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An epic mystery, with clues: Navigating Hassan Khan’s survey at SALT

ISTANBUL — Artist, musician and writer Hassan Khan’s selected survey exhibition at SALT is like a mystery scattered with various cryptic clues. It feels like a frustrating but at times very intriguing epic mystery written by someone with a strong sense of wonderment and curiosity about what on earth he might come up with next.

“Chapter II” (2007) appears to be the first page of the second chapter of a rather worn book, and was perhaps originally made for Swiss art institution Shedhalle. The page starts with an autobiographical anecdote and ends with a cut-off sentence: “I knew that my narrative for the Shedhalle piece was on its way; the striving for a moment, a flicker that takes itself outside of constraints the moment that is beyond translation that lies bey-”.

Khan’s works are characterized by an idiosyncratic internal logic, the presence of which you can feel, but whose details you can only guess at. On the one hand, the process of making the work feels important because it is often hinted at — through autobiographical elements and explanatory texts in the work, and labels next to it. On the other hand, the process is obscured, and it seems the artist wants the work to stand alone — so the viewer may feel frustrated at not being able to figure out how the work ended up looking like it does.

The 52-minute, four-channel video installation “The Hidden Location” (2004) is set mainly in Cairo (where the artist lives and works) and shot in a low-budget documentary style. In one of the work’s very diverse parts, a man acts the role of a misogynistic insurance salesman interacting with people. In another, Khan interviews a friend about class and kitschy furniture. In a third, young people appear to undergo corporate training. In a fourth, container ships slowly move into the frame and out the other side. The whole piece was shaped, apparently, by rules the artist devised, and the label says that the “hidden location” is to be found at the points in between each part.

Sometimes deliberate mystery makes the viewer feel like the artist is putting you in your place. It also means the work is difficult to criticize: For all you know, it could be perfect.

In “17 and in AUC” (2003), a soundproof room of a one-way mirror was constructed for a performance in which, for 14 evenings, Khan reminisced about being a student at the American University in Cairo.

In another work, two pieces of paper of the same size and shape are pinned to the wall, one above the other. The lower piece is white except for a single stamped sentence in red ink explaining the crowded image above: “I scanned all 271 printed illustrations in the 1981 edition of The Hamlyn Children’s History of the World, which I had owned since I was 8, and then used Photoshop to make one composite image.”

In “Photographs of statues owned by the artist,” large framed photographs of antique-looking statues Khan had since he was 14 have had their shadows removed. The piece was made in 2010, but the word “artist” in the title, the blurb says, was struck through in early 2012. This decision is, again, pointed to, but not explained.

The effect of these semi-autobiographical works is one of self-aware, paranoid narcissism playfully complicated by alienating rules and withholding information. The book version of “17 and in AUC,” a transcription of everything he said in the performance, is almost impossible to read because there is no punctuation.

Certain works that deal with Egypt but are not obviously autobiographical include some that are gripping or emotive, where your thwarted curiosity about how and why the work was made is overshadowed by the impact of the final product.

In two, Egyptian music plays an important role. One of these, “Jewel” (2010), has met enormous enthusiasm, having been shown in several places in Europe and the US.

The video starts with blue glitterings in the dark, out of which a fish, shaking like a belly dancer’s cleavage, crystallizes into a pattern of lights on a rotating speaker. The rest of the film consists of a pan out from this speaker, in front of which two men, looking at each other, dance nonstop to celebratory Upper Egyptian mizmar music with a powerful electronic beat laid over it.

One is an unshaven middle-aged man wearing a leather jacket over a large untucked white shirt, and the other is younger and clean-shaven, wearing crisp but cheap-looking smart clothes. Both are unnaturally intent, never tempted to smile or look at their (invisible) audience.

In “Jewel,” the enigmatic quality of Khan’s work becomes something emotional, dark and mysterious, almost spiritual. Dance scenes can offer a fantasy element to the audience. At SALT, people could be seen moving quickly toward the sound of the video with smiles of anticipation. But the work is tragic as well as exuberant.

In “The Twist,” a work from 2011, five quite quiet, nostalgic short stories center around protagonists who each have something special about them — you feel they could have been or were once great — but are overwhelmed by lost glory, disappointment or failure. There are also 10 objects, which the artist had made in Egypt and which also contain a beauty combined with roughness and uselessness.

At SALT, the texts were written in large letters high on the wall, with the objects below on a shelf, but there is a also a book version called “The Agreement,” which allows you to read the texts more comfortably and privately, and makes the relationships between specific texts and objects closer.

All the works in the exhibition are meticulously presented. In “Chapter II,” for example, the framed page is lit by a projected rectangle of light exactly the same size as the frame. With “Jewel,” the huge carpeted room in which the video is shown looks a lot like the room in which it was shot, and the wall behind the dancers has the same dimensions as the screen, which in turn is similar to the wall behind the screen.

The growing greenish spot of light on the men in the video is echoed by the screen’s glow in the room. All of this helps give the work a cohesive, inevitable feel. And the sound system is fantastic.

Unlike any of the galleries in Cairo, SALT is massive, and there’s a lot of money behind it. The resulting polish and spaciousness framing the works gives them an authority and status that exhibition spaces in Cairo cannot provide.

Accompanying the sense of curiosity about himself in Khan’s work is a sense that he consciously makes his production appear well-established and self-reliant. In “Evidence of Evidence I” (2010), 26 details from his previous works are reproduced as grainy, black-and-white, handmade intaglio prints. They look like they are from some old textbook, and this shift in medium historicizes the details, fixes them in your mind.

“Banque Bannister” (2010) is a freestanding copy of an oversized, ornate brass bannister that is in front of Banque Misr in Cairo. Its label says it was the bannister’s “confident aesthetic” that attracted Khan’s interest, and that the copy “defies structural logic, floating independently, refusing to acknowledge the laws of gravity.”

Aspiring artists could learn from Khan. You can make a work of art using any system you want to set up, based on any notion, however whimsical. You can stubbornly avoid trying to please the audience. The process may sometimes be more interesting than the end product, but on the other hand, the end product might be great. These factors are what can make contemporary art exciting. Giving your work a confident aesthetic is key to convincing your audience not to dismiss it.

It would be nice if some of these works could be shown in Egypt, partly because they are interesting and difficult, and in some cases great. There are a couple of works that I would like to show to my husband, because he thinks contemporary art is rubbish, but he can’t leave the country.

This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent’s weekly print edition.

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