypes and aliens ahead of Art Basel Hong Kong 2013.

As the first ever Art Basel Hong Kong opens its doors from the 23 to 26 May 2013, UK-based artist Shezad Dawood talks to Art Radar about creating alien cinematic encounters at the new-look fair.

Shezad Dawood, 'Piercing Brightness', 2011, production still by Richard Harrowing. Image courtesy the artist and UBIK Productions Ltd.

Shezad Dawood, ‘Piercing Brightness’, 2011, production still by Richard Harrowing. Image courtesy the artist and UBIK Productions Ltd.

From 23 to 26 May 2013, Shezad Dawood, a UK-born and based conceptual artist from an Indo-Pakistani background, will bring his short film Trailer (2011) to the Discoveries section at Art Basel Hong Kong, alongside his neon light installation Equinox (2012) and six new textile pieces. Described by the artist in a 2012 interview with UK magazine Dazed and Confused as “conceptual art meets B-movie“, Trailer explores ideas of race and migration through both mainstream and experimental tropes.

Art Radar met with Dawood to find out how a short film about aliens is representative of his wider artistic practice and his mystical worldview.

You are of Pakistani-Indian heritage, living and working in Britain, increasingly exhibiting work in Eastern Asia.

My background is both Pakistani and Indian, although I was born in the UK. I guess it’s hard to say where I’m increasingly exhibiting because my work makes its own map. I’m in a show in Witte de With in Rotterdam, which opens shortly. My first feature film is launching at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in June [2013], and then I’m shooting a new film in Morocco in October [2013].

A cinema of the future?

Much of your art involves film and televisual media, and you’ve chosen a short film, Trailer, as the centre-piece of your exhibition at Art Basel Hong Kong 2013. Can you tell me about the work?

It’s an alternative edit of a longer film, Piercing Brightness [2013], the one that’s coming out in June. Trailer deconstructs the normal functioning of a cinematic trailer: whereas a standard trailer is normally three minutes in length, my Trailer is fifteen minutes, and rather than being some sort of fast cut thing which makes you want to rush out and see the film it’s actually quite ambiguous. It creates various possibilities for narrative without giving you anything to hold onto while at the same time almost hypnotising you with its mix of imagery and sound.

So it’s a meta-trailer, almost?

Yes, that’s a good way of putting it. It’s like a meta-trailer and Piercing Brightness is a related but separate artifact. I’ve set them up in a way that someone can quite easily see one without the other. They don’t need each other, although a watching of both might add something if you’re that interested in my practice.

Film and the codes of film really interest me. The codes of cinema are almost like magical ritual. I’m fascinated by the structures of narrative and non-narrative cinema: the cinema of the future really, really intrigues me, which lies somewhere in between, the experimental structuralist filmmaking of artists and conventional narrative cinema. Think of all the hybrid possibilities that exist out there that we haven’t even explored yet.

Shezad Dawood, 'Piercing Brightness', 2011, production still. Image courtesy the artist and UBIK Productions Ltd.

Shezad Dawood, ‘Piercing Brightness’, 2011, production still. Image courtesy the artist and UBIK Productions Ltd.

Aliens at Art Basel Hong Kong

Trailer falls into the science fiction genre, complete with UFOs and aliens. What drew you to making this type of work?

Well, I’m very interested in a syncretic mapping of ideas and symbols, and how they traffic between and across places. I’m interested in things that are context specific but also span out to a kind of structural mapping between and behind places. For example, one of the starting points for Piercing Brightness was actually finding an almost perfect correspondence between a diagram of a UFO sighting in Britain in the early 1990s, an 11th century Sufi cosmological diagram from Iraq and a 4th century Chinese astronomical map. I’m often really interested in these correspondences that open the particular out into a much broader narrative.

When you use the word ‘map’, the wider idea seems very important in your work. Can you explain in more detail what the word and the concept means to you?

Probably what it means the least for me is a literal map, although what are maps but acts of fiction? It takes a man to mark a border on a map, and as soon as you’ve got a border it’s contested. I’m quite interested in the point of departure from an actual map that you would have on a desk in front of you: mind maps, maps of ideas and coincidence. So the fact that, as I just said, I found very similar drawings of circles occurring in a 4th century Chinese astronomical map, an 11th century Sufi cosmological diagram and a 1990s British eye witness report of a UFO sighting, I like those sort of maps of possibilities, mapping where fiction, myth and belief meet each other.

Shezad Dawood, 'Piercing Brightness', 2011, production still by Richard Harrowing. Image courtesy the artist and UBIK Productions Ltd.

Shezad Dawood, ‘Piercing Brightness’, 2011, production still by Richard Harrowing. Image courtesy the artist and UBIK Productions Ltd.

You have said in previous interviews that the idea of hybridity is important in your work. Can you explain what this idea means to you?

I think often we misuse the term hybrid, or we confuse it with the more negatively loaded term ‘mongrel’, with hybrid often being viewed as mongrel and, therefore, less than legitimate. Whereas my starting point is that hybrid is more legitimate because when two things fuse they’re greater than the sum of their individual parts. For me, the terms ‘hybrid’ and ‘hybrid possibility’ I almost see as Utopian propositions.

Art of mapping the mind

Can you break down how this relates to your ideas on maps and mapping a bit more clearly?

There’s a great Persian epic poem called the Conference of the Birds which looks at this same idea. The birds are looking for a king and go off in search of the Simorgh, which is this legendary mythical bird, the god of all birds. After various trials and tribulations and one or two birds falling by the wayside, what they finally come to realise is that they themselves are the Simorgh. Basically it’s the idea that together we are more than what we are individually. I think there’s an idea in synthesis and hybridity that perhaps gets us to the truth of our nature. So I’m almost putting in my vote for nonseparative consciousness. Maybe that clarifies the idea of mapping? I think we share a consciousness in which symbols play a part in pointing us towards the structure of consciousness, so if we can start to find the pathways on which those symbols interface and interact, we’re starting to glean something of the possibility of the structure, you could call it the world, in which we live.

In that case, when you as an artist map these symbols or cultural archetypes, do you believe they’re somehow moving across generations or cultures in a Jungian sense, or do you believe that you’re mapping psychological mechanisms and structures of the brain?

That’s a good question. I’d say in answer I’m somewhere in between. I’m not quite a Jungian, although I’m very sympathetic, but I don’t think in terms of fixed archetypes as I think they’re more fluid. But equally I’m not on the other side of the fence thinking of, you know, pure brain chemistry. I think it’s somewhere between the two. The archetypes in a Jungian sense, rather than being fixed, are fluid, but you have a recurrence of pattern. So a particular archetype will shift, but will still be of a type, but will morph and mutate as humanity’s consciousness shifts.

When you put these universal symbols into your work – pantheistic gods, the egg, the circle – it’s tempting for the viewer to see your work as an exercise in deconstruction. Are you asking the viewer to look at your work in that way?

Interestingly a friend once called me a master deconstructionist, but then also turned round to say that I also use a kind of poetics. I guess I can understand: I’m a bit of a contradictory figure. I’m inviting people to deconstruct their world, not just the immediate hologram of it, but the codes that construct the hologram. But I’m also not averse to making something beautiful and poetic that makes it pleasurable to come on that journey with me, I think, inviting people to walk with me a little while and look at the world sideways.

Shezad Dawood, 'Equinox' , 2012, wall mounted neon, 120 x 170 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Paradise Row, London.

Shezad Dawood, ‘Equinox’ , 2012, wall mounted neon, 120 x 170 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Paradise Row, London.

One of the other works you’re showing at Art Basel Hong Kong 2013, Equinox, is a light installation which seems to contain archetypal elements. Can you tell me about the genesis of Equinox?

In my fashion of skipping in and out of symbols, archetypes, astronomy and sci-fi, I found an interesting correspondence with a particular constellation during the Vernal Equinox. I’m fascinated by circles and ellipses in the way that they both exist in a formal idea of modernism reduced to pure formalism, but also exist in a more scientific and fantastical space. Geometrical forms are never just a circle or an ellipse; you can almost always put them into a particular map of the stars and you’ve got a constellation. Meaning never seems to exist in isolation and that’s what fascinates me. With Equinox I took a very simple idea of constellations and almost edited it down to being one circle and one ellipse, but the point is that all the thought-mapping had come before. And even the fact that putting a circle next to an ellipse already shifts one back and one forward; even though they’re the same colour, you create foreground and rear-ground and the brain starts to inject narrative from that point on. So you’re making something really deceptively simple that has an inherent tension in it, and I love the idea that my works, even the fixed works, are durational. Sometimes I’m asked how I relate my fixed works to my films and in a very left-field way I see them all as cinematic.

You use the technique of montage frequently in your film, and historically this has been associated with people from the left of the political spectrum such as Sergei Eisenstein and Bertolt Brecht. Do you think this politicises your work in some sense?

I think there’s two ways to go with montage. There’s historical montage that is very rooted in Brecht and Eisenstein and has a very particular Marxist ideology behind it. And as a more moderate version of that you have the montage which goes on in the experimental and Structuralist film of the 1950s and 1960s in the US, also coming out of a counter-culture, so left leaning. Even Eisenstein is poetic. But what interests me at this point is to create a greater level of ambiguity with montage than has been done in some of its previous incarnations. When montage points to two or more solutions to a problem rather than didactically imposing a sole reading, that’s what interests me. It’s more true to our fragmented point in history when things have multiple meanings and multiple nuances.

Shezad Dawood, 'Piercing Brightness', 2011, production still by Richard Harrowing. Image courtesy the artist and UBIK Productions Ltd.

Shezad Dawood, ‘Piercing Brightness’, 2011, production still by Richard Harrowing. Image courtesy the artist and UBIK Productions Ltd.

Recently you have created works by painting over vintage Saami textiles from Pakistan. How do these fit into that cinematic conceptualisation of your art?

With those works you have a real difficulty to know what I mean unless you see them in the flesh, because they end up, in reproduction, somehow flattened. But the fact is that [the works] already use existing textiles with their own history and narrative, and this is something that I do with the films, and with the light works. So that continues as a very strong thread in the textiles in that I’m still interfacing with existing narratives. And then it’s the choice of how I intervene on the surface of that textile: cut and stitch; screen print; paint by hand. Loosely, those would be the three main methods, so there you’ve got a form of montage, and often on top of that I’m juxtaposing two images to create a similar tension to what’s going on in Equinox. Unless something is effecting that tension, it won’t leave the studio. Somebody coming to my work for the first time might not quite see how they all fit together, but over time, if they’re not reinforcing each other and articulating a very particular way of looking at the world, it’s really supporting what I’m doing, so I am strict about what sees the light of day and what doesn’t.

Shezad Dawood, 'Cascades of Ouzoud', 2012, acrylic on vintage textile, 190 x 145 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Paradise Row, London.

Shezad Dawood, ‘Cascades of Ouzoud’, 2012, acrylic on vintage textile, 190 x 145 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Paradise Row, London.

Does the work which reaches the public domain project a consistent worldview, or does it reflect changes in your worldview from moment to moment?

In the same way that I don’t wholly subscribe to Jungian fixed archetypes, I think the worldview needs to be mutable and changing or else it would just ossify. And, in a way, to keep the durational possibility in my work it has to be constantly shifting as my enquiry shifts. But it needs to be true to the spirit of that enquiry, which is one of questioning the structure of the world, reflecting on it philosophically and poetically and hopefully allowing other people to share that journey.

CN/KN/JC

Related Topics: international artists, shows at art fairs, art using film, light art, events in Hong Kong, crossover art

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