Shezad Dawood's surreal peep show
March 17, 2015

The artist discusses using shadows to playfully conceal and reveal in his new 3-part film series, as we preview an exclusive extract from it

A black corridor tunnels away from the white cube of the main room at Pippy Houldsworth, offering a cocooned inversion of the space. ‘The Box’ presents a series of unique commissions, running concurrently to major shows at the gallery. It is an intimate space, fitting only one person at a time, creating an intensely insular environment. Shezad Dawood’s film series ‘Three Arrangements for Annabel and Cello’ is the latest piece to be exhibited in The Box, played on a small screen placed at the end of the corridor, while Vicky Steiri’s score trickles through a single pair of headphones.

Set across a film of three parts, light and dark are entwined in a game of shadow play, shifting across the naked body of performer Annabel Hornsby. Primarily cast in silhouette in the first two parts of the film, glimpses of the fleshy tones of her skin are striking against the monochrome of her shadow. Limbs cut across sharp dots of light, exposed even as they are abstracted. Standing in the private space of The Box, Dawood’s film adopts a curious affinity to a surreal peepshow, the stark simplicity of the shadow heightening an awareness of the body itself.

In the final part of Dawood’s film, this contrast recedes. Projected images play across the surface of the body, absorbing Hornsby's form in a camouflage of pre-recorded footage. Hornsby creeps amongst projections of undergrowth, as the staccato of Steiri’s cello builds pace and images of sugar cubes, fences, birds flash faster in a disorientating manipulation of scale. Finally, a single blue tone settles across the screen, enveloping Hornsby for the last frames of the film. Reminiscent of Derek Jarman’s ‘Blue’, it conjures a seamless topography of the body, bridging past and present in a reimagining of the figure within a newly saturated landscape.


Dawood’s film adopts a curious affinity to a surreal peepshow, the stark simplicity of the shadow heightening an awareness of the body itself.


POSTmatter: What was your experience of developing the film piece to sit within the physical constraints of the space of The Box? How did these influence your choice of form and narrative?

Shezad Dawood: When first approached to do something for The Box, I felt a natural dislike for the constraints, and that seemed a good challenge to overcome. I was interested in the perversity of it as a space, or perhaps the fact that it highlights the perversity of looking at art. The fact that you step up into this narrow, short black corridor, with a recess at the end of it, that is filled by 'The Box', as a container for a pre-conceived work of art, to me contains a whole series of oddly contradictory, but very well thought-through an exquisite corpse made up of ill-fitting parts that unsettle both the artist and the viewer's preconceptions. I felt I had to respond in kind, with a video work that was aware of its own structure, so very considered. But at the same time, that was both unsettling in its allusions and voyeurism.

PM: The shadow has a rich heritage in art history, from shadow puppets to German Expressionist Film. What were your intentions around the use of this motif in your film? 

SD: I was interested in an idea of doubling, and a notion as in Plato's analogy of the cave, that perhaps what we see and take to be real is no more than the shadow of real events. Then to bridge that with some purely formal aspects of film-making and editing, was a nice way to loop back to the shadow's presence through a whole history of cinema, and what has been termed proto-cinema: Balinese shadow puppets and cave paintings by firelight and such like.


I was interested in the perversity of it as a space, or perhaps the fact that it highlights the perversity of looking at art.


PM: What was your experience of collaborating with Vicky Steiri in establishing the interplay between visuals and music for the piece? 

SD: It's quite common for me to know who I want to collaborate with musically long before I come to making a film. I'd met Vicky and first heard her music roughly 5 years before the right work for her was ready. So often from that first intuition I believe you are gradually, on a subtler plane, preparing to work together. When I presented some of the filmed material to Vicky, there was no initial time limit, so she said she would go away and work on it. There is a certain level of trust in all my collaborations, so when Vicky decided she wanted to get to the end of the piece before sharing her material with me, that was understood. And I think the final result speaks for itself.

PM: You often reconfigure familiar landscapes as otherworldly, almost fantastical environments in your work. Are you influenced by science fiction, and are you attracted to contemporary notions of the surreal?

SD: I'm very interested in what I would term literary science fiction (although some of the more pulpy science fiction I take pleasure in too), particularly for what I see as its political function, in opening up vistas to the imagination that can be used as alternative ways of exploring the fissures and inconsistencies in our day-to-day reality.

PM: Which artists or filmmakers have influenced your work in particular? 

SD: Paul Sharits, Pat O'Neill, Stan Vanderbeek, Paradjanov, Tarkovsky, Satyajit Ray and Derek Jarman.


I'm very interested in literary science fiction... in opening up vistas to the imagination.


PM: You have explored in your sculptures and painted work the mapping of cultures and geographic space. As the internet and our digital connectivity continues to grow, how do you view its influence on our shifting perception of place and time? 

SD: I think it's a double-edged sword, for all its avowed connectivity - and in this sense it really has forced people to make latent or cross-border connections that they otherwise might not have - it is not, or at least no longer is, the free space a lot of early programmers and digital activists intended it to be. For me, it's interesting to work with digital media and technology in tandem with earlier analogue processes to see them as a continuum, with the same cultural and corporate impositions made upon them.

In a bizarre way, earlier technologies become retroactively freer of such control and management as they become quasi-redundant, but equally there is a pleasure in any technology being somewhat redundant by the time we begin playing with it. I think that bleed is where it starts to have an interesting impact on not just our perception of space and time, but our being in space and time. And by this I mean that we are always operating in a time lag, and therefore are less bound or concrete 'beings' than we might think.

Shezad Dawood's 'Three Arrangements for Annabel and Cello’ is on show at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery until 11th April 2015. For more information, click here.

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