An Interview with Wael Shawky

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The following interview to Wael Shawky took place at the house of Hassan Khan, the interviewer, in the middle of the night, late July 2003. It is presented here as part of Wael’s presentation with 16 Beaver.
Hassan Khan: You’ve been working as an artist over the past 10 years, in the last 5 years we have witnessed a certain paradigm shift in your work both on the levels of concept and practice, can you please define this shift to us and explain what new positions are you offering?
Wael Shawky: I can speak about the materials and how they are translated in a “religious” fashion. What I mean is a belief in the chemical content of the material itself; there is an attempt at increasing the value of the work in terms of contrast between the methods of production and the material itself. The contrast arises out of how you actually deal with the material through a specific belief that you utilize for a functional practice- a certain pragmatic thinking… for example using asphalt in my work…is religious because of a basic conceptual belief that the chemical properties of the material itself possesses a certain excess beyond function…this is a position that takes me into what I term the “religious”…
Hassan Khan: How is that a shift?
Wael Shawky: For example when you look at my work at the 1996 Cairo Biennale- “Frozen Nubia” this contrast was inherent in the work but not visible. I built houses made of cement- so what happened is that you got the conceptual references through a belief in the chemical content of the cement, however when you actually looked inside the houses you could not see the materials only figurative representational elements, the concept was being translated through the figurative, therefore there was in the beginning a division in the contrast I was producing. I attempted to create value by contrast- however the contrast was too defined there was no mixing. Since then both these states: the functional and the religious approach to the material are not divided- the process is one and unified.
Hassan Khan: Isn’t there a danger of the work becoming too involved in controlling the viewer?
Wael Shawky: Control over what the audience will see…I do not intend to control the viewer, but rather to construct the work in a precise fashion where every element is controlled.
Hassan Khan: I find this attitude functional in itself and restricting the audience within a specific function goes against the concept of belief that is in excess…
Wael Shawky: The belief is not in the subject…the belief is in the system of dealing with the elements. How I deal with the elements that I use—you have a lot of different elements used in constructing a subject, part of this construction comes out of the system of belief—your personal belief that the material will give you certain conceptual results. However you could also simultaneously deal with the elements in a different manner—with a system that runs contrary to belief, a functional pragmatic system. The contrast between both systems is what I aim for; this contrast enhances the value of the subject. It is necessary for the audience to experience the control exerted over the work. The audience is governed by this state of control. The architecture of the piece or what you choose to show and hide of the process itself are choices forms of control themselves- hiding the process is closer to the religious system…while showing the process is closer to functionalism.
Hassan Khan: What is the value of using both?
Wael Shawky: In most of my work over the last period I have been trying to construct a society. A system of a society in transition, a condition that is not clear…a translation… I see my role as the translation- this is a translation that is heightened the closer I come to a system of an actually existing society.
Hassan Khan: But this means that you are presenting us with a representation or an image not an actual system in itself?
Wael Shawky: This might be true….it is an attempt to imitate the system…I have no problem with representation- and if you are involved in trying to imitate the system then there is a level of representation. The elements that you have chosen are extremely specific, every element has historical and social references, the act of bringing together all these elements in a system that is close to the system you function in socially (you are not using all the elements that exist as you have made specific choices)…presents us with an amount of criticism of the “viability of the social system…when you put these specific elements together at the same level of seriousness of our lived existence…a certain cynicism appears…”.
Hassan Khan: Therefore you are striving for a certain concentration of form…
Wael Shawky: Part of it is this…this is the part that should be speaking about the functional…but this is balanced by the material itself…
Hassan Khan: I also see another level of contrast in your work- between the object and the video-image and the physical presence of the video-mage itself… can you please comment on this contrast and what role it plays in your system…and what it introduces that is not possible out of the object itself???
Wael Shawky: Timing is what I find in video that is not in the other elements. At the same time it has a higher ability at hiding the process…when you have all these differences in the medium you are using. You can achieve what I have been speaking about more efficiently…dealing with the video itself the content becomes more visible… the video is also an element in the bigger context, a completion of the balance….
Hassan Khan: What is the relationship between the system you construct and the narrative it carries???
Wael Shawky: Here I have to use examples…Sidi El Asphalt’s Moulid (2001) speaks about a specific period from the beginning of the 70s to the present in Egypt. To take such a historical period, more than 30 years, with huge changes in the systems is equal to the concept of to condensing this time in a layer- this is a layer that should carry its own contradictions and
Hassan Khan: Statements or resolutions…
Wael Shawky:I believe that statements is closer to what I mean… Sidi El Asphalt’s Moulid deals with different clichés…in that sense the work goes beyond representation. This is actually the subject itself…the subject is not connected to representation…the subject is about collecting the clichés of a certain social system not to present a critique but rather because it is the closest image to the viewer. Here you are not imitating an actual building but rather you diminish the seriousness of a 30 year history, you are not really making a statement actually… you are therefore not making a representation of a building you are presenting a cliché of it so that the audience can identify the elements. Part of transforming these elements into clichés is using the simplest visual form, at this moment you allow the system you construct to become dominant over all the elements more than the historical reference of the object…
Hassan Khan: In your videos you create audio-visual images where certain hybridised cultures are created…like mixing hip-hop soundtrack with the images of people swaying in a zikr or dubbing a constructed chanting of the chemical components of asphalt in English over the image of children building a runway in the desert- what is the function of these images in relation to the work as a whole?
Wael Shawky: Actually these are two different things in Sidi El Asphalt Moulid I was constructing a system related to the word “moulid” itself… my control over the work is posed in opposition to the meaning of the word- in a “moulid” there is a loss of control while my system is based upon control. By hybridising both cultures you question the dominance of each…there is a questioning. In Asphalt Quarter (2003) you are immersed in a collection of clichés an actual constructed city… it is as if this city is watching its own history… the video… in the form of an advertisement. The children you see in the video were asked to build a runway in the desert- which they actually believed was real and they actually built it. The children whose voice you hear singing the information in English, did not understand the language…this is another form of hybridity… another questioning.
Wael Shawky lives and works in Alexandria, producing installations, performances and videos and his work is shown in Egypt and internationally
Hassan Khan lives and works in Cairo, producing installations, performances, videos and composing soundtracks for theatre. His writings have been published in various journals, and his work is shown in Egypt and internationally.