Wael Shawky’s show at the Serpentine Gallery brings about a series of questions that I believe are not necessarily the right ones. I am saying this because Shawky comes across as an opportunist not only because of his subject matter but also because of the way he is institutionally presented. Issues of ethics, politics and institutional art are mixed in a pastiche that demands from the informed viewer to step back in order to understand what is going on.
Upon arrival, the visitor is confronted with twelve puppets lavishly arranged in a vitrine that seems to be more fit for jewellery at Sotheby’s than for puppetry. Please don’t get me wrong. I totally understand the alchemic power of art which may transform a piece of canvas painted by Titian into something manyfold its weight in gold. But this is not the case, isn’t it? Having said that, the signage welcomes us (and welcomes us is an euphemism because the font is dark grey on black which makes it really difficult to read) with a series of institutional warnings that reinforce the lavish materials of the vitrines in a message that says: ‘This is art and is ethically good so like it!’. I am quoting:
‘This exhibition has been jointly produced by the Sharjah Art Foundation and Serpentine Galleries (in the plural now) with the support of Lisson Gallery. Shawky has participated in group exhibitions (basically at the Serpentine and Sharja) and in 2011 he was invited by the two institutes to undertake a residency….blah, blah, blah…’ At this point the visitor suspects that this is more an exercise of institutional elevation by Julia Petyon Jones than the actual recognition of an important artist. So let’s talk about the exhibition…
It is mainly divided in three rooms that work as cinemas. The films are approximately one hour long and the viewer is invited to sit on hard white cubes that look very Alfred Baar-sh but only accommodate three people at at a time. Needless to say that after fifteen minutes my spine was hurting. At that point I also thought that it is counterintuitive to spend three hours in the middle of Hyde Park with its yellowish autumn leaves in a black box but what do I know. However, as soon as the films started unfolding I realised the sense of opportunity they seem to frame. The theme was middle eastern war so I decided to stay.
In the central room, the artist features ‘the worldwide premiere of his latest film Al Araba Al Madfuna II (2013)’. The first surprise was that there were no puppets but kids so I did not really get the point of the vitrines but anyway… Al Araba Madfuna tells Mustagab’s story, The J-B-Rs, about the gathering of a tribe, the Jabirs, who are waiting for the final counsel of the dying Great Jabir, which they then obey without question. The film is set in a real Egyptian village located close to the excavation site of Osirion in the ancient city of Abydos. Inhabitants of this village have spent years looking for treasure, digging in search of tunnels that they hope will lead to buried pharaonic chambers. Shawky’s film opens with children speaking in adult voices. One of them is digging in the centre of the room, echoing the actions of the inhabitants of the real village, while the others gather to tell Mustagab’s tale. The story is repeated several times, with successive Great Jabirs advising ends when the villagers asked to get a pig, an animal whose consumption is forbidden in Islam. This presentes them with a a dilemma: if they live with pigs as they did with camels, would they eventually resemble pigs as they did when they lived with and ate camels? Each tale has the same essential narrative structure with an identifiable beginning, middle and end, but the abrupt ending encourages the viewer to assume that the villagers will repeat the same actions but now with the pigs.
It is that Shawky uses two stories by Mustagab that also use repetition and are ‘The Offering’ and ‘Horsemen Adore Perfumes’. I took the time to read those two stories and are beautiful allegorical accounts of how human collectives in times of crisis degenerate into sin and lose their sense of purpose. It is about doing things as ends in themselves losing perspective. My problem with Shawky’s take is that he wants to focus on the oral tradition of the narrative but by making kids speak like adults he ends up making it banal and irrelevant. The way the camera moves with sideways travelling shots looks too sleek and professional and is constantly conspiring against the simplicity of the allegory. And I ask myself what if I do not read or have access to the stories. They are just too long, too monotonous and too fragmentary to allow the viewer to get the real point which is not that relevant, if you ask me. If we add to that the vigilantes wandering around at the Serpentine for no particular reason and the sore back, it is just too much.
Regarding the two other rooms, they include the two films that comprise his Cabaret Crusades series: The Horror Show File (2010) and The Path to Cairo (2012). In these films Shawky uses marionettes to enact key events that occurred during the Crusades. Exploring the notion that there is no single historical truth, Shawky re-tells the crusades from the Middle Eastern perspective, using classical Arabic, the language spoken in news bulletins and in the Quran, to frame his narrative with a voice of authority. They are fun but is this art? I saw it as a ‘middle eastern-pluralistic-mystical’ entertainment of sorts but not really as art and the puppet lavishly presented seem to say: ‘Isn’t this an original show? This is puppetry!’. Well it is puppetry presented as canonic contemporary art and at this point I think the Serpentine Gallery has totally lost its plot. What are they doing? Just a thought.