Shezad Dawood’s virtual reality artwork The Terrarium (2020) – which will feature in his installations for the Deutsche Bank Wealth Management Lounges at the Frieze fairs this October – transports us 300 years into the future, where climate change has rendered the Earth’s surface 90 percent water. Here, having been subject to a series of complex genetic splicing programmes, new humans have been released from an experimental laboratory into the open Baltic Sea to explore their surroundings.
Donning immersive VR headsets, participants find themselves first of all in a pitch-black space, which Dawood describes as ‘a waiting room, where you just get used to your new body’. The phrase ‘waiting room’ evokes historian Dipesh Chakrabarty’s notion of the ‘imaginary waiting room of history’ – a space he asserts that colonial powers banished their subject populations to. In Dawood’s waiting room, we are all on the threshold of present and future, at once disembodied and embodied, where boundaries between the virtual and the real begin to blur.
Once we begin to explore The Terrarium’s surreal topography, we find it dismantles our imposed understanding of ‘true’ perspective – of forwards, backwards or sideways – offering instead a cosmological and moral rupture. While this departure may be unsettling, it’s inescapable: we must embark on our journey from the familiarity of home into the uncanny. It is precisely here, in the vast and largely unknown depths of the Baltic Sea, that borders dissolve, words no longer point to one thing or idea, and a state of becoming is unleashed. We no longer belong to our land-bound selves but to a space, or ‘ecumene’, of transformation.
Dawood envisions that the viewer explores The Terranium with a new body,‘a post-human cephalopod hybrid.’ To picture this, turn to Dawood’s sculpture, displayed at Frieze London, of a multitentacled humanoid: On Becoming Virtual Octopi (2018).
The work is the artist’s response to Terence McKenna’s 1990 essay ‘Virtual Reality and Electronic Highs or On Becoming Virtual Octopi’, in which the American ethnobotanist writes: ‘I believe that the totemic image for the future is the octopus […] because the squids and octopi have perfected a form of communication that is both psychedelic and telepathic; a model for the human communications of the future. In the not-too-distant future, men and women may shed the monkey body to become virtual octopi swimming in a silicon sea.’ In this way, Dawood’s figure is both a model of cognition and a portal into time, his jetpack eyes telling tales of futures past.
Those who survive the impending changes – not least, the climate crisis – Dawood seems to contend, will be hybrids.nAlthough the notion of the hybrid speaks to a post-human(ist) future, it also extends into the past. In the Middle Ages, the margins of illuminated manuscripts – the liminal space where the sacred met the secular and profane – were occupied by hybrids: part men, part beast, all jumbled. Like the margin itself, the hybrid is not one thing nor the other, it is what the theorist Homi K. Bhabha calls ‘a subject of difference that is almost the same, but not quite.’
Hybridity is significant for its capacity to create what Bhabha, in The Location of Culture (2004), defines as a ‘third space’ – one that is in-between, virtual, diasporic and transnational. Dawood’s presentation at Frieze allows us go into this ‘third space’: one lived in by diverse breaths, that have co-evolved with us, and those who are agents of their own evolution.
To see more of Shezad Dawood’s interactive presentation at the Deutsche Bank Wealth Management Lounges, stream the latest edition of Art: LIVE here
Main image: Shezad Dawood, AnthropoPangaea (Hapalochlaena lunulata), 2022. Courtesy: the artist