The enigmatic work of the Egyptian artist Wael Shawky addresses contentious topics in politics, religion and history, but as Kaelen Wilson-Goldie writes, its allure derives from a studied neutrality about the cultural clashes it orchestrates. Wael Shawky's Al-Aqsa Park consists of an exquisitely detailed, black-and-white, computer-generated rendering of the Dome of the Rock set against a night-time sky. The 10-minute video, which the artist made three years ago in collaboration with an ace animation studio in Greece, depicts the building in total isolation from its real-life context adjacent to to Al Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. As the piece begins, a soundtrack of droning industrial noise kicks in and the structure starts to spin, slowly at first, then faster and faster, until it begins to tilt and whirl like an amusement-park ride, a hydraulic arm elevating it to perilous angles, exposing rows of blinking circus lights underneath. To visualise it exactly, think of the carnival ride called the Round Up, the Meteor or the Bamboozler, which generates enough stomach-dropping centrifugal force to keep riders pinned in place while being whizzed around both horizontally and vertically. Although it was once shown silently on a screen the size of a billboard above the Marmara Hotel in Istanbul, Al-Aqsa Park is typically installed in a room of its own, projected onto an enormous floor-to-ceiling screen with a booming sound system. It's the kind of piece that demands multiple viewings and yields as many meanings. I recently learnt from a gallery representing Shawky that all five copies of Al-Aqsa Park have sold. Although there are very few collectors acquiring video in the Middle East, this didn't surprise me. Shawky, at 38, is firmly established in Egypt, and widely known in the region. He has been making work consistently for 15 years, and exhibiting internationally for 10. I don't know the identities of the buyers, but I do know that Al-Aqsa Park deserves to be in a museum, on public view and open to the tough discussions the work so trenchantly provokes. The first time I saw it, during the Beirut leg of the Meeting Points festival in 2007, I thought it was a bit of mischievous black humour, as subversive and satirical as the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan's infamous La Nona Ora (The Ninth Hour), from 1999. Cattelan's work is a room-sized installation that shows Pope John Paul II felled by a meteorite, a sculptural replica of his body splayed out on a plush red carpet scattered with broken glass, a lump of rock thumped onto his backside. Where one piece imagines the pomp and power of the papacy cut down in an uproarious scenario of galactic revenge, the other portrays a religious icon so overheated by the debates surrounding it that it lifts off as sheer spectacle, a cheap thrill that turns out to be rigged, mechanical and repetitive. But Al-Aqsa Park is darker and more ambiguous than La Nona Ora, and its critique of religion, power and politics may not be so clear-cut. The Dome of the Rock is one of the oldest standing Islamic structures in the world. It was built in the seventh century as a shrine for Muslim pilgrims, converted into a church during the Crusades, and then reconsecrated for Islam when Salah ad Din recaptured Jerusalem. The actual rock is of immense importance to both Judaism and Islam, just as the inscription on an exterior wall, about Jesus, carries considerable weight among Christians. The complex history of the site is, at this point, hopelessly entangled in the realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ariel Sharon's 2000 visit to the Temple Mount ignited the second intifada, and an orthodox group in Israel wants the Dome of the Rock moved to Mecca in its entirety so that a Jewish temple can be rebuilt on the site - a move some evangelical Christians believe will precipitate the second coming of Christ. What does it mean to make this thing spin, to turn it into an amusement-park ride? What does it mean to name that park Al-Aqsa, a name used to signify the whole complex, though obviously not by all who claim the site? And this in a political context where naming so often means establishing facts on the ground, or burying one version of history with another. Whose side are we on here? And what do we believe in, if indeed we believe in anything at all? Shawky seems to be taking two radically different situations - a millennial religious struggle and the contemporary spectacle-isation of media culture - and mashing them together to see what happens. This, in a way, is his artistic signature, the feature consistent across all of the work he has done in the last 15 years. Shawky says that he is constantly looking for forms of "controlled entertainment", and attempting to both define and construct a hybridised society that is always changing, always in transition, always in the process of becoming. He frequently likens his practice to translation, using various mechanisms - a carnival ride, a television show, a supermarket - like bilingual dictionaries. Those mechanisms cause meanings to be produced, but the artist or translator remains defiantly neutral. We may want to read Al-Aqsa Park as being on one side or another, critical or not, emerging from the mind of a certain kind of believer or not, but Shawky refuses to give us any clues that would allow for firm conclusions. "If you show your position," he says, "then you've already answered your questions, so the viewer doesn't really need to see the work at all. For the work to stay dynamic, my position has to remain unknown. I'm not analysing anything. I'm just an artist trying to make a translation of what I can understand. I'm not trying to give artists more than that."
Shawky belongs to a rarefied group of artists who travel extensively to conceive, produce and present their work through workshops, residencies and international exhibitions. I recently asked Shawky where he was based, and he just shrugged. I asked him what city he called home, and he thought for a moment before answering speculatively: "I think Alexandria." Shawky was born in Egypt's second largest city and studied fine art there. After graduation, he won the grand prize at the Cairo Biennial, for an installation of small cement dwellings entitled Frozen Nubia, from 1996, which delves into the disappearance of Nubian culture with the completion of the Aswan Dam in 1970. At the time, Shawky belonged to Egypt's government-sponsored fine art sector, and he says that for many of the bureaucrats who control access to state bursaries and employment opportunities for young artists, his biennial prize was too much too soon. "I was cut off from the government," he says, "because I was too young for this. Prizes are very important in Egypt, but this prize came from a foreign jury."
So he left Egypt for the United States and attended the University of Pennsylvania. When he returned, a new constellation of independent, alternative art spaces had opened in Cairo; those spaces served as a launching pad for his international career. In 2003, he was selected for the main exhibition at the Venice Biennale, where he presented the multimedia installation Asphalt Quarter, inspired by the Saudi writer Abdelrahman Munif's masterful novel Cities of Salt, about the damage done to a desert oasis by the discovery of oil in an unnamed Gulf state. In Egyptian art circles, Shawky is often referred to, somewhat disparagingly, as a "biennial artist". In this context, the term connotes a fashionable, globalised style that unhinges itself from local concerns in favour of imitating western art. The Venice appearance crystallised this opinion and exacerbated Shawky's alienation from the state-sponsored arts infrastructure. "Artists in the government sector are totally lost," Shawky says. "They don't know if the artists who have succeeded internationally are working for the Mossad or what. They cannot comprehend what contemporary is," or what it has become. (To be fair, Shawky has since reconciled with the sector, and plans to open a space for studios and residencies in Alexandria next year in collaboration his old fine art faculty). While it may be true that Shawky is more often abroad than at home, his work has been particularly present in the region of late. The Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art in Cairo staged a midcareer survey this fall, with five videos and a suite of drawings. The Jordanian arts foundation Darat al-Funun has a solo exhibition on view in Amman through January 2010, featuring five videos, two of them new, and a series of sketches. Galerie Sfeir-Semler is currently preparing another solo show, scheduled to open in Beirut this coming spring, with existing works and a new installation to be created on site. And while it is certainly true that Shawky participates in lots of biennials - Moscow, Berlin, Istanbul and more - his work hardly speaks the homogenised language of biennialese. In terms of critical and aesthetic strategies, it doesn't even resemble the work of his internationally active peers in the region, which tends to avoid the spiritual dimensions of religion (preferring the political) by sticking to the notion of contemporary art as a godless (or at least fiercely secular) endeavour. "What's interesting about Wael, and what's different about his work compared to that of other conceptual artists in, say, Lebanon or Palestine, is [the way] he takes religion into account," says Andrée Sfeir, the owner of Galerie Sfeir-Semler. "His videos are testimonies of an Arab, Islamic society moving towards new ways of reading old identities. He's like an impressionist artist with video. He's not a documentary artist like the others. [His work] is like a puzzle of images that don't tell a story but suggest. He presents a patchwork of impressions, thoughts and ideas. He never makes a statement. You, the viewer, must interpret the work as you want." In the 2005 video The Cave, for example, the artist stalks the aisles of supermarkets in three cities (Amsterdam, Hamburg and Istanbul) while reciting a specific passage from the Qu'ran about emigration and the acquisition of knowledge. The juxtaposition of the performance and its context signals a confrontation between spirituality and consumerism, but no judgment comes down on either side, which makes the work both mesmerising and frustrating. For another artist, this would be a liability, but for Shawky, it works in his favour. The ambivalence his videos incite is productive because it means audiences are engaged, nudged into an interpretive mode, even if they are ill as ease. "The position of the viewer is structured into the work," says Sarah Rifky, a curator with the Townhouse Gallery. "Whether you like or dislike the work is irrelevant. It makes you uncomfortable. It makes you ask yourself questions."
When Shawky was a kid, his father moved the family from Alexandria to Mecca as part of an early wave of emigration that brought doctors, lawyers, architects and engineers from the Levant to the Gulf as the oil boom began. When that wave of emigration reversed - when those doctors, lawyers, architects and engineers returned home - the experiences people had in Saudi Arabia (politically conservative, intensely religious) travelled too, and altered Egyptian sensibilities (then relatively liberal, decidedly secular). "People came back with a changed mentality," Shawky says, "and this changed the society totally." This is precisely the kind of historical transition his work seeks to examine. During Shawky's time in Mecca, he became enamoured with a game show that was popular in Saudi Arabia, even though it had absolutely no connection to life in the Gulf. The show, Telematch, debuted on West German television in the late 1970s. The idea was to bring together residents from two different towns and have them compete in arbitrary, often inane contests that involved kitting out the participants in oversized costumes. It never really caught on with German audiences, and by the early 1980s, it was gone. But the show's producers dubbed Telematch into Arabic, Hindi and Spanish, and syndicated it all over world. It became an incongruous hit in India, Argentina and, yes, Saudi Arabia. Telematch must have stuck in Shawky's mind. Some 20 years later, he began using the basic structure of the show - a confrontation between two groups staged to entertain a third - as the template for an ongoing series of videos, which explore contentious moments of cultural exchange and political transformation from the Crusades to globalisation today. The first video in the series, Telematch Sadat, from 2007, shows a group of children re-enacting the assassination and burial of the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who was killed during a military parade in Cairo in 1981. Telematch Market, also from 2007, shows another bunch of kids riding around a grocery store in makeshift, pedal-powered cardboard trucks, causing traffic jams in the aisles. In Telematch Shelter, from 2008, yet another group of children crowd in and out of a huge dome built out of mud in Egypt's Western Desert. For Telematch Suburb, from 2008, Shawky asked a headbanging heavy metal band to perform in front of a bewildered crowd of rural Egyptian villagers. The villagers are curious at first, but soon grow bored with the band and wander off, while you, the viewer, are left to wonder about the disconnect between these young, relatively urbane metalheads and their audience of older, provincial farm folk. The latest addition to the series is Telematch Crusades, from 2009, which revisits the historic military campaigns that pitted Christians against Muslims for hundreds of years, starting in the eleventh century. The piece was shot on a beach in Kenya, and draws on the Lebanese novelist Amin Maalouf's book The Crusades through Arab Eyes. Set against a dramatic backdrop of crashing waves, it shows children riding donkeys along the coastline, and then surrounding an old Crusader fort. Both Telematch Sadat and Telematch Crusades concern moments of bruising cultural encounter than remain relevant today, whether they happened 30 years ago or a thousand. By re-enacting Sadat's assassination, Shawky pinpoints a time when competing visions for what Egypt should be - the leading example of revolutionary Arab nationalism, a modern state at ease with foreign investment and at peace with Israel, a base for the ascendancy of militant Islamic fundamentalism - came into violent confrontation; they have not extricated themselves since. By re-creating an unspecified episode from the Crusades, Shawky returns to what Maalouf describes as an encounter between two worlds, East and West, "deeply felt by the Arabs, even today, as an act of rape". The contemporary resonance of the Crusades is lost on no one, given the so-called war on terror, immigration issues and the rising fear in Europe of even the mere symbols of Islam. Like the carnival ride in Al-Aqsa Park, the donkeys are a key to the work's possible meanings, and another touch of humour. The past is forever surging into the present, a stubborn beast that will never win you any battles, and never let you down.
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a staff writer for The Review in Beirut.