Ghost Money, Gothic Trappings and Crusades: Huang Yong Ping & Wael Shawky at Nottingham Contemporary (2011)

Huang Yong Ping Construction Site (2007)

Ghost Money, Gothic Trappings and Crusades (from Nottingham Visual Arts issue 4: Summer 2011)

There’s a point in the latest exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary where the concerns of its two otherwise very different artists – the French-Chinese sculptor Huang Yong Ping and Alexandria-based multi-media artist Wael Shawky – seem to merge almost seamlessly. As we enter the dimly-lit space of Gallery Three we are confronted with a barrier of screens, reproduced after those erected during conservation work on the Hagia Sofia mosque in Istanbul, behind which a large-scale aluminium minaret is raised on scaffolding, tilted at a 45 degree angle and highly suggestive of a live missile awaiting launch.

It’s a presence that seems menacing and absurd in equal measure. Here, religious aspirations are exposed as a toy rocket aimed at the cosmos, a child’s desire to fly into space granted sacred status, while also satirising certain Western preconceptions about the threatening nature of Islam itself. Yet although created by Huang Yong Ping, Construction Site (2007) might easily be mistaken for one of Wael Shawky’s works. Even after prolonged consideration, its form and content echo (and to some extent upstage) ideas also present in Shawky’s Al–Aqsa Park (2006), a digitally animated rendition of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock spinning like a combination of Hollywood UFO and fairground ride. Both works allude to the toxic legacy of the Crusades in the politics and geography of the Middle East.

But while this coincidence of interests is fleeting but powerful, beyond it the bodies of work significantly diverge, as Shawky’s films, drawings and small-scale asphalt reliefs address the legacy of the Crusades head-on, and Huang Yong Ping’s polished allegories look more broadly at religion, capitalism and East-West misunderstandings in a manner that sometimes suggests a more oblique Ed Keinholz – though this is Keinholz on a Hollywood rather than shoestring budget, with a PG certificate. Despite the dilution of the older artist’s signature venom, however, something of Keinholz’s immediacy is seen in works like Bat Project IV (2005), a full size aircraft fuselage and cockpit inside which is housed an archive documenting a 2001 incident in which China shot down an American EP-3 spy-plane in its airspace. The various papers, photographs, newspaper clippings, videos and statements covering the diplomacy that followed the original spy-plane’s capture are installed alongside documentation of the work’s own convoluted history.

While the positioning of a full-size aircraft in the gallery is an undeniable coup-de-theatre, and the fuselage carries the details of a fascinating story, the work as a whole, once entered, sacrifices the continuation of its impact when viewed from outside to the less inspiring task of explaining itself. There’s enormous power latent in the Gothic presence of hundreds of taxidermied bats inside the cockpit, but much of the impact is lost to our inability to fully immerse ourselves in the space they occupy: referencing the bat symbol stencilled on the tail-fin of the original US spy plane, they feel less than fully integrated into the larger conceptual framework, while the concept itself too literally reiterates the documentary evidence to add significantly to its sources.

If there’s something tentative about Bat Project IV, the artist’s strengths are more in evidence elsewhere, with the peculiar serenity of Marché de Punya (2007), with its ‘ghost money’ and religious icons for sale, its mongrel making off with a sandal and monumental dead elephant creating a poetic vision of money as a religious artifact, made real only by faith, transforming sacred spaces into market stalls. The elephant in the room is, in this case, very literal. The fairground surrealism of Le Pêche (2006) also addresses religious iconography, offering a reworking of an engraving from the Biblical Book Of Job showing a Saint fishing for the mythic Leviathan – an image that in Ping’s version is rendered as an out-size wolf with a sea monster’s tail – using a string of Buddhas and the crucified Christ as bait, and an anchor for a hook.

There’s an immediate theatrical impact, but in contrast to Amerigo Vespucci (2003), with its aluminium mastiff pissing a map of America against a gallery wall (an image that is essentially a one-line political cartoon crafted into the third dimension), Marché de Punya and Le Pêche are less easily legible, more layered and ambiguous in their intentions and consequently richer in potential meaning.

Wael Shawky Cabaret Crusades (2010)

It’s an ambiguity shared by Wael Shawky’s Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show Files (2010), an epically scaled film that reconstructs the events surrounding the first wave of Crusades in 1096 – 1099 AD using source material from the Egyptian novelist Amin Maalouf’s The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (1984). On one level, this might be read as a straightforward recuperation of a side of history that has been lost, offering a contrast to the centuries of justification and heroic myth-making about the motives and actions of the Crusaders: Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata (published in Italy in 1581) is only one example, a poetic hagiography of Godfrey of Bulloigne, but using Maalouf’s sources, Shawky’s film presents a far darker version, in which the fanaticism, betrayals and even resorts to cannibalism of men like Godfrey are brought firmly into the picture.

It’s an exercise in defamiliarisation in other respects, too, re-enacting events using antique Italian marionettes from the Lupi Collection, and refusing naturalism. The film itself is accompanied by a display of grotesque production sketches and a series of asphalt reliefs showing the insignia of the first Crusaders: a neat conflation of the religious justifications of 1096 with the oil products fuelling conflict in the present day. Watching Cabaret Crusades unfold on the big screen suggests an aesthetic indebted as much to Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America: World Police (2004) as Jan Svankmajer’s Faust (1994) and Shakespeare’s History plays, but the real intentions are perhaps best understood by connecting Shawky’s piece with The Zone (2011), an installation by Ramallah-based artists Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, currently showing at New Art Exchange.

Inside this labyrinth of superficially calm city-scapes, time-lapse monochrome footage of skaters, swings and other dream-like icons of innocence, all overlaid with an oppressive Musique Concrete score, we encounter the latest phase of the occupation whose beginnings are mapped by Shawky’s film. Inside The Zone we find the perplexing geography of a militarized territory studded with billboards offering bright consumer promises of security and safety: a new Crusade by a newly confident faith, perhaps, built on the kind of ‘ghost money’ we find piled inside Huang Yong Ping’s Marché de Punya and enforced with the threat of violence we’ve witnessed in the Gothic hinterlands of Cabaret Crusades. Abbas and Abou-Rahme’s immersive evocation of the looking-glass world that has been created on both sides of the various barriers erected to contain Gaza and the West Bank is simultaneously memorable and surreal. The Zone, in short, acts as a stark reminder that the history addressed by Shawky, however remote it appears, continues to send dangerous ripples into our own time.

Huang Yong Ping & Wael Shawky at Nottingham Contemporary (15 Apr – 26 Jun 2011)
Basel Abbas & Ruanne Abou-Rahme at New Art Exchange (21 May – 6 Aug, 2011)

Huang Yong Ping Bat Project IV

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