The individual, the communal; theatricality and authenticity
Is it possible to isolate, extract and hold up for inspection the essence of a culture? In a city like Cairo, teeming with endlessly competing stories and voices, any attempt to tease out the core threads of its cultural identity is almost certainly doomed to sloppy generalization or scattergun biographical anecdotalism. Egyptian artist Hassan Khan is all too aware of this dilemma, as he journeys in his work back and forth between the individual and the communal, and the revealed and the hidden.
As the largest city in Africa and the centre of the Arab world, Cairo’s population is estimated at somewhere between 16 and 25 million, depending on whether you include the city’s millions of homeless and undocumented citizens. This overcrowding forces people onto the streets, where daily life is led with a necessarily casual regard for the distinction between public and private. The loudness, theatricality and energy that such an existence demands are reflected in Shaabi, a popular form of street music that is as impassioned as it is generic. In his 2005 work DOM-TAK-TAK-DOM-TAK Khan found six recordings of Shaabi standards, analysed and re-recorded their rhythms with a Shaabi percussion section and then employed virtuoso street musicians to improvise separately, withouthearing one another, over the recorded beats. He then mixed the independently performed tracks together, producing six hybrid instrumental masters that, while built from subjective interpretations, actually sketched out a reductive schema of the genre that set the clichés of spontaneous personal expression and predetermined cultural momentum against one another.
In the gallery installation of DOM-TAK-TAK-DOM-TAK this process was outlined in a wall text adjacent to the speakers; in other works Khan’s systems of production remain mysterious. The Hidden Location (2004) is a four-screen video installation that consists of 15 chapters, each one presenting a different scenario played out by different Cairene citizens. Each sequence appears to be removed both in form and in content from the one before, but in fact Khan simply modified the internal logic of his own rules as he went along. While some sections resemble documentary footage, others are clearly played out by actors. In these Khan used no scripts, choosing instead to allow themes and dialogue to emerge through improvisation exercises that he devised. The resulting work is a portrait of a city painted from the inside out; by taking interiority as his starting-point and by employing hidden processes in the work’s production, Khan finally creates a document that replicates the systems of human interaction that are internalized in daily urban life.
An equally meandering and obfuscated process was employed in the production of Khan’s recent exhibition ‘Kompressor’ (2006) at London’s Gasworks space. A wall text offered a tantalizingly inconclusive description of how the installation came about, describing it as ‘an exhibition based on translating sets of dreams into different forms by the dreamer’. By using his dreams as his materials, Khan took things that are both deeply internal and alarmingly alien, and ran them through idiosyncratic and undisclosed processes of translation. For example, in his Alphabet Book (2006) Khan wrote texts inspired by (but not describing) his dreams. He then made images that accompanied the texts and finally intuitively matched each image to a letter of the alphabet, creating a linguistic code that sheds little or no light on the nature of its sources. It is hard to ascertain whether the dreams themselves or the resulting art works are the more authentic expressions of Khan’s psyche, but perhaps this is beside the point. Through these convoluted working processes he seems to be trying to wrong-foot his own subjectivity at every turn, until finally only a distilled (or compressed) trace of himself remains.
Despite appearing to tackle autobiography head-on, the 2003 work 17 and in AUC was in fact an exercise in the technology of communication, framing Khan’s reminiscences in a physical and conceptual structure that became the real subject of the work. For two weeks Khan spent every day drinking beer and smoking cigarettes in a one-way mirrored and soundproofed glass box, relaying and reflecting on memories of his time as a student at the American University of Cairo. His alcohol-fuelled monologue increasingly attacked the university’s cultural isolation from the city at whose centre it sits, and fretted about Khan’s own sense of (Western-style) privilege as part of an economic and intellectual élite. Throughout the performance, although he knew that a video camera was recording him, he had no way of telling if there were people on the other side of his mirrored walls; the event took place in a downtown Cairo flat without publicity, so the audience that did eventually build up came through hearsay. Watching Khan, the viewers went unrecognized, severing the traditional exchange of power between audience and performer. Like viewers of pornography, reality television or surveillance footage, the audience were subjected to an experience that was as lonely for them as it was for Khan himself. 17 and in AUC is an examination of the way individual identity sits within, relies on and kicks against social and political structures. By replicating such structures in his work Khan uncomfortably implicates the audience, and himself, in the systems he describes.
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