An Archeology of Memorable Works, #1: ‘Jewel’, Hassan Khan
Cities, like works of art, imprint themselves upon memory and leave a mark more indelible on my views of the world like little else. When triumphant, time spent in their company transcends the temporality of the experience, amplifying future dissatisfaction of places, experiences and objects which fail to touch in quite the same way. And if the two can be combined- the experience of a phenomenal artist in a new, vibrant city- well, that’s about a fine a holiday romance as one gets.
For what comes afterwards I offer my pity, for these past experiences are subject the rose-coloured lens of nostalgia. A great city or a great work of work become mental benchmarks, touchstones for reflection and critique for years to come. They hold their value: are freeze-framed in time.
If this sounds reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s travel writing, then the copy of Invisible Cities lying beside my bed may, in part, be responsible. In fact, perhaps my omission of books or writing as a third, key feeder of the imagination, was a grave one. Through dialogues set between Kublai Khan and his invited guest Marco Polo, Calvino’s much lauded, poetic novel encapsulates the paradigm of experience versus reality when we enter somewhere as a traveller. What we see, think, feel, hear and smell in a city: this is our own subjectivity taking over. Just as we experience a work of art, our experiences of travel, equally reflect what we bring to the table at that particular moment in time. What we remember, reveals our own restricted field of vision.
Back to the love story. In November 2012, I was fortunate to receive a grant through the Getty Foundation to attend the annual conference held by the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art (CIMAM). It was held in Istanbul and the theme was ‘The Crisis of the Museum’. I was invited as a curator who at that time was working in Cambodia. That Cambodia had no contemporary art museum was the very basis of my application: it had no formal mechanism to enact the presentation or archiving of the contemporary art scene which had been gaining increasing traction and international recognition.
The aim of CIMAM’s event was to bring together diverse practitioners from around the world to discuss pertinent museological issues. Keynote speaches, panel discussions and workshops, unpacked the thorny provocation. These formalities were vigorously informed by visits to Istanbul’s multifarious art spaces. The shape and form of its infrastructure shouldn’t have come quite as the surprise it did; from Government funded institutions akin in size to Tate- without the curatorial clarity but added propaganda- to kunsthalle presentations and commercial, artist-run spaces. I thought Berlin could not be rivalled for its energy and urgency. But in Istanbul, in my imagination at least, it found a firm rival.
The itinerary was littered with exhibition openings and one-off, private events. On entering SALT, a medium sized white cube of a gallery, I was naive as to the work of Hassan Khan, the artist whose solo show on view. Overall, the most comprehensive exhibition to date of this artist, musician and writer, was not quite a curatorial triumph. The works on display had a visual rhythm in their presentation but lacked physical connection, making for a flat viewing experience, especially disappointing given the interdisciplinarity of Khan’s work.
Thankfully, his sublime video installation ‘Jewel’ (2010) came early into the visit. The presentation of the video work can only be described, on a technical level, as phenomenal. The size of the projection, the clarity of the image and the quality of the sound did justice to the pioneering influence Khan has had on experimental music and video.
This six minute film is characteristic of Khan’s use of actors to produce characters or personas that possess a sense of self that he considers an essential part of the work. Commissioned by the Arab Museum of Modern Art (Mathaf) in Doha for its inaugural group exhibition, Told/Untold/Retold in late 2010, it presents a glowing anglerfish into an emblem around which two men perform a dance ritual. Despite it offering a commonplace scene from the streets of Cairo from which it is inspired, it is both utterly captivating and hypnotic.
Much of the choreography was inspired by the actors’ backgrounds; some moves came from street dance, others were simply made up in collaboration with the performers. The dance-moves are somewhat cryptic, although the sense of collectivism they engender, speak volumes. His use of music, exceptionally orchestrated in this piece, merges popular Egyptian tabla with electronic music. The only work I have seen where I have felt as audibly engaged was Ragnar Kjartansson’s, “The Visitors’ at last year’s show at Barbican, London.
I regularly find myself, headphones in and volume turned up, viewing ‘Jewel’ on Youtube. It lifts my spirits and reinvigorates my belief of the importance of art to entertain as well as provide cultural commentary. I wholeheartedly encourage you to do the same.