My number is XXX and I do not use Skype but I think you can contact me with that and we can talk. I am almost always home except for an errand or two.
The problem is not with XXX. As you said, “XXX is the best” and I have found XXX to be a real breath of fresh air in a profession where that is all too rare. I am the skunk at the garden party and am very sorry it turned out that way. The unedited version of the transcript of the conversation was not really a problem for me. Where the difficulty lies is that in the place I live free speech is simply not an option, in particular the type of speech I engage in — and what you read is exactly the way that I talk, no attempt to prettify it, because truth to tell, the situation is absolutely rotten as is most of the politics and the political elites in the XXX world. Ditto for XXX and his minions though it must be said that XXX brings a lot more sophistication with his game… How else could he be shredding the constitution with assassinations at whim and obliterating XXX without what I always thought was the sacred secular right of a trial by a jury of one’s peers. Enough of that.
My reason for pulling back is quite simple: high tension in the region, XXX being on a war footing, XXX, the authorities here — in addition to their deep-seated paranoia — are fully aware that the XXX for XXX is regime change in one form or another and in that they are absolutely correct, XXX being bent on baiting the XXX into blitzing XXX. I don’t think he will succeed in that, but it is very possible that the XXX on Thursday could be a riposte to the ill-chosen words of XXX making plain that an attack on XXX would be considered an attack on XXX.
I am already at odds with things the way they stand here. As one example, I have been without a passport and any form of identification since the incident involving XXX and my telling the XXX he was in government custody which he was and still is, XXX protestations notwithstanding. The list is longer and the consequences for me have been far more profound but not subject for this missive. My dilemma is this: appearing in any foreign publication, no matter how benign or sanitized, would be sufficient pretext for my being incarcerated and possibly more than that — as I have history of not going quietly into the night, so to speak — the odds are heavily stacked against me but even at this advanced age I simply do not respond well to unjust force, regardless of who the perpetrators may be. Frankly, officialdom does not mean a damn thing to me, in particular when it comes in the form of tyranny.
If you want to send me an edited version of the conversations I had with XXX, I would be happy to read the same. But the issue is that anything printed related to me, however innocuous, would be sufficient pretext for XXX to come poking around or even ask me to show up in their offices which I would reflexively refuse to do and then the real would commence. By all means send it and by all means do call me because somehow I am intrigued by the premise of the Bidoun phenomenon and if it does not work this time around, perhaps there will be other occasions. At the moment however, I am of the opinion that something very much like war is going to take place between XXX and XXX. The obvious truth is that XXX has for long months been engaged in acts of war against XXX but the corporate media is sanitizing all that, knowing full well that XXX is an act of war. Being stuck between two very different types of tyranny tends to make one keep his/her head down and that is what I am into at the moment. Still I would like to hear what you say and read what you edit but it is more than likely that I would still have to decline because I have a life to live, however truncated, and am not inclined to risk what small freedoms I enjoy for a magazine piece that could turn my small world upside down at warp speed. But I do sincerely appreciate your concern. And again the fault is mine alone and not XXX’s. Thank you for taking the time to read this and you are free to call anytime.
Share Michael Stevenson: The deck is always stacked
Last August, Mexico City’s Museo Tamayo showcased its newly renovated facilities with a suite of high-profile international exhibitions that colonized every inch of the expanded space (and even some of the surrounding park). Dueling group shows commandeered the more traditional galleries, while solo projects by professional enigmas like Pierre Huyghe and Ryan Gander took the atrium and staff entrance. Amid the Hiroshima mobiles and the Sol LeWitt repurposed as a kitty gym, it was easy to overlook the swinging doors tucked away in a small, dark gallery just under the stairs off the atrium. In the context of the recent renovation, these doors almost read like relics of the museum’s past, each marked with telltale institutional traces — classroom numbers or no-smoking signs. The five doors were mounted in freestanding metal frames and lined up in a gauntlet that led to a smaller, darker room, where a film was playing. Viewers had to pass through at least one door in order to access the film; along the way, they were conscripted, willingly or not, as the artist’s accomplices. Their mission was simple: using borrowed math, the artist and his viewer would prove nothing less than the existence of the Devil.
Artist Michael Stevenson derives this “New Math” — and the name of his exhibition — from a calculus of vandalized paintings, stuffed peacocks, silver balloons, false eyelashes, deposed Shahs, unshaved barbers, planes that never take off, planes that never land, and an ace of clubs that never shows its face. The film in the inner chamber — Stevenson’s twenty-five-minute Introducción a la Teoría de la Probabilidad, 2008 — never reveals the exact equation. Instead it lays out the various elements like a hand of solitaire; to make sense of any of it, one has no choice but to uncover the cards in the order in which the artist has dealt them. In the process, the viewer is enlisted as Stevenson’s co-conspirator, a double for an artist whose practice draws from a constantly expanding catalog of coincidences and conflations, doppelgangers and dead ringers.
The film opens with found footage culled from a black-and-white slide show of an introductory textbook on statistics. It begins with a slow scroll though the opening pages: place and time (Panama, 1979); title (Introducción a la Teoría de la Probabilidad, the same as Stevenson’s film); an author’s name (José de Jesús Martínez). In an oddly intimate gesture for a visual aid, the fourth slide is a dedication, a list of the author’s loved ones. What follows is an assortment of illustrations that explain the key concepts of continuity through varying configurations of playing cards. An unseen narrator glides her smooth, accented Spanish over a soft soundtrack that simulates the clicking of a projector: In mathematics, there are things that are true, there are things that are false. There are things that are true that can never be proved. There are things that are false that can never be disproved.
Stevenson cuts these found slides into his own color footage of pale, male hands peeling rubber bands off decks of playing cards, then dealing them out against a deep blue background. In the first stack, several cards are out of place — the queen of spades before her jack, a six after a seven, the ace of clubs missing all together. As the hand reshuffles the deck, the soothing voice reminds viewers that probability means something because it is something; coincidence can only have the meaning it is arbitrarily assigned. In other words, the likelihood of the ace of clubs being drawn three times in a row remains 1:52 for each draw (that is, if the card is even in the deck).
Stevenson has spent more than two decades investigating the coincidences and interconnected histories underpinning the global economy. The narratives that the artist assembles from this research rarely resemble those in textbooks, eschewing clarity and focus in favor of a broader understanding of “cause” and “effect.” For example, the artist’s 2006 project, Answers to Some Questions about Bananas, embarked from New Zealand’s quixotic attempt in the late 1960s to produce a national automobile (using Czechoslovakian parts, no less) and arrived at the Phillips Machine, an analog computer that modeled an economy as a hydraulic system. Stevenson’s subsequent investigation into the American manufacture of this machine (thoughtfully rebranded “The MONIAC”) leads the artist — and, subsequently, his viewer — to the Central Bank of Guatemala and its biggest customer, the United Fruit Company. Although this endeavor would ultimately prove (in a word) fruitless, Stevenson’s artistic practice privileges the quest over its objective. For this and other exhibition projects, he inscribes traces of his unanswered questions into what he calls “objects of intrigue,” surrogate stagings that reenact or recall findings from the artist’s research, perhaps hoping that the viewer will be prompted to conduct his or her own. Should the viewer comply, however, often it is to discover Stevenson’s findings may be as much speculation as revelation. The deck may have been stacked.
Another example. For the 2005 installation The Smiles Are Not Smiles, Stevenson fashioned fake gold-leaf bricks to stand in for those that constituted Armenian artist Zadik Zadikian’s 1978 solo show Gold Bricks. The inaugural exhibition for soon-to-be-super-dealer Tony Shafrazi’s debut gallery in Tehran, Gold Bricks also would be its last. Founded with the blessing of the Shah of Iran (or more precisely, of his wife, the Shahbanou Farah Pahlavi, a dedicated advocate for the arts), Shafrazi’s space opened during an early wave of uprisings, a harbinger of the revolution that would eventually oust the Shah from his empire. Gilded bricks made easy bait for looters, and the installation was destroyed before it could even be documented. Almost thirty years later, Stevenson conjured this lost exhibition space via a deliberately fragmentary stage set at Vilma Gold in London. A gold-rimmed glass door marks the entrance to this gallery-within-a-gallery, where Stevenson presented a riff on Zadikian’s wall of gilded “bricks” in an intentionally “semi-looted state.” A dramatic reenactment of a historical destruction, the piece is perpetually suspended between theater and history, presence and absence. The self-negation extends even to Stevenson’s title, which quotes one of Shafrazi’s colleagues, architect Kamran Diba — director of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, another of the Shahbanou’s pet projects — as he describes the rising tensions in the last days of the empire: “It was like a storm. The smiles were not smiles. The sun does not have a glow.”
Stevenson’s fascination with Shafrazi preceded this work, and it would resurface in a series of projects to come, with each detail revealed always leading to another card underneath. Shafrazi himself was a wild card, a little-known conceptual artist, born in Iran but working mainly in New York. On February 28, 1974, Shafrazi would gain notoriety for walking into the Museum of Modern Art and scrawling “KILL LIES ALL” across the surface of Picasso’s 1937 masterpiece Guernica. The act was explicitly premeditated, down to the choice of a red paint that could be — and was — easily removed. In the December 1980 issue of Art in America, Shafrazi gave a rousing defense of his actions:
I wanted to bring the art absolutely up to date, to retrieve it from art history and give it life. Maybe that’s why the _Guernica action remains so difficult to deal with. I tried to trespass beyond that invisible barrier that no one is allowed to cross; I wanted to dwell within the act of the painting’s creation, get involved with the making of the work, put my hand within it and by that act encourage the individual viewer to challenge it, deal with it, and thus see it in its dynamic raw state as it was being made, not as a piece of history._
This oft-quoted statement betrays a remarkable affinity with Stevenson’s own strategy. His “objects of intrigue” act at a similar remove, staging tableaus of a given historical event or exchange as a way of returning that history to its “raw state,” thus freeing it to embark on a new autonomous life. Not insignificantly, this tactic also forces the viewer to “deal with it.”
In a 2009 interview with curator Nav Haq, the artist cites his own hyperrealistic drawing of a photograph of Guernica in the process of restoration (once again preferring the aftermath of destruction to the moment of creation). Stevenson’s copy, which appeared in a newspaper and then online, was so faithfully rendered that it could have been — and perhaps was? — mistaken for the original photo. As Haq points out, there’s no way to be certain whether what was printed was the archival image or its pretender.
There are things that are false that can never be disproved.
After “the Guernica action,” Shafrazi retreated to Italy for several months, before returning to Iran in 1976. There he would be taken under the wing of Kamran Diba, who would introduce him to his cousin the empress (née Farah Diba). Her favor would allow Shafrazi to rise from one of the art world’s most notorious vandals into one of its preeminent power brokers. The Shahbanou was one of the leading art patrons of the early seventies, purchasing art for her new Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art and bringing international artists to perform at her Shiraz Arts Festival. Founded in 1967, the annual event was set in a city a stone’s throw from Persepolis, the ancient ceremonial capital of Persia. Built in the fifth century BCE by the ruler Darius the Great, the city is deeply tied to the mythology surrounding his predecessor, Cyrus the Great, the ravenous conqueror who would famously crown himself “King of the Four Corners of the Earth.”
Two and half millennia later, the Shah would make a similarly outrageous claim, declaring himself Emperor and inscribing his “Peacock Throne” in Cyrus’s lineage at what was arguably the biggest party of the twentieth century — an elaborate three-day feast at Persepolis. The roster of witnesses made for an impressive census, a mismatched deck of too many face cards: “Nine kings, three ruling princes, two crown princes, thirteen presidents, ten sheiks, and two sultans,” according to a tally by writer Michael Clark. These esteemed visitors were housed in more than fifty guest tents, arranged in a star formation around the Shah’s quarters in the Tent of Honor. Each tent was lushly outfitted by the French firm Maison Jensen and included thoughtful touches like air conditioning and servant’s quarters. In the banquet hall, peacocks were taxidermic and used as table decorations, or grilled and stuffed with foie gras, only to be followed with a sorbet of Möet 1911. The desire to impress had the opposite effect; while the spectacle of wealth did bring a people together, it mostly served to unite them against their leader. As for Persepolis? Clark reported:
… Little remains aside from the skeletal steel frames and the scraps of bleached and tattered fabrics, flapping in the wind. There are vague plans to turn the site into a holiday camp. For now, the only subsequent addition is a hand-painted sign, erected by the current regime. A quote from the Qur’an, it warns the curious visitor: “examine what your predecessors did and learn a lesson.”
For the 2007 edition of Art Basel Unlimited, Stevenson modeled a tent on the remains Clark described — the ruins of the party at the ruins. In lieu of the original steel structure, the artist draped cardboard with artificially distressed cloth, which he embellished with pine needles, bones, and false eyelashes. Symbolically speaking, his Persepolis 2530 served as both a reckoning and a wager, infiltrating the commercial space of the art fair right at the market’s most lurid; in that moment, its impending crash seemed as likely as a 2,500-year-old empire dying over a dinner party.
The artist accompanied this object with the palm-size volume Celebration at Persepolis (Christoph Keller Editions, 2008). The book shuffles through the major players of the story, picking them out like cards from the deck: HIM, Her, Her architect, Monarchists, Revolutionaries, and so on. Each character is distilled to a sum of distinct impressions and momentary images: Warhol’s silver balloons being discovered amid the guns in the armory, or those same balloons being brought to the lips of the Shah’s granddaughter, mistaken for a toy.
There are things that are true that can never be proved. There are things that are false that can never be disproved.
Stevenson might have imagined he would be leaving the Persian Empire behind when he accepted a commission for the fifth Panama Biennial in 2008. It turned out that he was only following the story to its illogical conclusion. Forced to flee Iran in 1979, the Shah, his wife, and their family had embarked on a fourteen-month trek. One of the stops on this tour of exile was Isla Contadora, a leisure destination off the coast of Panama where conquering Spaniards used to go to count (contar) their pearls. Celebrated as the “Jewel of the Pearl Islands,” the resort had just enough casinos to keep the Pahlavis entertained, if not amused.
History teaches that cards can come in handy during an island exile; at least two types of solitaire have been attributed to Napoleon, purportedly invented during his sojourn on St. Helena. The Shah’s time on Contadora — from roughly December 1979 until March 1980 — was passed in similar pursuits. Indeed, witnesses wondered if it would not have been more dignified for him to have died in a battle for his country than to waste away at a tropical resort, posing for pictures with Panamanian tourists. The Shah maintained that his first duty was to preserve his bloodline, to spite the damnable math that had reduced a 2,538-year dynasty to “one household suite and two dogs” (“introverted” poodles, at that, we are told). That number was to be even further reduced, as the Shah himself was quietly entering the final stages of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was reputedly the fourth richest man in the world. (When the British journalist David Frost speculatively offered to buy him out for $1 billion dollars, the Shah replied that he must refuse to comment on such matters until he saw anything on paper. “And besides, you don’t have a billion dollars… do you?”) Even the King of Kings understood that he could not purchase his way out of death. And so he played cards on Contadora.
That the Shah found himself in Panama at all — “a passage rather than a destination” — was the outcome of another high-stakes gamble, one that involved then–U.S. President Jimmy Carter handing over the much-disputed Canal Zone to General Omar Torrijos Herrera, “Maximum Leader of the Panamanian Revolution.” This is the story told over the cards in Introducción a la Teoría de la Probabilidad. As the textbook slide show gives way to footage of the pale forearm counting out the decks, Stevenson’s narrator shifts from outlining the principles of probability and continuity into speculation on the Shah’s stay in Panama. The script recasts the Canal Zone negotiations as a type of flexible algorithm, in which the probability of Ronald Reagan entering the next hand might affect the value of the King of Kings in the cards currently on the table.
Stevenson draws his narrative from the memoirs of another wild card by the name of José de Jesús Martínez, revered by all as “Chuchú.” “Panamanian by choice,” Chuchú was a native Nicaraguan who became deeply involved in the political histories of both his countries. Having studied at the Sorbonne — he would later converse with the Shah in an easy French — Chuchú began his career as a professor of Marxism. Changing political tides soon swept him to mathematics, a field in which he would publish many a text (including the source material for the slide show in Stevenson’s film). In the professor’s spare time, he made a name for himself as a pilot, poet, and playwright, an occasional philosopher and perennial philanderer, and an outspoken advocate for (and known harborer of) refugees from neighboring dictatorships. Chuchú was the type of man who ordered his wine by the political regime, rather than the vintage; it was said that he never imbibed any Argentine wines produced during Pinochet’s reign. A chance encounter with an elite Panamanian guerrilla warfare unit — the Wild Pigs — led to his close bond with General Torrijos, who recognized the professor as a kindred spirit, eventually promoting him to a place of honor as his personal bodyguard. After the general’s death in a 1981 plane crash, Chuchú recorded his experience in Mi General Torrijos (1987), the memoir that would serve as one of Stevenson’s primary sources.
Three years prior to Mi General Torrijos, the British author Graham Greene would publish a memoir of his own, genially titled Getting to Know the General: The Story of an Involvement. Greene crafts his account as a collection of coincidences, starting with the author’s first day in Panama. He leaves the hotel with the wrong bodyguard, sent to pick up another Senõr Greene. From there, the story plays out like a poker game, a continual re-combination of facts, figures, and face cards. (One example? On Contadora, the Shah of Iran dined with Patty Hearst, who was there on a honeymoon with Bernard Shaw — the son of a San Francisco fireman, not the Irish playwright — her former bodyguard.) The book itself is haunted by its abortive twin, the novel Greene had originally planned to write about the general and his bodyguard. That novel, tentatively titled On the Way Back — Chuchú’s constant refrain during their adventures — was never written, but it is described at length within Getting to Know the General. At one point, Greene humorously depicts his reluctance to inform Chuchú that his fictional doppelganger was doomed to die in a plane crash, mere hours before the mutually assured seduction of a sultry European journalist. Chuchú was thrilled, immediately quoting a line from Yeats’s “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death”: I know that I shall meet my fate / Somewhere among the clouds above. But in a sick twist, fate would assign Chuchú’s fictional ending to his beloved general, whose very real demise no bodyguard could have foreseen.
In both of these accounts, facts are always flexible and reckoning shaky at best, events just as likely to have occurred as to have never happened. This may make sense for the novelist, but for a professor of mathematics, Chuchú was remarkably casual in his practice. When asked how many children he had, he shrugged: “About twelve, I think.” Greene relates another instance of his disarmingly flexible understanding of the discipline:
He showed me a short book he had published with the title, The Theory of Insinity. “What on earth is insinity?” I asked. “Oh, well, you see, I had lost a front tooth and when I was lecturing I found I was saying ‘insinity.’”
Just as Stevenson seems determined to emancipate his subjects from their own status as “a piece of history,” so Chuchú sought to return mathematics to its “dynamic, raw state.”
In mathematics, there are things that are true, there are things that are false.
But what of the things which are neither?
The narrator of Introducción a la Teoría de la Probabilidad calculates that the number of possible permutations of a deck of cards yields a figure sixty-eight digits long — “a tribute to the typographic beauty of the factorial function.” In this instance, the probability of a deck ever being shuffled the same way is infinitesimally small. The probability for a close approximation, while still very small, is naturally slightly higher. These unfathomable figures aside, one must remember that all instances of probability can still be contained in the space between the one and the zero, the yes and the no, the true and the false.
On this kind of scale, the bodyguard is always somewhere in the middle, neither fully present nor fully absent. This quintessential conundrum likens him to another figure of fascination for Stevenson, the barber in Bertrand Russell’s parable about set theory. The question is simple, but its ramifications are immense: If the only barber in town shaves every man who does not shave himself, who shaves the barber?
If a village barber can nick a foundational assumption about how things are counted, it stands to reason that a demon could disrupt our understanding of entropy. In 1871, Scottish physicist James Maxwell published the proposal that the second law of thermodynamics could be overturned by the act of a single demon — heretofore known as “Maxwell’s devil” — opening a secret door (The probability of this happening did not factor in. The emphasis is on that there is likeliness at all.) According to Greene, Chuchú advocated a similar belief, although he scrambled the variables, concluding that a single door could attest to the presence of the devil. “‘Haven’t you noticed,” he said, ‘when you try to open a swing door, you always begin by pushing it the wrong way? That’s the Devil.’”
It is a rare Marxist who does not believe in God but swears that the existence of the devil can be proven by the swing of a door. To understand more about this man and his liberal application of the laws of physics, Stevenson returned to Panama in 2011, when he interviewed the professor’s friends and former colleagues, hoping to glean more information or anecdotes that might help the artist piece together the specifics of Chuchú’s proof. This research would constitute the basis of the “New Math” calculated by the swinging doors at the Museo Tamayo.
As an addendum to the exhibition, Stevenson republished one of Chuchú’s more theological tracts, a slender volume called Theory of Flight, which the artist had printed on airmail paper as a feather-light leaflet. The essay inside addresses the specific considerations of piloting a plane, before giving way to a meditation on life, death, and the pursuit of certainty. “The things one needs to know in order to fly a plane are few and quite straightforward,” Chuchú writes. “But they all share that unique quality that places them, in terms of dignity, far above any other kind of knowledge: we stake our lives on them — not in a theoretical or abstract manner, but in a very real way, here, now, bathed in oil, burnt, lying in a heap of red-hot metal and tin.” It would seem that, for the bodyguard, true value lies in accountability for one’s own life: “What could all the wisdom of a theologian or a metaphysicist who never has to pay for his mistakes or profit from his successes possibly be worth next to a pilot’s knowledge of the relationship between temperature and oil pressure, on which life itself depends from departure to arrival?”
“A pilot may not be a man of learning,” Chuchú concludes, “but he is wise, because the little he knows is as valuable as human life, and that little knowledge he possesses is a treasure that he continually examines, mends and polishes.” While this may come as consolation to Chuchú the pilot, the mathematics professor is still left with doubt: “This is how I’d like to know whether or not God exists. This is how I’d like to know that two plus two equals four. This is how I’d like to know everything, so that everything might be a risk and every piece of knowledge a reward.”
There are things that are true that can never be proved.
Statistics insists that past events have no bearing on the event at hand, and the desire that they should only leads to what textbooks call “subjective probability.” After all, every one knows that after the same card has been drawn twice, the probability of it being drawn a third time remains 1:52.
At the end of Stevenson’s film, the narrator poses the question: How many winning hands are still possible when the first player has already the Ace of Clubs? But this question is no longer relevant, as we already know from earlier that the ace of clubs has gone missing from this deck. For his part, Stevenson never seems too interested in who is holding the ace, anyway; like Chuchú, it’s only the devil he’s out to prove.
There is, however, one last card that Stevenson has yet to play, and what probability could explain it? It is an image of Chuchú, pulled up by the algorithm of an internet search engine. The portrait is cropped close in the manner of a book jacket author photo. The bodyguard’s head is cocked at a confessional angle, his eyes locked on the viewer. He could be entirely naked, although that’s not likely; it is likely, however, that he is mostly naked. He appears to be on his hammock, but his eyes burn with napless intensity. He is using two hands to hold one card. It is printed with an image of Guernica.
The deck is always stacked, the voice concludes at the end of the slide show. Mathematics is infinite.
Late in the summer of 2012, one could walk into the Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum (ACAF), a noncommercial art space housed in the lofty rooms of a grand old apartment in the city’s Azarita district, and find a floor-to-ceiling wall text advertising an exhibition by the artists Céline Condorelli and Uriel Orlow that had come and gone six months before. Nothing remained of the work. The space had been eerily emptied of art. This was strange but also somehow symptomatic. At that point, eighteen months after the eighteen days that forced Hosni Mubarak’s resignation and ended thirty years of a dictatorship in Egypt, countless rounds of revolution and counterrevolution had thrown the cultural life of the country into a tailspin, along with everything else. Next to skyrocketing unemployment and an economy in freefall, the freezing of an exhibition program was minor but totally understandable. ACAF’s scheduling had always been a little inconsistent, anyway.
Still, there was something almost perfectly apt about this awkward trace of an absent exhibition. What began, a few years earlier, as a series of installations and performances called There Is Nothing Left had become a large, lingering project that seemed like it would never go away. What’s more, the name of the show and the book that Condorelli and Orlow made together, which finally appeared at ACAF late in the winter of 2011 — their third try after postponing the whole thing twice — was Terrain Vague, Persistent Images. Everything about the work seemed like it was conspiring to stick around.
For years, Condorelli had a line about Alexandria, arguably the most melancholy city on earth, banging around in her brain like a sad, stubborn refrain: “Il n’y a plus rien” (There is nothing left). This was a sentiment conveyed to her again and again, whenever she spoke to older exiles who had left Egypt’s second-largest city in the years after Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized everything and turned the revolution against the country’s minorities and foreigners — peasants, merchants, and cosmopolites among them.
Since 2009, that line had provided the constant spark for Condorelli’s ongoing exploration of the ups and downs of the Egyptian cotton industry, from the fields of Alexandria to the mills of Lancashire, where Egyptian linens were for a time re-exported to the far ends of the British empire. The cotton industry as a barely visible, unarticulated system moving elliptically around two points, both of them now obsolete, is the armature beneath two substantial bodies of work — There Is Nothing Left (2010–2011), arranged in three movements like segments of a musical score, and the room-sized, ever-changing, archival installation titled White Gold, (2012). The passage by ship between Egypt and England is the third body of work that Condorelli is still in the process of making.
At its essence, a work in progress is a problem or a set of problems that runs the risk of remaining unresolved forever — held back by some obstacle, impasse, or anxiety turned inside out. As such, it’s a distress signal that doubles as an unintended invitation to pinprick an artist’s practice, particularly at a time in the art world when completed works, and the artist’s statements that sustain and explain them, have become so smooth and slick. Unlike ideas never tried or proposals never realized, there is great practical value to the fact that a work in progress is already under way. Maybe it’s half complete or almost finished. Whatever the case, it has momentum, which makes any observation and discussion of its working or malfunctioning parts not only dynamic but also totally unpredictable — and therefore fascinating as a flash of insight into an artist’s mind.
What Condorelli refers to informally as “The Egypt Project” is up against not one problem but four. First, it doesn’t remotely fit with the rest of her work in terms of style or aesthetic. Second, on matters of form, it depends primarily on images, which are things that Condorelli, preferring solid objects, finds slippery and suspect. Third, it’s personal — the artist’s grandmother was born and raised in Alexandria — and Condorelli has always studiously avoided autobiography and angled her work away from the pitfalls of identity politics. Fourth, and most obviously: Egypt and the Arab Spring and the spate of truly terrible revolutionary art that has been churned out, chock-a-block, to feed the press and serve the market. No one — and certainly no one as deadly serious or as intellectually unflinching as Condorelli — would want to associate his or her work with that.
Before February 11, 2011, the hinge holding Condorelli’s work in Egypt together was her interest in the critically distant, historical aftereffects of the 1952 revolution. But after? What could she do? Draw connections between one revolution and another? Anything she did to accommodate current events explicitly as art was bound to fall short. At the same time, for an artist trained as an architect, nominally based in London, with an established practice that otherwise looked a lot different than this, Condorelli suddenly seemed doomed to a contextual vortex that was both way too far from her studio and way too close to the present. She’d never be done with Egypt. Her project couldn’t braid its thematic strands together fast enough. The story was forever unraveling and falling apart. It would never end.
To read through the densely layered material in Terrain Vague, Persistent Images, then, is to delicately unmake her work — its plots, rumors, tangential anecdotes, diversionary details, and marvelous source materials, which all ring with a slightly different resonance now. To read through the book, in other words, is to peel back the skin of the work to see how it was made, its skeleton and its support structure, which is, not coincidentally, Condorelli’s abiding interest as an artist.
Condorelli, who is thirty-eight and carries French and Italian passports, studied music in Florence and Geneva before attending architecture school in London. Like many students who moved through the Architectural Association in the mid-1990s, she never had any intention of becoming a practicing architect and didn’t design a single building during the course of her formal education. She says she slid into being an artist because she was interested in working with space and wanted to explore how people navigated through given environments using specific objects or systems to guide them.
That chain of associations among people, places, and things eventually developed into Condorelli’s notion of support structures — such as library bookshelves, exhibition displays, office furniture, billboards, maps for public parks, scaffolding, staging, storage units, even postcards, shopping bags, and user’s manuals. For years now, she has been investigating how such support structures are and could be built, as well as what they make visible, what they make intelligible, what conditions they expose, and what they allow to happen in the end. A friend of Condorelli’s calls her the last architect in the art world. Her style tends toward the cerebral and austere. In an essay she wrote for Mousse, she defines friendship as a process of “thinking together” with someone (so much for warmth or affection), and cites her work as her most relevant friend, before launching into her (lovely) research on the lifelong, writerly bond shared by Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy.
“Support Structure” is Condorelli’s largest and most ambitious project to date. Planned as a ten-part collaboration with the artist and curator Gavin Wade, it includes an eight-point manifesto, a brick-size book, and an ongoing series of architectural interventions, which are endlessly repurposed to create new forms of social, political, and intellectual interaction. If “Support Structure” concerns itself with identifying and revitalizing the seemingly incidental objects and unseen systems that serve to hold, bolster, prop up, frame, carry, bear, sustain, and effectively embrace things — including not only straightforward things like books, documents, and artifacts, but also things of a rather more vague nature such as friendship, camaraderie, work, and an unbreakable imagination for social and political change — then the “The Egypt Project” tests out how ephemeral and immaterial that second cluster of objects and systems can get. Things like trade, business, industry, agriculture, and manufacturing seem plausible enough as linking mechanisms between people and places, but what about intellectual kinship or artistic influence? What about memory, recollection, the sharing of lived experience, or the old and ragged art of storytelling? How enduring are those bonds, when it is not the stories that are being supported but the telling that is providing the structure?
Compared to the solid, streamlined objects that Condorelli has used to carve out a space at the point where furniture, exhibition design, scenography, and architecture meet, “The Egypt Project” is a wonderfully leaky vessel, incapable of holding onto all of its melancholy and romantic material. It oozes narrative. It spills nostalgia everywhere. It is unabashedly elegiac for a time when the regions we know today as rigid were fluid and various communities were in flux. The work can do nothing to tidy the messiness of Alexandria’s many histories. Condorelli’s family connection to Alexandria is never mentioned. And yet it is very much the beginning of the story, precisely because that world is gone and there is nothing left.
But actually, the real beginning is the plant. The Nile Delta nurtures a particular species of cotton, nicknamed “white gold,” which is famous for its unusually long silken fibers. Egypt came into great wealth and became a one-crop country when the civil war in the United States knocked out the possibility of cotton being exported to Europe from the American South for a time. When the conflict ended, the old trade routes resumed and the owners and workers of the Egyptian cotton fields suffered. British and French colonial forces moved in, took control of the country, and managed the industry until the revolution in 1952.
Four years later, Gamal Abdel Nasser brazenly announced the nationalization of the Suez Canal from the balcony of Alexandria’s cotton exchange. The revolution soon took to dismantling the country’s cosmopolitan milieu. It wasn’t only that religious minorities, oblivious Ottoman migrants, and native-born foreigners were forced to leave; the sudden hostility was such that those communities were robbed of their work, their businesses, and their livelihoods when the new regime took over the country’s industries. For those forced into exile by hardship or fear, immediately and irrevocably, there really was nothing left.
And yet, as Condorelli began her research, she found a lot more of substance than those oft-repeated narratives of loss. One interview subject gave her four reels of 16 mm film, which were shot in Alexandria and other parts of Egypt in the early 1930s. The films had never been shown to anyone, had been smuggled out of Egypt in 1958 by an Italian diplomat, and had been returned to the wrong person — circuitously ending up in Condorelli’s hands. For the artist, who digitized them and turned the stills into slides that are projected onto fine cotton sheets in the first movement of There Is Nothing Left, they were “new and unknown images of a life and a family who left Egypt without images.” There is a totally seductive, incantatory quality to this work, which is to be found nowhere else in Condorelli’s oeuvre.
In the last two years, she photographed warehouses in Alexandria where cotton is still cleaned and bagged, though the industry is nothing today compared to what it once was. She went to the mills in Lancashire, including the last one to weave Egyptian cotton, a company called Peter Reed, which made bedsheets for the queen. She toured the same sites Friedrich Engels visited when he was writing The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. She took pictures of construction sites in Alexandria that may or may not have been halted to conduct archeological excavations. She made playful images of all the obelisks that were stolen from Egypt and shipped to New York, London, Paris, Rome, Istanbul, and a surprisingly high number of Italian cities.
She obsessed over the film Trop Tôt/Trop Tard (Too Early/Too Late), from 1982, by Daniele Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, a radical diptych showing the countryside of France empty, the villages of Egypt overcrowded, to make the provocative point that revolution came too late in the first world, too early in the third. The film borrows heavily from Engels and also from The Class Struggle in Egypt, 1945–1970, a book by the Marxist historian Mahmoud Hussein. Hussein, it turns out, was the pen name of Bahgat El Nadi and Adel Raf’at, two men who wrote together, went to jail together, fled Egypt together in 1966, and allegedly bawled their eyes out at a screening of Huillet and Straub’s film, lamenting the fate of their country. Even Adel Raf’at was a pen name within a pen name. Eddy Lévy, the great-grandson of a Sephardic rabbi from Aleppo, was said to have changed his name and converted to Islam — either out of political solidarity with his writing partner or because he was in love with a Muslim girl whose parents wouldn’t look at him for anything less.
Condorelli collected books about cotton plants, cotton farming, and the particularities of the Egyptian cotton flower. In collaboration with the curator Grant Watson, she gathered examples of cotton goods imported to the UK, bought a bed quilt, and borrowed other books, documents, images, and artifacts from a range of collectors, friends, and fellow artists. She pursued various leads that led nowhere or ended in the frustration of subjects refusing to speak. She pored over the American Colony Archive in the Library of Congress, which includes detailed photographic studies of the Egyptian cotton industry in the 1930s and 1940s.
It’s not only the mysterious half-told stories or the beautiful archival images that threaten to overwhelm “The Egypt Project.” It’s also the way the narrative moves around the material, allowing the cotton industry to be seen not clearly or rationally but rather like a ghost, a mirage, and a projection. In the installation White Gold, a set of muscular red steel display furniture, has the same aesthetic as Condorelli’s “Support Structure,” and is in fact a part of that project, but the modular system of tables and shelves are built for a precious archive of fragile things. What’s more, the real draw of the piece is a sumptuous, twelve-meter-long curtain made of high-grade cotton (of course) and printed with an archival photograph of a farmer in a lush landscape of cotton fields.
“The promise of wealth was shimmering so hard people couldn’t even see it,” Condorelli says. “I know that’s mesmerizing. I know that.” After a pause, she adds: “When I do an artist’s talk, I either talk about ‘The Egypt Project’ or I talk about the rest. I was thinking about the project for a long time. And the context of Egypt has changed so much since I started working there, and not always in a good way. I was working on the consequences of the 1952 revolution for so long.” Then another revolution happened. “I was so confused. I asked [the sociologist] Avery Gordon, What do I do? Do I integrate the present? I know that’s the hardest thing to do. Do I go to Egypt? Do I go to Tahrir? Do I do a show?”
She did all of those things and also made a work that allowed her, in effect, to leave “The Egypt Project” alone. Something Stronger Than Skepticism (2011) is a series of five monochromatic prints, each featuring the front pages of the world’s major newspapers — all from the first week in February 2011, leading up to the day Mubarak stepped down — piled on top of one another. Here, Condorelli’s suspicions are clear and for the most part resolved. “It’s the only work I’ve ever sold,” she said. “And it’s the only work I’ve ever made that fits in a frame.” Her trip across the Mediterranean for the third part of “The Egypt Project” won’t be so easily contained. But it will be interesting to see what holds it together, what keeps it going, and what solves its problems in the end.
Artforum, which recently celebrated its fiftieth year with a 554-page anniversary issue, has a kind of megalithic authority in the art world — imposing, storied, seemingly timeless. Founded in California in 1962, it moved to New York in 1967. Philip Leider, its first editor, was a charismatic and severely opinionated young man who became the anchor for an unlikely assortment of critics who wrote as though their — and all our — lives depended on it, producing dozens of definitive essays in the magazine’s distinctive square-shaped pages. Leider left in 1971; his coterie violently dispersed a few years later, and two of them, Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson, founded October — a journal with a reputation for even more recondite prose than Artforum.
Since that tempestuous epoch, Artforum has only become more formidable. It acquired a varicolored pop edge in the 1980s, when Ingrid Sischy — later the impresario of Interview magazine — opened its pages to a wide range of forms and contents that many of her predecessors had considered beneath interest; either a breath of fresh air or a noseful of garbage, depending on your taste.
The editor in chief of Artforum in these 2010s is Michelle Kuo, a preternaturally fresh-faced Harvard-trained scholar and writer. (Her PhD dissertation considers the odd amalgam of 1960s artists and engineers that went by the name Experiments in Art and Technology.) Kuo, who is Chinese American, hails from the cornfields of Indiana (or at least, a college town amid the corn) and worked in art-related new media ventures during the first dot-com boom. Her tenure as editor interested us in part because we edit a magazine ourselves, and have spent considerable time of late pondering the question of legacy.
Last November, the senior editorship of Bidoun met Kuo at an eerily deserted Le Pain Quotidien near Artforum’s offices to get her take on anniversaries, antagonism, and the state of contemporary criticism.
Negar Azimi: How old were you when you took over Artforum?
Michael C. Vazquez: I would like to point out that I let the woman ask the other woman her age…
Michelle Kuo: Normally people think I’m twelve. I’m thirty-five now, so in May 2010, when I became the editor, I would have been… I’m born in September. Does that mean I was thirty-two?
MV: We don’t really do math…
NA: We have a math intern. Have you read that Janet Malcolm essay on Ingrid Sischy? Who was like—
MK: Yes, she was twenty-eight or so.
MV: Anyway, you became chief editor before you hit the Jesus age.
MK: Someone always reminds me that Roman Jakobson was nineteen when he wrote his magnum opus.
MV: I would like to point out that it’s crazy that someone always reminds you that. Anyway — so then how did you prepare for the job? Did you go back and read all the back issues as part of that process? Because that is an intimidating archive.
MK: You know, I had already worked here a few years when I changed positions, so there was a — somewhat false, as it turns out — sense of continuity. But in terms of the archive, it’s been a continuous process of reading as much as I can. There were a lot of things that were canonical that I had already read. And I’ve read more and more since I got here. There are always surprises. But preparing for the anniversary issue was the real crunch.
NA: Did you go to them with an agenda or an idea of what you wanted to do as editor in chief? What was your pitch?
MK: There were a couple of things I wanted to change or amp up… and a few things the magazine has always had to contend with. There’s language and readability — the much-discussed style of Artforum. It’s like Rashomon — depending on who’s talking, we either have a completely arcane, academic house style… or we have an almost slick, commercial style. I guess the writing that I most admire can be read on multiple registers — it will have that richness or polysemy. That’s one of the things I aim for and I would say that’s a long-term battle for any editor at this magazine.
Another goal was to make the most of the fact that I come from an art history background, whereas many of my predecessors were coming from a literary or publishing background. So there were certain things I wanted to privilege — certain forms or genres, texts that paid attention to the formal, to put it bluntly. I felt that too much criticism was inattentive to or simply glib about the material or structural characteristics of art today.
The last goal was to really extend the depth and reach of the magazine’s coverage internationally. That’s something I’ve worked very hard on.
One thing you quickly realize is that this institution is bigger than any one person. And you’re often trying to contend with many speeds at once — the speed of the market and the gallery world and the major institutions, and the kind of… longue durée of historical reflection. Eventually you recognize that you’re much more bound to a timetable. But you don’t want to be in lockstep with this churning cycle of the art world. Establishing your own rhythm in that cycle is all part of the practical and conceptual challenge of doing a monthly art magazine. And you do want to drive the conversation somehow. We just put the work of an eighty-year-old Japanese woman on the cover, and she is going to be new to many people.
MK: Tsuruko Yamakazi. She’s one of the last living members of Gutai. She’s still painting.
MV: We wanted to talk some about how you went about commemorating Artforum’s extraordinary longevity. This question of how to take stock of a literary life, and how to evaluate it. I liked that Cabinet magazine’s tenth anniversary event took the form of a public trial. They charged themselves with lying, political irrelevance, and aesthetic corruption, and then tried to answer the charges.
NA: We’re thinking about this too, because next year Bidoun will be ten years old.
MK: It was not even remotely on my mind when I took the job. I guess I started talking about the issue with my colleagues a year in advance, trying out different ways to approach it. The first thing I did was look back at earlier anniversary issues. And they were all pretty different. Jack Bankowsky had done both the thirtieth and the fortieth — the fortieth was a double issue about the Eighties. The thirtieth was more straightforward, interviews with previous staff members and some contributions from regulars.
MV: There’s that book Challenging Art that Amy Newman did, which is an oral history of the first… fifteen years of Artforum? And it’s really fantastic—
MK: She did an amazing job. I don’t know how she was able to get all those different people to say so many things on the record. It’s very hard to do that.
NA: Who is she?
MK: She was an editor at ARTnews, and she’s currently writing the biography of Barnett Newman. I had lunch with her — I was trying to do more research on Phil Leider, the founding editor, and she’d talked to him extensively for the book.
MV: He kind of went off to Israel and disappeared, didn’t he?
MK: Well, no — he first went to UC Irvine, and then taught at the Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem. That’s why I always joke that I’m going to retire to a kibbutz when this is over. He really did seem to wipe his hands clean, though. He refused to be interviewed for decades. He didn’t want to have anything to do with the world that he felt so disappointed by, I guess.
MV: Ah. I mean, he’s such an interesting character. It’s weird to say, but I found that book so gripping, the personalities so Olympian. Not least because they take themselves so seriously. I mean, also, I love a well-done oral history more than almost anything. I love that book Edie to death. But there are so many incredible details in Challenging Art — including the fact that the tenth anniversary issue was basically an attack on the idea of Artforum.
MK: Exactly. They had attacked so many positions, they had to attack themselves as well. [Laughs] Obviously, times and contexts have changed very drastically over… half a century. And fifty years is so much text — I don’t think anyone could read it all and have a life. But there are some obvious things — pieces that are very well known, like Michael Fried’s “Art and Objecthood.”
MV: Perhaps less well known: Fried’s entire PhD dissertation on Manet, which took up an entire issue in 1969.
MK: [Laughs] Oh my God. That was wonderful. I’ve had people propose that format to me again, but I don’t think it’s repeatable. Anyway, there were all kinds of texts that were — are — fascinating in their own right. So I thought: What’s a way to revisit those slightly less canonical texts that were important in their time and are still extremely relevant? Almost like a hidden history of the magazine. But I didn’t want to get lost in hagiography — to just wallow in the past. How to look forward as well? I considered various themes that could do this temporal work, and in the end — and because I am, as you know, very much invested in the relation of art and technology, which was central to the era when Artforum started, and is all the more critical now, albeit very differently. So media and technology became the vessel… And those old chestnuts medium and media, which these days strangely span the lexicon of art historians, on the one hand, and Silicon Valley, on the other. So I thought it might be an interesting lens onto contemporary practice.
MV: As well as a very apt way to evoke many of the pivotal moments or conflicts in the magazine’s past.
MK: Yes. And then it turned out that there’s a letter in the archive of an artist named Chuck Csuri — a letter that Leider wrote to an art historian who was pitching an essay about Csuri.
NA: What year?
MK: In 1967. So that was a perfect artifact, dismissive but still prescient — the line was, “I can’t imagine Artforum ever doing a special issue on electronics or computers in art, but one never knows.” And this provided a fitting introduction to the entire anniversary issue, which was a big deal to us, of course — and drew a lot of attention when it came out. It became a nexus of everyone’s anxieties and desires, from every angle you could think of.
MV: Not just a big deal, but also just… big. Like, nearly insurmountably enormous. Because of all the ads. I actually — and I apologize, this is sacrilegious, I know, but — to prepare for our conversation with you I actually had to tear the thing apart, to make sure I didn’t miss any pages with articles on them. And this seems like a thing about Artforum — it’s almost like Playboy for the art market. Okay, that metaphor doesn’t quite work… But I mean — basically if there’s one magazine a gallery is going to advertise in, it’s going to be Artforum. Which in a sense makes it the paper of record, regardless of what happens at the level of ideas or writing. You know what I mean?
Is that something you think about, or have to deal with? And when did it happen, exactly? Challenging Art doesn’t really talk about it, but it doesn’t seem like the early Artforum had that same kind of… commercial savvy or whatever. It was definitely in the red when Leider left.
MK: Well, it sort of went up and down. The first time there was a considerable chunk of advertising was the Eighties. But then the recession hit in the Nineties, so the issues get very slim again. Throughout, though, it’s always been a small operation, very different from magazines owned by big media conglomerates. As to the function of the advertising — there’s an old cliché, that there are people who just read the ads and others who just read the editorial.
MV: I guess I just confessed which kind of person I am. [Laughs]
MK: “Never the two shall meet.” But I actually think there are many people who enjoy both. In terms of sheer volume, this fiftieth anniversary issue is definitely the biggest one ever. But the next largest one was October 2008 —
MV: On the cusp of the bust.
MK: Right. So this relationship between the editorial and the business side, or the lack thereof, is something that everyone is always conscious of and has been for a long time. And there’s no doubt that they implicate each other in terms of reception. But that implication can be generative, it’s something we have to be reflexive about, and it cuts to the core of anxieties surrounding the production and reception of art itself right now.
MV: There’s a story in Challenging Art — it’s basically the very last thing in the book. It’s a really incredible — in the sense of terrible — moment, when John Coplans, who took over from Leider and kind of presided over the breakup of the old group —
MV: — and also published a number of pretty influential pieces in a mode that was much more… social history of art, if you will. Including, like, some of the very first articles to talk critically about the CIA and abstract expressionism, which Serge Guilbaut cites as being very influential on the research that became How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art.
So one night, Coplans is at some opening at the Met and Leo Castelli walks over to him and smiles and says, “I got you fired.” Presumably for running all of these… somewhat Marxist, material culture–type pieces? And reviewing things negatively? Which then led to advertisers withholding money and stuff. Although it’s somewhat contradictory, because it seemed like it was under Coplans that Artforum stopped losing money. And of course this is all transpiring in the wake of the Scull auction, which kind of inaugurates the art world as we know it.
MK: One thing that I still find remarkable about that period, or a little earlier — I’m going back to the really olden days —
MK: — was the idea that you could have a magazine publish “Art and Objecthood,” [Robert Morris’s] “Notes on Sculpture Part 3,” and [Sol LeWitt’s] “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” all in one issue. Held together, in such tension. Because a) the stakes seem so high, and b) these inquests are so diametrically opposed. That is really interesting to me. I suppose because one fears, you know, being too wedded to one gallery’s program, or being too closely aligned with some coterie of artists — on the one hand, that’s exciting, to be part of a moment or movement, but it’s… that’s not necessarily what I’m interested in. So I always find moments when vastly different discourses are held together in tension, even conflict, the most provocative. And Artforum at various times has done that. By the same token, the Eighties are often maligned, but I find it astonishing — the vast range of things they could write about, even just the things that made it onto the cover —
NA: Those cats smoking cigarettes. [Laughs]
MK: Yeah! Those cats! Wait, did we talk about that, or did you…?
NA: No, I just love it.
MK: [Laughs] Yeah, it’s amazing. I’d always assumed that that cover was tied to a portfolio of an artist’s work — it’s by a Japanese photographer, so I thought it was his portfolio… but no, it’s actually tied to a portfolio about — cats in art? [Everyone laughs] An eight-page portfolio, very serious. Serious and loose at the same time. There’s a humor there that is coupled with the market boom and some very grave issues. The Reagan Revolution. But there was something really fun that I was not expecting. It was a real pleasure, going over those issues, seeing that in action.
MV: Yeah. I really liked how you had people write new material about old material. A lot of it was really great. The Thomas Crow piece in the anniversary issue on Phil Leider’s epiphanic freak-out. And I mean — I had no idea that Lipstick Traces had started off as one of Greil Marcus’s columns in Artforum. About… cowboy philosophers? Which was his way of talking about the Situationist International and The Return of the Durruti Column and the band Gang of Four.
MK: Yeah, insurrection in every form. I mean, the columns. That was one of the things I was struck by — that no one had revisited, say, Barbara Kruger’s television column. Which was over the top.
NA: I wanted to ask you about art criticism, because there’s such a — it’s not just Artforum — a global mode of being highly congenial. [Kuo laughs] Like, if one did a structural analysis of the average art review, whether it’s theoretically inclined or not, it tends to be thickly descriptive, then there’s some name-checking, some boilerplate, and then… you know, it’s very rare that someone takes a position of any kind. Unless it’s a museum show, I often find—
NA: I wonder what you think about all that. Are we talking about a small community of individuals afraid of hurting their friends? Why are the stakes different now? Are there stakes?
MK: Well, I think those are two separate things. One is that the stakes are not what they were. Maybe it’s — and others have said this too — maybe it’s because, in a way, the stakes are higher? So a young artist today is entering into a much larger art market, and a much larger… art meat grinder [laughs apologetically], for lack of a better term, than they were in the early Sixties. They’re not just laboring away in their loft or whatever, making work, and maybe someone will see it, maybe they won’t. They’re entering a more highly public, a more highly professionalized, monetized platform. And one reaction to that is a tempered, timid, critical response — “social grease.”
But the other thing is that I find that a lot of the reviews or writing you’re talking about — I mean, there isn’t even that much description. They’re very knee-jerk. They’ll name-check some references, maybe, but in the end it’s an impoverished version of social art history. They read the work as a very transparent signifier for some sort of social or economic context, like neoliberalism… or whatever. That is a very reduced state of criticism, and that’s something that I hope to militate against. My secret is that I’m actually a reactionary formalist…
MK: Not so secret now, I guess! But I’ve always admired the way Yve-Alain Bois looks at very limited bodies of work — for example that of Barnett Newman, who only made, like, 140 paintings in his lifetime, or Mondrian — almost like a closed system. And within that system he can identify generative devices that everyone else was blind to — and how they change over time. It’s a stunning recognition — to be able to see, suddenly, how Mondrian is inventing new pictorial systems, piece by piece. Similarly, it was a revelation to hear him unpack what happened, month by month, between Braque and Picasso in 1912. To me, that type of piercing visual and theoretical acumen is very much missing from art criticism today.
MV: That’s great. But I’m not really sure what that means? I mean, part of what’s confusing to me is that, as I barely understand it, Artforum 1.0 was reactionarily formalist, and then when that consensus broke down it was over the question of pluralism… Or diversity of media? Like if they wanted to do an issue on film or dance or whatever, it was the end of the world.
MK: Well, there are different types of formalism, and the kind I am talking about is as far from mere description as it is from no description at all. Certain parts of the early Artforum were definitely wedded to Greenbergian formalism, which is itself a kind of impoverished way of looking at things (mere description, and often poor description at that). That’s what you’re talking about when you say “Artforum 1.0.” But that early Artforum was just as engaged with the breakdown of Greenbergian formalism, of medium specificity and purity — Smithson, Minimalism, LeWitt, they’re all figureheads of that very move to the heterogeneity and promiscuity of postwar art.
And then Annette Michelson and Rosalind Krauss turned to this incredibly generative discourse around structuralism and Russian formalism, which at its best is also the very opposite of Greenberg. They opened up the magazine to film, etc. And I guess I feel very indebted to that approach — that it can be reinvigorated today. But that’s not to say that you couldn’t have a lot of other approaches. In fact, I think that any theoretical apparatus is just one of many that you could apply, case by case. Anyway, when I say “reactionary formalism,” that’s a bit of a provocation, but [laughs]… the kind of formalism I’m talking about seems like the least employed but most potent weapon that people are not using right now.
MV: Weapon… in what fight?
MK: In the struggle to understand, or bestow some kind of meaning onto, works of art. And, what’s more, onto the incredible shifts in perception and sensation that we’re undergoing at this moment in time.
NA: Or just to look. People don’t… do people look enough?
MK: People definitely don’t look enough…
MV: I think part of what I’m still unsure about is the stakes? I think this is all impacted by spending time in the stark discursive universe of the early Artforums, which can feel like another planet. There’s something funny and interesting and kind of appealing about the way they talk. And not that many people sound like this. I feel like I encountered this language in the Nineties reading the New Republic — reading Marty Peretz, who is, like, a racist dick who writes with sweeping, almost thrilling moralism —
MK: Right! Yeah.
MV: Or Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor there — those two guys would write things, and I would be like, “There is something just almost intrinsically compelling to this rhetoric.” And Philip Leider totally has that.
MV: This somewhat crazy, super moralizing discourse, but it’s literally thought provoking. Like at the end of Challenging Art, Amy Newman gets various people to talk about legacy. And most of them are like, “Oh, I don’t know, blah blah blah.” And then Leider is like, “We need to do a thought experiment about how we cannot even imagine what the world would be like, what world we would be in, if Robert Smithson hadn’t died in 1973.” He’s like, “What if nothing that we know Picasso for had happened? What if Picasso had died in 1908? Because that’s what happened to us.” I love that.
MK: Right. This kind of apodictic —
MV: But then even back then, let alone now, I don’t quite get the stakes. They’re all like, “We’re holding the line.” [Kuo laughs] And I’m like, “I don’t know what you are holding the line against.” And, like, what’s… who’s on the other side of the line?
MK: One of them actually says, “It’s nothing less than the fate of Western civilization that is at stake.” It was a culture war, and they felt as if it could determine the very outcome of society. You know, the other thing — it’s from that book, too — is when Rosalind Krauss says that suddenly they went from that sort of belletristic, wishy-washy language to art criticism, to a language that was hard, that was verifiable, that could generate these kind of empirical statements and judgments. And that this was a revelation. I still feel like that is the font for all of what comes afterward. Even though it’s a very schismatic breakup. And that legacy of legitimation or apodictic pronouncement is still something that people associate with Artforum. But it’s not the same, obviously. There’s no way that we could still do that with the same effect.
One thing that I find interesting is that some of the most strident critics of that time were artists themselves, talking about their fears, criticizing other artists. And that is just — it’s the dodo, I mean, you will never have that happen again. Which I totally understand… But that mood, I find so amazing.
NA: You don’t think it’s possible again?
MK: I don’t know if it’s possible again. Right now, it seems like… it’s not possible. But to get back to that question about what the stakes are today — to me it seems like there’s a lot of criticism that essentially functions as glorified press releases. And it may be old-fashioned to think that that’s not all that there is, but…
NA: You mean that sets the tone…
MK: Yeah, or it becomes a very watered-down discourse. People are not really engaging what they see or how they perceive. That, in and of itself, makes a difference. So someone like Fried — even if he came to the “wrong” conclusions about Minimalism, etc. — paying that much attention to an artist’s work would be beneficial in this day and age, when most people go and just read the press release, or look at the Tumblr post, and come away with a very prescribed, one-sentence understanding of what that work was about. There’s no risk. Even Warhol would be way too bored by that, I think.
NA: Can we talk for a second about what might be the most controversial image in the history of Artforum? I’m talking about that centerfold image of Lynda Benglis, where she’s holding a dildo to her crotch.
MV: And she’s naked, and has very prominent tan lines, and sunglasses. It actually looks like an outtake from some lost X-rated Duran Duran video.
NA: As I know you know, Benglis claimed that she was making a point about the “male ethos” of the art world. But the image was denounced as exploitative and brutalizing… by the two female members of Artforum’s inner circle, in fact. Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson both cited it when they resigned from the magazine to start October, though of course there were many factors that led to that little apocalypse.
MV: Cindy Sherman supposedly said that that image changed her life.
NA: But I feel like there’s an echo of this in — whether you call it political art or not — a certain body of work that is highly celebrated not for its formal qualities but because of its social mission or ethos or its supposed politics. In these cases it looks like the content — the so-called “good politics” — trumps formal or other considerations, and ends the conversation before it’s begun, really. Which is a shame.
MK: If I can read a description of a work and that’s all that you need to know about the work, it’s probably not a very interesting work. [Laughs] Even the dematerialization of the object, or the advent of institutional critique — they did produce things, like paperwork… or experiences, like seeing rearranged studs on a wall. Or audio guides… those sorts of artifacts, or just ephemeral moments, are themselves crucial! But this is also a false dichotomy; form and content are inseparable. And so to change someone’s perceptual experience might be to change their experience as a political subject as well. This is what the Russian formalists were talking about in terms of defamiliarization, of “estranging” one’s perception in a literally revolutionary way. I think that’s still an interesting model of how to think through subject matter or politics in tandem with apprehensible form. So the first thing I would say is, I think this question, or this answer, is still very much with us today. And I think a lot of what people are describing when they try to reconcile political content and sensuous form — from the “redistribution of the sensible” to the renewed interest in materiality and the “agency of objects” — is still in the mold of defamiliarization.
Now, whether or not defamiliarization is really possible nowadays, in a consumerist era, in which our perceptual capacities are being upgraded all the time by new technologies and products… That’s a very good question, I think, and it’s the dilemma that we confront now.
MV: So then would you, as editor of Artforum, have published that Lynda Benglis image, do you think?
MK: What? [Laughter] I mean, honestly, I wasn’t there, so —
MV: Because that’s somehow related to this question, in a way.
MK: I think the circumstances are very different. And would I, at that historically specific moment in time, would I have found it objectionable? I don’t think I can know, because it was both an extremely political and personal debate. The people involved couch it in different ways. You can talk about it in terms of the division between editorial and advertising.
MK: Because she actually placed that image in the magazine as an advertisement for her upcoming show. But then there’s the role of feminism and whether hers was an antifeminist stance. But — I would just have to say I don’t know. Because I wasn’t there at the time.
NA: I have a question about writing, because I know from personal experience that you’re an uncommonly writerly editor. Above and beyond Artforum, just in general. So I was wondering what… worries you, or doesn’t worry you, about criticism today? People love to moan that art magazines are unreadable. To what extent does that concern you? And if it does — what are you doing, if anything, to address that?
MK: Well, one thing I’ve tried to do more of is artists’ projects, where you don’t necessarily need a lot of explanation. So you might just be confronted with a very weird or compelling set of images, and that’s it. We’ve also introduced a type of piece that’s just one writer on one work — a close reading. Writerly-wise, I favor clear prose — but necessarily not simplistic prose. There’s a difference. Whether this means using short sentences or specialized terms or an arch or seductive tone, I like language that says something and conveys ideas, an argument. Even a mood. As you know, we have a lot of writers who have their own highly identifiable style, which is something that I really love and enjoy. So long as they are not unnecessarily, self-indulgently obfuscating — you know, contrary to the myth of Artforum, I think everyone here is committed to hacking our way out of that forest of obfuscation. We may not always be successful, but we try. Blood, sweat, and tears.
NA: Who are your favorite critics?
MK: I mean… I can’t go on record and answer that, because I think all of our critics are amazing.
MV: Of course — you love all your children. [Laughs] What about: Who are your favorite critics… who don’t write for you?
MK: Well, somebody whose writing I love, who has written for us, actually, but is just in a different world, is Peter Galison. He’s a historian of science, but he’s also an incredible writer. And he tackles very arcane subjects — I mean, it’s sort of an impossible task to make, say, the history of particle physics labs [laughs] interesting, but he really does. I’m also a vehement devotee of mystery — I do like when there’s suspense to a text. It might be a cheap thrill on my part, I don’t know, but it’s —
MV: No, I believe that just means that you like the essay, a form we’ve had for several hundred years [Kuo laughs], and which works by making you excited about something that’s about to happen.
MK: But not that many essays successfully do that! I’m trying to think of other writers — M. F. K. Fisher. Agatha Christie. Louis Marin. These are just off the top of my head. Writers I take a lot of pleasure in.
MV: Have we talked about how I think a vastly underrated form of prose — even underrated by her publisher, who insists on publishing her works without the prose from the original editions — is to be found in Marcella Hazan’s early cookbooks?
MK: I know, yes!
MV: Those original mass-market paperback versions of her books are some of my favorites. They have some of the finest uses of language to describe sensual objects that I’ve ever read. Speaking of engaging what you see — and feel, and taste.
MK: I actually grew up with her cookbook. My mother had it.
MV: Oh my fucking God.
MK: I know. I know! And you’re right, food writing is really —
MV: We’ve been working on all these interviews and at one point I thought: I just need to interview people that I like. And the person — actually the people — that I like most — who I don’t know at all — are Marcella Hazan and her husband Victor, who is like the secret sharer in all her books.
NA: Is she Lebanese?
MV: No, but her mom grew up in Alexandria. She’s totally Bidoun.
NA: I know who she is. She’s got the right eyebrows.
MV: She’s 110 percent Bidoun.
MK: Can I be Bidoun because of the Silk Road or something?
NA: That’s why you’re here. [Laughter] Mike is Bidoun because of his eyebrows.
MV: The eyebrows are Mexican. It’s actually because I’m from one of the great Middle Eastern cities in the world: Detroit!
Larry Gagosian is the kind of person about whom everybody has an opinion, though little is actually known. Rumors swirl around him like wind on a djinn. He only dates tall black women. He’s secretly a Rosicrucian. He is a great friend to widows and children. He was married once for five minutes. He drives a Ferrari. He was friendly with Kurt Vonnegut. He loved Leo Castelli, and vice versa. He has the personality of a swordfish. (This last, courtesy of an interviewer in the Financial Times.)
Until recently, at least, he was loath to give interviews.
We know a few things. Gagosian is sixty-seven years old, the son of Armenian émigrés: a housewife who was once a minor actress (she appeared in an Orson Welles production) and an accountant who worked for the city of Los Angeles. He loved — loves — jazz. He majored in English literature at UCLA, did a brief stint at the William Morris Agency, made some money parking cars. Not long after, he started selling posters on the street for extra cash — and not long after, never looked back.
He might well be the most powerful man in the art world. Certainly the unabashedly commercial, supersize art world that we live and work in today owes much to Gagosian. He was one of the first to make his galleries more like museums, the better to present big, museum-quality shows (like a memorable 1988 exhibition featuring Roy Lichtenstein’s tongue-in-cheek Picasso paintings, or another, in 2009, of late Picasso). He is famous for his eye, and for his shrewdness. His artists have included Andy Warhol (Gagosian is credited with creating the posthumous market for Warhol), Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jeff Koons, Cy Twombly, and Mike Kelley. He has surrounded himself with enviable specialists — scholars like Robert Pincus-Witten and John Richardson, brainy aesthetes like the late Robert Shapazian. And his market prowess is undeniable: In 2006, he brokered the sale of Willem de Kooning’s “Woman III” (which had made its way out of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in circuitous, film-worthy fashion) for $137.5 million, the highest price to date for any painting. The critic Peter Schjeldahl has said of him, “He’s like a shark or a cat or some other perfectly designed biological mechanism.”
Today there are twelve Gagosian galleries, from Beverly Hills to London to Hong Kong. The latest, in Paris, sits in a 1950s airplane hangar; access appears to be reserved for the .0001% who own private jets.
In early November of last year — it was Election Day — I met Gagosian at his mostly white offices at 980 Madison Avenue in New York City. Having arrived early, I was told to take a long walk, and made my way around an exhibition of Twombly photographs — sweet things, faded and nostalgic — along with a suite of his late paintings — bright and huge and lush, almost vaginal, bursting with life. After some minutes of lolling about as collectors strolled by and the gallery’s security guards timed their smiles accordingly, I was ushered into a hallway and then another hallway stuffed with two pretty young assistants and finally to his office. A mottled Lucio Fontana canvas hung on the wall. I sat beside a well-heeled member of Gagosian’s public relations team (she insisted on supplementing my recording device with her own). Having expected someone with the attention span of a gnat, I was somewhat rattled by how friendly and focused he was.
Gagosian is at least six feet tall with closely cut gray hair and steel blue eyes. The emperor’s suits are probably… expensive. He is laconic, and boasts a gratuitously everyman manner that may or may not be disingenuous but which seems charming for a man whose biographies have yet to be written. His primary mode is sanguine self-assurance undercut by occasional (but vivid) impatience. For the whole of some forty-five minutes, he trained the formidable ammunition of his eyes on me, only occasionally rebuking me for my muffled delivery.
Negar Azimi: We share Robert Shapazian in common. He and I became close back in 2000 or 2001 and traveled around together a bit. I had been in Cairo working with the photographer Van Leo, and Robert was so interested in photography, as you know. Bidoun actually did an interview with him in our first Interview issue eight years ago (Anna Boghiguian and Robert Shapazian in Bidoun #8).
Larry Gagosian: Did you ever go to Africa with him?
NA: I did. We went to Mali for the photography biennial in Bamako. And he came to visit me in Cairo. He was the first person I knew to use antiseptic hand cream…
LG: He was germ-phobic.
NA: Totally. He was particular. We would go to expensive restaurants and he would order fruit salad and then pick at it… [Laughter] How did you two meet?
LG: I’m pretty sure I met him here at the gallery on Madison Avenue. He came to my attention as a collector of Duchamp and Warhol, and we’d always been involved with Warhol. I think I sold him some paintings. But we didn’t really become close friends, I was just aware of his collection and his ambition as a collector. At a certain point we had a mutual friend, Daniel Wolf, who was really close to Robert and was involved in photography — as you probably know, he had a great photography collection. He knew I was working on this gallery in LA and I hadn’t really settled on a staff or director, and Daniel suggested that Shapazian would be a good guy to talk to. I was a little surprised because I’d always thought of him as kind of a well-to-do, not terribly… employable collector. But Daniel put us together and Robert warmed to the challenge of the gallery and we ended up having a long association. He worked for the gallery for ten years or longer, I can’t remember exactly. A significant period of time.
NA: He had a super-ironic and wry sense of humor.
LG: Yeah, he was hilarious. Very funny. And really smart. He was terrific. It was great to have such an eccentric, brilliant guy in the gallery.
NA: I have to say, Robert being of Armenian origin… I have a lot of interesting Armenians in my life, and it’s left me thinking that there’s something really peculiar about your diaspora—
LG: My what?
NA: Your diaspora. I know that you supported Arshile Gorky, for example.
LG: Well, we’ve done several Gorky shows. We’ve been the primary gallery for the Gorky family for many years and — yeah, as an Armenian American, I was understandably very proud of Gorky, one of the great artists of the twentieth century, one of the pioneer abstract expressionists, who happened to be Armenian. He had a very sad personal story in many respects — with his immediate family and then, you know, the genocide in Armenia, which took his mother and many of his relatives. He had kind of a sad life as an artist; I mean, he ended up dying of cancer after his studio burned to the ground, and his wife left him… which is kind of understandable, because it really kind of fell apart for him. He was a great artist with a very moving personal story.
NA: I heard that you and Cy Twombly had talked about possibly going to Armenia together at some point.
LG: We did. Very sadly that didn’t happen. But Cy had a particular connection to Gorky, who lived in Virginia on and off. Cy did a drawing — I wish I owned it — there was a wonderful drawing I think from the 1980s where he wrote on it “My people eat stones" or something like that, and it was a direct reference to the Armenian genocide. I don’t know who said it, originally — it might have very well been Gorky who uttered that phrase. Cy was born in Virginia, as you know, he had a studio there, and the Shenandoah mountains… there was a series of works on paper and paintings by Gorky called “Virginia Landscapes.” So there was this kind of connection from different points. And there was the work Gorky did, particularly his mature work, starting in ’42 to when he died — you can see that Cy must have been influenced in some ways by a certain freedom in Gorky’s work. There was kind of a break with European art, which would come to be one of the foundations of abstract expressionism.
NA: But his life ended so quickly.
LG: He was a young man in 1948 when he hanged himself. And if you look at the other abstract expressionists — Rothko hadn’t made any of his signature paintings, Franz Kline hadn’t made one yet, Barnett Newman had just begun tentatively… so if you look at it that way, it’s very interesting. Pollock had just started to do the very first drip… Gorky finished when they were just starting, so it’s kind of an interesting timeline, the timeline’s very interesting. I’m sure if he’d lived longer, if he hadn’t had such a tragic death, he undoubtedly would’ve gone on to do many more great works.
NA: Cy also had a relationship to the Middle East that was kind of special.
NA: Cy Twombly also had this relationship to the Middle East —
LG: Yeah, he was a traveler. Cy used to travel a lot in the Middle East in the Fifties and Sixties.
NA: To Iran.
LG: Afghanistan, Iran. He used to romanticize that part of the world. But then there were the changes that took place and it became more difficult to travel there…
NA: And less free.
LG: It became less safe. There was freedom of travel, you know. I think a lot of people enjoyed travel in that part of the world in a way that you can’t really now.
NA: People used to drive!
LG: They used to get in a car and drive to Damascus. It’s hard to imagine now, when you look at the news and you see what’s going on. Regardless of how you view the Arab Spring. Certainly it’s become a more complicated part of the world.
NA: I was in Abu Dhabi the first year or second year of their art fair where you gave a talk. You were really frank about your professional history and how you got to where you are. And I just wonder if you could tell me a bit about that moment? When you started out. What was your visual world like at that moment? I mean, were you interested in visual culture?
LG: To be honest with you, I wasn’t really interested in art. I had never thought about having a career in art and didn’t really understand the art world or… I was an English major in college. It was really kind of a fluke. I started selling posters because I thought I could make more money that way than parking cars. Simple as that. I saw somebody else selling posters and I basically just copied their business. It was a total lack of imagination. Of direction, really. It was just like, I could sell posters instead of just parking cars, so I was parking cars and selling posters and making more money and it just led me to a kind of wonderful life as an art dealer. There wasn’t a plan to get into the art world; I didn’t see this as an entry point. It was not a professional decision — if I’d seen somebody else selling something, I might’ve sold that. I was very lucky that it turned out to be a career path.
NA: What were those first posters you sold? I mean did you also try to psychologize what people liked to put on their walls?
NA: Did you think a lot about what people liked to put on their walls? There must have been a fair amount of psychology—
LG: Not selling posters. It was just like, get them to buy it. You know — ask for twenty dollars and be prepared to take anything north of ten. It was a street business. It wasn’t about psychology.
NA: But were they reproductions of canonical works of art?
LG: They were not reproductions of works of art. They were really what we call schlock. Cheap posters of bad paintings. I mean, it was not what you’d find in the poster shop at the Whitney or the MoMA. You would buy the poster for fifty cents. It wasn’t really a poster, it was a cheap print.
NA: That you framed.
LG: That you put a frame on. You buy the print for about a dollar, the frame would cost you two, three dollars, and then you try to sell it and make a profit. And I’d make a couple hundred bucks a night, which was a lot of money.
NA: And were you selling to college students or —
LG: Anybody who walked by. Young people… I mean, somebody who wants something they thought was attractive to put on their wall and they don’t have a lot of money. People have to hang something on the wall, I guess, so this was kind of the bottom of the barrel. [Laughs]
NA: Right. I mean, we always joke that the Iranian diaspora in LA — they all have posters of Van Gogh’s flowers, like some —
LG: No, no, don’t make any cultural connections.
NA: Okay. Not at all?
LG: It was just something to sell. And then I started buying more expensive posters, because the company I bought my posters from made posters that would cost me, instead of a dollar, maybe twenty-five dollars, fifty dollars. So then I could put a better frame on it and sell it for a couple hundred bucks, and I’d make money faster that way. And that slowly got me looking at art as… You know, I wasn’t really that much into art. I sort of liked it. But I was really captivated by writing and poetry and music, that’s really what —
NA: That was your world.
LG: Kind of. Those were my friends. We didn’t talk about art, we talked about writers. We talked about musicians. But once I got into it, it really kind of took over; it pulled me in a very strong way. And I enjoyed making a decent living. I didn’t grow up with money, so it was nice to be able to buy things and get a better place to live, you know, all the things that come along with a certain amount of success. And that was very seductive. So it was two things: for the first time I’m actually making money. I was on my own, I was thirty years old, and then when I had my first gallery I was like thirty-three, thirty-four, but it was the first time I ever had any money and that was exciting, to be honest with you, to be able to afford things, take my friends out to dinner, whatever it was. And then I really got interested in the art world, not just art but the art world, and meeting artists. I started coming to New York, and it was just good for me. It couldn’t have been better.
NA: But could you have started out anywhere else besides LA? It seems like there was a particular thing happening there.
LG: I suppose New York would have been ground zero for art, but maybe it was better not being in New York. I don’t know. It was good that I was in LA because I think LA is really, after New York, the most important city for art. Maybe not for the business of art — that might be London now, because of all the money in London and the auction houses, so I think in terms of the economics of the art world, I’d say London is the second city. But for the people who make art, for the artists and for young galleries, LA is probably the second most exciting city. Some people say it’s even more interesting than New York, and that’s a conversation. I mean, that’s a conversation, but certainly it rivals New York.
NA: I guess it feels more like a community, because of the art schools and the fact that a lot of artists teach.
LG: Yeah, there’s a lot of great artists that work in LA, and that’s been a constant since the 1950s.
NA: So what was that world like? Who was it? People like Chris Burden, Baldessari…?
LG: I’ve never worked with John Baldessari, but I knew him socially, we became friends, but I’ve never dealt with his work. But Chris is an artist I started working with early on, right at the very beginning. And we still work together. Which is nice, you know — it’s nice to have that continuity. I think I first showed Chris in 1977 or ’78, I can’t remember which. One of my very, very first shows of a single artist. We’re really proud of the long association. He’s a great artist.
NA: Were there other people that sort of were pivotal for you at that moment, where you thought, I really want to work with —
LG: You mean artists?
LG: Well, Vija Celmins was a new artist… We showed her prints — one of my first shows was her prints and all of the lithographs that she’d made. I got them together and made a nice exhibition. But yeah, you realize that what’s important is to show the best art you can, and when you’re starting out you don’t have the access, you don’t have the money, and you don’t have the knowledge, even. I mean, I realized early on what would make a gallery interesting would be showing good art. Which is kind of obvious, but… Something that I’ve always paid attention to is to work with the most important artist that I could.
NA: Yeah. But you obviously have an eye, a good eye.
LG: You have to have an eye if you’re an art dealer.
NA: And I’ve heard from —
LG: Even a bad eye is an eye. [Laughs]
NA: At least it’s distinctive. But I’ve heard from a lot of people who know you that you have a sort of photographic memory, or just a really good ability to —
LG: I don’t have a photographic memory.
LG: I have a select memory.
NA: Or a good visual memory?
LG: Yeah, I have a good visual memory. I’m good with faces, but names — I get in trouble a lot, I can’t seem to remember people. People think I’m rude. As a side comment, you know, I’m not being rude, I just kind of blank out.
NA: Yeah. You have a… persona. Now, do you remember the first piece of work that you bought for yourself? Something you just wanted to have and live with.
LG: I think one of the first things I bought was a drawing by Vija Celmins that was eleven hundred dollars and I bought it from a collector, a great collector in LA named Barry Lowen, whose collection all went to the Museum of Contemporary Art in LA when he died. He was a young man when he died, he had AIDS, and he was a very good friend of mine. We used to do a lot of business and became really good friends. So the Celmins… I remember it was eleven hundred dollars, and it’s always out on loan, I think it’s at the Pompidou or something, but I’ve kept that drawing since the Seventies. That was one of the first. That was a lot of money for me to spend — eleven hundred dollars for a drawing. I really loved the drawing, and I knew when I bought it that I’d made a good buy, even though it was not cheap and Barry Lowen got the proper price. I knew it would be worth a lot more.
NA: What’s the drawing like?
LG: It’s a pencil drawing of the ocean.
NA: I asked you about Cy Twombly, but are there any other artists that you felt really close to? I mean that you had either a long relationship with or were intimate with or… I’m sure you’re close to all your artists, but —
LG: Well, Richard Serra is an artist I’ve worked with since 1982, and he’s somebody I’ve had a long relationship with and worked very closely with. It was nice when Cy and Richard were both alive. Richard’s one of the great living artists, and somebody I enjoy working with.
NA: Would you do anything for him? I mean, if he built a sculpture that didn’t fit into your gallery, would you find a way to accommodate it somehow?
LG: We’d probably try. You know, put it outside. [Laughs]
NA: Are there any others? I mean, it’s a tough question but —
LG: There are so many artists I enjoy working with. I just mention Richard because I’ve worked with him for thirty years and I mention Chris because I’ve worked with him even longer. I mean I’m not going to say which artists I’m not close to—
NA: Of course.
LG: But I enjoy working with artists. It’s a real challenge and it’s a real responsibility, because you’re responsible for their livelihood, you know? Seriously. And they’re just very interesting people for the most part. They’re usually pretty smart. I just like the whole… the relationship between the gallery and the artist is a very interesting thing, different with every artist. The gallery stays the same, in a way, but the artist’s relationship changes, so it’s one of the things I really enjoy. I like engaging with artists.
NA: If you had to have Thanksgiving with an artist or a collector… I mean, what’s your comfort zone?
LG: I’m comfortable with both. I like being around collectors, you know, because it’s an occupational necessity, but also, I must say — not to flatter any particular collector, but art collectors are usually pretty interesting people. The fact that they’ve chosen to spend money on art… I mean, people who really collect, on an ongoing basis. Not just somebody who’s decorating their house, but somebody who’s really engaged with art and thinks about it, evaluates it, buys it, enjoys it, and talks about it — that’s what I’m talking about. Somebody who’s just, “Alright, I have some stuff on the walls" — those can be good customers, but that’s a different kind of thing. It’s great because as an art dealer you get access to people that are quite fascinating, you could even say important people, that you wouldn’t have access to if you were in some other line of work. You get a window into a world that probably isn’t that easily accessed.
NA: Were there any early collectors that you worked with that were especially on your wavelength? Or you were very involved in the building of their collections?
LG: Yeah, a couple. Probably the three that stick out would be Eli Broad, Si Newhouse, and David Geffen.
NA: I wanted to ask you a bit about —
LG: This is going to go a long time if we’re going to cover ancient history…
NA: [Laughs] No, no, I just want you to be comfortable! Yeah, no, I know, I know —
LG: We’re still back in the Seventies.
NA: Okay, I’ll jump around a little bit.
LG: You better jump around.
NA: I’ll jump around.
LG: We’ll have to move this a little faster.
NA: Alright, alright, alright. But it’s so good —
LG: It might be good but I still have auctions starting this evening.
NA: Sure, of course. Okay. So, your gallery has become totally global. It’s sort of everywhere, situated in vastly different cultures. Do you think there’s something about art that has become global, in the sense that you’re not selling very specific things to Hong Kong versus Athens versus wherever?
LG: Do we target certain types of artists for different parts of the world? Not really at all. We basically show the same artists everywhere. The artists we represent, the estates that we represent — we try to make sense of it, and it’s complicated because with this many galleries you have to be very focused on the work. With art — it’s not like it’s a global business like a fashion business, where you can just keep opening stores, just have more production and so on. Artists make work at the pace that they make work and you can’t ask an artist to crank out — I mean, it’d be nice [laughs] — but the reality is, you have to be respectful of that, and it’s tricky. It’s very demanding. But we don’t really say… in Italy, let’s have an artist that Italians would like. The market’s more —
NA: Sophisticated, in a way.
LG: The modern world is much more… contemporary. People look at the same things, you know, whether it’s in Hong Kong or Athens. And so we just work with the artists that we represent, and try to juggle it all.
NA: And about Abu Dhabi — I’ve followed that evolution a bit. And I wondered whether you were aware of what was happening in the Seventies in Iran, with the royal family, collecting—
LG: Now I am. I wasn’t aware at the time, though. I was kind of oblivious to that sort of thing.
NA: I just wonder if you see any corollaries.
LG: Well, yeah. I mean, hopefully, it ends better. But yeah, you have a very wealthy royal family that’s buying art — and I think that’s great, by the way, you know the Shah had a museum and people could go look at the art, it’s —
NA: Still there.
LG: To be honest with you, what’s the difference between that — I don’t want to get into politics, but you know, the Rockefellers bought art and they put it in the Museum of Modern Art and people from all over the world can go look at it. So I think it’s great that you have a royal family in Qatar or in Abu Dhabi—
NA: That has a public —
LG: That has the means and the desire to build a great collection, and then you share it with the world — or certainly, share it first with your country and the people that live in your country. But it’s great. I think if you have the wealth to do that, and assuming that people are being taken care in the other aspects of their lives—
NA: Why not invest in it?
LG: You know, why not? It enriches the country, I think.
NA: You mentioned that in college your world was more writing and music. Is that still true? Like, what do you do when you’re not involved in… this? I’ve heard you’re into jazz —
LG: I work a lot. I spend most of my time working.
NA: Do you watch stupid movies?
LG: Do I watch stupid movies?
NA: And also good movies!
LG: Yeah, I like movies. Yeah, I like movies.
NA: Are there any directors that you’re really especially into?
LG: I like Roman Polanski. I like his movies, and… I love Stanley Kubrick. He’s dead, but…
NA: Still great.
LG: Two of my favorite directors.
NA: And music?
LG: Uh… music. I like jazz a lot. I just joined my very first board. I’ve never been on a board, but I just went on the board for Jazz at Lincoln Center. I’m very happy about that. Good jazz has been a big part of my life, as far as my interest in music, and… . It’s kind of weird now with music, the way technology is, with downloading and iPods and electronic distribution and it’s kind of — you miss something, I think.
NA: Like the texture of vinyl, and…
LG: Yeah, but not just the vinyl, I’m not a vinyl junkie. It’s more that… music has become so seamlessly distributed that it loses some of its connection with people. I don’t have any nostalgia for vinyl, but it is nice when you really like to put on something and listen to it, particularly with people that like to listen to it. Now you come to my house, it’s like, stick the iPod in and turn it on. It’s very convenient, but it also… slightly numbs the experience, I think. I used to have a store in my neighborhood in East Hampton where I used to love to go on a Saturday and buy CDs and come back and listen to them. That’s not that long ago. The good side is, everything is more accessible and maybe cheaper. But the personal connection between the audience and the music in some ways is lost.
NA: Yeah, you said seamless, I think it’s like an —
LG: Do you agree with me?
NA: Yeah, it’s like an elevator, I mean how music is everywhere, in the atmosphere —
LG: Yeah, there’s no background.
NA: Just a couple more questions. I know that you invest a lot in good catalogs. I mean, it seems like you really care about print culture, and I just wonder if you have any favorite books? Or do you read art magazines at all?
LG: Very little.
NA: Yeah, they’re pretty wordy right?
LG: I honestly have to confess I don’t read art magazines.
NA: Yeah, yeah, I think they’re terrible [laughs], I mean they’re —
LG: I don’t think they’re terrible, I just don’t read them. I read other kinds of magazines.
NA: Like what?
LG: I like magazines. Well, now I’m reading a lot of design magazines because I’m building a house. I’m building a new house here in the city, so I’m reading a lot of design magazines trying to get ideas and things to feed to my architect. So that sort of thing. And then I love cars — I’m a car junkie, not a big car collector but I love cars, so I read car magazines. I read news magazines, occasionally. And I read books a lot. I’m more of a book reader.
NA: What are you reading now?
LG: I’m reading a book called Sutton.
NA: What’s that?
LG: It’s about a bank robber named Willie Sutton who was almost a folk hero. He never shot anybody, never used a gun. I wouldn’t have read it because I’m not particularly interested in bank robbers but the writer is a really, really good writer and it’s a very sensitive, well-written book. I recommend it. So it’s not like I’m particularly interested in the topic but it’s like a character from our past that somehow relates to the present.
Giorgio Agamben is the author of more than twenty-five books and is extremely well known. My dog, Bear, is not. Bear is six months old at the time of writing and is exceptional in many regards. He is funny and fierce. His mother is an Akita, a Japanese breed once used to hunt large game such as deer, wild boar, and Asian black bears. (For a time possession was restricted to the Japanese aristocracy.) Special outfits were required for the handlers, and a special language employed to address the dogs. Times have changed.
Of his father, not much is known.
I found Bear on a dusty porch in a very gang-controlled part of East LA. He was seven weeks old and in the possession of a kind but extremely laconic older gentleman who had fought in the Korean War. The pups belonged to his daughter, who left them with him for reasons he was disinclined to share. Bear and his sister Nagoya were being kept in a large crate, all day, every day, and were generally having the dog version of a very Dickensian early life. I had to make a decision on site. Someone had already claimed his sister and would be coming to pick her up shortly. Puppies are not plentiful here, let alone majestic-looking little hairballs with proud hind parts. I called one friend for an opinion and she told me to get out of there fast. I called another, who told me to take the dog with me.
Bear was, and remains, ridiculously cute. He appeared on the main web page for a major music festival because I happened to be walking by their pre-party when their photographer was coming out for a smoke. A literal majority of people during the first month of our time together made some sort of exclamation. Many of them were articulate. One day, in the space of three hours, I was told: “He just made my day”; “That just made my week”; and the beautiful and cryptic, “Everything is better now.” Having just moved to Los Angeles, I felt like I had some insight into what it would be to hang out with someone famous.
I was raised with dogs, and to some extent by them. My first memories are full of dogs and puppies, with the result that having a dog is the natural state of my world. I learn many things from my dog, including that every day is what it is and only once; that this is wonderful; that we should go to the park.
Giorgio Agamben, on the other hand: I first met in the late 1990s, in Paris, where I was a student and he a teacher. I spoke with him twice during this period, each time briefly. A decade later I wrote a book about his books. When it was finished I sent him a copy, and not long after we became friends. For a time I would see him frequently. Now I live far away and we communicate like everyone else.
Recently I was asked by the editors of Bidoun to interview him. Knowing his reticence in such matters I said I’d try, without much hope. The very next day I received an email from Agamben, urgently requesting cigarettes. The particular ones he smokes are unavailable in Italy because their American manufacturer refuses to conform to European Union law by covering their hundred-year-old package with the bellowing reminder IL FUMO UCCIDE! So I leveraged Bidoun’s desires against his affection and addiction, with the following as result.
Leland de la Durantaye: What do you think of my dog?
Giorgio Agamben: The other day I was walking in the countryside, in Tuscia, and came upon a horse in a fenced meadow. It suddenly came over to me and reached its head across the wooden paling, trying to touch me. I pulled up and gave him a handful of grass in response to his courteousness. He accepted it, though purely out of courteousness. A few moments later I ran a few strides and he immediately broke into a gallop alongside me. For the ensuing hour we communicated perfectly and profoundly. One thing this proves is that those who think that language is for communication are wrong. Language is not made for communication. It is made for something else, something perhaps more important, but also more perilous. Language is, in fact, the principle obstacle to communication, which animals know perfectly well. They watch us sometimes, filled by a strange compassion for us, caught up as we are in language. They, too, might have ventured into language, but preferred not to, knowing what might be lost. I imagine you have experienced something similar with your dog.
LD: There are ready-made images into which European intellectuals, especially learned ones, and especially philosophically learned ones, are placed, and one of these is that of the sage, the stern thinker whose wisdom has come at the cost of ease, affection, joy, the animal pleasures. Do you have a sense that others have this image of you?
GA: These images are made to protect people from the risks that come with thinking about things. The opposite is of course the case. The relation of reflection to sensation, joy, and pleasure is that it sharpens and extends each one.
LD: Does Descartes seem crazy to you? I mean that he could classify animals as automata and at the same time take such pride in his dog, Monsieur Grat — express such pleasure when Monsieur Grat sired a litter of puppies, and so on.
GA: Linnaeus: “Cartesius certe non vidit simias.” (Descartes clearly never saw a donkey.) José Bergamin, citing Pascal: “Descartes: incertain et inutile.” (Descartes: uncertain and useless.)
LD: When I was starting high school my (hippie) mother once punished me for sneaking out at night by requiring that I read Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation. Many years later I happened to be seated next to Peter Singer at an academic dinner. We had been asked to select our entrées in advance; I had selected a nonliberated animal. We naturally fell to taking about animals and he told me he didn’t have much feeling for them, which is to say his interest in the question was divorced from any particular emotional appeal. How do things stand with you and the animal kingdom?
GA: I have always known that I am an animal. As my teacher José Bergamin liked to say, Yo soy un animal. Unfortunately, the animal has been confined by an anthropological process that accords an identity to the human only by excluding the animal. What is more, I think that we should speak in such a context not only of animals. Plants, too, are alive. They are the highest form of life, infinitely superior to the so-called animals — mankind included.
LD: It seems that there are a class of things we can learn from animals that is very large, but has much to do with a time horizon. My dog was very excited about raw meat twenty minutes ago, and very frustrated about not being allowed to eat one of my shoes. Now he is asleep. I think we should all burn with that hard gemlike flame, and then let it go. What have you learned from animals?
GA: I’ll say again what I said before: I am an animal, even if I belong to a species that lives in unnatural conditions. And it seems to me at times that animals regard me with compassion. I’m touched by this, and feel something akin to shame every time an animal looks at me.
LD: At the outset of The Open: Man and Animal you speak of a vision of “mankind reconciled with its animal nature.” I know that the book itself is both a description of and a plea for that reconciliation, but could you say a bit about what it means?
GA: If the anthropological process I sought therein to analyze is founded upon an articulated division between “human” and “animal,” then their reconciliation is a philosophical task, consisting in deactivating both notions. Giorgio Colli once gave a definition of contact that seems to me prescient in this regard. Two things are in contact only when they are united by a representational void. The point at which the human and the animal are in contact is interrupted by what I have called the anthropological process.
LD: Of the many artists and intellectuals whom you have been close to — whether Italo Calvino or Patrizia Cavalli, Martin Heidegger or Guy Debord, Pier Paolo Pasolini or Ingeborg Bachmann or someone else — who was the most sensitive to animals?
GA: One you did not mention: Elsa Morante. She thought, as Kafka did, that animals were never expelled from Eden. Her cat Caruso was something of a legend. If Elsa and Kafka were right, then through animals we remain close to paradise. Given that we live in the same world, however, this means that not even we have been expelled from paradise, only that for some reason we imagine that we have been. This is why we are so hard for other animals to understand.
LD: I remember you and a painter friend once discussing a Roman parrot. Could you remind me what it said?
GA: In the late 1970s we often dined in a Roman restaurant called La Sora Lella, whose owner had a gracula religiosa, a myna bird, one of those birds that can perfectly imitate the human voice, as well as the voices of other animals. Every time I walked by the bird would greet me by saying, “Hi, how’s it going?” One time I was annoyed and replied, “You always say the same thing.” To my terror the bird said, “So do you!” It might be possible to find an explanation, but the experience was an unforgettable one.
LD: On a different note, you were part of a group of young leaders from around the world brought to Harvard one summer to be taught by Henry Kissinger. What was that like?
GA: I arrived at Harvard in July 1968, after having taken part in the final street fighting in Paris in May. I was twenty-six. One day Kissinger gave a lecture on the political situation. I remember standing up and saying with astounding shamelessness, in a loud voice, “Professor Kissinger, you understand absolutely nothing in politics.” When I returned to Italy in September I learned that he had become secretary of state of the most powerful country in the world.
LD: Is it true that one of your fellow young leaders was killed and then eaten by one of his political adversaries some time later?
GA: The participants in the Harvard International Seminar were divided into two groups: intellectuals and politicians. Both attended a seminar taught by Stanley Cavell. The young leader in question was an African who seemed to me truly wise and who later turned out to be a ferocious tyrant. As such, he was cooked and eaten by his enemies.
LD: A friend sent me this link: http://www.cafepress.com/Agamben+pet-apparel What do you think of the fact that people’s enthusiasm for you and your work has led them to make Agamben T-shirts for dogs? Do you have one? Do you want one?
LD: The first time I saw you speak you were talking about gossip — the gossip concerning St. Paul that has gathered over the many centuries since he lived. You write seriously about what are often considered unserious things — gossip, pornography, indifference. Could you say something about this?
GA: Walter Benjamin once wrote that the Messianic Kingdom can be present in the world only in forms that appear low and discredited. For this reason in his great book on Paris he concentrated his attention on things that historians had hitherto neglected: the scraps and refuse of culture. For me this is a fundamental methodological principle. What is more, we live in a society where the most beautiful things can only exist in distorted form, can be expressed only through parody.
LD: Now that you have retired, do you miss teaching?
GA: Like Ivan Ilych, I’ve always found the school to be one of modernity’s great catastrophes. I like to think and speak easily, freely, joyfully; but not to teach in a school. The place for thought is at a table, at a banquet. It is also walking in nature, listening to the things the birds or the crickets or the cicadas have to say to us. You will have recognized here the two Greek models of philosophical synousia: the Platonic symposium and the Aristotelian peripatos.
LD: You have taken extreme positions at many points in your life, from refusing to re-enter the United States after the passage of the Homeland Security Act in 2002 to declaring that “the concentration camp is the biopolitical paradigm of modernity.” How do you feel about the future?
GA: I am an archeologist to whom it sometimes falls, while excavating the past, to encounter possible futures that fill me with joy. If, on the other hand, you mean the future that those in power are preparing for the world — this does not exist, because it is the destruction of life.
LD: Looking back in later life upon his Wanderjahre, Schopenhauer deplored that “the three greatest pessimists in the world, Byron, Leopardi, and I” were all in Italy in 1819 and yet never met. Are you a great pessimist? If you were to participate in a summit of pessimists, who would you look forward to meeting there? Or, if you reject the term, why do you think that you are sometimes perceived as a pessimist?
GA: Pessimism and optimism are two psychological categories that have nothing to do with philosophical thought. Let them be left to fools. As for myself, I can say, with Marx, that “the desperate situation in which I live fills me with hope.”
On February 6, 2011, Egypt’s Head of the Supreme Council for Antiquities stood atop the lotus-like Cairo Tower in a resplendent suit, complete with handkerchief, and delivered an impassioned defense of his boss, the beleaguered septuagenarian strongman Hosni Mubarak. “I think the President is fine,” he told a BBC interviewer. “The President would like to stay. And all of us would like him to stay.” He continued, “He made the whole world respect Egypt, and he was a kind man and a good man and I myself always respected this man.”
The BBC segment was not Hawass’s first public interview that week, nor would it be his last. The silver-haired sixty-four-year-old appeared often on television during the country’s epic eighteen-day uprising, performing his historic role as protector of Egypt’s formidable patrimony — much of it in the Egyptian Museum, just meters away from the clashes in Tahrir Square. After looters stormed the salmon-colored museum, Hawass played down accounts of damages in an interview with Al Jazeera, even as cameras panned over the considerable detritus in his midst. “They destroyed two mummies and opened one case,” he insisted.
Mubarak stepped down on February 11. In the weeks that followed, the list of missing antiquities grew to more than sixty irreplaceable objects — statues, amulets, fans, and vases. The libertarian energy in the city inspired Hawass’s own employees to picket against him. Assembling outside the council’s headquarters in the leafy Zamalek section of Cairo, they clamored for better pay — the average Egyptologist is paid the equivalent of seventy-five dollars per week, even as the tourist industry brings in billions — and accused him of all manner of cronyism and self-promotion. There was talk, too, of his notorious intimacy with the Mubaraks, not least Mubarak femme, Suzanne. By July, like the patriarch he had so ardently defended, Hawass was out of a job.
And yet Hawass remains probably the third-most-famous living Egyptian, after Mubarak and Omar Sharif. A living, breathing icon — a kind of human obelisk — he has rebranded the country’s archaeological marvels through blockbuster globetrotting exhibitions on King Tut and Cleopatra. With his Indiana Jones hat, his lispy voice laced with saliva (delight in hearing him say Hatshepsut), and heroically massive hips, Hawass unearths tombs and hurtles up and down modest-size pyramids, lending his occupation all the glamour and excitement of a game show. An ardent nationalist, he battles with the museums of the world over important Egyptian holdings. (“We own that stone,” he says of the stele from Rosetta.) He balks at Afrocentrists who argue that the ancient pharaohs were black. When Barack Obama came to Egypt to deliver his “I Heart Islam” speech in 2008, it was Hawass who showed him around the pyramids. Americans might know him best as the host of the television series Chasing Mummies on the History Channel. (The New York Times reported that he has received as much as $200,000 a year to be an Explorer in Residence for National Geographic.) A renaissance man, he has collaborated on a line of clothing inspired wholly by… himself.
Ursula Lindsey: Do you see any parallel between what’s happening now and any other time in Egyptian history?
Zahi Hawass: This all happened exactly 4,200 years ago. There was a king called Pepi II. He ruled Egypt when he was eight years old. When you rule for so long, there is deterioration. Actually Mubarak — the worst thing that he did was to stay thirty years. Power accumulates around you, whether you’re the ruler or the antiquities director. I used to meet Mubarak during the opening of the Islamic Museum or other sites. I saw an old man who had lost his memory, could not concentrate. Pepi II became an old man and the country became corrupt. An historian of the time, Ipuwer, wrote about the situation. He said he told the king what was happening to Egypt, that the situation was very bad, but the king never listened.
UL: But nobody could say this to Mubarak, right?
ZH: No, of course. There is one thing that I hope Egyptians will stop doing: bullshitting every leader or head of a ministry. What happened to Pepi II? Revolution happened. The poor became rich, the rich became poor. The lady that used to have to look in the water to see her face, now she has a mirror. They raped the pyramids. The farmer who used to go to the field with an axe, now he goes with a gun. Three people leave their homes in the morning, two come back in the evening.
UL: This is all his description of—
ZHL: The first social revolution of Egypt: exactly four thousand and two hundred years ago.
UL: Did you ever think that, when people said Mubarak was like a pharaoh, the comparison was historically accurate?
ZH: You know, I have to tell you, Egypt was ruled by pharaohs for five thousand years, until Mubarak. If Nasser hadn’t died, he would have stayed in office all his life. Same with Sadat. Mubarak is the one who tried to make a democracy. If he had resigned ten years ago, he might be a hero. But he didn’t. And look what happened.
This book appeared last week. [Holds up book.] You know German?
UL: No, I don’t.
ZH: It says: “Zahi Hawass was the last pharaoh of Egypt.”
UL: Oh, really?
ZH: In Italy, they call me the last pharaoh. They love me. This is how they introduce me on the TV.
UL: People everywhere identify Egyptology with you. Is it strange now to be a private citizen?
ZH: I have to tell you, I am still seen by every Egyptian — ask anyone in the street who the antiquities leader is. Last week, I was walking in the street — I don’t have cars or guards or anything, I take taxis and I sit in cafés and I go to the movies alone — and I came across a beggar. He’s dirty, you know, and he asks for money. He said [whimpering in imitation], “Dr. Zahi, I love you.” When he said this, I had tears in my eyes.
UL: When I was last in the States, your name came up with some relatives of mine who live in Oregon and really don’t know much about Egypt at all. They immediately recognized your name and said, “Oh yes! Zahi Hawass! We watch Chasing Mummies every week.”
ZH: If you go to Los Angeles and advertise that I’m giving a lecture with $25 tickets, and you have a space for 4,000 people, you will fill it in two weeks. I have a big name in America, and everywhere. For 14 years I was in charge of antiquities. I put Egypt on the top of the world. I trained young Egyptians; I said that Egypt has to be in charge of its antiquities, not foreigners, but we have to respect foreigners. I developed 24 museums. The King Tut exhibit was perhaps the best thing that ever happened to Egypt. It brought $103 million to the country. Before, people used to allow exhibits to travel to other museums for free. I said there is no free meal anymore! We have to bring money to Egypt to restore the country. You know, Ahmed Ezz from the National Democratic Party under Mubarak — he fought me in the parliament when I tried to change the antiquities laws. It was in the paper every day. He wanted antiquities to be sold in the streets and I said no. I fought him and I won.
I enforced the management and changed the faces of Pharaonic and Islamic archaeological sites. When I restored the Jewish synagogue, people thought I was crazy, that I would be killed. Someone said the money for the synagogue can be used to build a mosque. I said this is wrong. I went to the Egyptians and I told them that Jewish synagogues are a part of the history of Egypt. If you destroy this part of history, you destroy Egypt. And they accepted!
Because of what I built, Egyptian antiquities were saved from the revolution.
UL: The last time I saw you was to discuss your repatriation efforts. How much progress has been made on that front?
ZH: This fight to bring back artifacts to Egypt has made me lots of enemies. I was so strict and strong; I had five thousand pieces returned to Egypt. In the 1980s, I was trying to bring back five, big, unique artifacts, such as the bust of Nefertiti. Dietrich Wildung was in charge of the museum in Berlin, and he was a really difficult man. He tried to use the bust for his own glory. One day he took the head of Nefertiti in his hand in a taxi! That really made me upset. I decided that he doesn’t deserve to have this bust in Berlin. No! It belongs to Egypt. We studied the case and I found out that the bust was taken from Egypt illegally by Borchardt in 1912. I had an office with many unique Egyptians and some foreigner volunteers. Young ladies left their homes in America and England and came to help me in the fight for the truth. In 1987, the German ambassador came to meet the head of antiquities, Mohammad Abdul Qader, who told him we need the bust of Nefertiti back. The next day, the Egyptian government fired Mohammad Abdul Qader. But I wasn’t afraid of anything.
UL: People obviously have very strong feelings about you. Like you said, people come up to you on the street and tell you how much they respect what you’re doing. But they also attack you. Why do you think they have such strong feelings?
ZH: Since the revolution, you can hire people to say, Ursula is a crook! Ursula is a thief! Who can defend you? No one. If you’re famous, someone will write this. What happened during the revolution is that bad people began to come out of their holes and try to get the good people.
All my life, I was an archaeologist. I’ve never been a politician. When the revolution came, I was the only Egyptian official who went to the Cairo museum on January 28 and 29, the only Egyptian official who was in Tahrir Square.
UL: Actually, we would love to hear in detail what happened that evening.
ZH: Of course. I was sitting at home on the 28th and I heard on the TV about people entering the Cairo museum. I was so afraid that the museum would be robbed. At seven the next morning I got up and drove my car, by myself, to Tahrir Square. I was beautifully welcomed by the people. You know, I’m a person who is loved by the people in the streets. If you walk with me, you’ll find poor people who don’t know how to read or write but who will recognize me and ask to take a photograph with me. I really enjoy the love of the Egyptians. I have a fan club for children, and I receive letters from people all over the world who support me. In Tahrir, they received me and they said, “We saved the museum for you.” I found young people with their arms linked in front of the museum. I entered the museum and I found the army commanders inside. I said, “Are the mummies safe?” They said safe. “Are the King Tut artifacts safe?” Safe.
The people who broke into the Cairo museum came down by ropes, like in the movies. But it was dark and they fell on the display cases. Someone broke his leg, and the blood could be seen on the floor. This was good for us: They couldn’t see the gold room, King Tut’s room, the masterpieces. They were interested in two things: gold and red mercury. Red mercury is a legend that, in the mind of every Egyptian, is associated with mummies. If you cut the throat of the mummy, you can find red mercury, which allows you to cure people, summon the Jinn; you can do many things. Really, there is nothing called red mercury, but Egyptians can’t live with that, they can’t live without the idea of treasure. So they dig underneath their houses to find antiquities — to find red mercury.
UL: So what did the thieves get?
ZH: We found out that fifty-four objects were stolen. We are still missing twenty-eight small pieces and half of a statue. I was made minister of antiquities, then I resigned after two months. But they brought me back. When I came back, a man came to me with a case in his hand, which contained five statues stolen from the museum, from King Tut’s room.
When you make a new government, you want to have faces that are loved by the people, and I was one of those faces. The former prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, was a good friend of mine, and he knew that if he asked me to be the minister of culture I would say no. So he made a new ministry for me, the Ministry of Antiquities. How could I say no? I was so afraid, because I have never been a politician. The only thing that I did with Mubarak was to make the children’s museum. Ursula, if you go to this museum you will see that it is the best thing in Egypt. It is unique, it is not to be repeated. But because of that this lady from the New York Times says that Zahi Hawass is from the old regime. How?! I’m from Egypt! I’m for Egypt! I was always wearing my jeans and my hat and protect the Egyptian antiquities.
UL: You had some minor insurrections within the ministry.
ZH: There are two crooks in the ministry who went to a reporter who hates himself, hates success, saying that I stole objects from the King Tut collection, that I took $200,000 from National Geographic. And so there had to be an investigation. One of these crooks really is a thief: He stole antiquities from Sakkara. When the revolution came, they wrote seventeen accusations against me. Anything that I did for Egypt, they wrote against it. I had to defend myself for one and a half years, gathering evidence, until I proved that not one single accusation was correct. And I used to cry. I’m a strong man, I never cry in front of anyone. This week, all of the charges were completely dismissed. Completely.
UL: What is your sense of the current political situation in terms of tourism?
ZH: Two things should happen. Number one, the president should concentrate on the return of security with a strong hand. What’s happening now is bad. You can do anything in the streets. Antiquities sites are being disturbed. If you return security to Egypt, all of those crooks who make demonstrations — you know, people are demonstrating, they’re not working. No one is working. How are we going to eat? I don’t understand! We need to tell people: Egypt is back. The magic is back.
UL: The demonstrations are obviously destabilizing, but it’s hard to tell people not to demonstrate.
ZH: But you have to work. And people have to understand what’s meant by a demonstration. When I was a student at the University of Pennsylvania, Israel killed people in Lebanon. I wanted to make a demonstration, so I went to the police and told them that a group of Arabs, Egyptians, wanted to make a demonstration. They said what will you say, what streets will you walk? I said so and so. That’s a demonstration. Not to insult people, not to say that this guy is a crook, not to destroy things, and not to stop traffic.
UL: I think that people feel like there aren’t enough opportunities, that’s why they’re so —
ZH: There is no way that a lazy man or a dishonest man can have an opportunity. You have to work to deserve a good opportunity. Those people don’t understand. They think that by attacking, screaming, lying, and demonstrating, they’ll get the opportunity. This is wrong.
UL: Tell us about your day.
ZH: I have the best time. I always look to the future. I used to be strong. I used to stand against the government. I never talked about this in the press: I stopped the Ring Road that was threatening the pyramids. I stood against the government! People were saying that I was going to be fired. I said I don’t care. I left antiquities for one year in 1994 because of the jealousy of the head of antiquities. He ruined me. He was so weak and dishonest. I left Egypt and went to teach at UCLA, but I came back strong. I stood against the government when I found out that the Western Road that goes from Cairo to Aswan was going to cross behind the Temple of City in Ibidis. I stopped it! I never said yes to anything that would destroy antiquities, which is why many people were happy that I left. But after the revolution, everyone began to ask, Where is Zahi Hawass? We need him back. We need him to save us. And this why I’m not going to answer people who say things against me; the books that I have written will remain, they are taller than these idiots.
UL: You were talking about your schedule —
ZH: I come here at 9 or 10 in the morning, take my coffee, and I begin to write articles. I receive letters from people all over the world about my articles in Asharq Alawsat. I will start writing for Al-Ahram newspaper next week. I write and I meet people. My office is like a museum: all the prizes, all the photographs with people. Everything. At 3:30, I go to the gym.
UL: Do you run? Do you lift weights?
ZH: Yes. I have half an hour of running and half an hour of training. And I have a trainer. I go home tired and happy. I watch black-and-white TV for one hour, and after that I go to have dinner with people I love. I’m not forced to have official dinners; I have dinner with my friends.
UL: What are some of the things you’re most proud of doing as a head of antiquities?
ZH: I think if people say that there is a legend of Zahi Hawass — my legend — it is educating young people. The pyramids were my life. I always wanted to change the pyramids from a zoo into an open-air museum. I proposed that all of the cars in the desert go from Fayoum Road into the desert area to park. The souvenir vendors that attack tourists would have to remain in the desert. All of the camels and horses would stay in the desert. After you park, you can take a camel or a horse and walk in the desert, away from the pyramids — the pyramids would still be in the background. Then you’d enter the visitor center. And after the visitor center will be a parking lot for electric cars. You take the electric car to the second pyramid, and you walk down to the Sphinx, to the Great Pyramid. No one bothers you.
UL: What’s the situation with this project?
ZH: Camel and horse drivers are like the mafia of Egypt. They hated this project. They are really mafia, they can kill me. They are — some of them are — not good people. They don’t care about pyramids. They care about how much money they getting. I tried to tell them I will bring all the tourist buses to them, in the desert. In this business, the strongest camel people and vendors get more business than the young people. In my system, everyone would be equal; you’d get a ticket with the number of a horse or camel.
When the revolution came, the camel and horse drivers thought it was the right time to get rid of me. They made signs against me, attacking me. You have to give people jobs to stop them from saying such things about you. Now, the guy who took my place, to save himself, he gave jobs to 10,000 people. If you go to the pyramids, there are 10,000 inspectors. You only need 500.
UL: There was so much going on in the last two years, so much confusion and so many attacks —
ZH: Now I am writing a book. This book, Ursula, is telling you what I did for the antiquities of Egypt. I was honest all my life, Ursula, I was strong. I never — you know, when I hear things about me in the paper, you know when I go to bed, Ursula [pretends to snore]… I snore because I know that nothing will happen to me because I never did anything wrong.
Lebanese-born singer Yasmine Hamdan has always been with us, if by us you mean Bidoun. A profile of her former band Soapkills appeared in Bidoun #0 (you read that correctly). Soapkills, a collaboration with Zeid Hamdan (no relation), more or less personified the cosmopolitan cool Middle East of the early post-9/11 period. Their songs were a pleasingly mellifluous combination of Arabic, French, and English (“trip hop à l’orientale” was a preferred cliché). Everyone had their albums, Bater and Cheftak; songs like “Coit Me” and “Aranis” were mainstays in trendier Beirut cafes. After Soapkills broke up, Hamdan moved to Paris, where she teamed up with former Madonna producer Mirwais Ahmadzaï to produce Arabology under the moniker Y.A.S. She has appeared in films, too, including a number directed by her partner, Elia Suleiman.
When Hamdan turned up in Nouvelle Vague mastermind Marc Collin’s studio in early 2012, she brought along her collection of classic Arab cassette tapes, some Soapkills mp3s, and a YouTube playlist of eclectic children’s television programming from the Gulf. Out of this harvest, she chose twelve tracks to record. But these twelve would not be performed as covers or tributes or remakes or even “modernly twisted” updates of old standards — the songs on the resulting album, her self-titled solo debut, are her “memories of melodies” as filtered through Collin’s analog synthesizer.
Yasmine Hamdan: So, you do films, right?
Sophia Al-Maria: Yeah, I’m making a feature called Beretta. It’s a thriller about a lingerie salesgirl in Cairo who goes on an all-male killing rampage.
YH: I always wished I could do that, especially in Cairo.
SM: It’s the most traumatic. I went to school there. Actually that’s where I first heard about you. But it was impossible to get that first Soapkills album, Bater. The only people who had managed to get it had picked it up in Beirut.
YH: Yeah. At that time singing in Arabic was not very cool. But I’d wanted to make a rock-and-roll record, have this rock-and-roll experience, because that’s how I lived — and how I thought music should be. Television stations wouldn’t even play our video because what I was saying could be perceived as provocative.
SM: But then you have something like Haifa Wehbe’s “Bus El Wawa” (Kiss the boo-boo), which sets up a total double standard. It’s totally exploitative and it’s all over the TV. You’re not censored because of the sexual content — you’re censored because what you represent, as someone who thinks freely, is dangerous. Whereas somebody like Haifa is a prisoner of her own image, which is constructed by a corporation. Because she’s the corporation’s representative, she can be provocative without worrying.
YH: Haifa is very blunt — the music is not polemical; it is what it is. And, by the way, if I hear “Bus El Wawa” in a nightclub, I will dance to it. But now we have so many songs that are derivative of “Bus El Wawa.” It’s a pity, because so much money is being spent by labels in the region. But when EMI and all these big companies opened in the Middle East, they weren’t interested in alternative Arab bands. I was approached by a few of them. “Don’t you want to sing in English?” One Egyptian guy tried really hard; at the end he was a bit aggressive.
SM: They’re like that.
YH: He really tried to convince me that I had to sing and dance like a kitschy pop singer and, you know, be a big star. He was like, “Do you want a car? What do you want? Do you want fifty thousand dollars? You want the check now?” This became very claustrophobic for me. I needed to be in a more healthy environment. Another reason I moved to Paris was to have access to musicians.
SM: I understand what you mean. Everything is twenty times more difficult in the Middle East, just to do your work.
YH: Some people can adapt. But I was an insider-outsider because my family moved every three years. My dad is an engineer, and he was building bridges and corniches and stuff like that. Beirut was my home, and the city is very inspiring, but at the same time very painful and intense. And I was very sensitive.
SM: We have this fantasy that home means safety. But home can hurt you.
YH: Beirut is a very complex place. You feel you’re always on the edge of losing it. This song “Beirut” embodies my frustration with being far from home, because I have to be if I want happiness and security and opportunities. At the same time, I don’t want to lose Beirut. But I needed to be in a neutral environment. When you belong to a place and a group of people, you are linked to authority. You start to negotiate with yourself, think about what others think you should do. This is especially true of the art scene.
I always did what I wanted, and fought for it, but you get tired of the wars. After a while I just wanted to retreat.
SM: Those wars leave you with battle scars, though, which can be a good thing.
YH: Yeah. And victories, too. I know I’m extremely lucky.
SM: You spent much of your childhood in the Gulf, right? How was that?
YH: Yeah, Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, Kuwait. I love the music of these places, but to live there is too heavy for me. When I was a kid in Kuwait, my parents were divorced and I was free in the daytime. I used to go out into the streets and walk around — you cannot walk in the streets normally in Kuwait — and young men would follow me, harass me. That was intense and frustrating. But I also had access to education.
SM: There are many different archetypes of femininity that you embody in your music — and yourself — and each one seems to represent a different possibility for being a woman. You reference the voices of Samira Tawfik, Asmahan… all these sort of nostalgically enshrined and revered female singers. How did you find these characters?
YH: It was back in Beirut. We didn’t have the internet then so I had this dealer in Hamra I would go to and ask, “Do you have this song that goes like this? Do you have that song?” And he would say, “Okay, but I have to make two or three phone calls and call you back.” It was very thrilling because I had this sensation that it was really something very unique. This is just how it started. And I used to buy a lot of cassettes. I have them here — over five hundred of them. Now you can find a lot of these things on the internet and everybody’s very blasé about it, but each time I got a cassette, I felt like I had won the lottery.
During the civil war in Lebanon, music created a secure, magical place. These singers — like Asmahan and Abdel Wahab — were very alive for me. I felt like I belonged with them, and it had nothing to do with politics or social backgrounds or dialect or intellect. I have an intellectual approach to things, but when I work it comes from desire. I had a desire for these people. I didn’t decide to do it; I had no choice. I had to go there.
When I sing these covers, I’m trying to be like a passeur (ferryman). By embodying the songs, I act like a boat, taking them from one side of the river to the other. Part of my work is to research and another part is to fall in love. Some songs I feel were written for me, and I can’t forget the original rendition. When I fall in love with a song, I work on it until I feel like I can appropriate it; I have to do it the way I want, not the way it should be. If I wanted to sing Asmahan way that it should be, I would be singing a very different tune.
SM: Did you always sing in Arabic?
YH: I really discovered Arab music when I started to sing in Soapkills. It was something else. Zaid Hamdan was doing his songs in English — and it was fun for me to sing that way — but at a certain point something in my life triggered a desire to get into Arabic songs. And these Arabic songs opened a new sense of identity for me. I was in Beirut, and I was not really belonging there. I was feeling a bit lonely and a bit alienated because I didn’t feel part of the city or the people or the groups there. In a way, someone like Asmahan started the process in me to reconnect with something that comes from my childhood but comes also from a past, from my culture.
In my childhood we were in the proximity of the old Arab world — very rich and sophisticated music, films, cinema, and so on, and at some time I was completely disconnected, because I was traveling left and right. So when I started to listen to Asmahan, it reconnected me. And by connecting to Asmahan and Mohamed Abdel Wahab and all these legends, I started to build a small narrative of myself: where I come from, where my culture is, what I love from it, what’s the humor in it, how love is felt, why do I feel my femininity this way. Even, why do I live. You know?
SM: The opening of your video for “In Kan Fouadi” with Samira Tawfik swinging on a flowery swing like that Fragonard painting, all pink and peaches. It’s amazing. In a way it reminded me, in the spooky ghostly sense, of Rania Stephan’s The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosny (2011).
YH: Rania’s a friend, and I’m in love with Soad Hosny. I think she kind of inspired so many of us, you know? So many girls. Sherihan, too. She was wearing these kitsch things, jumping around and dancing.
SM: Sherihan’s TV show was nuts!
YH: Her clothes! But I didn’t find anything good online, and it was cut in such a fast way I couldn’t do a coherent video with this. And I was afraid about rights. So I said, Okay, let me just do something else. But yeah, Sherihan and Soad Hosny and Laila Mourad — I’m completely in love with them.
SM: I was just listening to song of Laila Mourad’s recently that I wanted to use in a video. Now she’s a ghost that I would love to reinvigorate. She gives me the chills.
YH: Which song?
SM: “Min b3eed.” (“From Afar.”) She sings it in the movie Lady on the Train (1953).
YH: The thing with Mourad is that her voice is so particular, you really feel her fragility. It makes me a bit anxious sometimes; you don’t know if she’s going to hit the note or if she’s going to be a little bit under it, though it’s very beautiful either way.
SM: She reminds me of some of Serge Gainsbourg’s women — you never know if the voice is going to crack…
YH: Exactly. It’s like when you’re watching the circus and there’s this guy walking the tightrope and you’re afraid that he’ll fall. And you know Mourad had a hard time, because she was Jewish.
SM: Right! After the 1952 revolution people accused her of being an Israeli spy.
YH: Yeah, but I’m sure she wasn’t.
SM: People are paranoid.
YH: And there was this tremendous frustration in Egypt at that time because the government was being so righteous about nationalism, Arab rights, Palestinian rights, etc. At the same time, people were frustrated that Egypt had ties with Israel. There was this ambient sense that anybody could be dangerous.
SM: It’s a bit like “painted bird” syndrome: You send the painted bird into the flock and the other birds attack it, not recognizing it as their own.
YH: Yes, people like Mourad suffered from this. People like Soad Hosny suffered in a different way and ultimately ended up killing herself.
SM: It isn’t exactly easy to be in the Arab public’s eye.
YH: Well, it has been difficult for me. I’ve been censored. I’m a very free person in my head, and I acted in a free way, so I was singing in that way — but the fact that I was singing Arabic without knowing how to really sing Arabic… I was singing Arabic outside the classical modes. Soapkills was not even considered Arabic music, so we weren’t aired on Arabic TV or Arabic radio. I was singing these sacred songs a bit like a punk. I was wearing the dresses I wanted to wear, I was singing in improvised venues where we weren’t supposed to play. I lived very aggressively.
SM: In your current work you’re drawing on a range of non-Arabic influences, though. What about the song “Samar”?
YH: When I wrote “Samar” I was listening to a lot of Indian, Chinese, Somali, and Sudanese music; I wanted to have a very Hindu melody. It’s sung from the perspective of a woman who is addressing her lover after they’ve spent the night together. But it’s a very decent, modest, and yet really erotic song. We have this a lot in our culture. We leave certain things unsaid; the rest is fantasy. It’s very important for me to be pudique (modest). Singing is very sexual in a way. My voice sounds different depending on how I’m centered. The first several times I recorded “Samar” I couldn’t produce the sensation I wanted. But then I found the tonality. It’s very weird, because you can change the meaning just by taking a bath beforehand, or having a fight with your mother. I’m a moody singer. And it works because I need to access those emotions in order to get beyond the checkpoints of language. I’m singing in Arabic, which is difficult for some people, so I have to use sensuality to attract them, like a siren. I really try to work on how each word can carry the necessary emotion.
SM: And what about the song “Ya Nass”? Tell me about the original song.
YH: To me, Aisha Al Marta, the original singer, is a blurry souvenir of when Kuwait was a very emancipated place, with rich music and art scenes. I like Al Marta’s voice but also her attitude — she’s so rock and roll. That started to change in the Nineties, I think, after the war with Iraq ended. I lived in the Gulf for more than ten years, and I was a very calm, solitary kid. Sometimes when I was watching the national TV stations the cartoons would be cut and replaced by music. This song comes from that time, though I cannot tell you when or how I first heard it. Years later, when I started to search on the internet for musicians I vaguely remembered from when I was young, I heard “Ya Nass” and I was like, “Oh my God, this is her! I know her! I love her.” The same thing happened with Asmahan. Hearing this music again is like experiencing reincarnation.
Jeremy Deller’s Turner Prize win in 2004 took nearly everyone by surprise, especially him. He is the sort of artist that can restore one’s faith in the art world, less for the goodness of his politics than for the near guilelessness of his interests and enthusiasms. But his enthusiasms often take him into political contexts, whether he is making art out of a pivotal episode from what his interlocutor here calls “the radical Eighties” — the brutal suppression of striking mineworkers by Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government, beamed nightly into British homes on television, which became the basis of Deller’s video work The Battle of Orgreave — or the “sculpture” 05 March 2007, the remains of an exploded vehicle from Baghdad — residual byproducts of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the subsequent British-American occupation. The bombed-out automobile has been exhibited at the Imperial War Museum in London, but also packed onto a flatbed truck and driven around the United States.
Deller will be pitching for Britain this year at the Venice Biennial.
Sukhdev Sandhu is a critic and proprietor of the Colloquium for Unpopular Culture at New York University. They are both in their ways extremely English, as is this conversation. Deller and Sandhu spoke at Soho House in New York last November, the morning after the opening night of Deller’s second solo show at Gavin Brown’s enterprise.
Sukhdev Sandhu: I remember you talking about coming here for the first time, which got me to wondering — was New York ever important to you?
Jeremy Deller: Not really. Maybe America in general, but not New York. I lived in California for six months when I was eighteen and that was really an amazing experience, so if anything I prefer that side of the country.
SS: What was that? I mean, Herzog talks about California as prehistoric — the land of dinosaurs — but also plastic and new, away from the shackles of old Europe.
JD: That was it, really. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before, and the weather was like nothing I’d experienced. It was so… un-European. Going anywhere when you’re eighteen is exciting, but going to California — everything was different.
SS: When you were growing up, what was the world? People often talk about the 1970s in terms of… cheaper travel, people moving around.
JD: My first time on a plane I was sixteen. I didn’t really travel until I was eighteen. The first time I had a shower, as opposed to a bath, I was fifteen or sixteen? [Both laugh] I didn’t exactly come from a jet-set background. So the world was really only television — that’s how I found out about everything. Like, Whicker’s World. Actually there was an amazing series in the late Seventies about the US that was really interesting. About Hollywood — excessive California, plastic surgery…
SS: Did you have a relationship to American music as well?
JD: No, not really. I was much more interested in what was going on in the charts in Britain. Which was mainly English music, British music. So that’s what excited me. But I was very happy go to the US when I was eighteen.
SS: Yeah? What took you there? That seems quite —
JD: My gap year. I stayed with family friends, hung around in Pasadena. It’s like a suburb of LA. It was fantastic. Very pleasant. So I was very happy to do that. I mean, afterward, I came back to the UK and lived with my parents for another twelve years, so that was like the only moment of freedom I knew.
JD: Yeah, to the age of thirty-one.
SS: That is the opposite of the romantic teenage idea of, you know, running away from home or even going off to college.
JD: Going back home! I went to university in London, so I just stayed at home. And then stayed…
SS: What was that like? A lot of friends I know talk wistfully about “dole culture.“ I don’t know if culture is the right word, but — being on the dole and having just enough money and income support and housing benefit, so basically you had your education over again, learning about all the stuff you didn’t get to at college.
JD: That’s exactly what it was like with me. My “art school years” I was unemployed, just hanging around, looking at things and trying to work things out. It just bought me time. But yes, I think a lot of people did that — you could call it a culture. This will enrage the Daily Mail, obviously, but it was something that was done. But it should be said that it’s actually quite unpleasant to be unemployed. You realize very quickly that you’ve got to be so motivated to be good at being unemployed. It was actually quite depressing. It’s something you never want to be again. I did genuinely try and get work. I just never got interviews and things. I wasn’t employable even then.
SS: What did you want out of university? I guess I’m thinking of Richard Hoggart’s book The Uses of Literacy and… just loads more people going through higher education in the last twenty years, and that whole tradition of working class or semi-autodidact scholarship boys for whom university was a kind of existential escape… And the university often can’t live up to that, can’t give you what you want.
JD: Especially if you do art history like I did. It’s a quite rarified, small world, so there’s no guarantee you’ll get a job. But I didn’t know what I wanted out of it. Being in university is a way of buying time, really. I did an MA after university, and that was a way of buying another year and trying to work out what was happening. I wasn’t really cut out for being an art historian. Not at that age. I didn’t have the right temperament.
SS: Yeah, time is really important these days. Whether you’re a young academic or an artist, your onus is to be pre-professionalized, know every angle — to treat yourself as a kind of commodity. And you know, just making mistakes and bumbling about can be over-romanticized, but there’s something to be said for it.
JD: Being unemployed did give you some spare time to make mistakes. But I just left university and had no idea what would happen. Sort of assumed I could get a job, but it actually wasn’t the case. Just wasn’t even remotely the case. Which pushed me to do other things.
SS: Sometimes if I think back to, say, 1985 or ’86, now, with the benefit of hindsight I can say, Oh, I was into this thing or that thing, and it was quite interesting. But it was just a safety valve. I was listening to Johnny Hates Jazz and watching Bergerac—
SS: Because all I ever did as a kid was watch TV; that was my world, too. And I’m just now tying in all the different sectors — there’s an interest in trying to get the radical Eighties back. You know, everybody’s into bands like Test Dept these days—
JD: But they weren’t at the time.
SS: I certainly wasn’t. But do you have an account of how you came to think about yourself as an artist?
JD: I was quite interested in — I mean, I was basically in suburbia. I wasn’t really an urban person; this is an alien place for me, essentially. But when I started at the Courtauld I’d been in LA for a year and I’d been to a lot of concerts, saw a lot of live music. I’d caught the tail end of LA punk and stuff like that, which I loved. So that was what was interesting to me — more so than art, at that point. And then at the Courtauld there were lots of people who were going to nightclubs — going to Taboo, all those classic clubs. So I went to a few of those. But I was always an outsider. I never really felt like a participant. Where did you grow up?
SS: Gloucester, for the most part. Fred West territory.
JD: Yeah! Bloody hell. Is that —
SS: Yeah, that is. I mean I went through that road every day, and his brother — who was also killing children — lived two streets away.
JD: That’s right. I forgot about his brother. I read that book by whatshisname, Happy Like Murderers.
SS: Gordon Burn. That’s one of the scariest books…
JD: What’s amazing is, he doesn’t even describe how the girls are killed. There’s none of that. It’s all about what it’s like to be Fred and Rosemary West. What their house was like. There’s very little graphic description of the torture.
SS: Yeah. And the thing for me is, people would talk about Gloucester like: This is the city of evil, I can smell the stench of dead. But this is like every small town.
JD: Every small town has a Fred West character.
SS: Yeah. And he lives quite near the bus station. Bus stations are places of, well — you know Martin Amis’s cousin was one of the killed.
JD: That’s right!
SS: She was going to meet somebody in Exeter, got lost, missed her bus home or something, was wandering around looking for a cheap hostel and… But these slightly down-at-heel neighborhoods, they’re itinerant places.
JD: It’s not too far from Jimmy Savile, is it? From all this Jimmy Savile business.
SS: Whoa. Yeah.
JD: I mean, really. It wouldn’t surprise me — I’m sure he had it in him to kill people. By the sound of it. To hurt or kill the young women if they said they were going to go to the police…
SS: You do hear about him sort of threatening people. It does put a new spin — it makes Britain [laughs] a bit like a David Peace novel.
JD: That is totally David Peace, isn’t it! It’s totally David Peace. Because you read David Peace and you think, “Aw, that’s not, there would never be — there’s not that kind of conspiracy with the police.“ David Peace could have done something about a TV star who was a child molester and people would have not believed it. They would have said, “Oh, you’ve gone a bit too far this time.” But actually people haven’t gone far enough yet. It does put a bit of a pall over childhood.
SS: I mean, I was always grossed out by him. [Laughs]
JD: It’s funny, it’s the adults who were taken in by him. On the whole. Children — well myself, I never really felt any warmth toward him. There’s a terrible coldness about him, which I think children picked up on. I mean obviously he managed to molest loads of them, but I think children have a pretty good sense about these things.
SS: Yeah. It’s odd, part of me always wanted to be more into him, because I’d heard these rumors that he was part of a sort of secret wiring of popular culture, and I wanted to know more about his links with Northern Soul music and all of this — but [sighs] I could never get into him.
JD: You just know he’s one of those DJs in the Seventies who didn’t even like music. They had no interest in music. There’s an amazing Top of the Pops with Tony Blackburn and he gets the name T Rex wrong and he gets the name of the song wrong. And you just think, He doesn’t even give a shit he’s got the name wrong. He’s not interested in these bands, they’re just getting in the way of him talking to the camera.
SS: I remember one of my first experiences of listening to a Top 40 rundown on a Sunday — I think it was Tony Blackburn in 1981 — and “Planet Earth" by Duran Duran had gone in at #38, and he says, “In at #38 is Duran Duran!“ and I thought, The media is wrong! The BBC is fallible! How could you not know that?
JD: Both of those guys were using music, really, as a means to an end — and now we know what the end was, unfortunately.
SS: There was a really interesting article in the London Review of Books by Andrew O’Hagan about all of this, and he said, more or less — how can you retrospectively get back to the assumptions of an age? In terms of entertainment, titillation, women’s roles in culture… And there is, now, this maniacal posthistorical scapegoating, which—
JD: You just have to look at British television of that era, now, after all this, and you just think, God, it was all a bit… nasty, wasn’t it? I mean, my whole theory is the entire music industry is based on exploitation. It’s based on exploitation of child artists and young people as musicians, you know, making them sign terrible contracts. As well as exploiting the fans to get as much money as possible out of them. Sexual exploitation isn’t too much of a jump from those commercial exploitations, career exploitations. It’s all part of the same package, almost. Obviously it’s a much more serious thing, but… Yeah, I know what you mean. Looking at the symptoms through that prism.
SS: Are you interested in pop music now? Does it do the same things for you?
JD: I don’t listen to it. I hear it occasionally, but to be into it now at my age, I think there’d be something slightly wrong about that. I mean, I know when I like a song, and I know when I think a song’s really good. I think I have an ear, but I suppose we all do — we all have brilliant taste and we’re amazing. But I think the problem is that you get to a certain age and you see things coming back to you, literally, it’s just like something you saw twenty years ago. The cyclical nature of it means that you’re recognizing too many other things in it, which makes it actually quite difficult to take it at its face value. You have to be young, because you don’t know about this band or that band who are being blatantly ripped off or covered. That’s why it’s good for ten-year-olds, who don’t know about the Seventies or Eighties…
SS: I know so much about 1981 these days. Or 1969. Globally, let alone locally. All the tape labels, all the flexi discs, all the demos. I would never have known any of that stuff at the time.
JD: Really? Retrospectively—
SS: Yeah! [Smiles] And I don’t feel completed. Actually, I wish I didn’t know.
JD: Is that all research for writing?
SS: No, no, you know — people just put up… stuff. Reissues, lost… You know, just some little kid in Dakota who’s ludicrously obsessed with unreleased Scottish art pop, ’78–’79, brings out a three-CD set. [Laughs] And almost nobody in Glasgow in that period would ever have known.
JD: You must be on some networks that I’m not aware of, then.
SS: I can put you on them! [Laughs] It’s a bit of a hole…
JD: I’m a bit scared to get involved in that kind of a thing. Like I’ve been scared to get involved in too many blogs. Or football. Because I just might enjoy it too much.
SS: Well, you need the yearning. What I really like about “the old days” is boredom. [Laughs]
JD: Well, boredom is the most important thing, isn’t it. It’s difficult to be bored now, I think. That is terrible. Because there’s always something you can do, always some kind of stimulation.
SS: Well, it’s a different kind of boredom — you’re doing stuff —
JD: It’s ennui.
SS: — you’re interacting. But it’s almost more depression than boredom.
JD: Yeah. I think it’s worse. Staring at a screen and so on. But genuine boredom… bloody hell, I remember boredom. It’s amazing! Sunday afternoon, on a wet Sunday afternoon, that’s when you sort of took to your bedroom and got your books out or something.
SS: I remember the excitement of seeing CEEFAX appear. I would always pay attention to BBC 2 for hours on end, and CEEFAX just always seemed like Las Vegas, because of the colors.
JD: The pixelation of it, too!
SS: Yeah. And I remember, like, school holidays in the summers — six weeks! What are you going to do for six weeks?
JD: It’s fucking terrible, isn’t it. For me, it was just — you were home every day for six weeks. You might go to Bournemouth for a week to see your granny. But yeah, it’s different now. There’s more stimulation. Obviously, there’s much more happening.
SS: It’s hard to talk about some of this stuff without sounding like nostalgic old gits.
JD: Yeah. I’ve done a few interviews recently, and it’s just — I think the whole Jimmy Savile thing has made everyone just reexamine their childhoods and their youth. And you think it was all a big sham, the whole thing. Just not real. Or something. It’s kind of amazing; I think there’s a whole angst-ridden generation in Britain now because of all this. I mean I’m totally obsessed with these stories. I want to know what was really going on at Top of the Pops Studio.
SS: One of the things that’s depressing about it is that I never wanted to be one of those leftists who disapproved of popular culture. So, that tension that you get in Hoggart, all of those late Fifties guys, railing against milk bars [laughs].
JD: Yes, indubitably.
SS: I wanted to be George Melly. I wanted to engage with that stuff. I never wanted to be Peter Watkins, who just saw it all as a big conspiracy. And Privilege was all about that: “A pox on all this brainwash.”
JD: Yes. They go pretty far, don’t they? I mean, Peter Watkins is a genius. But you attack popular culture at your peril. You should take it seriously, but you shouldn’t see it as the end of the world in the way they did. Because it’s constantly changing. So what you think it is one day, the next week it’s something totally different.
SS: Well, one thing I was going to ask you — it’s a really crude question, but they wanted me to ask it [laughs] — does your work make money now?
JD: It can do, potentially… if people buy it. I mean, everything has a price. But it’s really whether someone is interested in paying that price, that’s basic economics, isn’t it. But, yes. For example, that show you saw last night, those are prints, those editions have prices. But I’m not loved by collectors. I’m not one of these people collectors are just fighting each other to get.
SS: Even now?
JD: No. It’s a strange thing. There’s no real logic to the art market. It’s really irrational. So, I haven’t been picked up by any collectors or anything like that. But that’s fine. Because that’s not what I’m looking for, really. If I was, I’d be doing a different kind of work. Going around and having dinner with collectors every night. Complimenting them on their collection. That’s one way to earn money. But I’m not really interested in that. So I — yeah, I do occasionally make a small… I did something recently for Frieze, a poster — they sold an edition, like a stack of a thousand posters. The text was about David Cameron going to South Africa. He went on a paid trip to South Africa, the apartheid government paid for him to go there in 1989—
SS: I didn’t know that!
JD: —on a jolly to look at some mines and go on safari and go to the beach. And he accepted this invitation. It was when they were trying to lift the sanctions, and they wanted sympathetic right-wing voices. Just to see how great things actually were, that it wasn’t like you’d think from the news. So he went. And it was a text about that.
SS: So he was like the Queen of his day —
SS: — [laughs] busting the sanctions —
JD: Yeah, he played Sun City. [Laughter]
SS: Oh God, yeah. That’s brilliant. I suppose the modern equivalent is actually the Middle East, where you get Beyoncé and all these people going over. And Russia.
JD: I don’t know. There are similarities with those countries, those regimes, but it’s not quite as clear-cut as South Africa seemed to be in the Eighties. Though yes, playing for Colonel Gaddafi’s son for two million dollars…
SS: Some evil Renaissance patron that you do your dance for.
JD: Someone in Uzbekistan, some oil magnate or the president and his son, or a Chechnyan warlord or something. [Laughs]
SS: That would be a great band! Chechnyan Warlords.
JD: Yeah, Chechnyan Warlords. That could be a really heavy band, couldn’t it?
SS: I imagine them looking a little bit like Laibach, with the outfits, going onstage.
JD: But just playing really heavy guitar music. A lot of shouting.
SS: Are there pieces of yours that changed the dynamic of your practices?
JD: Well, there are certain things I did which were definitely big risks — where I had no idea what was going to be the outcome. When we were carting that car from Baghdad around the US, we had no idea what we were going to face — literally, whether we were going to get punched for being offensive or disrespectful to the American military. That makes you feel great. Sometimes making work can actually make you feel brave. Brave isn’t the right word, but…
SS: You must have such vivid memories of that trip.
JD: You’d randomly turn up in St. Louis or New Orleans or Memphis and you park a car that’s been towed by this big vehicle, and you just get out, and — here we are, we’d give out flyers to the public and see what happened. You had no idea who these people were. So you were just cold-reading people, but you’d give them to everyone that went by. No one was out of bounds — tramps or policemen or whatever. So you became… fearless makes it sound like we were total heroes, we weren’t that. But it gives you confidence. We got a lot less fearful as time went on. The first few days we were just terrified. We really didn’t know what we were doing, or what the reactions were going to be. If we were going to be physically attacked. But we weren’t, so…
SS: Did you feel you got a better handle on, as it were, the “Inland Empire” of America than you do by reading the papers back home?
JD: Yeah. People were actually very polite. Even if they didn’t agree with you, if their politics were absolutely not yours — and you’d find that out very quickly — they were actually very polite and curious. No one was really mean to us. The people who were annoyed with us were the anti-war lobby, because we presented the work in a very bland way and they wanted us to go into it as an activist project rather than an art project. There’s a big difference between the two, and we weren’t being activists. I mean, it looked like an activist project, but it wasn’t. We got a bit of grief from those people, but you can’t blame them — they’d spent three to five years getting grief from everyone in America for being anti-patriotic, just being totally vilified for their views, which were actually right in the end, obviously. So we felt we’d let them down a bit [laughs], which we probably had. But that’s okay.
SS: That’s suggesting that if it’s not draped in slogans—
JD: Exactly. If you do that, you’re alienating at least half the population; people just cross the road rather than come and see you. We wanted them to come and see us. We weren’t doing it to wind people up, necessarily, though that was one part of it. We weren’t there to start having massive arguments with them — I didn’t want a huge row, getting thumped and chased out of town! [Laughs]
SS: So where did that project come from?
JD: Well, you know the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square? The empty plinth that is used for contemporary art sculptures from time to time. I was asked to suggest an idea for it, and I suggested a car that had been destroyed in Baghdad. It would be on the plinth, this wreck of a vehicle — just debris, basically. And I didn’t get that commission. But I wasn’t surprised, really. Then I was asked to do something in New York, at the New Museum, and I had a variety of ideas and one was to do a sort of museum of the war in Iraq. Basically a museum of an ongoing, unresolved war, rather than a war that’s long over, like the Imperial War Museum. Then I had the idea of taking that car and touring it around America, basically just turning up in places. So it was product of a long thought process and a long obsession, really, with the Iraq conflict.
SS: Have you done any projects in the Middle East?
JD: No, I’ve never been to — well, I have been to the Middle East, but I’ve never done projects there. I’ve been to Jordan. It was during the height of the war in Iraq, so that was quite weird. My brother-in-law was training the Iraqi police force in Jordan. It was too dangerous to train them in Iraq. So I went to a training college where they had very basic training for six weeks, and then they got on coaches and drove across the desert into Iraq. And so many of them would just get killed on the way back home. Their coaches would be ambushed or they’d get back and they’d be at home for two weeks and then they’d be blown up or shot. It was probably the most dangerous job in the world at that point, to be a policeman in Iraq. Terrifying job. But I went to see a training school there, and it was hundreds and hundreds of men. It was amazing, actually. I had quite long hair. [Laughs] My hair wasn’t quite this length — actually maybe about this length — and I was just standing there, and I’ve never been stared at so much by men. All at the same time. I don’t know if they could tell if I was a man — they couldn’t work it out. There’s no women around for like a fifty miles radius! [Laughs] Apart from the woman who ran the police college who was a Jewish American woman, which apparently went down incredibly badly. So that was strange. I tried to talk to some of the guys, but I couldn’t — I didn’t know the language and they didn’t really know English. Which is quite a pity, because I would have loved to talk with them about what they were thinking, what they thought was going to happen to them, what was going on in their country. It was 2004, so it was a really bad time. There was no tourism in Jordan. It was just empty, because of the threat of attacks.
SS: Have you thought about doing a project over there? Because I can imagine somebody trying to translate the structural idea of The Battle of Orgreave into a Middle Eastern context.
JD: I think that story is timeless, in a way. And that’s probably what’s given it longevity, because it’s such a classic, almost Shakespearian, mythical story about the masses against the establishment, being beaten by the establishment. And that can translate to any situation you want, almost, in history. So it’s a historical work, in a way. Which is why I was interested in that battle, because it looked like a historical battle when it happened for real, when I watched it on TV. It definitely strikes a chord, and people usually translate their own experiences of some dispute or revolution onto that film.
SS: There’s a great account by Ian Jack who used to edit Granta, of Wapping — the battle of Wapping — about how Nigella Lawson who was very young, just come out of Oxford, and working at the Times because of a family connection —
JD: Of course.
SS: And everybody is laying into each other, yelling, and she was just like, “Oh, I say! Is that a walnut, sort of, casket there? It smells lovely. I’ve got some olive oil, shall I rub it on there,“ and all of the men are temporarily disarmed by this incredibly posh but quite attractive woman journalist. I remember reading this years ago and thinking, Well, I don’t know who she is. And then, now. [Laughs]. Is there a standard process? Or a typical journey? For projects? That you’re —
JD: You want to know what the magic is, don’t you?
JD: Not really. You just become interested in something, and then you think about it a bit. You meet someone… Basically, the best research is meeting someone who knows a lot about something, or is that thing. That’s the research, through people rather than through books. So, for example, the bats thing. I never really read any books about bats, but I like them, and I like to be around people that know about them. So you accumulate things, but there isn’t a set way. I’m not methodical. I mean, some people would spend months reading everything about a subject, researching… I sort of did that with the miners’ strike, because I felt I had to know a lot about it if I was going to talk to miners. To show them that I was serious and that I had some knowledge — that I wasn’t a total idiot from a TV production company who would just turn up and be slightly offensive, not knowing anything. So I had to know things. But sometimes I just hope that my enthusiasm is more clear — my interest and enthusiasm is more what gets me through some things.
SS: This seems about as good a point as any to ask you — I apologize for this question — when you first came across the term relational aesthetics? What does it mean to you?
JD: [Laughs] I think probably a student told me. Maybe used it against me? Or with me? I probably just heard about it. I’m aware of it. I don’t necessarily understand the term. I don’t really read theory. I don’t read books about art and contemporary art. I mean, I really, really don’t.
JD: I read books about other things, I always have. I don’t want to be too conscious of other things going on around me, really, or be influenced by something that someone’s written about contemporary art. That doesn’t seem like a particularly good way of doing things to me. You become too self-conscious, trying to second-guess the writer or school of thought.
SS: When it was explained to you by that student, did you sort of nod your head furiously and go, “A-ha!”
JD: No, you just nod your head. Because I think students take this kind of thing very seriously. It doesn’t really mean anything to me, but it’s taught. It’s something that’s taught as an idea, but it’s not necessarily. I was never part of that group, which is really about fifteen people. Like any group. The Young British Artists is fifteen people, relational aesthetics is like twelve, fifteen people. The size of a group show, basically. And I was never part of that group, though I know everyone in it.
SS: What is it that keeps you constantly on the substitutes’ bench of all those groups?
JD: I’m too simpleminded, basically. It’s too obvious. I don’t really hide anywhere in my work, it’s all on the surface.
SS: [Laughs] Well, you’ve not done too terribly for yourself.
JD: I’m the establishment now, basically. That seemed to have happened very quickly. From being virtually an outsider to being part of the establishment. Which is mainly from winning the Turner Prize.
SS: What does it mean, these days, to be the establishment? How does that change things?
JD: In Britain, in London, it just means that you’re in the media more, your name gets used a lot, you’re seen as a person whose opinion is worth asking about. For example, at the moment, this Henry Moore sculpture is about to be sold by the Tower Hamlets Council. It was a gift to the borough in the early Fifties, from Henry Moore, and now the Council wants to sell it. So you’ll be asked about that. You’ll be asked about the government’s plans to teach art in school. You just become one of these characters who sounds like a sound bite. It can feel like it’s work, but it’s not work, really, when you get asked to do these things. You get asked to do a lot of talks, speeches, keynote addresses. After you win a prize, then you become a judge for the prize, and then the final step is to introduce the prize and give a speech. There must be a shortage of people in the art world who are willing to do it because I seem to get asked to quite a lot.
SS: Is it just getting older? I feel like what you’re describing is someone like Jarvis Cocker, actually. His music is toxic, poisonous — like brilliantly, sexily, smartly full of righteous anger — and then suddenly he just became quite cuddly.
JD: Definitely you become… I don’t know what the word is. You become absorbed into something. People aren’t reading the lyrics, you know; that’s the problem. Kids especially. Of his songs. So he’s just seen as this safe character. Have you met Jarvis?
SS: No, no. Never met him.
JD: He’s more or less as you’d expect. He really is.
SS: But he always seems to stay true to the person he was as a young man. He remembers the resentments. He remembers the yearning.
JD: Yeah, he’s the same age as me. He probably had a similar upbringing. He’s probably, like me, still angry at what happened in the mid-Eighties, can’t get over it. Doesn’t want to get over it.
SS: Is hate still important? Until the show last night, I hadn’t seen that “Come, friendly bombs" line used for ages.
JD: I mean, not everyone gets the reference. Especially in America. But even in Britain, people don’t get the reference. “Come, friendly bombs, and fall over Eton": it was actually a banner I wanted to make for the student protests but never got around to making. Or just a big placard. I thought that’d be really great. Strangely, it would have been banners or placards that could get you arrested now as an incitement. There is that element to it, which is weird, because the phrase is taken from John Betjeman, who is now seen as a cuddly poet, like Jarvis Cocker or whatever. But in 1938, on the brink of World War II, he writes this poem hoping the town of Slough in Britain would be bombed by… whomever.
SS: He could be arrested like Lord Haw-Haw, as a traitor.
JD: Yes, exactly! It’s an amazing conceit. If you think what I’ve said is terrible and outrageous, it’s fifty times less outrageous than what John Betjeman was saying in 1938. Because it was actually going to happen — war — within a year. So you can forget how radical that poem was.
SS: I feel like we’re all trapped these days in a world of “like.“ The Facebook world. You go past shops that say, “Like us, like us.” But hate! Hate can be really important.
JD: There should be a “hate" button, actually. You’re right, it’d be really great to have a “hate" button.
SS: Because I know you’re a fan of Earl Brutus —
SS: — I was thinking about how important grudges and resentment, and being funny and sexy and —
JD: Bearing very long-term grudges. I didn’t know you were an Earl Brutus fan.
SS: I never saw them live. That’s one of the big regrets in my life.
JD: They’re amazing. I didn’t see the Sex Pistols, but I did see that band, and it was probably as good as the Sex Pistols would have been. So, ah, amazing. Fights on stage between band members and the audience, just explosions — there were pyrotechnics that were far too powerful for the little bars they played. They would blind you; it was like thunderclaps. The music was this brilliant mix of glam rock and punk. They saw every reference very clearly, but somehow it was never pastiche. It was their own thing. It was just amazing.
SS: Do you see the hate — does that hate persist in your work, more generally?
JD: I wouldn’t call it hate, necessarily. “Come, friendly bombs" is meant to be funny, actually.
SS: Yeah, yeah. It’s nice to laugh. [Laughs]
JD: It was meant to be funny, and more about John Betjeman and about Eton and about his radicalism and the offensiveness of that poem that he wrote.
SS: Would you be offended or disappointed if people saw you as a kind of cuddly celebrator of English—
JD: Well, I think I am a celebrator. But they’re obviously looking at certain things and not others. The show at the Hayward might make people think that I was that. But there’re ways of getting your opinion across without getting angry. Being angry all the time is actually quite tiring, and not necessarily — and again, people might not listen to you if you’re shouting, so you’ve got to be clever about how you present your self, or ideas. That’s activism more than art.
SS: Derek Jarman used to manage to get venom and joy at the same time.
JD: Yes, you could see that in his work. He was an activist. But Derek Jarman was very clever and had a beauty, as well. And a sense of righteousness. He was quite a righteous person… Basically, people have different ways of doing it. There’s no set way. Sometimes you can be criticized for not being political enough, or being too political, and that’s just people reading what they would like to see, rather than what you’re going to do or what I’m going to do. Maybe they expect something that would never happen.
SS: The questions that Negar wanted me to ask were all to do with things like national pavilions…
JD: Oh yeah, of course!
SS: How is all of that? I feel a proper interviewer would ask.
JD: Where to start? It doesn’t bother me at all. I think it’s because I’ve been in so many biennales and so many other big exhibitions, but to represent a country — whatever that means — doesn’t make me nervous. It doesn’t make me anxious about representing Britain. Because you can’t represent Britain, there’s no way you could do it. And it’s not a problem for me personally to get worked up about. That’s a really grand answer, but I think it’s… fine. It’s just how it’s done, and I don’t feel that I’m responsible to anybody. I’ll put on a good show, but I don’t feel I have to represent Britain, or British culture, or the British way of life. It’s not like that. It’s not like I’m at the UN or something, presenting British interests. I’m representing my own interests.
SS: Does anybody talk to you about — the work has to be, at some level, about nation?
SS: So you really have carte blanche?
JD: Absolutely. If I went and put fifteen hundred tons of sand in there, they’d let me. Or I’m going to paint the whole ceiling or take off the roof — absolutely not a problem. I think some nations might be under pressure because of the government relationship to those pavilions, but I have no problems whatsoever. No one’s given me any hassle about anything. I think they know better than to do that, because who would want to take up that poisoned chalice and try to represent Britain in six rooms? You know I’m going to have to go in ten minutes. I don’t think we’ve got enough… You’re going to get in trouble with Negar for not sticking to the serious stuff.
SS: Yeah. It might be okay. Bidoun is kind of quite interesting, actually. The people who work there. I seem to find them in every country.
JD: Yes. Quite well educated, I imagine.
SS: Very well educated. Very smart, very interlinked, very tech-savvy—
SS: Very good-looking. Good people. I came across an issue — the front story was about heavy metal hair in Iran, and I just thought, Wow, that’s obviously a magazine that I would be drawn to.
JD: These people are the elites, really, aren’t they? The people who run these magazines. They went to the best schools, super cool, super good-looking. We are just like straggling behind them, but we still have something to offer.
SS: Well, they’ve got a kind of aristocratic largess.
SS: The lefty side of me sort of feels that — I mean, I have friends who hate them. They say, “You have to be much more embedded in society, you have to speak for the people, and dadada.“ And you think, Give me Bidoun over that.
JD: Yeah. I mean, there’s worthiness, isn’t it, as well.
SS: And it’s about magazines as aspirations. I’m a big magazine fan — really into zines as a kid. Bidoun creates a different nation of the imagination — the juxtapositions of strange things that are in there. And they become inspirational or speculative, which all good magazines should be, not just about catering to—
JD: They definitely have their own world they create.
SS: She said, “Ask him about his Iranian girlfriend!”
JD: There’s no way I’ll get to talk about my Iranian girlfriend.
JD: She’s not even Iranian. She’s Cypriot. She’s not Iranian in the way — Negar’s probably more Iranian. But that’s not the right way to put it…
SS: They’re good people. They’re terrible at promotion. They’re terrible at advertising their stuff.
SS: Everybody who comes across it usually thinks it’s pretty good, but the sales… Well, I don’t know. I don’t understand the economics of the art world.
JD: I don’t know how these things survive now, actually. Magazines. It’s not clear, is it?
SS: It’s a loss leader for something, but I’m not sure what.
JD: Some CIA… thing.
SS: Yeah, well there’s a good history of interesting things being supported by the CIA, actually (see Bidoun #26).
JD:Reader’s Digest was one, wasn’t it?
SS: No. Reader’s Digest?!
JD: I think that was partially funded by the CIA. Do you not know that?
SS: Nooo! That was about the only publication that for some reason my parents had in the home.
Photography by Michael Schmelling Clothes by Walter Van Beirendonck Styling by Avena Gallagher
White people love Homeland. I am one of them.
I knew he was Iranian the moment he opened his mouth. Dear, dear Abu Nazir, America’s newest jihadi menace. But this ostensibly Arab terrorist was a little different. This one had a son, whom he loved very much. He had a beautiful house, always bathed in pale light; he spoke perfect English and he didn’t have a glass eye or a hand missing and he didn’t cackle maniacally when his underlings tortured their victims. This terrorist had a personality that you couldn’t exactly hate — and we knew exactly why he hated us. (The US had bombed Nazir’s compound in northern Iraq, killing dozens of schoolchildren, including his beloved son.) Most important, this Arab terrorist was loved by an American sergeant. He had charisma — a baddie with a heart of gold. Internal conflict on cable television! And not even on HBO.
Do white people love Homeland because it’s not so black-and-white? It certainly can’t be because of Carrie Mathison’s (Claire Danes) nonstop cryface. (Look it up.) But when Navid Negahban, the Iranian actor who plays the soft-spoken Abu Nazir, is on the screen, somewhere in the uncomfortable depths of your television-viewing soul, you’re kind of rooting for him, and it is confounding and exciting and definitely different. I don’t think Homeland is the best show on earth. The second season opened in a fictional Beirut so one-dimensional that the Lebanese government thought about suing the producers. (It didn’t help that the episodes were shot in Tel Aviv.) Homeland is a simple show, where the Americans truly believe they are a force for good.
But it is a better show than many, and Negahban has a lot to do with that.
Lisa Farjam: Hi, this is Lisa from Bidoun magazine.
Navid Negahban: Hi, Lisa. How are you?
LF: Fine. How are you?
NN: Very good.
LF: Thank you for taking my call on a weekend.
NN: Thank you.
LF: So I won’t take up too much of your time, I just have a couple of questions. Um… we’re really interested in speaking with you. I’m a huge fan of Homeland and obviously have been watching it from the beginning, and I think that you’ve really taken on the stereotype of the evil jihadist and given him a complexity rarely seen in Hollywood. Abu Nazir has a soul, a backstory, a reasonable explanation for his hatred of America, and I was wondering — first of all, how did you approach the role? Was it all right there in the script?
NN: Okay. The character was created by Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon, but at the first meeting that we had, it was just an idea of the character. I don’t think we had a real sense of what his personality was going to be. And at that meeting, they asked me how I saw Abu Nazir — and my answer was that to me, he is a man who stands up for what he believes in.
NN: From his point of view, his actions are just. What I try to do is to portray him from the inside out. Not what he is being seen as, but what he believes he is. And I think that sometimes there is a misunderstanding because we look at people — we start judging them for what we think they are from the outside, without trying to find out what caused them to become who they are. We forget the process.
LF: Yes, of course. I’m sure you’ve had to play that kind of stock Middle Eastern character as well, you know, in some of the roles you’ve taken on in your career. It seems like this is a huge opportunity, and I was wondering if you felt it’s an opportunity not only for yourself but for other Middle Eastern actors to kind of break out of this traditional typecast.
NN: I believe so. But before we go there you need to understand that the team that I’m working with is a very well-educated, very fair… team. The creative team is very open-minded. When you look at their personalities, each of them has had a very colorful life, they have been through ups and downs, and the way that they look at each situation — they don’t see it black-and-white, they always pay attention to that gray area. The gray zone. And I’ve played characters who are very stereotypical villains, kind of a caricature of a villain, and even then I tried to bring something into it. Uh, please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that I’ve achieved my goal.
NN: But most of the characters I’ve played, even in Brothers, when I played the villain, or even in The Stoning of Soraya M, I was playing Ali, what I tried to bring in is the journey of the character. Because to me it’s very important for the audience to see the process… what’s causing them to become who they are, and if we can understand and acknowledge and recognize that, we might be able to avoid creating these kinds of situations. Do you get what I mean?
LF: Definitely, definitely.
NN: And to be very honest with you, I’ve had friends who don’t want to touch these kinds of roles.
LF: Other Middle Eastern actors?
NN: We’ve had long discussions about it. But I feel that we have a better understanding, coming from that culture and from that mentality, and that if we refuse these parts, then there are going to be actors playing those parts who might not have enough… let’s put it this way, enough understanding of the culture of what these characters are going through, so they’ll come and play them as is written in the script. And sometimes the script doesn’t have, doesn’t give, depth of character. So to me it’s very important — I don’t refuse to play these parts. I like to play these parts, because they are very complex characters that need to be understood.
LF: Well, I think you’re doing an excellent job, and I think it really does add so much to the show. I wonder if part of the success of the show is that people can somehow relate to your character in a way they might not even want to, you know? It’s really fascinating. And I was wondering — have you seen the Israeli original?
NN: Uh, I saw the original… I haven’t seen the whole thing, actually. I saw some of it this year, when we went to Israel to shoot the first few episodes of second season…. Can you give me a second?
NN: [Speaking to someone else] Your front tire? You should put air in it. You hit the rim, that’s why you are losing air. And you’re going to get in trouble, especially on these tires. You might have to stop somewhere nobody can help you.
Woman: Where would I get air?
NN: Just go to the gas station and get some air in there. [Back] I’m so sorry, I’m sitting in the parking lot and the car next to me has one of those spare tires, and the lady who was driving the car was not paying attention —
LF: Well, that’s very nice of you. [Laughs]
NN: She’s going to get in trouble.
LF: Helping a fellow Angeleno. [Laughs] Going back to Israel and the original series. I know that, the writers on the original show had interviewed Israeli POWs and I was wondering if you had done any of your own research into how to play this Hizbullah leader.
NN: What I did — they had a fictional bio for the character, and it was two paragraphs: where he was born, where he was coming from, where he went to school. And I took that and went to the Internet and there are lots of similar personalities out there. So I just took that thing and tried to bring my own understanding of what these people are going through and just put it together. I don’t know, it’s a stew, it’s… whatever happens. I’ve said it in other interviews, but it’s true — the character really came to life at the end of first episode in the first season, the moment I had with Damian, that Abu Nazir has with Nicholas —
LF: Where he puts his head on your shoulder?
NN: Yeah, oh my God. That was the birth of Abu Nazir. It was so powerful. I’ve never experienced something like that on a set.
LF: So that wasn’t in the script, that was—
NN: No, it wasn’t. Some of the things that you see happening is — we stay true to the script, but the emotion and the vibe is always being improvised at a given moment. And there were a couple of scenes that we shot in the pilot where they just kept the camera rolling even though we were done with the script, and they ended up using some of those shots in different episodes, because they were so rich and so powerful.
LF: That’s really great. It must be really nice to work on a show with that kind of freedom.
NN: Oh, it’s fantastic. And I think we owe it to Showtime…
NN: Showtime has given us that freedom. And the creators of the show are very open, they’re looking for what’s the best for the show. For the story. There’s no ego there. And that’s what I like — I enjoy working with them.
LF: I wanted to ask you a few questions about season two of Homeland, which begins in Beirut, though it was shot in Tel Aviv. And Homeland portrayed Beirut as a city kind of swarming with militiamen and guns. And I don’t know if you’re aware but the Lebanese tourism minister is considering suing Showtime for defamation. [Chuckles] And I was wondering, first of all, what was it like for you to be in Tel Aviv? But also, what do you make of the Lebanese anger over representing Beirut in that way? Had you, have you, been to Beirut?
NN: I had never been to Beirut, but I’ve worked with lots of Lebanese people — in Jordan, the majority of the crew when I was working on The Stoning of Soraya M, they were from Lebanon. And I’ll say it, they are the craziest party animals I’ve ever seen. [Laughs] There is no sleeping.
LF: I was shocked when I went there. I mean it’s an incredibly bourgeois city, first of all, and they really know how to have a good time.
NN: Yeah, these guys — just imagine, they’re getting up at six o’clock in the morning to go to the set, and they are working until eight, nine o’clock at night, and they’re telling me, “Oh, Navid, you wanna go and grab bite to eat with us?” I said, “Sure.” “Oh, we’re going back, to take a shower, change and go.” I said, “Okay.” And then we go out and all of a sudden it’s three, three-thirty. I said, “Guys, I can’t keep my eyes open.” “Oh, don’t worry, half an hour more! Half an hour more!” We go back and then the next day you have to get up again at six o’clock. I said, “Guys, how can you do this?” And they said, “Oh, you know… every second counts, so you live your life.” And that’s how they were. And to be very honest with you, the way that they described Lebanon to me, and the way that they described their ways to me, I, um, I was very interested to go and see it. I mean, if my schedule would have allowed it…
But I would say first of all, Homeland is a TV show, it’s fictional. And if they want to sue Showtime for that, then the government of France ought to go and sue the producers of Taken.
NN: Because if you believe that movie, oh my God, Paris is not a safe place. These things happen all over the world. It wasn’t — we didn’t portray Beirut as a dangerous city; it was just a place, like any other place in the world it could have been, that this group of people… they just meet. So it wasn’t about portraying Beirut as a dangerous place. It’s just a TV show.
LF: Right. I think people understand that it’s very rare to be completely one hundred percent true to any kind of geography when you’re filming anything, regardless of budget. But it was more that this was an opportunity for people to see a city that they may know nothing about, or may not feel comfortable visiting because they might have a certain stereotyped idea about what it was like, and this was perpetuating that, you know? So I think it’s —
NN: Yeah, but at the same time, I’m so sorry, but… people are not stupid. The audience is smart, especially the people who are interested in Homeland. They are the sort of people who don’t just accept what they’re being told. So these are not the people who are going to go and judge a — I’m sure that nobody was even thinking about Beirut until that statement came out, because the people that were in the story, they were not in a Beirut story, they were in a Homeland story.
LF: I wanted to ask you about your background, too. You grew up in Mashhad, right? And your parents remained in Iran during the revolution and the rise of Khomeini. I was wondering how much you remember from that time, and how did your life change?
NN: I left in 1985, during the war between Iran and Iraq, and there are, um… there are incidents that I try not to even remember. I try to forget. There are things I have seen that… had a huge impact in the way that I am looking at the world and looking at life, at my life and other people’s lives. And, I remember, during the war between Iran and Iraq, we didn’t have, uh — you’re Persian, aren’t you?
NN: So you’ll remember that all the soldiers, of course, they went to war.
NN: And then after the soldiers, the police officers went. So we didn’t have enough adult males around. [Laughter] And then they went to high schools, and they were saying to all the high school kids, especially the older ones, “If you guys want, you can go and spend six months in the war zone, go to the front line. Or you can serve as a police officer in the city, and that will help you to get into the university.” You can do this, you can do that. And lots of guys… I have friends, who went. They went to the front, they come back to school… or they don’t come back, and there’s a red tulip sitting in the chair next to you, and you know that the person is not coming back. I mean, you know what the red tulip represents, right?
LF: I do, I do. I remember my cousins telling me about the tulip…
NN: Yeah, the bullet wound. And so for me going through that, it, uh… it kinda… my teenage years were filled with… being an adult. Kind of, being there to comfort people, to protect people, to take care of the younger ones. So that was a huge, um… I mean, now that we’re talking about it, I’m remembering friends who went and never came back, people on the street who got hurt — the incident that happened at the prison in Mashhad, the things that were happening in the city. It was a crazy time.
LF: I mean, were your parents trying to leave all that time? Or were they committed to staying for a specific reason? Or did they just want to stay, period?
NN: I was a black sheep, actually. I was the only one who left, and one of the reasons I left was that I’d wanted to be an actor since I was a kid. That was my dream. And I just left and I went to pursue that.
LF: What was your TV and movie universe like in Iran? Were you able to watch American things at home?
NN: Oh yeah, in Iran we had lots of TV shows. I mean… I used to build all kinds of gadgets, make holes in the heel of my shoe, for spurs, so I could be James West [laughs].
LF: Wait, who?
NN: James West! From the show Wild Wild West. He was played by Robert Conrad. I always wanted to be a cowboy.
LF: I mean, I remember all of that was completely available before the revolution, but then after the Islamic Republic things did really change in terms of what entertainment was available. And I remember going to Tehran in the 1990s and there being just absolutely nothing available to watch.
NN: Yeah, I mean, I remember if any of the kids got their hands on any movie, then oh my gosh, that weekend was a weekend that we all would get together, sit, and that’s it. It was difficult, but right now those kids in Iran, on the Internet! I went back around 2005 and one of my friends had his computer set with the firewall and this and that, and we are sitting there and all of a sudden I see that on his TV, there’s over four hundred and something channels. All these movies, and I said, “Geez, I don’t have this in America, I should come back to Iran and live here.”
LF: [Laughs] Have you received much criticism, here or there or anywhere, for the roles you’ve taken?
NN: Some. After I did The Stoning of Soraya M, one magazine said that I was making movies against Iran and Islam. Which was just wrong. To me, when I did The Stoning of Soraya M — this is very important, this is something that people should understand — I didn’t make movies against Islam, and I didn’t make movies against Iran. I made movies portraying people who are abusing Islamic laws to take advantage of people.
LF: Yes, there’s a difference between making a movie against Islam and making a movie against fanaticism, you know? I mean…
NN: And that was very important for me. I’m pure Iranian, but there were people in the media here and there who attacked me: “Why would you make movies like this? Why would you be part of that? You’re giving Iran a bad name.” I disagree. The thing is, we have lived our lives by sweeping the dirt under the carpet, and as long as we do that, the dirt is going to stay there. Everybody who says, “Oh no, everything is — no problem.” I mean, as long as we’re not honest with ourselves, as long as we keep lying to ourselves that everything is good? Everything gonna stay there, nothing gonna change. So we are responsible. We need to, each of us, we need to stand up and take responsibility and clean up. Say: okay, you know what? I made this mistake, this is my fault. I did this. I’m willing to say that was my mistake, let’s fix it. Let’s make it better. And that’s the reason why I made that movie.
LF: That’s great. Thank you for talking about that.
NN: No, thank you. It’s just, to me, I think… the first step that we need for a better world, to have a better world, is to be honest. To be sincere and honest and stop… painting a donkey and selling it as a zebra. [Laughter] A donkey is a donkey, let’s accept that it’s a donkey. So what we need to do is we need to be honest and fair and respectful toward what people believe. I mean, I truly believe that everybody’s free to do whatever they want to do as long as their freedom doesn’t take it out on someone else’s freedom. So, not everybody has to dress like me, not everybody has to think alike — they can do whatever they want to as long as they don’t dictate to me what I should be wearing and what I should be thinking.
LF: Right. Which isn’t always —
NN: Am I talking too much? [Both laugh]
LF: Of course not.
NN: Oh, you’re gonna get me in trouble!
LF: Did you see Argo? What did you think?
NN: I saw Argo. I loved it. I remember those days. It was so — I take my hat off for him, he did a fantastic job. It was so well done. Very well done.
LF: I was just so excited to finally see a movie with, first of all, actual Persian actors who spoke Farsi. Hopefully there will be more movies like it.
NN: We’re working on it.
LF: [Laughs] Good.
NN: No, I’m serious. This is something that is very, very important to me. There are movies being made, and we say that these movies are not portraying us in a good light, okay? The reason that they’re not good for us is because these movies are being made by a group of people who want to put themselves in the spotlight. They’re telling the story from their point of view, and their point of view is very accurate and respected. That’s how they feel, and that’s how they think, okay? So if we really want to go and criticize them for speaking their own mind…? What we need to do is, we need to tell our side of the story. Say: that’s fine, that’s great, it’s a beautiful movie, it’s a beautiful story, it’s from your point of view. Okay, now this is my point of view. Then we’ll let the audience judge for themselves which one is which.
One of the things that’s happening, especially with our community — I’m so sorry to say it, I know I’m going to get myself in trouble by saying this, but — I could never keep my mouth shut — but — jeez, you’re gonna get me in trouble — but the thing that is happening with our community is that our voice is louder than our actions. We preach, we go, we talk, and when it comes to action… umm, I’m not sure. I mean there are projects, I know people who they have wonderful scripts, beautiful scripts, Iranian writers, fantastic scripts, and they are coming and they want to tell the story, they want to introduce the other side, they want to introduce us. But nobody, nobody supports them. And then we have very powerful Iranian people who are investing in movies that have a big name, and they think that, okay, that is the way I’m going into the film industry.
LF: Right, because it’s a guaranteed success. Whereas taking a risk — I mean, they don’t know where it’s gonna go.
NN: Yeah. The risk, we need to take the risk if we want to say something. As long as we play it safe, there’s no way it’s going to work. If I wanted to play safe, I wouldn’t be here. I’d never have gotten here. There were… my gosh, the first six months I was in Los Angeles, I was sleeping in my car. I still have the — there’s a shower curtain and a rod, I used to hang that in my car, my old car. I used to hang that in there, and I would hang the curtain on it, and I would sleep in the car, and I still have that curtain and that rod, I still have them in my current car. And every time that I turn around and I look at it, I remember those days, and that’s how I keep my feet on the ground. I say, okay, this is who I am. Don’t let the drama and the success distract from where you want to go. Someone asked me, “How does it feel now that you’re famous? Now that people might recognize you. How does it feel?” I said, “Well, I’m still the same guy. Nothing has changed.” To be very honest with you, it hasn’t changed me. I’m still the same person. I’m still driving the same car as nine years ago. I love my truck—
LF: And that’s just harder in LA, to maintain that. Because it’s very easy to get swept up.
NN: It is. One of the keys to success, in my opinion, is never allow Hollywood to digest you. If you are the one who is digesting Hollywood… you will be successful. It doesn’t matter where you are in your career. At the moment that you let the industry tell you who you are — that’s when you’ve lost yourself. It doesn’t matter where you are in your career, from then on you are just a puppet. So that’s tough. That is… I don’t know. I’ve always been a dreamer, so —
LF: [Laughs] It’s really heartening, and thank you.
NN: You are very welcome. Honestly, one day we were — we just had to shout out to all the Iranian people. There are so many powerful, and there are so many successful Iranian people here, and I don’t know, I feel that we just need to… to come out of the closet. We’re hiding ourselves because we want to blend in. Why? What makes us who we are is that we are different. We are part of this society, but we have our own color. We are part of this society, but we have our own sensibilities. And our sensibilities are what really makes us who are.
LF: Well this was the original impetus of Bidoun, you know, to offer another look, another perspective, at the Middle Eastern community. Something that hadn’t necessarily been seen that often. Not enough, anyway. And so —
NN: Really, Lisa, I think that society is ready. America is ready. They are hungry — hungry to be educated, hungry to be introduced. What we need to do is, we need to get together and say okay, I’m going to take a chance. I’m going to take a risk, let’s go. Let’s do it. Let’s tell our stories, let’s tell these stories and show who we are, instead of trying to copy or mimic the stories that have been done so many times. Let us tell our stories.
LF: Navid, you’re really doing an excellent job and I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with us. I’m really enjoying the show. I think you’re really adding a lot to it. I just wanted to say thank you.
LF: Thanks a lot. Thank you so much. Thanks for talking to me.
NN: I appreciate it. And hopefully… hopefully we’re gonna be able to tell those stories.
LF: I hope so. Merci.
NN:Khahesh mikonam. Thank you so much. Khodahafez azizam. Bye.
Mona Eltahawy has a knack for inspiring hatred. Egyptian activists and bloggers have called her an alien, man-hating, woman-hating, out-of-control psychotic. Non-Egyptian bloggers have called her a Muslim Nazi bitch. Pam Geller, the fulminator behind the Ground Zero Mosque scare, called her a “fascist savage.” A cover story on “misogyny in the Middle East” for Foreign Policy — titled “Why Do They Hate Us?” and illustrated by images of nude women painted black, only their eyes showing, like human hijab — generated tens of thousands of angry words in response. Sondos Asem, the young female spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood, decried her “one-dimensional reductionism and stereotyping.” There were parodies, character assassinations, death threats. Most people would wilt in the face of all this vitriol, ridicule, and angst.
Most people are not Mona Eltahawy.
Eltahawy, a journalist-turned-pundit–activist, seems to rather enjoy it. Since the revolution broke out in Egypt on January 25, 2011, this media-savvy New York–based Egyptian has fashioned herself its global spokesperson. And in the intervening two years, she has found a new career as a provocateur. Besides her numerous articles, she has taken her activism into the proverbial street. In November 2011, she took part in the protests on Mohamed Mahmoud Street in Cairo; an ordeal with police and military intelligence followed, including a sexual assault and broken limbs. In September 2012, she defaced a Geller-sponsored advertisement in the Times Square subway station (“IN ANY WAR BETWEEN CIVILIZED MAN AND THE SAVAGE, SUPPORT THE CIVILIZED MAN. SUPPORT ISRAEL. DEFEAT JIHAD”) with hot pink spray-paint, before being dragged off by transit police.
As with most everything else she does, these provocations are documented exhaustively on Twitter.
I should say that I went to meet Eltahawy in Harlem last November still outraged by her Foreign Policy article, and by half a dozen other things she had written. I arrived at a café near her home prepared for a fight. Mona — everyone calls her Mona, whether they like her or not — unhinges many of us with her seemingly boundless self-regard, her bluntness, her eagerness to court controversy, and her — well, her one-dimensional reductionism. But in person, I found myself disarmed by her honesty and her thoughtfulness. She has a quite nuanced understanding of the criticisms leveled against her, even as she strenuously rejects them. By the end I found myself admiring the very shamelessness and outrage that makes so many of us uncomfortable.
At one point in our exchange, Eltahawy described her night in jail after the subway graffiti incident. After a period of discomfort and mutual distrust, she bonded with a cellmate, comparing life stories and tattoos. And they joked about the unlikely pair they made: the drug dealer and the protest-itute.
Yasmine El Rashidi: You had a day in court yesterday.
Mona Eltahawy: Yes, you caught me at a great time… . They offered me a plea deal that would guarantee me no time in jail, but I turned it down — two days in community service and two fines, including my favorite, which is almost eight hundred dollars for the Gucci sunglasses of the woman who came between me and the ad.
YER: What is the exact charge?
ME: Charges: criminal mischief, possession of a graffiti instrument, and making graffiti.
YER: You woke up that morning, September 26, and thought, I’m going to spray-paint that ad?
ME: Oh yeah. I had business meetings that day and it was very frustrating to me that I couldn’t go immediately over to the ads that morning. But at least I had a lot of chances to tell people, “Look, I’m going to go spray-paint this ad and I might get arrested today, so don’t worry if you don’t hear from me for a long time.“ I was texting and direct-messaging friends on Twitter all day.
YER: So you knew that you could get arrested.
ME: Yeah, and I’m still going to plead not guilty because I don’t believe I did anything wrong.
YER: You wanted the attention…
ME: Absolutely. I wanted to get arrested. The way I looked at it was, those ads cost six thousand dollars. I don’t have six thousand dollars. What I do have — my capital is not financial, it’s my media profile. People know who I am. So I was not in a position to create an alternative ad — people said that’s what I should have done. And in any case those alternative ads people were making, as on point as they were, weren’t challenging enough. They were too polite. I was so frustrated, especially by what was happening on Twitter.
YER: On Twitter?
ME: My initial frustration was with Twitter. People were just venting about these ads. And believe me, I love Twitter. Love it. I live on Twitter. But there are times when you hit the wall and you need to get out. Like the revolution in Egypt. Against these ads, you need people on the ground, making it socially unacceptable to be racist and bigoted. We need a revolution, not alternative ads. I’m too angry for alternative ads.
YER: What are you angry about? Or is it a general state of being?
ME: You know, Yasmine, over the past few weeks I’ve truly been unraveling. It was the anniversary of the attack. I went back to Egypt for it, joined the Mohamed Mahmoud Street marches and memorials on November 19. So I’ve been feeling very torn up. The past few weeks have been the worst in my life, worse even than when I was attacked. I’ve been so low on energy and inspiration. At my rock bottom. But what happened yesterday in court completely reenergized me! It brought me back to life, because it reminded me of why I did what I did. It reminded me of the many fights I’ve had — and it reminded me just how much I love to fight. I love to fight! [Laughs]
YER: Following you on Twitter, one might think you live to fight?
ME: I think that those of us who are privileged enough to travel between cultures, to travel globally — one of the ways we can be most effective is find the place where we are a minority and poke away at those places. So in Egypt, for example, it’s a minority position to say that you are secular and want to keep religion out of politics. It’s a minority position to be a radical feminist. To say that they hate us, and that is why we don’t have any rights. I’ve found that for me that’s the most effective thing, to poke at the painful places.
YER: But you live in America.
ME: Yes, and here I’m in the minority as a Muslim. So I’m a secular, radical feminist Muslim, and people have to accept that. And the spray-painting is a part of it. I mean, all the protests that have happened over the past few years — the Danish cartoons and all that — including the ones against the ads over the summer, are most visibly led and promoted by a very right wing among Muslims. And they are most visibly promoted by a very right wing among non-Muslims, as well. What I try to do with my work is to place myself between the two right wings. And what I hope to do with this protest in the subway is to take that sense of ownership away from them — to say that I am offended. Even a Muslim who looks like me, with my pink hair and tattoo, who defended the Danish newspapers’ right to publish those cartoons, is offended.
YER: Your critics say that you conveniently switch between your many identities to suit the news of the moment. American? Egyptian? Muslim?
ME: We all have multiple and layered identities. The American in me, for example, believes that what I did is part of the long line of civil disobedience in this country. The only way this country has changed is through civil disobedience. From the civil rights movement to the protests against the war in Vietnam — they all involved breaking the law out of principle. And that’s what I did. I wanted to get arrested. I did it out of principle. And I would do it again.
ME: I knew you in 1997. You worked at Reuters, had dark hair, no tattoos, you dressed somewhat differently. And you seemed sort of… timid? What happened? [Laughter]
ME: I think I’m just much more visible in my fight now. I think what has happened in my adult life is that the fight that has always been internal has externalized itself, more and more. I mean, I wore hijab for nine years.
YER: Yes! I thought I had a memory of that.
ME: Oh yes, from sixteen to twenty-five I wore it by choice. And that speaks to the kind of pressure that women are under.
YER: You were pressured to cover your hair.
ME: We moved to Saudi Arabia from the UK when I was fifteen. (We had left Egypt for the UK when I was seven.) It was a huge, huge, shock to my system to go to Saudi. The way the men looked at me was just horrendous. We went on hajj soon after we arrived, and I was groped beside the Kaaba, as I was kissing the black stone — the heavenly white stone that was tainted black by the sins of humanity. I was fifteen, it was the first time in my life I was dressed like this — like a nun — going to perform one of the five pillars of Islam in the holiest place on earth for Muslims. And I was groped! This guy has his hand up my ass as we are doing tawaf. I had never been touched in any sexual way before — I didn’t know what to say. I burst into tears. It took me years to tell my parents what had happened. Maybe ten years. I was so ashamed, even though I had nothing to be ashamed of.
So I got very difficult and troubling messages about my body. Which is why I have a lot of trouble with niqab, because that’s how it started with me. I felt so violated I just wanted to hide. And it’s very wrong, that the way we feel we can protect ourselves is to hide. It goes right back to what’s happening to women in Egypt today — women are blamed for sexual violence. They are told, “If you cover up, you will be okay.”
YER: But you uncovered, eventually.
ME: When I put on the veil I literally thought that I was striking a deal with God — “They tell me that I should cover my hair to be a good Muslim. Well, I’ll do that, but please help me not go mad.“ And I was going mad. For many women hijab is an integral part of their identity and they’re very comfortable. I respect that. But to me it was very uncomfortable. The internal me and the external me were so far apart. It took me eight years to take it off. And the fight you see today is one I’ve had inside me all along, it just needed all this time to become so visible.
YER: You wrote an article in Foreign Policy last spring that made people very, very angry: “Why Do They Hate Us?”
ME: There was no sinister plot, like people think. It’s really simple. They wrote and asked if I would like to write a piece on women’s rights, and I said yes. And I think it’s really disingenuous of the people who are asking why I wrote it for Foreign Policy, and why in English — it got to them, didn’t it? It found its intended audience. Secondly, no Arabic-language publication would ever have published that, and none would have invited me to write it. I used to write in Arabic. I had a weekly column in Asharq Alawsat, until they banned me.
YER: What happened?
ME: They never give you a reason, they just drop you. But it might have had something to do with the anti-Mubarak Kifaya protests in 2005. I had been called into state security for an op-ed I wrote in the International Herald Tribune entitled “How Egypt Hijacked Democracy.“ Anyway, the point is, I have experience with Arabic language media and I know they would never touch this subject, especially since I wanted to talk about religion and culture and how it creates this toxic mix, this mess we live in. And in the age of social media, I found that the people I wanted to reach were exactly the ones I reached, because the piece was available online.
YER: I woke up one morning and logged onto Facebook or Twitter or both, and that piece was everywhere.
ME: I know! It’s like I set the world on fire!
YER: So you were happy with the reaction?
ME: It was an interesting and gratifying and grueling experience. The attacks were very personal. As a writer, I know that on any given day, twenty-five percent of the people will disagree with what I say. But it’s the way that they disagree that makes it really interesting. It would be an interesting experiment to change the byline on that piece and see how they would react.
YER: But let’s face it, the images were offensive — chosen, it seemed, by that very right-wing contingency you spoke of earlier?
ME: I know many people reacted in a very gut way to them, but I had nothing to do with the images. I didn’t choose them. They didn’t run them by me.
YER: Were you surprised when you saw them?
ME: You know, overall, I’m very proud of the piece. I’m very pleased with that piece. And in fact I’m going to write a book based on it over the next few months. So for those people who say I generalize and skim the surface, well, it was only three thousand words, and now I’m going to turn it into sixty thousand.
YER: People are going to love that.
ME: I want my book to be called Headscarves and Hymens, because for a very long time I’ve been working on a theory that we women from our part of the world are identified by what’s on our head and what’s between our legs — the presence or absence thereof. What do you think? [Laughs]
I obviously want to provoke. I’ve been writing for more than twenty years, I know what I’m doing. With that article, I wanted to provoke and I was very gratified by the response. I’m glad that it hit people in the gut, because it’s outrageous what’s happening. I am astounded that people are more outraged by what I wrote and how I wrote it and where I wrote it and how it was headlined than they are about what actually happened to the women I wrote about.
YER: We have a knee-jerk hypersensitivity to the West.
ME: The irony is that we have this hypersensitivity while at the same time we are always saying, “You don’t matter, you are not the center of our universe.” That sensitivity makes them the center of our universe. That’s another reason why I wrote it for FP.
YER: The love-hate-need problem.
ME: I made a point in that piece that I think is important. For that audience, which includes foreign policy pundits and diplomats — you are going to be sitting down with our government, which is largely dominated by Islamists, and they will tell you to mind your own business. That the way we treat our women is religious and cultural. That you can’t interfere. And this is where the international community has to stick to its conscience, because there are international standards by which you have to treat human beings, including women. And if you don’t treat them by those standards then you have to be willing to say, We aren’t going to do business with you. We’re going to boycott you. This has to happen. We as women are always being sold out. We’re sold out before anybody.
YER: Like Saudi Arabia and America?
ME: Exactly! How can you have a strategic ally that treats fifty percent of its population like children? It’s gender apartheid. The world boycotted South Africa. If the world can boycott South Africa, it can divest from Saudi.
YER: But the US props up Saudi because of oil. And it’s now propping up the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the name of long-term stability…
ME: Absolutely. The US props up any government that will guarantee stability. They supported Mubarak before the Brotherhood. Anyone who guarantees that oil will flow freely and the Camp David agreements will remain untouched. I don’t see a sinister plot in which Obama sat down and said he would help the Brotherhood rise to power, I really don’t. What I see, and what I hate this administration for, is him asking, “Who’s going to keep everything running so that our interests aren’t jeopardized?“
And that’s where, as an American, I say, “This is a fucked-up foreign policy.”
YER: But you voted for Obama?
ME: I voted for Obama because I was standing up to the Christian Brotherhood of America. And if these old, ultraconservative fundamentalist lunatics could be defeated by a coalition of women, youth, and minorities here in this country, then why the hell can’t we do that in Egypt? That’s our responsibility. We didn’t need America to get rid of Mubarak. And please quote me on this — as an Egyptian American, I say, “Fuck the Americans. Who are the Americans? We are in charge. We control our destiny, not the Americans.“
YER: You’ve often been criticized for what people see as serving Western policy makers the kinds of narratives about Egypt and the Middle East that fuel stereotypes. Are those the people you want to reach?
ME: I reach people who speak English, yes, and I have a large following in America, it’s true. But I’m also reaching people who speak Arabic. A lot of people on Twitter — the very same people who were angry at me over that Foreign Policy article — they were venting on Twitter and Facebook in English. They speak Arabic, too.
I wrote that essay understanding very well that I’m privileged. And I wrote that essay trying to look beyond my privilege. I wrote that essay to address people who are also privileged, and to ask them to look beyond that privilege.
I was interviewed by BBC Hard Talk a few weeks ago, and one of the questions that Stephen Sackur asked me was, “After what happened to you, where they beat you and broke your bones and sexually assaulted you — don’t you think that this essay was written out of personal anger?” Of course it was written out of anger, just not the anger he was talking about. My anger was a product of the realization that if I wasn’t who I was, if I didn’t have the privileges I have, I might very well be dead. If I didn’t have a high media profile, when I sent out that tweet saying I had been arrested, Al Jazeera and the State Department wouldn’t have picked up my story. Certainly not as quickly as they did. This hashtag #freemona wouldn’t have started trending globally in fifteen minutes. I probably would have died or been gang-raped or something horrendous.
I was so disheartened and angry by those people who verbally attacked me. We have to look beyond our privileges and see how horrendous it is to be a woman in so many parts of the Arab world. Clearly the women I’m writing about are not going to read my Foreign Policy article, and even if they did, so what? They’re not the audience. That audience, my audience, is those who know how bad it is, and yet their privilege prevents them from being outraged enough. And it’s that outrage that will make our revolution really succeed. The revolution to get Mubarak out of our heads! Mubarak is still in our heads. He’s called Morsi now!
YER: I know. It feels, at times, like it’s a farce….
ME: It is, it is! And it couldn’t have happened any other way because we had nothing else available. The revolution is not over, but it will not succeed until we get women involved, too. That’s the social and cultural revolution.
YER: Many say that the Muslim Brotherhood will serve as a catalyst for the real revolution.
ME: The Muslim Brotherhood is going to help really pinpoint this. You hear how Morsi talks. You hear how the Salafis talk. You see how women are addressed in the constitution. Mubarak is still up here. [Points] He’s in prison now but still terrorizing our minds. Unless we get him out of our heads the revolution is fucked.
YER: Just the Egyptian revolution, or are the Tunisians and Libyans and Syrians angry enough?
ME: In Tunisia, Bouazizi was angry enough to set himself on fire. And that’s the analogy I set up in my essay. And in so doing, he ignited these revolutions. The revolution he started has to be completed by women, because that’s what will create the kind of shift I talked about in the US, where half the population stood up to the old ultraconservative men.
YER: You just came back from a visit to Cairo. From what you saw, what do you think it will take?
ME: For the longest time, the Brotherhood has been surrounded by this protected halo of religion, which they utterly abuse. You know how sentimental people are about religion — you can’t touch it. Well, once they created a political party and moved away from just a wishy-washy ideology, then it became fair game. Once they entered politics and the dirt of politics, became tainted by politics, they came to deserve all the things we chanted last week — that the people want the fall of the regime.
YER: What do we do?
ME: The first step is to break the halo of the sanctity that they surround themselves with. This religious thing. Egyptians have to recognize that they are religious and have faith and that they don’t need the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis to give them this patina of faith and purity. We don’t need them to represent us religiously. The revolution will truly continue when we recognize that they are not our consciences but our elected representatives.
YER: And women?
ME: Well, when it comes to women, I don’t know if the shift is happening enough. I see more and more coalitions being formed and people on the ground wanting to protect women, but I also see this bizarre, bizarre, rage — and these weird combinations of power and sex — in which young men who are courageous enough to face up to our brutal police force, even as they are making their escape from the shooting and the tear gas, manage to find the wherewithal to think, “I’m going to grab her ass.“ How?! It leaves me speechless. That’s the shift we need to work on. We need to address this horrible cocktail, this toxic mix of power and sex. These men are high on courage and power. They are the barrier we have to address. They are the mini-Mubaraks.
YER: So what happened to those mini-Mubaraks during the eighteen days of uprising in 2011? Why were they so respectful of women in the square? Because Tahrir seemed a somewhat utopic place, didn’t it?
ME: I wasn’t there for the eighteen days the way you were, and I heard from people what you say — but I also heard from people that there was a reluctance to talk about any sexual assault that was happening because people didn’t want to taint the revolution. I understand that kind of power, because it took me a very long time to be able to look at the revolution objectively because it was something I, like so many of us, had wanted for such a long time. Egypt is a very misogynistic country and that was not going to go away after eighteen days. That’s the social revolution that I’m talking about, and the one that interests me much more. I’m not interested in the politics. I’m interested in the personal as political.
YER: In a conversation with Gloria Steinem at the Hammer Museum in late 2010, an Israeli woman in the audience said that it is very easy for you to be sitting in your New York apartment speaking about the situation in the Arab world, but why aren’t you there, on the ground, fighting the fight? You got very, very angry. But many of us have wondered that — why aren’t you living in Egypt?
ME: It’s a legitimate question, and I’ve been asked it many times, it’s true. But the answer is varied. First of all, I’ve reached a stage where I can get the message out about Egypt without having to be there. And there are enough people on the ground to keep all this going without me personally having to be there. It didn’t need Mona there to tip the scale. I felt at that time, during the eighteen days, I could contribute more by being here and literally shaking the media. People said I was literally jumping out of the TV. You know I would go on CNN and the BBC and I would challenge them — they had headlines like CHAOS IN EGYPT and I’d said to them, “This is an uprising, this is a revolution, stop saying chaos in Egypt! This is the most important time in my people’s lives!” And then the New York Times and Michael Moore said five minutes later they changed it to UPRISING IN EGYPT. If I can do that, then I feel I’m contributing much more here then there.
But I have come to realize over the past two years that the social revolution is much more important to me than the political one, and that to do what I really want to do I have to be on the ground. So I’m actually moving back, next month.
YER: Do you feel that you will get a warm reception in Egypt?
ME: I don’t speak for anyone — I only speak for myself. But in doing so, and in becoming so visible with my speaking, I know I represent something that needs to be there in Egypt right now. So many young men and women come up to me, and we have these conversations that are very important. For that I need to be back. And I need to write this book.
But in going back I can’t lose my connection to here, either. To keep Egypt on the international stage, I need to keep my connections here. This poster that I spray-painted in New York — hardly anyone recognizes me here. But in Egypt, it was insane, insane. I was waiting for a cab in the street and a woman got out of her car and said, “Are you Mona? I need to shake your hand, I’ve watched that video ten times, let me give you a lift.“ She stopped her car, on the corniche!
YER: Could you actually tell us the story of the attack, just for the record?
ME: I was at a conference in Morocco, and on the night train from Tangier to Marrakesh. It sounds very romantic, but I spent all those eight hours on the top bunk of the sleeper compartment on this train just crying, following the news from Mohamed Mahmoud Street in Cairo, where there were clashes. One woman tweeted about how this older man came up to her and said, “What are you doing here?” and she told him she was fighting like everyone else. And he said to her, “No, your place is back there in Tahrir. You’re educated — Egypt and its future need you. I’m poor and uneducated and I’m probably going to die here. After we finish what we’re doing here, Egypt needs you to rebuild it and lead it to the freedom that we’re fighting for here.“
YER: Goose bumps.
ME: It gives me tears just thinking about it. And then there was this awful picture of a father in a morgue who had just identified his son. It just tore me up. And then finally there were all these stories coming in of boys as young as twelve years old, probably street kids, some Ultras — who have my ultimate respect since they’ve been fighting the police since 2007 — going into Mohamed Mahmoud knowing they might die. They were writing their mothers’ phone numbers on their arms — so that if they ended up in the morgue, people would know who to call.
YER: So you went back to Cairo.
ME: I’d arranged to meet an activist friend outside the Mugamma. Just before I left the hotel my brother called and begged me not to go to Tahrir. He said a relative of ours had just been killed. He was one of the two people who had been killed in Alexandria a few days earlier. He was in his thirties, the father of two young girls — shot dead. I promised my brother I would stay out of trouble. Instead I went straight to Mohamed Mahmoud to meet my fate.
Well, not straight — we had to take a side street because they were blocking the Mohamed Mahmoud crossroads. We went through Bab El-Louk. There was a battle happening right at the main gate of the American University — sirens, tear gas, all this stuff. I was tweeting all this time, and at one point my friend Maged turned to me and said, “Mona, your life is worth more than a tweet, put that thing away.” So I put my phone away, and we made our way to the front line.
And we’re there, driven by adrenaline, pushing forward, past the ambulances, ducking from the tear gas, pushing, pushing, pushing. We went literally up to the metal barrier. And so I stood up on this rock that was there and I took pictures of these bastard security guys on the other side. Then this man takes my hand and says, “Stand up and take pictures, I’ll hold you.“ I thought it was a bit odd that an Egyptian man was offering to hold my hand like that, but I kept going. And then they saw us and started shooting, so I ducked, and they stopped. These guys next to us were like, “Run!” So we ducked into a tiny fast food place.
We now know that they were mundaseen — plainclothes thugs. We didn’t know this at the time. We thought they were with us. So we ducked, ran into the shop, and all this time the guy was still holding my hand. And then he started trying to take my smartphone. And I’m like, “Leave my phone, ya hayawan, ya hayawan“ (you animal). And here we are, cramped in this small place, and one of them gropes my breast! So I start hitting him. We’re being fired at and he has the headspace to grope me!? And Maged is like, “Mona, we have to go, this is not the time.” But I’m like, “No, no, I’m not done.“ I was punching him so hard that one of his co-thugs actually tried to protect him from me because I was so enraged.
And then suddenly, there were riot police around us and everyone disappeared. I thought Maged had gotten away, but they’d actually taken him to a place where he could see me being beaten, and they were beating him there. So I’m in the shop, and I’m thinking, it’s just me and these guys, I’m a woman, what are they going to do. Ha! Beat the living daylight out of me is what they did. They were whacking me on the head and I was trying to protect my head with my arms, which is why this bone broke, and this bone broke. [Gestures] They beat me so hard that the bone broke inward, like this.
So after this beating, during which I dropped my smartphone, they took me into this room on their side of the barrier, where they sexually assaulted me. Hands here, hands here, hands between my legs, hands in my trousers. I’m literally plucking hands out of my trousers and saying No and they’re beating me, pulling my hair, calling me a sharmouta (slut). And in the middle of all this beating, I fall to the ground. At first I wasn’t sure if I remembered correctly that I’d fallen to the ground, but then my bum hurt so much that I knew I had. And I remember this voice inside me said, “If you don’t get up now you are going to die.” Something made me get up.
Then they started dragging me to this street that connects to the interior ministry and they took me to this small alleyway that led to the back of the ministry, where their supervising officer, who was in plainclothes and a leather jacket, said to me, “You’re going to be fine now, you’re going to be okay,“ as their hands were still all over my body.
And into this new scenario arrives this older man in military fatigues who says, “Get her out of here.” They took me into an office inside, and the sexual assault ended. But it was just me and the men sitting there. I kept telling them my arms were broken and I needed a doctor. I could tell from the swelling. And they kept saying, “Put your fingers together, you’re fine, see.“ And I’m like, “But it’s my arms that are broken, you morons.”
And then I made a point of telling every single man who came to question me that I had been sexually assaulted. Their reactions were amazing. They’d look away, they’d stammer, they’d ignore me. They’d say things like, “For sure it was crowded.“ And this judge who was there to negotiate terms of a truce with them, said, “Well, what did you expect, you have no ID.” And I’m like, “Because I have no ID I deserve to be violated?“ And he’s like, “How were they to know who you were?” Which is bullshit, because they knew who I was.
YER: Were you scared?
ME: No, I was fed up. But I was seriously concerned that they would charge me with being a spy, because I’m a dual citizen. And I’d lived in Israel, which is extremely unpopular with many Egyptians, and it could have easily created a case by which public sympathy could be on their side.
At one point, some activists came in to try to negotiate a truce, and one of them had a smartphone and I got him to put me on Twitter. I tweeted “beaten and interrogated at interior ministry" and his battery died literally ten seconds later.
Then this general appears — he might have been a famous one, I don’t know — and he turns to me and asks, “Why are you here, my girl?“ I was like, “I don’t know, maybe you can tell me.” I told him, “Look, can you either charge me with something, so that I can know where I stand, or let me go home since I’ve been here for six hours.“ He told me I was going, and then these two military guys appear, and when I ask them where we’re going, they say military intelligence. I refuse to go. I’m a civilian, why should I? Then one of them tells me to stop this Bollywood drama, that I’m going whether I like it or not.
So we get into rickety jeep, every bump I’m feeling in my broken bones, until we get to the military intelligence headquarters by Tiba Mall. It’s freezing and they keep me waiting outside for two hours until the supervising officer finally sends orders to bring me in, where they blindfold me and keep asking me questions like, “You’re Jewish, right?” And I’m like, “My name is Mona Ahmed Eltahawy, where did you get the Jewish from?“ And he’s says, “The file that has come with you from the Interior Ministry is filled with information…”
I mention this because six hours later, they have the nerve to tell me, “Look, Mona, we have no idea why you’re here.“ They were playing good cop, bad cop. Finally some kind of officer walks in, the first thing I ask him is, “Why am I here?” and he says that it’s just a procedure to verify my identity. So we do this whole song and dance about identity again. And he keeps coming and going and disappearing for an hour, and he’d come back and be like, “Look away, look away,“ which was ridiculous since I was wearing a blindfold.
And in the middle of all this, as I’m telling him I was sexually assaulted, all he wants to talk about is the dirt on my hands. “It looks to me like you were throwing Molotov cocktails,” he said. “Look at your hands!“ I told him that the dirt was from when his men were sexually assaulting me.” And he says, “How do we know you’re not a spy?“ Eventually I said, “No more questions. Either let me go or charge me and bring me someone from the American Embassy or a lawyer.” And he pounces: “The American Embassy? Are you ashamed of being an Egyptian? Are you renouncing your nationality?“
I said, “Look, after hours of people of my nationality beating me, sexually assaulting me, ignoring me, refusing me medical attention — after all these things, I want someone here that I can trust. And if that someone is from the American Embassy, I don’t care. I want someone in this room with me that I can trust.”
And then literally in the eleventh hour he comes back in and says, “Okay, you can take off the blindfold now.“ That’s when he tells me, “Look, Mona, we don’t know why you are here.” So who the hell does!?
Then they did this song and dance: “We’re very sorry what happened to you, we’re going to investigate — can you write down what happened?“
Write it down? For the millionth time, my arms are broken!
So, he records my statement with his iPhone, takes pictures, apologizes again, insists that they have no idea why I was sent there — after they had already told me that my “file” is full of incriminating evidence!
The most climactic moment, I think, was when this guy tried to play the elitism card. “The guys who did this to you,“ he said, “you know who they are — they are the dregs of society. We drag them up, we scrub them clean and we open a door in their minds.” He clearly thought I would get mad and say, “Yeah, those barbarians!“ But instead I said to him, “Who made them live like this? And then you’re surprised we had a revolution? And then you ask me why we’re fighting at Mohamed Mahmoud?” I was basically defending the men who had sexually assaulted me against this bastard who thought he could play the class card.
Anyway, so then he gives me fifty pounds and tells me to take a cab and go home. Just hands me an envelope with money and his name and number, “in case I need anything.“
ME: Completely. So I walk out, find a cab — which is playing patriotic music — get to the hotel, pay the cab the whole fifty pounds, since I wanted none of their filthy money. And then a Tweep, Sarah Naguib, takes me to the hospital, and at the hospital — and this is very telling — I’m at the emergency room and I’m telling them I was sexually assaulted and this female nurse says to me, “How can you let them do that to you? Why didn’t you fight them off?”
So this entire night is the microcosm of everything I’ve been talking about. From the nurse who didn’t think I fought them off hard enough, to these good cop/bad cop guys, to them telling me that my sexual assault was by the animals of Egyptian society — which they have created, you know. That whole night, it changed my life.
YER: In what way?
ME: In the way that it brought me to where I am now, being a writer with casts on both hands, only being able to use a touchpad with one finger. It took the fight that I used to use my words for to my body. My body became the source of my activism. Whether it’s me appearing on TV and talking about what happened, or my hair, or my tattoos.
YER: So the hot pink hair is post-assault?
ME: Oh yes. When my arms were broken I vowed that when I physically healed — because emotionally I haven’t — I would celebrate my survival by dying my hair red. For me red is a very defiant color. And in the same way that I now go back to Egypt every month to tell the authorities they can’t keep me away, the hair also says, “I am here.“
Don’t you love it? People tweet me at airports to say they saw me — you can’t miss the red!
YER: And the tattoos?
ME: The tattoos just came to my head. Look [holds out forearm], this is Sekhmet. I was on a speaking tour in Italy, at this museum in Turin where there are many of our national treasures that we supposedly sold to some rich Italian man two centuries ago. And we’re in this room, and the director of the museum says, “And this is the ancient Egyptian goddess Sekhmet — we have nineteen of her statues in this room, and she is the goddess of retribution and sex.” And I thought, “Oh! I want that! Retribution and sex!“ I was like, “Sekhmet is my woman.” So I decided on Sekhmet here, to celebrate my ancient Egyptian heritage. And on the other arm, I’m going to get Arabic calligraphy of Mohamed Mahmoud and Horreya, to celebrate the street, and the Arabic script.
YER: So the tattoo is also post-accident?
ME: In August! I went red, and then went straight to the tattoo artist. This is Sekhmet à la Molly Crabapple, an artist friend who designed it. Sekhmet has the head of a lioness and the serpent on top and all that, and she looks like a hieroglyph, obviously. And her dress is usually red, and the color red is generally associated with her because she’s associated with blood and war. According the legend, when humans turned against her father, the sun god Ra, she went on a rampage. And to stop her, the priestesses created this concoction that was a mix of wine and possibly opium and other things, and they poured it on the ground ahead of wherever she was about to go. And when she arrived they said, “Look, Sekhmet, you’ve killed everyone already, the blood is here on the ground.“ So this concoction calms her down, calms her bloodlust, and then they have an orgy to celebrate.
YER: So you have bloodlust?
ME: [Laughs] Well, the reason for the tattoo is because of the boys who wrote their mothers’ numbers on their arms at Mohamed Mahmoud. Sekhmet is my mother in that kind of symbolical way.
I didn’t choose this scar [_points to her hand)], I’m very proud of this scar, but they left this mark on me. I wanted to put markings on my body that I did choose, that celebrate my survival.
Last summer I lost this suitcase that totally tore me up. I had a breakdown over losing it. It had a lot of Azza Fahmy jewelry that I’d been collecting for a very long time and that was very dear to me and that I’d wanted to give to my sisters and nieces when I died. And a lot of clothes… things that were really dear to me. It got lost in transit somewhere.
I had a breakdown over this in Cairo and I realized that it was a displaced kind of trauma. I don’t know what I lost when they attacked me last year — but any kind of attack like that, you lose something. You just don’t know what it is. So I was like, “You know what, no one can ever take my tattoo away from me — this can never get lost.” It was a way of figuring out what I can and can’t lose, changing myself in a very obvious physical way, and emotionally, too — though I don’t know where I’m going to end up. I’m trying to have this out in a very public way, through Twitter. I tell people all of this, and I want to write an essay about it. A lot of my detractors will say it’s for narcissism and self-promotion. They’re entitled to their opinions. But I’m doing it for a reason — I think that we don’t talk about trauma enough, we don’t talk about vulnerability enough. When I am in to Egypt, everyone I know is traumatized. They’re not able to put it into words. So I’m trying to go through my trauma — very publicly — as a way for those who can’t have that very public discussion to watch it happen. Perhaps to recognize the relationship between strength and vulnerability. I’m hoping that it will help someone.
YER: Hearing you, I wonder if the anger toward your piece — which as you know I was angry about, too! — was actually discomfort at issues that many women in the region face but are unable to speak about? That you are able to be so vocal about things that women are made to feel ashamed of.
ME: We’ve been told to be silent about it. Twelve other women were sexually assaulted. You know the organization Nazra? They contacted me and they said, “Will you join this lawsuit with us?“ and I said, “Of course.” And they said to me, twelve other women have gone through what you’ve gone through, but none of them want to pursue it. They can’t, for whatever reason.
YER: But you can?
ME: I’m older, I’m forty-five. I’m not a virgin. I was married, I talk about sex openly. I’m a public figure. They can try to shame me, but it’s almost like I’m beyond shame. So for all of these reasons I’m obliged to talk about this stuff in a way that a twenty-six-year-old Egyptian virgin can’t. And I’m not speaking for her! I’m speaking about my experience, but in so doing I hope I can help others say, “This is what happened to me.“
Blue bra girl — and I hate that term and I never use it — she’s been silenced by her family. They won’t let her speak. It’s outrageous, Yasmine! They might as well just put tape over our mouths! And then they get angry that I wrote an essay in Foreign Policy?
YER: What about—
ME: Wait, let me tell you where the men’s rage comes in, because a lot of men wrote to me after what happened, and their reaction was this:
Dear Sister Mona, I’m so sorry about what happened to you. I want to bow down before you and kiss your feet because I was not able to protect you. But I vow to you, that I will not rest until I avenge your honor.
So I think this is very interesting. I write back and I say:
Dear Brother So-And-So, I am so grateful for your support. Thank you. I am very moved. But. My honor is intact. Nothing has happened to my honor. And let’s vow together to restore Egypt’s honor. Men and women together, because that’s how our revolution will succeed. Sister Mona
The regime does these things to us because they know it emasculates our men. Our bodies are the battlefield, the nexus of power and sexuality. So the regime does this and our men — even men very close to me, including men I’m emotionally involved with — feel emasculated, and they want to go back and take revenge. Or, because I was on the front lines and they weren’t, they feel emasculated in that way. I’m like, I’m not responsible for your masculinity issues. I’ve got enough to deal with!
But that nexus of power and sexuality is the revolution that I want to fight. Which is why I’m going back to Egypt. We weren’t ready for that in the eighteen days. Now that more and more people see what I wrote about in my essay because they go to the protests and they get groped by the very men who were keeping the physical revolution alive against the police, we can start talking about this revolution. Why are these young men who are so courageous groping me as they are running away from bullets?
And this is where I enter now and say: because the revolution is happening over our bodies. And unless that nexus of power and sexuality is reckoned with, there is no future. That’s what I want to do in Egypt — I want to work against sexual violence. There are so many people on the ground working on this, but they’re just not working horizontally. If we put all the different initiatives under one umbrella, we can have a national campaign. I’m going to be working with the group Baheyya and their community of artists, writers, musicians, going into the rural areas we normally never see, reaching out to people. Working holistically, with doctors, creating female police units in precincts, getting rape kits and crisis lines and free therapy in place. Working with the Ultras to get awareness down to the streets. Working with football stars like Abu Treika to make a billboard that says, REAL MEN DON’T GROPE.
It’s going to take years, but I’m totally fired up about it. So this will be the activist part of what I do in Egypt, where — again — my body becomes a tool. I never called myself an activist before now, but after Mohamed Mahmoud, I’ve become an activist, as a kind of therapy.
YER: When we first corresponded you replied to my email by apologizing for the tardy reply because you had been busy responding to hate mail.
ME: Every single day! I read it all, I respond to lots. But sometimes when I begin to read it and it’s like, “You cunt, you bitch,” I realize there’s no point.
YER: It doesn’t upset you?
ME: When it comes from the right wing, I expect it. When it comes from what should be allies on the left, that hurts more.
YER: I notice that some of the people on Twitter who I know used to hate you, despise you even, are now flirting with you on Twitter.
ME: I know! It took a few months, but I think people have come around, especially as more and more women face the kind of assault I did. And I’m glad people are coming around — we need to move beyond that knee-jerk position.
YER: I don’t see the Muslim Brotherhood being too thrilled about your return.
ME: It’s true, but I plan to make a very public appeal to Morsi, to say, “Look, you claim to be the president of all Egyptians, you could have really helped things when you were in Tahrir opening your jacket saying, ‘Look look, no bulletproof vest.’" He could have said something about the price Egyptian women have paid.
YER: How did you feel about Morsi’s win and that speech in Tahrir?
ME: I was much more depressed than I expected. I think we have five or ten years of really hard work on the ground to get to the point where we can get rid of what the military dictatorship of the past sixty years created and begin to build the country we hope for. If we don’t look ahead, the revolution will die. And we have to be optimistic. Our optimism is our biggest weapon. If there’s no optimism, forget it — pack the whole thing in. I think Morsi is an ineffectual, utterly unprepared nobody. He was just a fill-in, like a spare tire. The problem with him is he’s a soft cuddly grandpa, uncle-looking guy, which made a lot of people say, “He’s kind, give him a chance.“ That’s crap.
YER: What’s your take on the Brotherhood?
ME: They’re too ingrained in collective thinking. It’s not rocket science — the Muslim Brotherhood is a microcosm of the regime. The Supreme Guide is Mubarak. A topdown structure, just as the country had when Egyptians said no. So they need an internal revolution.
But they’re organized! They’re out there doing things, and all we can think of is Tahrir. The extent of our political imagination is, “Let’s go to Tahrir!” I love Tahrir and wish I were there right now, but for God’s sake, people.
YER: What about Brotherhood defectors, like Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh?
ME: [Shudders] Who are you? You told every political faction that you were what they wanted. To the left you were a leftist. To the Islamists, an Islamist. You represent nothing man, nothing. Not a fan. Don’t buy the soft, cuddly, Islamist guy.
YER: So are you categorically anti-Islamist?
ME: No. I have a platform, and it’s more than being anti-Islamist. My platform is to create a ceiling of freedom that is high enough in Egypt that it encompasses everyone’s freedoms. What last year has done for me is that it has moved me beyond reacting to their agenda. With my essay, with my arrest, with the kind of stuff I want to do now, I’m creating an agenda that other people have to react to. Now, whenever anyone writes something about women’s rights in the Middle East, they always mention my Foreign Policy piece. It has put a flag on the ground that you have to respond to. And that, for me, is taking away from them. In the past it was their flag people had to respond to. Now it’s mine.
If you can picture only one building in Iran, it is probably Tehran’s Azadi Tower, a massive, white marble megalith, some fifty meters tall, set inside a landscaped island on the western side of the city, just a few miles from the airport. The Azadi (“Freedom”) Tower has become visually synonymous with its city — not unlike the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, or even the Kremlin — a metonym for modern Tehran. Built in 1971 for the celebrations in honor of the 2,500-year anniversary of the Persian Empire, the structure was originally named the Shahyad — the king memorial. And indeed, its form seems fit for a king: its wide base tapers upward to a high arch, densely interwoven with lines of ribbing, which is itself the underside of the thick, beveled tower at the monument’s top. From different angles, the geometry can beguile: wide and squat from one side, tall and lean from another. The stone surfaces curve and flow like a ball gown, and its formal complexity suggests something at once deeply ancient and firmly modernist, a kind of trans-historical, citational mash-up.
Over the past four decades, the monument has played iconographic backdrop to a diverse — and often competing — array of political and social movements. In photographs from 1979, the newly renamed Azadi Tower is swarmed by swollen crowds hoisting Khomeini posters. In 2009, almost the exact same scene occurred — the masses thronging about the tower — except these crowds were wearing the color green.
The soft-spoken architect of this tower has had to watch its contested, very public life from a distance for the past thirty years. Only twenty-four when he won the open competition to design it, Hossein Amanat has since gone on to a significant career in global architecture. He has built institutional, residential, public, and religious buildings in Iran, China, the United States, and Canada, among other places. Besides the Azadi Tower, he is perhaps best known for a series of buildings called the Arc Complex — the core legal and religious study center for the Baha’i faith — located in Haifa, Israel, where the faith’s Persian founder, Baha’u’llah, died in exile in 1892. Amanat is himself Baha’i, and one of the faith’s most eminent international architects. He spoke with me in mid-November by Skype from his firm’s offices in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he has lived and worked since 1980.
Benjamin Tiven: You won the competition for the Shahyad Tower right out of architecture school. You were incredibly young when you got the commission. So I wanted to start by asking… what were you thinking?
Hossein Amanat: Well, as to how I conceived the Shahyad form — to be honest, I really do not know. The process of design for me is very torturous and dark… for every project, whether it’s a small house or the Shahyad. So when I started, I thought: It should be a portal of entry to the city. And then: It should be a tower. It should be… hundreds of things. I sketched and sketched for two months, and I only decided on it a few days before the deadline for the competition.
BT: Did your education prime you to produce that design? What was the architectural discourse like in Tehran in those days?
HA: Well, at that time, we were very much influenced — or dominated — by what we would see in the Western magazines. Every month we would read the American and British reviews, look to see what was in L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui. The fact is that for quite a while, the Western impact on the thoughts and culture of my country was such that we had totally forgotten what we had, in terms of architecture. Nobody would have told us, “Look around you.” We didn’t think there was much we could benefit from in our own country.
BT: So, international modernism was the dominant paradigm. Who were its leading practitioners? How was it being produced and taught in the Iranian context?
HA: Well, Heydar Ghiaï was the professor at my studio at the architecture school, and he was quite well known. Ghiaï had a very modern look. He built the very modern Parliament in Tehran, which even now is a very good building. This is the Senate building, with the two bronze columns in front sculpted by the French artist and architect André Bloc, which they called “The Chains of Anushirawan the Just” after one of the Sassanid emperors. Anyway, the second year of my program Ghiaï was imprisoned because of some… well, some political upheavals… and so Hooshang Seyhoun became the head of the school, and also took over Ghiaï’s studio. Seyhoun was a Beaux-Arts graduate, too, but he was a different person. Seyhoun was really the first architect to refer to traditional Iranian architecture in his own work, to explore the dynamic tension between the possibilities of modern material and form, and the very old traditions of Iranian building. Many of us students would often travel with him to different cities, where we’d sketch a lot of buildings — sketch the bazaars and the beautiful textures of traditional Iran. There was a kind of hidden message in that, which we absorbed, about how you can use what you see in your modern interpretation of architecture. But this was not what was being taught elsewhere at the school, generally.
The Beaux-Arts approach was what our teachers passed on — you know, the idea that whatever you do, the plan should be functional. I remember they taught that you do the plan and then you do the elevation [laughs]. If you do a project for, let’s say, a library, the most important thing is how the light comes into the reading room and where are the books kept; how the user moves in it, how the staff moves. And then, of course, that the elevation should also look beautiful. That was how we were looking at it. But we were never directed to look at what was in our country, to inquire as to why some of those buildings were built like that. The understanding was that those were old buildings, and that new buildings required different things.
BT: And yet one of the things that seems to unite all your projects over the years — from the very beginning of your career — is an attention to those old buildings. You developed a very specific vocabulary, or at least a specific mode, that always seems to reference traditional Iranian architecture.
HA: Yes, well, I’m careful not to be prejudiced. What I have learned or experienced has been through Iranian things… But I think you could learn the same things in, let’s say, in some of those little alleys in the old cities of Italy. You can learn this anywhere — I mean, not just anywhere, but somewhere where the built environment has been done and evolved with sensitivity and scale and taste. And I think Iran was one of those places — and I happened to be born there, so we learned from those buildings and mosques and alleys and schools and houses that we walked through. Which I had seen as a child, and sketched during those trips at architecture school. I’d traveled abroad, too — I went to Europe in the third year of architecture school, and then I went to America in my fourth — and you learn a lot from everywhere you go. But I think what you learn from Iran is really significant. It’s a very, very interesting architectural environment. One gets very impressed by the forms in Iranian architecture, so rich and varied in terms of shape and volume… volume, particularly. One of the greatest messages is the sequence of the volumes: how a space, maybe an outdoor space, can give you an impression of enclosure, and then you come to a smaller space, or a lower or higher space, the interrelations of different volumes and proportions — the time it takes to walk through them, the amount of light you experience as you pass through. It’s very difficult to put briefly, in words… but if you can experience this symphony of volumes by walking into these buildings, it naturally applies itself to your architecture. Regardless of your tradition. Even now, when I design a building in California or here in Vancouver, that sense is with me. You design for people, you know, you design for human beings, and it’s the same user everywhere [laughs]…
BT: Let’s go back to the specifics of the Shahyad design. It is a unique combination of monumental forms — combining arch, tower, gate, and obelisk. It seems to gesture toward a wide range of citations all at once. What were you trying to accomplish?
HA: For me, there are two significant periods in Iranian architecture: Iran before the invasion of Arabs — before accepting the Islamic culture — and the period after it. They have a tremendous effect on each other, since old Iran has impacted all Islamic architecture, everywhere, since. In the Sassanid period, patterns were important, but in the Islamic period they became much more rich and varied, in architecture and also in poetry. the Shahyad tries to represent both periods: the central arch is a Sassanid arch — well, it’s not exactly, but it implies one — and the broken arch above it alludes to the second period, and they are interwoven together through a complex series of ribs. Again, this is not exactly what Iranian architects have done traditionally, but it makes use of traditional techniques; the shape is there, however subtle it may be.
BT: Yes, I’m looking at a blueprint of it now. It’s a doubled, embedded form. And even the patterns of its design, both structural and decorative…
HA: Yes. You know, I’ve talked about the pattern from the Vakil Mosque in Shiraz, in which a straight line shifts into a circle, through its organization of ribs, and if you look at it you immediately see where this concept for the Shahyad came from. But, it is not exactly what the guy had done in Shiraz. In architecture, when you have a square space and you want to put a dome over it, you have to solve for the corners. The Europeans had maybe three or four systems of trompe for this, but Iranians had many, many ways to do it, and this is one of those tricks — with the Shahyad, the base of that arch is a straight line and under the belly of it is a curve.
BT: It’s perfectly symmetrical.
HA: Yes, and the ribbing has connected the straight line to that parabola there, the belly of the building. On the other side, it’s an ellipse. In terms of conic geometry, this building is very interesting, and the reason we could define it and draw it and do working drawings for it was because we were taught conic geometry in high school, and I happened to know the difference between a hyperbola, parabola, ellipse, and circle. The Shahyad has interesting interior spaces that show this, too — although it’s a monument, so it’s mostly the look of this sculpture from the outside [laughs] that is meant to talk to the visitors — to bring a question to them, why it’s this shape; to tell them about Iran. But the inside of it, on its own, is quite interesting.
BT: Right, the underground museum space? That seems to have a lot of resonance with your later buildings, too, in the way it brings shafts of light down into an otherwise darkened space.
HA: Yes, it’s a museum. Initially, there were showcases in the tunnel starting from very early finds of Iranian civilization, like Marlik and Sialk, and as you proceed you enter the main hall, the visitor’s center, which showed the cylinder of Cyrus the Great that had been brought from the British Museum for the dedication of the monument.
BT: So it was specifically designed as an archaeological museum?
HA: All these museum programs were not part of the competition. I had to do a main hall, which became a museum.
BT: Someone else programmed the museum with changing exhibitions?
HA: Well, I chose most of the subjects, but I had the advice of the museum of antiquities, and I had access to their collections.
BT: I see.
HA: But it wasn’t just me. In any case, the idea was to enter this civilization mostly by way of script and writing. When you entered the hall, you would see the cylinder of Cyrus the Great, which is still a very important document. This was at the very center of the museum, and beside it was a gold plate, which had been laid under one of the columns at Persepolis by Xerxes, where he wrote, “I built this building and I will build many better ones in the future,” things like that. This beautiful piece of text in cuneiform scripture, like Hebrew, and then on the other side of the cylinder was a cube of stone, beautiful black basalt, on which Darius the Great had written how he built his palace — this is in Suza — and how he has brought wood from Zanzibar, and the blue stone from Afghanistan…
BT: Lapis lazuli?
HA: Lapis lazuli, from Badakhshan, which was part of Iran in those days — all these details about the materials and who built it for him — paid labor, it’s important to note, not slavery — and the greatness of his kingdom in those days. And, this was for me, the realization of my dreams. Just looking at these texts, showing the world what this country was — and this is really the source of the whole Shahyad, the whole history of Iran and the beauty of its culture. And the Shahyad is significant in terms of marking the history of Iran in its own time, the 1960s, because it was all done by Iranians. Except the structural design, which was done by Arup in London.
BT: Wow. This must have been not so long after they had worked on the Sydney Opera house, right?
HA: Yes, it was after. When I won this competition and signed the contract, my next step was to find a structural engineer. I had seen an article about the Sydney Opera House and the contribution Arup had made in terms of definitions of its geometry. I was really impressed, so I contacted them. And their role in the creation of the Shahyad is quite big — though it was difficult to get them confirmed for the project. I was just twenty-four when I won the competition, you know, and I had to learn to navigate a complicated and at times very corrupt bureaucracy. So when I signed the contract with Arup in London, I had to sign underneath it, “On condition of the approval of the Council of Celebrations,” who was technically my client. And I told the head of this council that I had the British structural engineer who had done the Sydney Opera House, and he — well, he was a nice man, a senator, named Boushehri, but he was quite old and very conservative about any step he’d have to take, and he was very worried that I was going to a foreigner. There was a lot of resistance from some Iranian engineers and their friends on the council. But it was eventually the Shah himself who settled it! He sent a letter to Boushehri that basically said, “Amanat is the architect, leave him be; let him do what he wants.” And I always appreciated that support, and it should be recorded that he had this trust in me… though I really don’t know why! And the queen was also very supportive. She would later give me the commission for the Iranian embassy in Beijing.
BT: Were you ever worried when working on the Shahyad? I mean, it was this absolutely enormous public commission — weren’t you at all frightened? Is that why you wanted to use Arup?
HA: Well, you can think that way. But the truth of the matter is that I am a very dreamy person. For me, the problem is the design — that’s what really kills me. I’m weak when I have to create. This is the part that intimidates me, you know? But I wasn’t scared about that. I was scared about the corruption in Iran. I was scared of not having enough administrative support, or that I’d lose the project to a rival plotting against me. I had to appeal to anyone I could, including the old headmaster of my high school, who had gone on to become the dean of what’s now Sharif University of Technology. In fact, many of the buildings on the Sharif campus were things I’d designed — they were my first commissions, granted while I was still waiting for my Shahyad contract to be finalized. I had to go to him for help, because I knew he was meeting with the Shah every week about the program of the university. And when we finally started the Shahyad project, there were only thirty months left until the celebrations.
BT: So did you make a foundation stone for the Shahyad itself, with an inscription? In the spirit of the artifacts you exhibited in the museum below?
HA: Yes. It’s funny when I think back to why we did it. It was a kilogram plate of gold, kept in a granite box, on which is written, “This building was built in such and such a year, under the rule of such and such a king, at such and such a time.” It was in beautiful Persian calligraphy, on this gold plate about a millimeter thick. The box was about five inches high, and about twelve inches square. It’s buried quite deep in the concrete. This was a stupid thing to do — nobody can get to it! In fact, I don’t even remember which part of the building we set it beneath.
BT: I imagine the opening ceremonies were quite a spectacle. Did you attend the events in Persepolis?
HA: You know, I was so busy in the days and weeks leading up to the dedication, twenty four hours a day on site, to get it all ready. And especially because a few days before they wanted to blow it up and things like that, which I never found out the truth of the matter, but —
BT: I’m sorry — did you just say they wanted to blow it up?
HA: Yes… I think somebody had gotten to the transformer that was underground, near the monument. And the security people said that they had wanted to blow the whole thing up. But really, I never got into these details. We were in the rush of cleaning and getting the Shahyad ready for the opening. I had invited Sir Ove Arup and his wife and another engineer from the firm, Duncan Michael. But I was so busy that one of my friends had to bring them from their hotels to the site, making it through all sorts of police lines and barriers all across Tehran, and they finally arrived at the ceremonies just as it was going to start. It was a beautiful fall day, about five or five-thirty in the afternoon, and the fountains were going, the floodlights on the building were lit, and there were rows of chairs along the plaza itself. If you look at the landscaping design around the Shahyad, you will see some curves, somehow coming under the arch and going outside again, confirming the geometry of the building and somehow fitting to the topography of the plaza. I had insisted that you should not walk down toward the monument when you approach it — you should go up toward it. But I couldn’t take the monument up because I had a height maximum of forty-five meters, and the ground was already set in the plaza — so what could I do? So, in the long axis of the approach to the plaza — and you know, the monument itself is not at the center of the ellipse, it’s asymmetrically located in the ellipse. And the long axis approach to it was the side nearest the airport, where guests were coming from, and the main fountain is at one of the focuses of this ellipse — that’s the round big fountain, which was working. So from that long axis you’ll come down to reach the main fountain, and then you’ll walk up toward the monument. And this difference of level gave me the opportunity to create tiers to sit around the monument at an event like that. So the chairs were set on those tiers, and guests from all over the world were there. Sir Ove and Duncan were my guests, and I was so happy they were there. And Sir Ove was a very exceptional, very humble man. He was an artist. Very kind to me. Anyway, he was there, very old, in his eighties, with his wife — and this is just before the sunset, and everything was looking quite nice, with the floodlight on the building, and I was somehow hidden in a corner. A very dear old friend of mine from architecture school was there, and he found me and said, “Why do you stand here? You should come forward.” So he brought me to the leg of the main vault, and I was the only person standing there, the rest of the people were all sitting. So, I’m this little guy under this high vault, the arch of the building! And these heads of the states, the guests of His Majesty, are all arriving. His Majesty is holding the arm of Haile Selassie, who was an old man in those days, and talking to him and the few other people around him, and there was the head of Pakistan, I think it was Yahiya Khan, and Spiro Agnew was following him. And, then the Shah saw me, and he beckoned me to come forward, and he introduced me to Haile Selassie and all the heads of the states, and said, “This young man has designed this building.” And he said it full of pride. I have no idea whether I said anything. Unfortunately, I don’t even have one picture of that day. I had a lot of pictures, but they’re all gone. In any case, he introduced me as they came under the arch and they moved to the museum under the building. I talked to a few different guests, including Princess Anne and also President Marcos’s wife, the shoes lady. I forget her name. Imelda Marcos.
BT: [Laughs] Indeed — the shoes lady!
HA: She invited me to come to the Philippines, which of course never happened. There were many interesting people there. It was an exceptional night. There are pictures from that. There is a film by the BBC in Persian about the monument and you can see some of those pictures in that film.
BT: Is there anyone else you can remember being there? Because Imelda Marcos and Haile Selassie in Tehran in 1971 is the most Bidoun thing I’ve ever heard.
HA: Spiro Agnew, the American vice president, was there, but the president did not come. The Queen of England didn’t come, but the Duke of Edinburgh was there, with Princess Anne. If you get ahold of those photographs, which I would love to see myself… I don’t know who was there from France, but they were all invited. They went to the Persepolis events in Shiraz and then they flew directly to Tehran airport and got on a bus and came to the plaza. But, you know, many years have passed. I’ll have to look at the pictures, and unfortunately, what I had is gone. I never had the time or means of getting to those archives.
BT: Can we go back for one second — you were saying that somebody wanted to explode the monument just before its opening. Do you have any idea who they might have been, and what they were aiming for? I don’t want to read this back onto the events that came a few years later, but…
HA: Yes, there is no question about that. There were forces in Iran against the Shah and the regime and they were trying to do terrorist acts. I mean, I’m not an expert in the events of the time, and I don’t want to say something wrong. But, I think Mohammad-Ali Rajai, who became prime minister under Khomeini, was one of the conspirators of this thing. And he was arrested and tortured or whatever as a result of these kinds of things, and this might be one of them. I don’t know. If you talk to the experts of these issues in Iran, many of them who have come out of Iran after the revolution, and they have divulged everything in interviews with the Los Angeles radio and TV stations and everything. Amazing, amazing stories have been related about the tortures, about how they plotted these terrorist attacks — everything has come out now. So, people who are experts in these affairs, they have the right thing to say. Unfortunately, I don’t. My thoughts are somewhere else.
HA: But these forces, yes. They existed in Iran. They were opposed to all these issues, especially the big state celebrations and their expenses, their ridiculous imitation of military parades. And some of the Shah’s expenditures, it’s true, they did go to some funny levels, which were not really necessary. But the sound-and-light show in Persepolis that the French people did, they did a beautiful job. I went to the festivals in Shiraz after, and I really loved the way they had prepared it.
BT: So did you often attend the Shiraz Arts Festival?
HA: Of course! I used to go with our friends. It was a fascinating time — there were amazing films that we used to see from Iranian directors. The film Tabiate Bijan (Still Life, 1974) — I remember well. Sohrab Shahid-Saless, the director, died in poverty in America, I think. I’ll never forget that. This movement of modern filmmakers in Iran, which started in that period — it’s an amazing moment. One of the manifestations of the developing culture of that time. People in film, music, sculpture, painting, architecture — there were so many talents there.
BT: Who else were you very conscious of? What other artists or writers or thinkers or architects were you in a conversation with, or felt yourself in a conversation with?
HA: You know, it was a very interesting time. My office was in a place called kakh-e shomali, North Palace Road, when I was doing the Shahyad. And a block below us, somebody had a little café called Quartier Latin, and we used to go there all the time. I was not married yet. And I used to sit and talk with Nader Naderpour, this great poet, very nice, very humble guy — I really cherish my memories with him — and he used to talk about people like Ezra Pound. He was the editor of a very interesting cultural magazine called Honar o Mardom (Art and the People). Of course Tahereh Saffarzadeh was another friend we happened to know. She was funny — she has quite a story, you know, and she has passed away now, unfortunately. After the revolution she turned out to be a bit of a traditional Muslim, which was amazing for me. She was a poet. There was a Mohammad Hoghoughi who used to teach literature in the College of Teachers — a poet, a great poet. The air in the country was just amazing in those days.
I regret never meeting Forugh Farrokhzād when I was young. Sepehri, I talked to him. I have seen his exhibits with other painters of his time. Pilaram was a friend of mine, he was part of that first group who were taking calligraphy as an element for their paintings; he was one of the very good ones. They were in our school, some of them — Morteza Momayez, who’s one of the greatest graphic designers of that period. Nobody has matched his talent yet. He did the layout for the book that I published for the opening inauguration of the Shahyad. There was Tanavoli in sculpture. Hannibal, Jazeh Tabatabai, and many others. There were all kinds of movements. Iran had been sleeping and had forgotten about what it had. It was becoming awake and flourishing; this flower was coming out.
It was a brilliant time for Iranian culture, but the political situation was not perfect. Even just — an event like the opening of the Shahyad, none of the people I’m talking about were there. You know what I mean? They should have been invited, but they were a different layer of society. Only the politicians and the relatives of this person or that person were invited to that event. I want to say that there was a lack of recognition at the highest levels, but the Shahbanou, the queen, was always very encouraging to these people. She was very kind to them, and she tried her best as much as she could.
BT: What do you make of the political life of the Shahyad monument in the years since? Because the diversity of ideologies it has been made to support is quite fascinating. First it was a monument to the monarchy, then it was renamed Azadi, “Freedom,” by the Ayatollah’s regime. Thirty years later, it became the iconographic background to the Green Movement. How does one form have so much leeway in its symbolic interpretation? Do you think its abstraction gives it an excess of openness?
HA: First of all, to be open with you — when I designed the Shahyad, I did not know that it would become so… successful, if you will, in connecting with the people of Iran. I didn’t know. I think that I gave myself to it… If you attach yourself to truth, the truth will prove right, and I think that’s what happened. That’s my only explanation, really. The Shahyad was like a poem for the place I loved and what I had dreamed about its history. My mind is as such that when I read about Xerxes taking all those boats to Greece, I can see it as if in a film; this was always in my mind, from childhood. When I saw Persepolis, it was an amazing, amazing experience. And, when I got this commission, I told the Council, “Look, this is not a contract for an ordinary building for me. It is what I have dreamed about.” And these guys looked at each other and didn’t know what to say, because I brought a kind of nonmaterial aspect to this contract. It was a spiritual connection for me. It was about my life, about what I had always thought of, and the pride I had for Iran’s history: every caravanserai in the desert, all the mosques that I had sketched, and the villages I had gone to with my schoolmates to see and measure or sketch — these were all there, and I knew this building is going to reflect them. I mean, I’m very careful not to claim some amazing stuff about it [chuckles], but when you ask these questions I have to go back in my psyche and see where it came from. And this is what I’m telling you. I don’t want to at all compare it to Hafez, not at all, but Iranians read Hafez and they connect to it, and love it, and each of them interprets it differently. This building is in no way to that threshold of a Hafez work. No way! But in this small way, it is similar. As Rumi said, “Har kassi az zann-e khod shod yar-e man.” (“Everybody sees it the way he wants to see it.”) So this is why it connects to everyone, I think, and how it has been sitting there under such different regimes, being called something completely different. As you say, it’s true that I built it for the Shah, but really I made it for all of Iran. It was for the culture.
BT: Yes, this is so interesting. I had wondered to myself before — why didn’t they just dismantle the building? It was a symbol of what they’d just overthrown, and they certainly had the power to do that. And I mean, you just said that they had tried to blow it up before the opening…
HA: They did that for the mausoleum of the Shah’s father. They eradicated it and put in toilets instead, which is the way they see the world. But the Shahyad… I think they didn’t do it because they knew how much people respect it. And it is the force of the connection of people to this building that’s stopped them from doing it. But Khalkhali, this crazy guy at the beginning of the revolution who personally executed Hoveyda [the Shah’s prime minister] and many other people — he wanted to tear it down. I think even in his book he mentioned that. Even now, two or three years ago, a writer in the newspaper Kayhan wrote that the greatest mistake was not tearing this building down. You read it in these commentaries, but I never even read these things… [Long pause] There is a ghost of darkness over my soul because of what’s happening in my country. I was thinking a few days ago that I really have this force on me, and I should not ignore it. It’s there. I’m really hurt. I’m not a normal person because my country is under this ghost, under this dark night.
BT: What year did you leave, can I ask?
HA: I left in November 1978. A day like today, in fact. It was still a few months before the fruition of the revolution. My wife wanted to go to England to give birth to our third child, and I accompanied her. We stayed a few days, and then the upheaval went higher and higher, and friends told me, “Just wait to see what happens. Wait. Wait.” And I never went back.
BT: So then when did you move to Canada?
HA: 1980. I had first come to buy some furniture for my building in Haifa, Israel, and this brought me to Vancouver, to see this new courthouse — some of its details and the office furniture they’d used. And I loved Vancouver. The next time I came I brought my wife, and we decided to come here. And the Canadians, they were very kind to accept us immediately — we got immigration in no time.
BT: Tell me more about the Universal house of Justice and the other administrative buildings you designed for the Baha’i Arc Complex in haifa. Beautiful, but strange — they’re dressed up in the visual language of the Parthenon.
HA: The reason why these buildings are in classic language, or traditional Greek architecture style, is because in the 1950s, when the Guardian of the Baha’i faith wanted to build the archives building, he felt that this classic architectural language had proved that its beauty is eternal. Of course, as a modern architect, trained in the Beaux-Arts school, nobody ever thought that one should do a building in classical style, either. It took me about nine months to design the first building; I really struggled with it. In the end, I did two schemes — identical, with the same colonnade around and everything, except that one of them had contemporary columns and the other classic ones, and I left it to my client to decide. Of course, they picked the classic one. But then, after I got involved with the details of the carvings, which was done in Italy, I realized there’s great spirit and mystery in classical architecture. I still think there is an element of heavenly inspiration in these details. I don’t know where it came from, but it is more than human ability, I think.
BT Sure, I guess all high modernists would believe the ancients were divinely inspired… but it’s still an odd set of choices. When you say details, which do you mean?
HA: I mean the order — how these proportions work, the flutes, the capitals, the intercolumniation — how you place the distances between each pair of columns. These are all recorded in Vignola’s text, and I did my first Haifa building according to his interpretation. But for the other two, I somehow was confident enough to depart, to do my own interpretation. I mean, I tell you, I had to convince myself to go into these classic terms, and in the eyes of many contemporary architects, I still did a very wrong thing. [Laughs]
BT: Do you think there’s a Baha’i aesthetic? Or architectural style, at least? As there really does seem to be a relationship between the Shahyad and the Arc Complex and, say, the Baha’i temple in Wilmette, Illinois.
HA: Well, I’ve definitely discovered one aspect of this, but I’ll have to write about it myself some day. I can say that a Baha’i temple must reflect the Baha’i belief in the unity of all mankind — so all temples should have nine entries, accepting people from any possible direction. Certainly, the Baha’i temple you mention is one of the most beautiful — and it was done by a Canadian architect, Louis Bourgeois, who put nearly his whole life into the minute pattern details. He drew them at 1:1 scale in his garage! That temple was inspired by the Soltanieh Mosque in Iran, actually; but then that temple in Illinois inspired Seyhoun, in turn, I think.
BT: Seyhoun saw it himself? Did he visit the US?
HA: No, no — but he saw a postcard, I think. You know, the other principle of the Baha’i faith I should have mentioned is the importance of beauty. Baha’ullah calls beauty a sign of God. So when you do a temple, you don’t think about budget. You just make the most beautiful building you can. That’s what Louis Bourgeois did, and that’s what Siamak Hariri from Toronto is doing right now in Santiago, Chile — which is a very complicated and amazing building. But nobody told him, you know, “Stay on budget!” or whatever. He is doing a very special building. So these two principles — openness to humanity and beauty — are the driving design principles of Baha’i temples.
BT: One last thing about the old days. Your website lists the Iranian embassy in Beijing as completed in 1983. Does that mean you took or finished a commission from the Islamic Republic? Do you still have some relationship with that government?
HA: No, I did that embassy in 1972, when it was awarded to me by the queen of Iran. And when the revolution happened, the building was eighty percent finished, so it was completed after revolution. But no, I haven’t had any contact with the government after that. Even for the repair of the Shahyad a few years ago, they never asked me anything… Actually someone contacted me, but then I think the official who did so was barred from doing that again. So they did it themselves. I don’t know exactly what they did, but… they cleaned it, that I know.
BT: They did what?
HA: They cleaned the building. They washed it, and cleaned off the graffiti. [Sighs]
In February 1912, the philosopher, social reformer, and mystic Rudolf Steiner had an insight that seemed outlandish even to him, who believed that, at the beginning of time, the Sun had been squeezed out of the Earth. “This may appear to be strange, but this is the way it is,” he told an audience in Vienna. “We meet in the middle period of our lives, as a result of karmic guidance, the very people who were once our parents.” According to Steiner, around the age of thirty you will encounter your parents from a past life. Your birth parents in this life are people you’ve met in the previous incarnation at around the same age. And near the end of your life, you will make karmic connections with people who will figure significantly in your next lives.
One hundred years later, I met Conner Habib, a Renaissance man for the twenty-first century: writer, philosopher, scientist, teacher, advice columnist, and gay porn star. Son of a Syrian father and an Irish-American mother, the future Conner Habib spent his childhood in a state of alienation in Catasauqua, a dead suburb of Allentown, Pennsylvania. In his teens, he organized punk shows at a local Syrian fraternal society and plotted his escape.
He studied organismic and evolutionary biology at the University of Massachusetts, pursued an MFA, and taught creative writing for a few years, but found the lack of sex in academia dispiriting. He moved to San Francisco, invented the name “Conner Habib,” and began a successful porn career. One of the few actors of Middle Eastern descent in American porn, he’s made nearly 150 adult scenes, from the Oriental-carpet burner Tales of the Arabian Nights to Man Up to Raising the Bar, and won a 2012 Grabby Award for Best Supporting Actor in the film Dad Goes to College (also a porno). He still writes — on science, on time and the nature of consciousness, and on gay rights issues — and is working on a novel as well as a philosophy book about what he learned from pornography. He hosts a weekly sex advice video-column on Logo TV Network’s NewNowNext.com, and tweets @connerhabib.
He’s also a disciple of anthroposophy, the esoteric tradition Rudolf Steiner founded in 1912 to rescue humanity from materialism and secularism. Anthroposophy asserts the existence of an objective spiritual world that can be directly accessed through inner development — thinking about thinking — rather than through obedience to existing moral codes. Steiner had ended his lecture in Vienna with a mantra: “A soul thinking in anthroposophy exclaims, ‘In thy thinking cosmic thoughts are living.’ Lose thyself in cosmic thoughts.”
I met Conner Habib the same way so many of his devoted followers have: beaming into my home on live video. Was he once my father? My mother? Was I his? Perhaps it’s too early to tell…
Anna Della Subin: So I hear you’ve written a play?
Conner Habib: Yes. It’s called The Contradiction. It’s about a guy who has this one little moment in his life that’s sort of off-kilter, and it sends him spiraling. It’s based on a moment in my life when I went to see this band I really love, Lungfish — really loud and ugly music but with these crazy, mystical lyrics. The lead singer, Daniel Higgs, has a giant beard and tattoos up and down his arms and he wears a suit, and he looks just like Walt Whitman, screaming on stage. And they are so intensely occult. People who were totally secular humanists would go to see them and you could tell something weird was going on inside them. When I went I kept thinking: If Daniel Higgs would just… rise… a centimeter off the stage, in that space between the stage and his feet, all the lawfulness of my life would go away. It would just take a centimeter.
So that’s what the play is about. And the main character is in porn. And that’s part of it, too — he’s having this weird feeling about seeing himself on screen, and knowing who he is, and not being able to connect the two.
ADS: Is that a part you wrote for yourself?
CH: [Laughs] I have fewer acting aspirations than most people. I’d rather just be in porn. I mostly want to write and talk and have sex. And read.
ADS: Which came first, for you — anthroposophy or porn stardom?
CH: Anthroposophy. I was at an environmental and sustainability conference, and I found a brochure for an intensive anthroposophy course at a place called the Nature Institute in upstate New York, and I really wanted to go. I was living in Amherst at the time, studying environmental evolution with Lynn Margulis, taking three courses and teaching. But Lynn said, “If you can get in, you have to go.” She was the kind of person you listen to. So I got in, and I ended up living at the Nature Institute and driving back and forth to Amherst. I lived across the street from a Waldorf school and next door to a biodynamic farm, both Steinerian inventions. And every day I learned a bit more about anthroposophy.
ADS: How does one know where to start? I read an estimate that the collected works of Steiner would take up four hundred volumes…
CH: Yeah, Steiner gave six thousand lectures and wrote dozens of books on just about everything. He created a system of architecture, of beekeeping, of medicine; he basically invented community-supported agriculture. He’s just one of those forces of nature.
ADS: Was there one book in particular that drew you in?
CH: The first book I read was called The Arts and Their Mission. I didn’t really understand it at all. It’s kind of like reading Shakespeare, you know? Where it’s only at the end that you realize, Oh, that’s what’s been going on. You suddenly get it. And then your second Shakespeare play, you understand it. But it still takes hard work. With Steiner I just told myself, I’m going to read this again and again until I get it.
ADS: And a lot of Steiner’s ideas take the form of practical exercises.
ADS: So are there habits in your daily life that developed out of your anthroposophy training?
CH: Yeah — I’m really happy you brought that up. I run a Rudolf Steiner group here in San Francisco and I always try to get the group’s members to enact anthroposophy, not just talk about it. It makes reading it so much easier. Just because the text is so dense.
I meditate all the time. It’s not the kind of no-mind tradition associated with Buddhism, where you try to discard all your thinking, empty your mind. Though, I’ve done that, too. I’m more into the Western esoteric tradition. While I meditate I try to think about my thinking. Somehow that just feels appropriate for me, and for this moment in history. I guess I’ve done some rituals, too, which some anthroposophists might frown on… . And I use biodynamic face lotion. [Laughs]
ADS: Wait, what kind of rituals?
CH: You know, um, well… hmmn. How to talk about this? It’s weird, I’ve never talked about it before.
I guess… I was really into Western esotericism even before I came to anthroposophy, but it was always sort of a jumble. Like, I took a Unitarian approach — oh, this is cool, and that’s cool, too — but I had no compass. So I would have really bizarre longings or impulses to just do weird things sometimes. When I was a kid, I would find myself doing automatic writing. I had no idea what was going on. And I would think, What the hell am I doing? When you’re a teenager doing this sort of thing, having these sorts of feelings, you think it’s so cool. But then as you get older you start asking yourself, Why am I like this? There’s pain there. Loneliness. But then I learned to orient myself. So when I get that sort of really energetic culmination of whatever feeling I have, I try to perform a ritual as a way out of it.
I don’t know why I feel odd telling you about this. So for example — two years ago, I kept having one of those strange, overwhelming feelings all day. And I kept thinking about the Virgin Mary. I have no idea why. Nothing especially theological or anything — just, like, how she appears to people on a piece of toast or whatever, how they see her face on a boulder. I just kept thinking about it all day. And after a while I started getting this anxious, urgent feeling, and so I thought, Okay, I’m just going to sit down and construct a ritual. To say thanks to this figure who is present in all religions, and see what happens. So I did, and afterward I found out that it was the Feast of the Assumption.
But the weirdest thing about it was that the ritual had this very palpable effect. For weeks afterward, I felt really loving toward the most despicable people. I would see people who almost always get on my nerves, but instead I had this very motherly feeling toward them. I’m more than willing to allow that it may have been a psychological trick — but even then, everyone should be engaging in rituals. [Laughs] Because mine made me so much kinder.
ADS: What did the ritual consist of? Did it involve automatic writing, like you were saying before? Or was it purely mental?
CH: Well, no. I lit a yellow candle for Guanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion; and I made certain noises for Durga. And in theosophy there’s this idea of the Ascended Master so I did something related to one of those. And I did something related to Mary, and something for Isis; something for all these variations on this figure, who are similar but then again utterly different, when you look at them in their traditions. So the parts of the ritual were designed to thank each of them.
But when you construct rituals like this, you find yourself saying all kinds of bizarre things — weird stuff would just pour out of me. And I told myself, It’s okay. I’m just going to go with it. I don’t understand any of it. I just know that I’ve had this urgency in me since I was a boy, and it’s still there. The worst is when it comes on in a public place. Then I have to run home, because I know I’ll go crazy if I just stay there. I’m going to feel claustrophobic in my own feelings.
ADS: Did you feel like all those deities began to speak through you? Or to you?
CH: Not through me — that’s never happened. Well, maybe once. But I’m suspicious of mediums. It was more like, it felt like there was something reciprocal happening. Like, “I hear you speaking through the feeling I am having today.” It feels like some sort of echo. And whether an actual spiritual being or a Jungian archetype or my own psychology, I hear it. So that ritual was more like a conversation.
ADS: But what is the nature of God according to anthroposophy? I’ve read a bit of Steiner, but I’ve never figured it out. I know you have Lucifer and Ahriman, the evil spirits, and Christ makes an appearance — though it seems there are two Jesuses? Jesi?
CH: [Laughs] I’m laughing as you say this because it’s one of the few things Steiner rarely talks about. There’s an anthroposophical joke — there aren’t that many, but the main one is, “How many anthroposophists does it take to change a light bulb?” And the answer is: “No one knows, Steiner left no indication.”
And it’s weird, because he talks about everything, but one of the few things he almost never talks about is God. God and sex. Which is interesting to me. In both cases, you get the sense that maybe Steiner thinks we’re not really ready for this conversation yet.
And you’re right about the two Jesuses. David Ovason wrote a book about it, The Two Children, taking an almost archaeological approach in piecing together Biblical fragments. It takes all the contradictions about Jesus in the Gospels and argues that they aren’t actually contradictions, because they’re talking about two different people.
ADS: So one Jesus was crucified and one is… still at large?
CH: I mean, the idea is there were two children named Jesus, born to two different Marys and Josephs. One of the Jesus children had Zoroaster incarnated in him, but he gave this up to the other child who had the Buddha nature in him. The child who had the Buddha nature received the incarnation of Zarathustra and was the Jesus who was baptized and became the Christ. It’s like, you couldn’t just hold everything that the Christ was in one being, so you had to have this configuration of beings.
And that makes sense to me, in a way — if you read the Bible and all of its endless “X begat Y, and Y begat Z,” and so on, all this begatting that everyone bemoans all the time — if you’re these cosmic forces and you’re trying to create the perfect being, you’d have to do it through human incarnations. You couldn’t use material tools, like a wand or a stone. You’d have to do it through the human impulse, through procreation. God made flesh. And so all this begatting in the Bible is like a spell book. Does that make any sense at all?
ADS: It reminds me of an idea that came up in that essay you wrote, “Emit Time.” That after death, the soul sees a panorama of all its previous incarnations. So it would make sense that Jesus might also have such an array of selves.
CH: I’ve never thought about that before. But yeah, it’s fascinating. What did Jesus see when he died? And he was only dead for a short time. So he got to see that panorama and come back…
But yeah — Steiner definitely didn’t have a conventional view of Christ. He’s totally radical. And you know, it’s amazing to me because there are all these new church movements that have attracted hundreds of thousands of people, around figures like Rob Bell, and their version of Christianity is based on an idea of radical freedom and respect for the individual. And that’s what Steiner was all about — that’s the whole point of the Christ impulse. That we recognize ourselves as individuals, and we take our society from there, not from a consensus as to how one should act.
If I had to boil down anthroposophy — and it’d be a struggle — I would say, Yes, it’s important to believe in the evolution of human consciousness and in spiritual beings… but, if you don’t want to believe in that, just believe in freedom and compassion. Steiner says, “Humans aren’t free; we’re on the way to becoming free.” Which I feel really nicely resolves the free will versus determinism argument. We want to be free, and act with intention, and think clearly and feel purely. But almost everything in our lives — where we grew up, our parents, the shape of our bodies, our ethnicities, our pasts — are pulling on us to not be free.
We could just live automatically. But we commit free acts every once in a while, when we think and act and feel in free ways. One of the ways you can do that is by being compassionate toward other people. The more compassionate you are, the more free you are. That’s the Christ impulse — what Christ has allowed us to do. To think about thinking and intercept our karma and rise above it.
ADS: Which brings us to porn. How does all this intersect with life in the porn industry? [Laughs] Is making a porno an act of compassion? Of radical freedom?
CH: I think most people who aren’t in porn view working in the industry as a compulsion. For me, getting involved in porn was a mix of being free and being stuck in compulsive behavior. Which is… how most things are for most people, I’d guess. But compulsive or not, I’ve begun to understand myself much more deeply because of it. And I’ve had to confront things in myself that I normally wouldn’t. It’s like what Osho said: “I don’t teach the Third Way, I teach the Whole Way.” His point was, you have to go deep inside the crazy shit in your life. You have to inhabit it.
I used to explain my choice by saying I’d wanted to fuck up my future. Just throw a wrench in the gears, to prevent me from just floating along like I had been. But then again, I’d always wanted to do it. And I’d always wanted to create confrontation with people when they asked me what I do.
ADS: How did you first get into it?
CH: Well, I’d wanted to be in porn since I was twelve years old. Since I became hypersexually awake. It was fascinating to me, the idea that this was something people can choose to do. But I’m glad I didn’t do it until recently. Knowing myself, had I been younger, I probably would have been more messed up about it than I am. I am still a little messed up about it, sometimes.
ADS: Sure. But everyone feels conflicted about what they do…
CH: Exactly. I’m more messed up about it in the way, say, when you eat a Twinkie and then you think, Ew, why did I do that? It rarely gets worse than that for me.
Anyway, so I remember my last class with my students in Amherst, they asked, “So what are you going to do?” And I said, I think I’m going to move to San Francisco and be a porn star. [Laughs] Which they thought was awesome. And I did.
I didn’t start making porn films right away, though. But then one day I got a call to audition for a commercial — now that was something I never thought I would do — for this bathhouse called Steamworks. And then the people who filmed the commercial owned a porn company, and so I did my first porn for them. Then I didn’t do any for almost a year, and then I got a bigger film and it picked right up.
ADS: What was the first shoot like?
CH: Well, I can tell you that on the way to the shoot I called my friend in Massachusetts and I told her, “You know, I’m having mixed feelings about this. I know intellectually that I shouldn’t be ashamed, but I am.” And she said, “That’s because you don’t realize yet that this is really what you want to do. Think about people who are factory workers or managers at Walmart or Wall Streeters, who do what they do because they feel they have to. And you’re about to start doing exactly what you want.” And she was right — I realized that I was feeling bad about not doing all the other things that people do and feel bad about, which is just really bizarre. There’s so much shame built into everything.
I do still get feelings of guilt or shame every once in a while, but it’s manageable. Like, Here you are, Hell-thought. Here you are, Shame. There you are, Guilt. I see that you’re there, thanks for showing up, see you later. It doesn’t go away, but it becomes something you can read in a calm way. And then there are days when I think, I want to make three hundred more movies this year. I just get really into it. And there are days when it seems really clear to me that my work is helping people. Healing people, in some way. And that anybody who’s so opposed to it has really just lost their mind. Or is choosing to dwell in that feeling of shame. I mostly don’t understand anymore why people have those feelings. Which is why it’s good when the shame pops up. Inhabiting it for a little while helps me understand why other people are feeling it.
ADS: So, compassion, after all.
CH: Yeah, totally — even just today, some woman was saying something to me about porn as objectification. I speak at schools sometimes, and I had just sent out some letters, and her response was, “Until you read Linda Lovelace’s book, Ordeal, we can’t have you on campus.” It was so offensive. So I wrote back saying, “That’s kind of like telling a gay person they have to read an anti-gay book to understand the gay experience. This is my community, I understand it. Instead of reading Linda Lovelace’s book, why don’t you just ask me a question?” But actually… even in that case, I wrote three angry emails back and deleted them all, until I finally got to the one that was nice, as I realized that this person just doesn’t understand. So you really have to cycle through your anger to get to that point.
ADS: There’s something so strange about the charge of objectification, though. Isn’t everything objectified, in a way? It just seems meaningless to me as an accusation.
CH: Totally. I just wrote an essay called “The Virtues of Being an Object,” actually. It’s in a book called The Edge Realms of Consciousness. First of all, it’s not self-evident to claim that something is objectification and think that you’re making sense to other people. But furthermore — and this does come from esoteric thinking — yes, we are all part object. Why do we have such a hard time coming to terms with that? [Laughs] When you say we are denying someone a part of their humanity by objectifying them, what about the part of their humanness that is an object? That is material? Why can’t we pay attention to that?
ADS: I sometimes feel I’d like to understand myself as an object better. To be more aware of my dimensions in space… the way I walk. To be more fully aware of my material composition, just as a way of self-knowing.
CH: Look at where your hands are right now. Did you put them there? We have all these things, and we have no idea what we’re doing with them half the time. We forget. There’s this Gurdjieff exercise where, the whole day, you just pay attention to your left hand. No matter what you’re doing or saying, just be aware of where it is and what it’s doing. Now that can drive you crazy.
ADS: Like if you had slammed that hand in a door, you’d be aware of it all day.
CH: That’s how we treat our bodies all the time. You don’t notice that you’re healthy until you have a stomachache. It’s so disrespectful! Everything’s going great, so be thankful for it and notice it.
ADS: But apparently we have not one body but four? I wanted to ask you about that. About anthroposophy’s division between the astral body and the etheric body, and how that ties in with being an object…
CH: The human body is all tangled up. It’s not like the four are that distinct; it’s an organizing principle. A stone is a physical, mineral body — an object body. It has its own rules and dimensionality; it exists on its own plane. And then a plant has that mineral body, but it also has an etheric body, which causes growth. And an astral body, but the interesting thing about plants is that their astral body is outside of them. Their astral body is the Sun. Whereas the animal has brought the Sun inside itself, particularly the mammal. This is deeply related to emotional states. The human being has the astral, the etheric, and the mineral, but also an ego body, this extra thing where we can think about our feelings.
But the confusing thing is — I don’t think Steiner talks about this so much — just like the plant has an astral body outside itself, an animal has an ego body outside itself. And a rock has an etheric body and an ego body and an astral body, which are all outside itself. The human is the only one that has all of them inside.
Now at the same time there are other bodies that we don’t have… It’s sort of like, a bunch of dimensions intersecting in one place: physical, etheric, ego, astral dimensions, all intersecting within the human. They are present in the other categories, too, but don’t intersect. I guess “bodies” is the word that confuses people…
ADS: Wait! What are the other bodies that humans don’t have?
CH: I don’t know how to describe them… They’re not like bodies as we imagine them. It’s the kind of body that spiritual beings have. Once you transcend or stand outside of time, when you get past fifth dimensionality, then you probably would have another body. Like how religious writers or mystics talk about angels being in a thousand places at the same moment. They’ve transcended space and time. And then, beyond that dimension, we start getting really kooky-crazy, but I think the list goes on. I don’t know that physicists would object to the notion that there are things that exist in dimensions beyond our own that we can’t perceive. Once you start adding dimensionality, that’s where other spiritual beings more firmly reside. And they can see us, but we can’t see them…
We can probably interact with the ones that live only one dimension above us, though. Just as animals deeply interact with humans, but they can’t understand us when we speak to them beyond simple commands. And then a plant will feel our influence very clearly and know our presence, but it can’t interact with us in the same way it would interact with an animal. And then a stone is completely different. And then there are beings that are even lower than stones, so it goes the other direction as well…
ADS: Have you ever interacted with any of the higher ones?
CH: Are you going to put this in the magazine? [Laughs] The answer is yes, but… those are some of the most intimate moments of my life. I try not to talk about those unless I’m sitting down and having a conversation, face to face. Not because I’m trying to protect myself — mostly I just want there to be a bridge between myself and the other person when we’re talking about such things.
ADS: Yeah, I totally get that. There’s also something about speaking about such moments that disenchants them. Unbinds the spell —
CH: It’s because our language and our memory are so based on the senses. When you experience things that stand outside the senses it’s hard to not weaken or distort them by using a whole system based on that. Which is why I think when people have mystical experiences it’s really easy for them to dismiss them as something they just imagined — something fanciful, that didn’t really happen. It’s because they’re so used to relying on memory as a cue for reality. But in fact your memory, which is so sense-based, can’t get back to it.
ADS: It’s like trying to remember a dream you had the night before and put it into words.
CH: Exactly. And why it’s so hard to tell people about a dream. And then when you do, it’s just boring. Like, “And then it was me — but it wasn’t me! And then I was in a pancake house.” It’s all so seamless and evident when you’re having the dream, because it’s connected by things you can’t describe sensorially to people. The narrative might only be connected by a feeling or a gesture or something you can’t even perceive.
No one wants to hear about your dream unless they were in it.
ADS: There’s this amazing quote from William Burroughs about exactly that. A dream is like a stuffed animal left on the floor of a bank — no context. [See Bidoun 23!]
CH: So funny. [Laughs]
ADS: It’s one of my favorites. So of course I was excited when I was reading “Emit Time” and it opens with you meeting Burroughs and Oprah and Timothy Leary one night in a dream. Is dreaming an important part of your anthroposophical daily practice? Or self-reflection?
CH: At various points in my life I’ve kept journals of my dreams — but then the more you do it, the more you remember and the more you have to write! It gets exhausting. But all my life it’s been important to me, especially as a child. In fact, my first memory is of a dream.
CH: Yes. And the memory of waking up from it, which was really intense. I was eaten by a fox that got eaten by a wolf that got eaten by a bear. That’s the first thing I remember. I woke up from it and tottered down the hall to my parents’ bedroom.
My whole life I’d have these dreams, not exactly recurring, but with the same places and people. So I’d go to sleep and there would be those people in my dreams, and I would be like, Hey, it’s me again! The dream world kept building itself up, to the point where I was afraid to go to sleep because I thought, What if I wake up inside the dream? And then, to this day, when I have nightmares, they’re the worst. Really intense. I’ll be messed up the whole next day and people will have no idea what’s going on. Or if someone in my waking life did something terrible in my dream, I’ll be upset with them all day. I know it was my dream, but I can’t help it.
But I guess I don’t understand how a dream is supposed to lend itself to self-reflection. Find meaning in them is so dissective; I don’t think those dream-symbolism books are really useful. But beyond that, there are only a few times when I’ve woken up with any certainty about what a dream means. Certain lines or sayings will come to me in a dream. For instance, I was really angry for like three weeks. And it wasn’t a bad anger, but I just felt angry at everything — the world, the president, the way people talk to each other. And then one night, I was like, Can I just have a dream? And I dreamed about a dog that was chained to a post, and every time I tried to feed it it would bark at me. I woke up with a saying in my head, “Anger is a starving dog.” I thought, okay, what does that mean? So I brought it into my meditation. Sometimes things are very clear and sometimes — I often have dreams where I meet people and they say, “This is my phone number, make sure you call it when you wake up” and they’ll keep repeating the number again and again. And then I’ll call the number and it’s nobody. So you don’t always know…
ADS: I find that a really intense dream just gives a different texture to waking life. Like how it lets you question whether everything around you is real or if it’s all an illusion. And even thinking it could be an illusion is just such a powerful way to, for instance, stop stressing out over some silly thing. Or being angry at the world.
CH: There’s an anthroposophical exercise I do before bed that helps improve the quality of dreams. It’s called the Rückschau Meditation, or the Backwards Meditation. Before you go to bed, you review your day in reverse. But you don’t do it as if you’re pressing rewind on a VHS tape and seeing the whole thing go zzzzzzzzzp! You think — what was the last thing I just did? I walked into the bedroom. So you jump back and think about walking into the bedroom. And how did I get there? You jump back and remember coming up the stairs. You go back and back and back until you are waking up in your bed in the morning. Or wherever you were when you woke up. You do it for like fifteen minutes. And what all this does is, it sort of empties out that vessel, so you tend not to have the sort of dreams that are just replaying things from your day. And it makes it possible for you to think back on your day, your patterns. Sometimes, maybe notice something miraculous that you hadn’t seen before. Steiner said that “if you reflect on it, you will see that each day something remarkable has happened.”
ADS: I was reading in Everyday Anthroposophy a lecture Steiner gave on karma where he says that the people you meet in your thirties were your parents in a previous life. And the people you meet at the end of your life are going to figure in the beginning of your next. Is that a terrifying thought for you?
CH: [Laughs] It’s so weird — I met this guy when I was twenty-nine who became my boyfriend for a short period of time. And at the end of it he beat me up and broke my rib and I had internal bleeding, all kinds of crazy shit. It was a super-intense relationship; I was so in love with him, and he had never hit me before. It was just crazy. I never spoke to him again. But you know, I also don’t really speak to my dad at all. So I thought, Is there some sort of karmic thing happening here?
But really I just have no clue. Steiner will say things like that, but then you have no way of verifying it. You just have to let it enter into your thinking as something interesting, and maybe it will reveal itself later as true. Something might happen in your life, and you’ll have this guidepost you planted a long time ago. That’s how I tend to think about ideas like that.
ADS: I just love the language he uses in making the claim. It has been shown that… or It has been demonstrated that… How does he know this?!
CH: Well, but then there are some things you can investigate and verify. There’s one exercise called “Exercise for Karmic Insight” that you can do, and it will reveal to you something about a past life. Though it doesn’t work for everybody. That’s the thing about spirituality that people don’t get — we’re individuals. If I lay down my exact spiritual path for you, or if Steiner does it, some exercises might have an intense effect on you and others won’t. It frustrates people because it confounds the scientific notion of repeatability.
ADS: What was revealed to you when you did it?
CH: You’ll just have to look into it yourself and see what happens. [Laughs] And then we’ll talk about it…
ADS: [Laughs] Fine.
CH: But there’s another simple exercise I’d recommend. Think of all the things you hate in life. Now try to picture a person who would long for those things. That’s how you’ll start to get an idea of who you might have been in a previous life. It can be a really humbling experience.
ADS: That is a terrifying thought! So, a last question — in thinking about your overall project, what is it that connects sex and spirituality? Is it some kind of transcendent, orgasmic sense?
CH: My biggest take on it, again, is about individuality. We pretend that sex is some sort of unified animal instinct and that everyone shares it. That’s true at some level, obviously, but our desires are our own. And they are little pathways into our consciousness. Like, why should some people be attracted to feet, or only to fat guys. Why are some people able to do sex scenes in porn with people of the same sex but in their lives have encounters with people of the opposite sex. Or why at certain moments and not others. These questions are so deeply individual, and there’s no answer that a unified theory can present. Maybe it’s residue from that one time I sat in Aleister Crowley’s chair, but — we’re all universes unto ourselves.
I think at this point in history, despite the Internet, we’re more disconnected than ever. Each one of us is this vortex of all these thoughts and desires and imaginations, and all of our worlds are totally different. How do we create a worldview that accounts for that? That’s the task of spirituality. And the best way I can think to examine that task is through sex.
I first came across Marina Warner’s books in Alberto Manguel’s personal library, an extraordinary collection housed in a renovated medieval presbytery not so far from Poitiers. In the main room, entirely lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves, amid comfy chairs and elegant reading lamps, I came upon a hardback copy of From the Beast to the Blonde, Warner’s classic study on fairy tales and their often female tellers. I was there with colleagues from the Pompidou Center, preparing a program of events with and around Manguel, whose own books include The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, The Library at Night, and A History of Reading. We invited Warner for a panel on The Thousand and One Nights with Moroccan writer and scholar Abdelfattah Kilito. She was already at work on a book that would be published four years later, Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights. In the lecture hall, in French, she showed many images and made them speak according to an associative logic of the imaginary that was as fruitful and exciting as it was rigorous and wide ranging. In Stranger Magic, as well as in her previous book Phantasmagoria, Warner studies the continuing significance of “magical thinking” in a modern (Western) culture that fashions itself rationalist and secular.
Warner is a believer in the power of stories to forge destinies. She has authored several subtly erudite works of fiction; her scholarly essays, meanwhile, read like fast-paced digressive detective novels. A few days before meeting her for the first time, I happened to be interviewing Doris Lessing in her London home. When we were finished I asked if she knew Marina Warner. “Of course I know Marina,” she said. “But I can’t keep up with her. Nobody can.”
I have had the good fortune to see Warner on numerous occasions since then, and I have struggled to keep up. To have a conversation with her is to set out on a journey into the dizzying enthusiasms of a mind that is curious about everything, in particular her interlocutor’s projects and ideas.
One morning in late 2012, I went to London to interview her at her home in Kentish Town. She made coffee and gave me scones and yogurt and fruit for breakfast before the interview, and took me out to lunch afterward: ciabatta for her, tagliatelle for me, with tiramisu for two. Here is some of what was said in between.
Marina Warner: So what do you want to do in London today? Because there’s a lot on, you know. Apparently, the show Bronze at the Royal Academy is just beautiful. It’s looking at bronze across all different eras and cultures, so you’d have Chinese Tang statues juxtaposed with works from elsewhere at the same period. And it has the Dancing Satyr, the one they found in the sea off the coast of Sicily.
Omar Berrada: What is it?
MW: It’s a wonderful story actually. In Mazara del Vallo, some fishermen set out — I’m afraid they do evil deep-sea trawling, just throwing out their dredge nets and hauling up everything from the bottom — and somewhere between Sicily and North Africa they found a bronze statue. As they brought it up one of the legs fell off, and it went back down again to the bottom of the sea. So they had the torso, and this wonderful head, flung back with the hair streaming. The eyes are still in, they’re kind of obsidian, inset. It’s a very extraordinary look. Anyway, they saw the leg go down and they went back to get it, and they found it. It’s one of the great wonders of antiquity. It’s like the Riace bronzes, which they also found in the sea.
OB: What did the fishermen do once they found it?
MW: They’ve made a museum for it. In Mazara del Vallo, which is a very obscure, poverty-stricken, probably mafia-ridden port in southern Sicily. That coast, the Trapani Coast, is full of mafiosi. Anyway, they’ve made a little museum for it, which is fantastic, so they’re bringing tourists.
OB: And no genie came out of the fallen leg?
MW: No — but of course there is a way in which these things bring the past back very startlingly. I suppose it was encrusted with barnacles; they had to clean it. But it is amazingly well preserved. It is from the fifth century BC, or perhaps fourth century, that great period of bronze casting. And it was probably on its way to a Dionysiac temple on one of the great, rich North African estates when it went down in a shipwreck. So that’s the connection, an old connection, across the Mediterranean. And of course the cult of Dionysus was thought of as Eastern. He’s meant to come from Thrace, and the whole way that his cult is portrayed is about how the periphery energizes the mainstream.
The Mediterranean connection has been important in literary history, too. I can’t pretend to be the least bit knowledgeable about Arabic poetry, but I’ve listened to Geert Jan van Gelder lecture about the single end-rhyme as well as the intricate internal rhymes and overall structure. The sonnet, which begins in Southern Italy then travels to Southern France, is meant to be related to the Ghazal. They’re not identical in structure but they’re close, and there’s apparently quite a lot of work being done on patterns of transmission of these lyric forms through Sicily and North Africa.
OB: Have you read about the discovery, or rediscovery, of the Muwashshah? It’s a poetic form made out of separate stanzas with a complex rhyme scheme, as opposed to the classical Arabic poem composed of a straight succession of lines with a single end-rhyme throughout. Muwashshahs were being written in Al-Andalus as early as the tenth century. What was “discovered” a few decades ago were about seventy manuscripts of muwashshahs whose last two lines (also called kharja, exit) are in a different language than the Classical Arabic of the rest of the poem — usually vernacular Arabic, though also Romance or a mixture of the two — transcribed into Arabic or Hebrew letters. (Some of the muwashshahs are in Hebrew.) This discovery created a philological stir, as it is believed to be the first poetic corpus in a vernacular Romance language. That is to say before the Occitan lyrics of love and chivalry composed by the troubadours and sung in the courts of medieval Southern France. And the Muwashshah is supposed to have perhaps traveled and influenced the troubadours.
MW: That’s interesting because in some Medieval Latin lyric poems, where the person speaking is generally meant to be either Mary or Jesus, there’s a mixture of Latin and vernacular, which creates a kind of intensity as you move from one plane to another; it sharpens your sense of something actually happening, and of somebody actually speaking. When they break into another language, you hear them more clearly. Some of the laments of Mary after Christ’s death take that form — some of the Stabat Mater hymns, as she weeps for him, they sometimes mix French or Provencal or Italian into the Latin. Do you know Peter Dronke’s work? He’s a leading medieval poetry scholar, very fine. He was one of the first feminist critics. He wrote a celebrated book called Women Writers of the Middle Ages back in the Sixties. As well as a book called Verse with Prose from Petronius to Dante about texts that mix poetry and prose, like Dante’s La Vita Nuova, where there’s a prose narrative about, say, the state of his soul, and then these wonderful lyrics come in as the crystallization of the prose narrative.
OB: I should read that.
MW: It’s actually a shame that he doesn’t know Arabic. He knows almost every other language. And he’s very much a Warburgian. They have a very good Arabic Studies Center at the Warburg Institute, you know. Charles Burnett is the leading scholar there for Arabic medical manuscripts. Do you know him? He’s a fascinating man.
OB: Might I have seen his name in Cabinet?
MW: No, that’s D. Graham Burnett, the biologist. He’s brilliant, much younger. Charles must be my age. No, D. Graham Burnett is the one who wrote that beautiful piece about otoliths, the oscillating bone in the fishes’ forehead that allows them to sense where they’re going. I’d never thought of this problem, because underwater there’s no light, so though they have eyes, there’s nothing for them to see by until they get near the surface. So when they’re in the dark they navigate by this kind of gimbal inside their head.
OB: We seem to be underwater today. First the shipwrecked statue off the Sicilian coast and now fish anatomy. Have you written much about the great depths?
MW: No, I haven’t, though I’ve written a lot about water, actually. For a time I had a slight feeling of nominal destiny. I was partly called after Marina in Pericles, the Shakespeare play, and then T. S. Eliot wrote this wonderful poem, you know, “What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands… / What images return / O my daughter,” which was also inspired by Pericles. And the Pericles story is all about shipwrecks. Marina, the baby, is lost at sea and then found again by Pericles. And actually my novel Indigo is all about water.
OB: And, it’s based on a Shakespeare play…
MW: Yes, it’s based on The Tempest. It’s got several drownings and such that follow the play. So… I haven’t been so very marine recently, but for a while I was. I do collect shells.
OB: Where do you find them?
MW: I can show you, I’ve got my collection downstairs. I also collect stones. I like natural things. For years I wanted a giant scallop, and the other day I found one. A lot of these things are protected now, quite rightly. When I first started you could buy extraordinarily beautiful things. My favorite present to give people used to be a seahorse. They cost twenty pence or something — in those days it was probably a florin — in a little shop that sold straw and raffia and natural products of that kind. For a long time I wanted to write about seahorses, because the male carries the baby. A friend of mine, Viktor Wynd, has a shop that’s very strange, called Little Shop of Horrors. He sells taxidermy, stuffed things, among others. He found a consignment of scallops; at one point the Chinese decided they would farm them, as a sort of export experiment. It seems not to have been a success. But they are so beautiful, and enormous, and very heavy, too. And the idea that inside this, there was something eating and breathing… . You can’t believe it.
OB: Before I forget — do you know that, at your prompting, Sarah Riggs and I have been reading poems from A Thousand and One Nights together and attempting English translations of them? It’s been fascinating to work on texts with such apparent formal rigidity and such metaphorical invention at once. There is always the risk of falling flat with the English versions — we’re working on the love poems, so there are a lot of tears, and everyone is always dying of love, and every woman’s face is like the moon.
MW: Yes, but the moon in different phases! Sometimes it’s the new moon, with its promise, and sometimes it’s the full moon in its beauty… . That sense of the very tight structure, within which there are infinite variations and repetitions. It’s like carpets — each one is different, but part of the pleasure is the recognition of the familiar; the return of the motifs. It’s a little like the art of the fugue, also. Think of Bach, or the Diabelli Variations. It’s interesting because it’s the same and not the same.
OB: There’s still room for surprise. It’s also interesting to note the range of personae that are given voice in the poems: mothers, fathers, lovers; lamenting, rejoicing, being anxious, etc.
MW: And the mothers are given these intense songs of sorrow and anxiety, full of the sense that something might have happened to your child — rather than something has happened to your child — and also the idea of warding off disaster by imagining it, in order to contain it. I can’t think of many examples of that kind of mental state in Western poetry, though it is a very common human state. It is striking in the tale of Hassan of Basra, for instance. At the same time it’s obviously formulaic, rather than an interior psychological exploration of the kind that Shakespeare is so brilliant at — you can feel the mind tracking its own anxieties in Shakespeare. Obviously it isn’t like that in the Nights, but what’s interesting to me is the range of states that are identified and then given formulaic expression. For instance, female desire — sexual desire — does not get much good press in the West before, well, D. H. Lawrence. I mean, many people say he is a misogynist, but he does actually allow women to have sexual desire, whereas before that — if you look at something like Venus and Adonis, she’s portrayed as sort of disgusting in her passion for Adonis, almost monstrous. This is also true of Phaedra and many others. Zulaikha’s love for Yusuf in the Bible is portrayed as absolutely sinful and characteristically female — you know, treacherous, because of course she denounces him, but also just in itself, illegitimate, illicit lust. Whereas in the Qur’an, the same thing happens, but she’s forgiven because when she reveals how handsome he is everyone understands that this is something that might happen. And that’s very different. The understanding that these are human springs of passion… . I like that in the Nights the heroines are often intrepid and brave, but also rapturously in love, and will do anything for their beloved, and it’s not seen to be something disgusting.
OB: But aren’t women’s lustful treasons the very premise of A Thousand and One Nights? I am thinking of the frame story that opens the book. The king brothers Shahryar and Shahzaman are both betrayed by their wives. And then when they venture out together they meet a woman who “forces” them to sleep with her, and to give her tokens of her conquest — their rings, to add to the 570 she’s already collected from other men!
MW: Yes, but she was abducted by the Jinni on her wedding day, put into a glass box and carried off by him. And her sleeping with these men is a rebellion against the Jinni that is holding her captive. This is a story of capture and oppression — there is a sense of threat running through the book, that if you treat people badly you will yourself be treated badly. And certainly the whole of the rest of the stories are about undoing the king’s vengeful rage, about Shahryar realizing that he jumped to conclusions and didn’t understand the complexity of human nature. In fact a lot of the stories in the Nights are about not immediately chopping someone’s head off! And of course generally there’s something so lurid, so abject and dreadful in certain portrayals of treacherous women and vengeful men that one wonders if there isn’t an undertow of skepticism, a kind of transaction with the listener or with the reader, that they might perceive it as exaggerated. You learn to think twice about what you might be seeing or hearing; there’s always a play of illusion. Is the person in front of you a boy or a girl? Is the monkey a monkey… or perhaps not a monkey but a prince in disguise? Are the gazelles gazelles, or are they girls?
OB: A suspension of belief…
OB: Isn’t there also a sense of willed clunkiness produced by the book’s cobbling together different versions of each story? And by the travels of the stories from teller to teller and then from teller to manuscript?
MW: And the manuscripts that have served as a basis for the Arabic print editions that we know were all transformed in the process. Same goes for the translations: Antoine Galland, the first translator and disseminator of the Nights in Europe, took a lot of liberties with the manuscripts he worked from. So we’re looking at it through a series of different lenses. The whole thing is an extraordinary process — and because it’s prose, it is subject to more fluidity than, say, Homer. Because verse holds things tighter. Music, too: music might well get transmitted more accurately because though you can change the interpretation, but not the tune. You know, since I wrote Stranger Magic, I’ve got more interested in this fantastic Florence Dupont book.
OB:The Invention of Literature?
MW: Yes, I think it was you who told me about it. She has this model of logos and mythos, which is not a contrast between oral and written but between two types of text. The logos text is institutional, legal, like habeas corpus or the Magna Carta or the length of a meter; whereas literature is mythos, a much more fluid expression, which is carried on the voice, though it remains textual. Mythos is a text in a state of constant metamorphosis, not least because it’s transactional; it’s performed, not enshrined. It’s something that happens between you and me, or between the audience in the theater and the cast of characters on stage. It is very elusive, very hard to trap — and doesn’t get trapped, except when print comes in. That’s Florence Dupont’s point: when print comes in we get a different concept of the canonical text, which turns literature into logos. So that books are tombs of sorts or, as she says, “death masks.” And she has a sort of metaphysical idea that the whole notion of the voice in the mythos, after print, is about reanimating the dead. So we’re back in a way to Dionysus, the Dancing Satyr of Dionysus lost and found under the sea. You make this leap across time — this object comes back from time— and you could say that Dionysiac theater is a way of trying to make the past actually become present again. You know, these mysteries that happened in the past, these tragedies that happened in the past — you try and recover them by performing them, by giving them voice. Because they think that that satyr was probably part, as I said, of a temple, but that temple would’ve also been part of a theater.
OB: But isn’t this something you’ve been working on in almost all your books? I found
this quote in Managing Monsters: “Every telling of a myth is a part of that myth, there is no Ur-version, no authentic prototype, no pure account.”
MW: It is true that a lot of the literature that I’ve always loved is this literature that does not exist in a fixed text. But that’s also because I can’t read it in the original! When I first encountered the Epic of Gilgamesh, it spoke to me so vividly — and of course I can only read it in modern languages. We had this conference last year called “Smatterings” — like having a smattering of Babylonian, or a smattering of Greek. I was saying that people are much too hung up on knowing a language thoroughly, on speaking it fluently. Because actually there’s a huge pleasure in having a fragmentary grasp of a language. It may not get you a job, but it can get you musical pleasure and a sense of imaginative possibilities. One of the scholars who came to this conference works on Babylonian and people would say to him, “Well, what did it sound like?” And of course we don’t know… but he decided that he would try and perform it. And now there’s a website, you can go and listen to the Epic of Gilgamesh in Old Babylonian, and it’s had thousands of hits, I mean, it went sort of completely viral. Actually what he did was, he asked people who spoke various languages to read the text aloud in their own accents. So he’s got an Italian reading it aloud, and a German reading it, and an Arabic speaker reading it, so that you can hear it with different sounds. It’s metric, you know, so you get a sort of rhythm, and each time it sounds different yet similar. So he revived the sound of the Epic of Gilgamesh!
How about we go up to my study now? Would you like to see it?
MW: It’s a terrible mess. Always trying to do too many things at once. You could sit in this nice chair…
OB: There are so many images on these walls!
MW: Well, I’ve been here a long time.
OB: How long have you been in this house?
MW: Thirty years. A bit longer actually, I’ve been here thirty-three years now. I had to put blinds up. The books had begun to fade. One day I realized that I knew them by their covers, and that I was in danger of losing things, as it were. Because I was looking for a yellow book, or a green book… and they were all turning white! Apparently, that’s a trace memory from when we were hunters. The orientation memory is quite strong, so you remember that something was on the left, and it was green… That’s apparently a very old part of the brain.
OB: From hunting?
MW: From remembering that, you know… catching the glimpse of the… streaking past the… of the brown deer, or the red fish… But it’s also the orientation thing, that’s apparently to do with the older memory. Because it’s true that when you can’t remember something, often the first clue that you have is where you were at the time you’re trying to remember. I mean, you may not remember it right, it may be a false memory, but you kind of think, Yes, I was — wait a minute — I was at… . When I can’t remember someone I met and where I met them exactly, the first thing that comes back is what position I was in in the room… and then I can sometimes bring the room back, and then the face back.
OB: Just like a memory theater.
MW: That’s right. You have to put it in a room. Speaking of which, I have these bookcases arranged by topic. This is my Thousand and One Nights bookcase. This one is because my essays on art are being collected at the moment, to be published in two volumes, and I am writing introductions. This one’s for my next book, Fairy Tale: A Very Short Introduction.
OB: How about the novel you were writing? The one that’s set in Cairo…
MW: Here are the things connected to that, but I haven’t been able to get back to it, unfortunately. It’s got a bit untidy, look at this! It’s been a while since I’ve been able to return to it. My plan is to try to finish all the things that I’m commissioned to do, and then I will be free to write the novel.
OB: Does that ever happen?
MW: I’ve been saying no, so… the Very Short Introduction book was commissioned seven years ago, so I’m really late with it, really, really late. So I thought I’d get that out of the way, but it’s possible that it’s a psychological delaying tactic, and I just can’t write a novel again. I’m worried about that. But anyway, I’m trying to say no to things. And I have succeeded, but I’ve got a number of things that I’ve said yes to that are keeping me pinned down.
OB: So where shall we start the conversation about your novel-in-progress?
MW: On Tahrir Square! Because at the beginning of the recent uprisings the demonstration was called for January 25, wasn’t it? And that was the anniversary of the day when the free officers rose up against the king, in 1952. That’s when all the foreign commercial interests were attacked, including my father’s bookshop. Though it was attacked very late in the day, it was a sort of afterthought, I imagine, because it was a bookshop. The main attacks of those riots on January 25, 1952, were against the Rolls-Royce Showroom, Barclays Bank, the British Council, Shepheard’s Hotel — the central postcolonial interests exploiting the situation. There weren’t many fatalities; I think there were two, and one of them was at Shepheard’s Hotel. And then, toward the end of the day, Edward Said’s father’s shop, which was the Palestinian Stationery Supply Company — which is still there, I mean not the same shop, of course, but you can still see the art deco building — and my father’s bookshop, which was just round the corner in the same part of modern downtown Cairo. They were sacked and burned. I think it’s not really fully understood what happened in 1952, though.
OB: Is this something you have researched extensively?
MW: Well, I’m not going to write a historical novel of that kind, because actually there have been some wonderful Egyptian novels about history, and it would be very hard for me to learn it. It’s very, very tangled and complex. The Mahfouz Trilogy is a fantastic historical reconstruction, as well as being a marvelous novel of emotions and psychology. I’m going to do a slightly different kind of a book, but I need to know the history in order to do it. And I’ve always been interested in long perspectives, and I’m interested in North Africa as a part of the world that has been fought over since Carthage, since Rome thought Carthage was its greatest enemy. And in a novel you could have a sense of the deep memory of things coming through. I’m not so interested in ancient Egypt, actually. I mean, I think it’s beautiful and everything, but I’m more interested in the history of the Mediterranean as a place of exchange in more recent times. Sort of zero, as opposed to 3000 BC. I mean comparatively recent!
OB: And what do you personally remember? Because you spent the first years of your life in Cairo, right? And in Stranger Magic you mention something that I hadn’t realized, which is that you spoke Arabic as a child.
MW: I remember a lot, actually, and I did speak Arabic. Because we lived in Zamalek and I had little playmates — and of course this was a colonial household, and my parents went out all the time. My mother was only twenty-two, and she was very pretty, and she loved clothes, and she had had an extremely sheltered and boring life in Italy during the fascist period when they were very poor, and her mother was widowed, so their lives were extremely enclosed and very lacking in excitement. And she got to Cairo, which was of course fabulous, incredibly cosmopolitan, and very luxurious and abundant in pleasures compared to what Italy had been like. And England, where I was born, was pretty grim, too.
OB: This was right after the war, wasn’t it?
MW: I was born in November 1946, and we went immediately after. So we arrived in ’47. In fact my father went to reconnoiter it before I was born. He traveled so near to the end of the war that they ran out of petrol in the Mediterranean. They couldn’t find any, so they drifted about for a bit. Finally they refueled, and they got to Malta, and he went to Egypt and looked around and thought, This will be fine. This was before Israel. And they thought they’d be selling English and French books to the whole of the Middle East. Of course the creation of Israel almost immediately produced a hugely different map of the Middle East. And so it was a failure, his project.
OB: What was his project, to start with?
MW: Well, it was backed by W. H. Smith. It was in the spirit of what would now be called soft power — I mean, it was a colonial enterprise along the lines of soft power. My father had been in North Africa during the war, thought he liked it very much, thought, This is a society we can sell books to. And W. H. Smith bought the idea. And so he established two bookshops, one in Zamalek, which was an actual shop. And then there was the retail business in downtown Cairo, which was also a sort of shop, but it didn’t have a storefront — didn’t have a window. The commercial part of the business was going to be educational books, and the idea was that they were going to sell them all through Africa and the Middle East. But the shop itself was going to be selling ordinary books for people to read. He also had a secondhand business in antiquarian books. And so they went out all the time because there were cocktails all the time, and dances, and supper parties, and picnics on the Nile, and God knows what. And my mother was always in these beautiful dresses that she made herself. I remember her looking very pretty, and rustling, and chinking with her jewelry and — you know, she was so young, I can barely remember myself at that age — and my father was a bit older. So most of the time I was with our two servants and my nanny, who were all Arabic speakers. Which is why I spoke Arabic. I was extremely fond of my nanny. And I’m glad that I was able to find a photograph of her.
OB: Did you remember her when you saw the photograph?
MW: I remember her very well, actually. The first thing I did when I decided to write this book, which was ages ago, was to write down everything I could remember before I did any research. Before looking at any of the old photo albums or anything. Of course, I’d seen the albums with my mother over the years, but I tried not to think through the photographs — I tried to do it just as an exercise in memory, to remember as much as I possibly could. And I allowed myself to use objects — I went through the house dredging up objects that we’d had in Egypt. Some of them are very small, not very important objects, but they can bring up these memories. So the first thing that I did was a sort of inventory. And the working title is “Inventory of a Life Mislaid.” That’s why I’ve got odd objects here like coat hangers and things. In that first stage I actually managed to write quite a lot, though I could certainly expound it.
OB: And when you did this, you had not been back to Egypt at all since you left as a girl? How old were you, then?
MW: That’s right. I was five or six. I wrote about the day the bookshop burned. And I’m really glad I did it this way, because I found my father’s papers and accounts after my mother died, and of course it turns out I remembered everything wrong. Which is really interesting, and I want to make that part of the novel, because I had extremely vivid memories. For example: of my father coming back from the office, and saying there was trouble downtown and a lot of burning buildings and things, and of course I found in his own memory, and his reports to his backers, that he went back many, many times over the course of the day. He kept coming back to see if we were okay, and going out again to see what was happening and so forth. I mean, I remember this dramatic moment of once, but actually he was constantly back and forth. That’s not very major, of course, but it’s interesting that I had such a vivid picture.
OB: And you did eventually go back to Cairo, didn’t you?
MW: Two years ago now.
OB: Was that for the novel?
MW: Yes. Well, I was invited, actually. I wanted to go, and I sort of told people that I did, and I was invited to the Cairo Book Fair.
OB: So what was it like to go back? Do you remember arriving and…
MW: Ah, amazing. It was so powerful to be there. Radwa Ashour actually found the bookshop for me. I had the address, but it was just this little alley, and nobody knew where it was. She found it. It’s actually very near where she lives. One of the sad things is that I can’t remember any Arabic. I went to French school, so I spoke French. And everybody wanted me to keep up the French. And I spoke Italian because of my mother. But nobody suggested I keep up Arabic.
OB: So no memories of Arabic whatsoever?
MW: Well, there is one thing I remember from my trip to Israel in the 1980s, though it may be a fancy on my part. Years and years ago, after I wrote the Virgin Mary book, I thought I would do a book on women in the Crusades. It’s an interesting aspect of the whole Crusader enterprise that they couldn’t have done it without women. I mean you can’t settle a land without women. And the women were not very compliant with the Christian project. There were lots and lots of complaints from the churchmen that the women were deviant. They would go to the markets, they would fraternize with the, you know, they weren’t being true Christians, and so forth. Some of them would go native. The women didn’t seem to have the same messianic mission to Christianize the Middle East. I also had an interest because a lot of the first women who were brought over to marry Crusaders and soldiers were from Southern Italy. And then the demography was such that a lot of women survived when the men didn’t, so when the Crusader kingdoms were disintegrating, a lot of areas — particularly the outlying regions like Tripolitana — were held by women, and there they were, backsliding and fraternizing with the enemy… I was very interested in this story, but I didn’t end up writing it into a history book — I eventually gave up and went for fiction, so it all ended up in my novel The Leto Bundle. And Leto herself at one point is a kind of Crusader hostage. They took women hostages and traded them. I was interested in all the ways that women lived in that period. And of course it’s an allegory of our time, too. Think of the settlements for instance. But I could never remember the history well enough. It’s extraordinarily complicated — there are millions of different rulers and millions of battles, and everybody is called Baldwin! But anyway, I was in Jerusalem, and I loved the old city, I felt so happy there. And I think that was a trace memory. As soon as I entered the walls… I don’t know what it’s like now, but in the Eighties the old city still had a very Arabic feeling — the cries of the porters and the bustle and the smells and the shops and the whole souk feel of it. I felt blissful. I’m thinking it had to do with memories of childhood. We always used to go to the souk with my nanny — I remember because she always bought me sweets…
OB: So it was a sound memory.
MW: Sound, yes. I still feel it sometimes, because you hear a lot of Arabic in London now.
OB: You mentioned Edward Said, earlier. You were friends with him, right?
MW: Yes, absolutely. In fact he thought we had had the same French nuns at kindergarten.
OB: He was a bit older, though…
MW: Well, yes, he was born in 1935, eleven years earlier than I was. So later on I would tease him that he hadn’t been there in 1952, during the revolution: I was there, and I saw it, I remembered the burning and everything, while he was in boarding school in America! Anyway, Egypt was sort of a bond between us. I first met him in the early Nineties; he gave the BBC Reith Lectures the year before I did. The BBC had somehow neglected to organize the lectures for two years, so they decided they had to mend their ways, and they announced the program for the next three years all at once. And those were Steve Jones the biologist, Edward, and me, and they had a press reception, to announce the new series. I met Edward there. And of course he was devastatingly seductive and charming. I really liked him. And he was always extremely good to me. You know his character was very irascible and vehement — he could be scathing and terribly unmanageable in his opinions. But he was always just total generosity to me. He was really, really a friend. And he very much gave me his support. He invited me to Columbia to give lectures; he was an ally of mine. People have accused me of being Jesuitical in my approach to his work or to Orientalism in Stranger Magic. But I don’t think that’s fair. I think that Edward’s work changed really quite profoundly in the light of what had happened, and of the effects of Orientalism, which was published in 1978. So I think that my view of him is actually quite true to what he did.
OB: There was a charge that your account was untrue or inaccurate in some way?
MW: Well, my picture of him doesn’t make him as radical as he was when he wrote Orientalism. But I think it’s true to how he himself developed. You know, his last essay is on Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, and Erich Auerbach for him was a figure of a true scholar. So it wasn’t a dialectical kind of opposition between East and West or literature and politics… . And he really liked the fact that Mimesis was written in Ankara, that Auerbach was in flight from the dreadful persecutions in Europe and found refuge in Ankara, where he wrote what is considered a monument to humanist addition. And Edward pays honor to that. And there’s a lot in this vein even in work he was writing at the same time as Orientalism, so it’s not just a later evolution. Of course, a lot did happen in light of the criticisms of Orientalism — not necessarily a retreat, but a deeper explanation of what he meant about attitudes to the Orient in Western literature. He also detonated a vast scandal much later when he said that Mansfield Park bore all the traces of the slave-trading economy of Britain at the time. And people said, “Oh! Don’t besmirch our Jane Austen, there could be no thought of — .” But they’re completely wrong. Jane Austen is totally rooted in the mercantile empire and its relationship to slavery. I mean, he pointed out something profound and important about Jane Austen, which isn’t only in Mansfield Park. Mansfield Park has the actual Bertram fortune rooted in the Caribbean, so that’s a direct link. But in Persuasion, her adoration of the British Navy is part of the whole romance of the book.
Anyway, Edward always caused controversy. People were jealous of him. He was very handsome — that matters! He was very handsome and very successful. He had aura, and people have an ambiguous relationship to aura. If Said had been short and fat, he wouldn’t have provoked the same animosity. He was a star. And of course, the strongest thing about it all is that he adopted Palestinian identity. So here was this rather patrician American, if you like, by formation, adopting, embracing wholeheartedly, very courageously — because when he started speaking for Palestine in America, it was really a brave thing to do, and it remained a very brave thing to do — and he got a huge amount of abuse for it, of course. But I think his intellectual position needed to be looked at again. And I think that in Edward’s work, there’s enough about entanglement, reciprocity, and mutual interdependence that one could interpret a reservoir of Orientalist attitudes like A Thousand and One Nights in a different light, invoking Edward’s work. That’s what I was trying to do. But you know, when Stranger Magic went out to readers at Harvard University Press, one of the reports was just absolutely vile, mostly an attack on Said. It said things like, “These pious invocations of Said all the time… this work is absolutely discredited.” Every time Said’s name was mentioned, he exploded. But HUP, to give them their due, decided to set this report aside.
OB: They published the book all the same.
MW: Yes. And I have to say, it was helpful to me, because I had not anticipated there being so much rage. When I wrote the book, I was writing it from a climate, in England, of acceptance of Said’s arguments. But then I realized I had to anticipate objections, and so I was able to present my argument about Said more clearly, and build in a sense that many people are hostile to them. Of course there are people who have discredited Orientalism for making mistakes and for being single-minded. But this was a manifesto of a book, at a crucial period, and it was a marvelous act of awakening of conscience and consciousness. I wrote a book around the same time on the Virgin Mary, in 1976, and that’s also a highly polemical book, and most of the conclusions are wrong! I predicted that the cult would wither and die. I could not have been more wrong. But they want to reprint it now, so I’ve had to write a contextual introduction. But you know, that’s what happens — to me, Orientalism is a landmark polemic, a book that made a lot of new research happen, a lot of reformulations and rethinking. An excellent gadfly book in the best Socratic tradition. The fact that every page is not exactly like an encyclopedia would be is beside the point. And of course even encyclopedias are full of opinion…
OB: Can I ask you why you decided to write a book about A Thousand and One Nights? Or rather, how the corpus of stories found in A Thousand and One Nights relates to the Western corpus of stories you extensively studied in your other books on myths and fairy tales: From the Beast to the Blonde, Monuments and Maidens, Fantastic Metamorphoses, No Go the Bogeyman, etc.?
MW: Well, that’s exactly the reason — I realized that there was a huge gap in my approach, and sort of in general. I realized that even people like Charles Perrault and Madame d’Aulnoy — in the early 1700s, the landmark era for the fairytale as a form — had been very influenced and shaped by contact with Galland and his translation of A Thousand and One Nights. And that I had just missed it. And in fact, in the little book that I am writing now, the Very Short Introduction to fairy tale, I am treating A Thousand and One Nights as entirely integral to the history of the fairy tale. And I think that that’s right, because even before A Thousand and One Nights came out in Europe, a lot of the ballets and spectacles and processions and pageants that took place in the court had these Oriental scenes… Madame d’Aulnoy was the first person to use the phrase Conte des fées, in the title of her 1698 book. Perrault calls them Contes de ma mère l'oye.
OB: Mother Goose!
MW: Yes, Mother Goose. And in one of her books, Madame d’Aulnoy has a preface in which she says that she had heard these stories from une vieille esclave arabe, an old Arab slave woman. And at the time I just thought that it was a façon de parler, a figure of speech, but I realized that it’s a very interesting one, because either she wants to give her book authenticity by claiming she has an Arabic source for her stories, or she did have an Arabic source for her stories. Either way, it’s important, a very interesting and overlooked thing that she says. So that was one reason. My other reason was political, because I feel very anxious about the way Islam is perceived monolithically, but I didn’t feel very well equipped to write a political essay. I can’t write political analysis; I never feel I know enough to do political articles. What I do know is literature, so I thought I would try and draw a slightly different kind of picture of what relations have been or what perceptions are, to show an alternative history. Of course, you can put me into the Orientalist camp, in the Saidian sense, because I was sort of saying, Well no, we must also think of the Middle East as a place of pleasure and sophistication and luxury, etc. — you know, the views that Edward had decried about Oriental luxury and dissipation, softness, and so forth. Though where I was laying the emphasis is not so much on what the Orient is shown to be, but on the entanglement. The idea that this was an important encounter for our European imagination, and had been of inestimable influence that had not really been fully acknowledged, for reasons that, I think, have to do with the time period that A Thousand and One Nights were discovered in. The book was not just a collection of fairy tales of medieval origin, but actually contained elements that were revealing of modernity, in a kind of unconscious way.
OB: Are you thinking for instance of all the tales that have to do with the phantasmagoric nature of money, being received in a context of rampant capitalism? Like the wonderful, hilarious Ponzi scheme that is staged in the story of Marouf the Cobbler?
MW: Yes, contrary to silver or gold coins, paper money has no intrinsic value — it is based on faith, and of course a lot of A Thousand and One Nights’ stories are all about the effects of objects invested with meaning by faith, the sort of talismanic structure that is magical thinking. It is a notion I am very interested in, the relationship of leaps of imagination or thought experiments to the actual progress of science. When I first lectured on this aspect, people were very skeptical and mocking. I gave a lecture in Munich and the audience was really quite hostile to the idea that these magical thought experiments could have any bearing at all on modernity. I was talking about flight and the idea that the carpet was actually a rather deeper intuition about aeronautics than, say, ornithopters as invented by Leonardo… It’s much less likely that an ornithopter will get off the ground than a carpet, because a carpet is basically a sail, and a sail will lift. But this Munich audience was very stuffy and didn’t like the idea at all, they thought it was nonsense. But now I find people have totally accepted it! It’s now second nature, everybody knows that a flying carpet is a sail and this is an aeronautical intuition, perfectly understandable!
OB: This reminds me that Philippe-Alain Michaud included Hans Haacke’s Blue Sail in his recent Flying Carpets exhibit at the Villa Medici in Rome. It also makes me think of your previous book, Phantasmagoria, where you’re looking at all these Victorian scientists trying to scientifically test the existence of ghosts and other supernatural phenomena — that was almost an exact inversion of magical thinking.
MW: It was obviously a dreadful step, that positivist step into trying to prove the existence of phantasm. But it was a necessary step and we’re indebted to those people. They did take risks; they tried to find out why we have premonitions, why we have fears of ghosts. Now we pretty much know that you can’t take a photograph of a ghost, but we only know it because so many people made fools of themselves trying to do it. So we should be grateful to them, really. I got rather upset writing that book, actually, because I didn’t know I was going to get into such a tale of human failure and folly. I mean, the very eminent people who were involved in the whole experiments with ectoplasm showed such little understanding of themselves… . When I was doing the research in the Cambridge library, I found all of these photographs in which they’re holding the medium’s feet under the table because they wanted to make sure that she wasn’t using her feet to produce the phenomena. So you get, for instance, a professor of moral philosophy at Cambridge, under the table on all fours, holding the booted legs. And then they photograph it because they want to show that the medium is being controlled by somebody of moral stature, who therefore wouldn’t be her accomplice. But of course, it’s just such a pre-Freudian document, you can’t believe the lack of self-understanding involved in these things. And I think of it also as a warning that we may be doing that too! It isn’t as if we’ve learned from them about that area of experience. Think of projects they had here in England like DNA identity cards, which we probably avoided only because it turned out to be too expensive.
OB: It’s interesting that you just mentioned Freud, because in Stranger Magic you have this chapter on the carpet that Freud had over the couch on which his patients would recline.
MW: Yes, and you can still see it in the Freud Museum, which is a magical place. His collections are there, and his library. My interest in it began as a kind of envoi in a lecture, in the sense that after talking about carpets, I’d say, “And here we have the ultimate flying carpet — the couch.” But then I thought, I can’t just use it as an envoi in the book, I must go into it more deeply. So I went to the Freud Museum and to the library, and it just opened up in this amazing way. I had no idea that the carpet in question had been an engagement present given to him by his cousin who was a trader in antiquities. I didn’t know there were actual connections with the Middle East. And obviously it was a deliberate choice to put it on the couch, and as a deliberate choice it seemed to have convincing unconscious associations, because it was an engagement present, because it created a sort of nest, an Oriental nest. The type of décor that was definitely associated with decadence and symbolism and bohemia — Oscar Wilde was one of the people who also put a carpet on his sofa… . Yes, that’s my last invention of modernity that’s foreshadowed by A Thousand and One Nights: psychoanalysis!
OB: You do write somewhere, though, that the fairy tale is a genre which does not explore individual psychology or interiority, and you talked earlier about the poems of A Thousand and One Nights as formulaic rather than psychological. For some reason I am thinking of this phrase by Borges to the effect that all great literature becomes children’s literature….
MW: Well, he might be talking of the phenomenon of books being expurgated in order to turn them into children’s literature — all the classics, Gulliver’s Travels, or Robinson Crusoe, or even Homer… I think historically there was a turn against imagination for adults. There was a sense that if you were grown up, you were supposed to look at representations of reality. It’s difficult to know when that happened, because certainly the Romantics were not doing that, so it’s possibly Victorian… but if you look a little closer at the Victorians, you see that someone like Dickens was absolutely steeped in fairy tale, and there are very strong traces of fairy tale and fantasy in his work. I mean he has actual fables, like A Christmas Carol, but his plot structures — the outcomes are very often rags-to-riches, and his characters are more like types, they don’t actually change very much. There’s nothing like the sort of psychological development that you get in Henry James. Even George Eliot, who has very profound analyses of social conditions and circumstances and character, wrote Silas Marner, which is really a fairy tale. So it tends to be a bit fugitive: the closer you get to the ideal that adults are realistic representational analysts of experience, the more it becomes elusive. Look at Proust! Amazing depths of individual analysis, but at the same time very strongly indebted to the structure of A Thousand and One Nights, which he invokes. He himself acknowledges how passionately he loved the projection of fantasy, even as he was one of the great observers and deep empirical excavators of reality.
Nevertheless, there was a continual trend, getting very strong toward the end of the nineteenth century and then the beginning of the twentieth, that anything fantastical is to be packaged for children. In fact I’m the beneficiary of it, because I had lots of books when I was young that could have been adult books but had been made into picture books for children. I had the myths of Greece and Rome, and I had the Norse myths, and many others, full of very unsuitable material, censored of course… but not totally censored. I certainly knew all about Phaedra and all about the Minotaur, and the incest and rapes of the gods. I used to play them in the garden with my sister. We’d play the rape of Persephone. I’d say, “I am going to be Zeus and you’re Persephone!” Or “I’m Pluto and you’re Persephone!” And she would say, “I don’t want to be Persephone!” Oh dear, racing around the garden pretending to rape my sister…
OB: Your books don’t really look like children’s books, but they certainly are very “illustrated.” I was wondering what your process of composing a book was like. Do you use pictures as a starting point? And where do you find them?
MW: Well, I’ve got thousands of pictures here, which used to be very carefully filed. But my filing systems have rather disintegrated recently. Earlier boxes, like this one, you see, are all carefully filed, look: “Black Madonnas,” “Amazons,” “the Sphinx,” “Leda,” “Metamorphosis.” They’re all right there. But I’m very behind with my filing these days. Oh, and then I have lots of collections of little things. And I used to collect these things, which I love — these accordions. Look at that nice one, that’s a very nice one… I’ve got two, are they both the same? Yes, they are, you can have one — do you want one? They’re called leporelli, you know, from the so-called “Catalog Song” in Don Giovanni, which Leporello sings. They unfold. And then I also have folders and folders of bigger pictures.
OB: But I assume you also go to libraries. Not everything is in your house.
MW: No, no, of course. At the Warburg Institute they have a photographic library, and I’ve used that all my life. It’s just fantastic. In fact, I quite hope that they’ll want my pictures when I die… but, of course, by then everything might be digital. Though digital has limits. At the Warburg they collect a lot of ephemera, which are not really caught by web systems. They actually cut and clip auction catalogs, for instance, so they have amazing records of things that have vanished — that vanish into private collections and you never see them again. And then look, I have all these holy pictures collected from shrines. It would be very hard to find these in an archive. They were all picked up in churches all over the world; it’s quite a collection. This one was in a Coptic church in Egypt for instance. A Jesus with blue eyes… I can’t read them, of course. You could tell me what they say.
OB: This one says, “Anta abra’u jamalan min bani al-bashar” — You are more beautiful than the sons of men.
MW: There’s another one. That must be Demetrius or someone, or maybe they’re special Coptic saints. I have so many of them because I did a very foolhardy thing while in Cairo. I was trying to find my way around, and someone picked me up, and I let him pick me up, because of course it’s frightfully useful to be with somebody who knows the city, and he turned out to be an old Copt. So he took me to Coptic churches… . It’s a shame that my filing system is a bit out of date. But one day, maybe, when I’ve got more time, I’ll start filing again. Anyway, we should have lunch. Aren’t you hungry?
Gwangju Biennale 2012: Roundtable
September 7–November 11, 2012
For a curatorial studies graduate like me, the ninth Gwangju Biennale occasionally felt like “Practicum One,” in which a group is asked to curate an exhibition collectively. At Bard, where I did my degree, this course is offered in the first semester and involves asking a group of jet-lagged strangers to crank out a cohesive show together in a couple of months. A slow-mo reality show for the faculty, it often makes for a traumatic welcome to graduate school. After a few insomniac weeks of tear-jerking discussions and heartbreaks, the group realizes that it is impossible to settle on a theme, so they split up the exhibition amongst themselves and settle on a comfortably broad title. The latest Gwangju Biennale, the product of six curators, is like Practicum One with lavish budgets, abundant real estate and facilities, and — of course — the glamour of a biennial.
Under the comfortable umbrella-like rubric of roundtable, artistic directors Nancy Adajania, Wassan Al-Khudhairi, Mami Kataoka, Sunjung Kim, Carol Yinghua Lu, and Alia Swastika put forward six distinctive and occasionally wordy sub-themes ranging from Belonging and Anonymity to Impact of Mobility on Space and Time. As the curators note in their respective catalog contributions, after a year of meetings across the planet, Skype conferences, and lengthy email exchanges, they found refuge in adopting the format of the roundtable, that most democratic of bureaucratic furnitures.
Though thematically diverse, there were some common threads across the six interconnected exhibitions, not least the significant number of pieces that required audience participation — or at least, hoped to elicit a response from the people of Gwangju. Paradigmatic examples of such participatory claptrap include Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Untitled 2012, a set of ping-pong tables made out of mirror-finished stainless steel, an homage to the late Július Koller’s J.K. Ping-Pong Club (1970) which turned the Yugoslavian artist’s invisible “anti-performances” into an outright spectacle; Slavs and Tatars’ Molla Nasreddin (the antimodernist), 2012, a figure of the wise Persian fool on his donkey in the shape of a playground ride for “kids and adults alike”; and Do Ho Suh’s Rubbing Project, in which the artist traced the passage of time through graffiti and scribbles on the interiors of abandoned buildings in Gwangju by transferring them with color pencil on paper. A comprehensive list of such thematic work would be much longer.
Taking cues from Re-Visiting History, a subtheme proposed by Wassan Al-Khudhairi, a number of works revisited, re-imagined, or reenacted historical events. A curious example of an artist finding himself suddenly in the midst of a defining historical moment was Fouad Elkoury’s Atlantis (1982), a slide projection of photographs of Yasser Arafat taken by the artist aboard the Greek cruise ship that carried Arafat and eighty-seven PLO leaders out of Beirut in 1982. Wael Shawky’s Telematch Sadat features a reenactment of the assassination and funeral of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat by a group of Bedouin children. In a conversation with curator Nav Haq as part of a discussion series in the biennial hall, Shawky explained how the five-piece Telematch series explored the creation of a “fake or staged event to entertain a third party, which is the art audience.” In Telematch Suburb, the artist organized a concert for a Cairo-based heavy metal band in an Alexandria village where both the band and the villagers knew he was filming without knowing why exactly. Similarly, in Telematch Sadat, the assembled children had no memory of the assassination and only followed orders. “The event itself became the priority,” Shawky claimed. Babak Afrassiabi and Nasrin Tabatabai’s two-channel video installation Seep revisited an unfinished industrial documentary produced by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company while attempting to situate the footage within the context of contemporary Iran. And one of the most memorable pieces in the show may have been Faycal Baghriche’s The Message Project, in which the artist revisited Moustapha Akkad’s film The Message (1977), about the birth of Islam. Catering to both Arab and Western audiences, Akkad shot English and Arabic versions of the film on the same set, producing and releasing two versions of the same film for each market. Baghriche weaved together the two original versions of the movie into a single feature. In The Message Project, characters in the story effortlessly shift from one cast to the other (for example, the prophet’s uncle Hamza shifts between the actor Abdullah Gaith and the Mexican-American actor Anthony Quinn). Functioning in a space beyond language or ethnicity, the piece provides a subtle commentary on the production of universal human gestures via cinema.
Other notable pieces included xurban_collective’s Evacuation #2: Under One Minute, which took on the congregation of immigrant communities around martial-arts parlors in the US, Europe, and Korea and investigated the spatial dimensions of these parlors and the communities to which they give shape. Kim Boem’s Yellow Scream (2012), a single-channel video piece installed in Daein market — the city’s last remaining traditional bazaar — was a simple yet hilarious tongue in cheek commentary on artistic expression, while in 12 Sculptural Recipes the artist prepared paper-clay chickens inspired by prevailing artistic modes, e.g., cubism, realism, etc. The biennial also published Born Again, a collection of ironically dry and laconic poems by Chinese poet Han Dong that especially sat well with this recent émigré to Los Angeles with lines such as “I cut through this city blanketed with thick fog/cannily avoiding the traffic.”
Curatorially, the decision to move beyond the exhibition hall played out well in Gwangju, deftly untangling the density of the gallery spaces. In its various forms, the biennial extended into the old Daein market, the Mugaksa Buddhist temple (whose head was an artist in Paris for a brief period before becoming a monk), and Cinema Gwangju. It also included a series of online publications produced during the show’s span and available for download on the biennial’s website. Al-Khudhairi’s curatorial input was especially helpful as her contributions to the exhibition were distributed around the galleries, providing for a less jarring curatorial flow. The artistic directors refrained from direct curatorial interventions except for Nancy Adajania, who created a mandala-shaped gallery to hold a collection of different photographic series by Noh Suntag (including The Forgetting Machines series (2006–2007), in commemoration of those who died during the Gwangju Democratization Movement in South Korea) and a reading station in the middle of the exhibition hall with pamphlets and texts about the Non-Aligned Movement — possibly a fantastic PhD research project but rather misplaced in a contemporary art exhibit. Adajania’s dithyrambic press presentation, commenting on art’s role in revolutionary politics, made some members of the audience want to throw away their canvas bags and bring down the first government they would encounter outside the exhibition hall.
Still, in spite of the spirited extension outside the exhibition hall, and a lot of good work on show, the ninth Gwangju Biennial never shed the image of a polycephalic monster, its heads pulling in six disparate directions. Each of the curators had the experience and expertise to direct an entire edition of the exhibition; it was therefore unsurprising that the torch relay from Massimiliano Gioni (who received the key to the city of Gwangju at the event’s opening ceremony) to six pan-Asian women provided for ample gossip at the hotel bar as to the skewed gender politics of the art world.
By foregrounding the individual vis-à-vis the collective, Carol Yinghua Lu’s idiosyncratic subtheme Back to Individual Experience may have provided the most fitting introduction to the show’s multiplicity of curatorial positions. In her catalog contribution, the Beijing-based curator offered that the return to individual experience is meant to “reiterate the independence of individual spirit, the equality of all positions, both in the makeup of the art system and the makeup of our social structure and our perception of the world.” As such, the show provided for a critique of the crisis of thematic exhibition making in curatorial practice by highlighting the personal encounter with the work of art. At the same time, the biennial’s concoction of approaches reflected a curatorial homage to the discipline’s founding father, Harald Szeemann, and his maxim of “individual mythologies.” And yet, while in the face of the current version of Chinese communism this position might seem to represent a practice marked by emancipatory politics, Back to Individual Experience might also swiftly be translated into the cultural policy of liberal capitalism (or rendered a Tea Party bumper sticker).
Balancing myself on the steep grass slope above the occupied bleachers of the open-air auditorium during the opening ceremony, I watched various local authorities and politicians deliver sporadically translated speeches on the importance of the exhibition for the city and for South Korea’s nation-building project. At times, they sounded maybe a bit provincial; at others it tasted like classic nationalist propaganda. But all that was forgotten minutes into the after-party, where the uniquely global beats of Psy’s “Gangnam Style” brought together every side of the proverbial roundtable. Pop and politics aside, in the context of Gwangju, the biennial fulfilled its promise of making the city a cultural hub, even if a transient one. Some might argue that this stance is bankrupt, politically and economically corrupt — a tool for gentrification. But if the alternatives are situated somewhere between an art fair and a Gehry building, I will opt for the biennial over and over again.
September 21, 2012–January 6, 2013
At SALT’s recent exhibition of nearly two decades of Hassan Khan’s work, some thirty-one artworks in a wide range of media — including photos, films, music, and objects — were held in balanced tension across three floors. With formal and thematic relays crisscrossing in every direction, the show dexterously slipped the grasp of linear chronology and the rule of personal beginnings, middles, and ends. This prying loose of the retrospective format from biographical time kept the figure of the artist himself at bay: Khan ended up more of a hazy silhouette on the horizon than a clear-cut figure we might pretend to know or understand well by the end of the show.
In this, the exhibition’s structure mirrors one of Khan’s signature approaches as an artist (and writer, and musician, and all the many in-between roles that he occupies). Khan doesn’t shirk the biographical; in fact, he mines it as one of the most substantial modes through which we produce meaning. And yet, he takes up some of the most cliché-ridden means of expressing the subjective “I” — dreams, first-person narratives, evocations of childhood objects and experiences — precisely in order to channel them elsewhere.
SALT’s curatorial team worked closely with the artist during the exhibition’s preparation, and I imagine that’s a major reason for the strong parallels between the logic of the works and the exhibition’s distinctive structure. (The text on the website, for instance, is credited as a collaboration, and the exhibition texts as a whole sometimes read as a defensive effort to avoid anything that could be construed as remotely explanatory.) Of course, this raises the question of artists’ involvement with institutions in crafting their own backstories for public consumption. But there are some even more basic questions that viewing Khan’s work all together makes suddenly pressing — what do we hope, more generally, to get out of taking a retrospective view in the first place? In what unique ways do given artists, and Khan in particular, benefit from being seen retrospectively?
Almost every conversation I had about the exhibition this October involved comments about Khan’s enviable ability to move across a wide variety of media while, somewhat miraculously, managing to maintain a deep-seated consistency. The retrospective is framed by two heavily musical works rooted in Khan’s own work as a musician. The short film Jewel (2010) appears on the first of three floors: the pattern of a deep-sea fish’s twinkling path transforms into a glowing lantern of punctured metal, which in turn illuminates two men — one round and jeans-clad, the other rail-thin and in bureaucratic chic — dancing, awkwardly if not enthusiastically, to a pressing shaabi beat. At the culmination of the show is DOM-TAK-TAK-DOM-TAK (2005), a project realized in the recording studio: first, the choice of several Egyptian shaabi tracks, a popular genre that at least one critic has described as “as impassioned as it is generic,” followed by a collaboration with musicians to suss out commonly used shaabi rhythms, which were then rerecorded, improvised over, mixed, and remixed. A lot of the artist’s most essential concerns come together in these two major works — in particular an effort to make elaborately choreographed sequences appear as real time in both music and video — and this may be the Khan with whom most casual followers are familiar. It is certainly the Khan of The Hidden Location (2004) and Muslimgauze R.I.P. (2010), both films that hinge on similar temporal acts of improvisation, narrative setting, and editing.
It is possible that his work is singularly well served by the retrospective format at least in part because there always seems to be a missing key to one artwork lodged within another, even across decades. There are, too, plenty of instances of plain cross-reference. Evidence of Evidence I (2010) is probably the most straightforward: the artist reproduces fragments of previous works (originally photographs, printed pages, performance documents) as etchings, twenty-six small prints with the atmospheric blurring of intaglio and the palpable involvement of a hand. As in much of his work, it’s easy to sense the deliberateness of Khan’s formal choice — here, one calibrated to make the reproduced fragments something profoundly new while triggering a process of half-recollections and connections on the part of the viewer.
Other times, links between artworks are not predesignated but lie in the common ways they encourage the viewer to feel their way along. For example, one might need the linguistic lessons of the video The Dead Dog Speaks (2010) to feel at home with a text-based piece like Insecure (2002). Language is a major preoccupation for Khan. It’s often the social-ness of language, its implication within and creation of an implied social world, that he presses. The Dead Dog Speaks is a four-minute video in which three computer-generated figures float and bounce gently on a red ground — a woman in a full-length coat, the disembodied head of a mustached man, a long-haired lapdog. The trio emit a rapid-fire series of words and short phrases in Arabic, but the voices we hear are often mismatched. “Me,” “You,” “Who,” they begin, as English subtitles scroll quickly and the figures bounce and slide gently into new positions on the screen, triggered by the force of their exclamations. One feels, suddenly, the extraordinary capacity of even the most minimal fragments of language to plot out an entire situation: individuals, their relative positions, a social space within which we are also implicated as thinking viewers. Not unlike The Dead Dog Speaks, the admonitions of Insecure prod us into an awareness of how we project ourselves, often through the simple social cipher of a gesture. A series of instructions are printed on the wall: “list 10 strategies you use to seduce others”; “whisper your name over and over until it doesn’t make sense”; “while in conversation closely watch the person you’re speaking with and start to assign meanings to their gestures.”
What would these artworks look like outside of a retrospective? It may seem wildly obvious to note that works function differently when they stand alone or travel to different contexts, but the shape of Khan’s oeuvre — as deeply systematic in its own right as it is concerned with the systematic ways we ourselves communicate, narrate, and produce — provides us with an opportunity to take this question seriously. About halfway through, for example, there’s a sequence where the exhibition doesn’t quite hold together; one too many photos, collages, text-based works, performance documents, and drawings are marched down a wall. And when the tension lapses, one feels how tightly Khan’s formal and conceptual ethos functions elsewhere, in individual works and in the curatorial framing alike.
Khan strikes a new note with a handful of object-based works from the past three years, distributed relatively evenly across the exhibition. (It would be interesting to know if Khan did any object-based work earlier than 2010.) Twist (2012), a metal rod with a single curve in the middle, is intended to pinpoint a “non-functional moment when human civilization distinguishes itself.” Banque Bannister (2010) is an exact replica of the original bannister of the Banque Misr in downtown Cairo. A third, The Agreement (2011), pairs five short stories of Khan’s invention with ten enigmatic objects that he had manufactured — a half-crystal, half-clay vessel, a pencil-thin metal rod sharpened to a point at either end, a smooth white ceramic capsule. Perhaps more than any of his other output, these three pieces carry with them the risk of being viewed as manifestations of a regional material vernacular, something particularly valued by a contemporary biennial culture hungry for easy signifiers of cultural specificity. This isn’t a criticism, or to say that this is Khan’s motivation, but just that, as manufactured objects with material heft, this strain of his oeuvre confronts a set of debates about authenticity in a palpably different mode than his films or photographs.
In fact, one of the major revelations for me was Khan the photographer. The medium’s “natural” engagement with personal memory, its implication of an implied archive beyond its bounds, its modes of fragmentation and formal manipulation, all movingly intersect with Khan’s broader concerns, where his objects left me cold. Lust (2008) was a standout: a series of fifty crepuscular, framed cellphone photographs, cropped scenes of anonymous room interiors, a hand on a mirror, figures pressing forward out of a crowd. Triangulating Lust with Alphabet Book (2006), where Khan created blurred, visceral images sourced from his own dreams, and Photographs of statues owned by the artist (2010), three large prints of small souvenir figurines, had me wishing there were a sustained essay on this aspect of his work.
In the end, Khan’s strategies of ambiguation can be discomfiting, and probably because of his close involvement in the retrospective’s organization, the viewer isn’t always offered an alternate angle from which to apprehend his work. The artist hands a lot of responsibility over to the viewer — a gesture that could be read alternately as generous or obscurantist. Either way, it constitutes a particular way of taking seriously the dictum that the task of the artist is to function publicly in some way. Khan’s retrospective is not traveling, nor is there a catalog, and it’s regretful that SALT missed an opportunity to show the work beyond Istanbul, or to produce some sustained critical writing in and around it. The simple act of moving these objects elsewhere, adjusted to a different physical space, or into alternate formats such as a catalog, could only continue to pressure that question of the diverse lives artworks may have.
Kassel, Kabul, Alexandria
June 9–September 16, 2012
One could argue that the thirteenth edition of Documenta, the Kassel quinquennial that ran for one hundred days last summer, was the most Bidoun ever. The event was thick with exotic names and hyphenated identities — Hassan Khan, Akram Zaatari, Walid Raad, Etel Adnan, Michael Rakowitz, the Otolith Group, and Anna Boghiguian, among many others — perhaps even more than Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta 11, known in some circles as the “CNN Documenta” for its diversity bona fides and political inflection.
In the years-long run-up to the opening last June, Artistic Director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev was a regular presence in cities close to our hearts. She was there in Beirut. She was there in Kabul. She was there in Cairo. Always with the same kinetic energy, eyes and hair agog, her Blackberry dangling from her neck like a magic amulet. Through that Blackberry, she was in touch with the world. Our world.
Christov-Bakargiev’s Documenta 13 has been justly celebrated — for its boldness and breadth; for its extraordinary series of pocket-sized publications; for its felicitous juxtapositions and its comprehensive examination of trauma. D13’s purposeful international entanglements — the sessions in Afghanistan, the conference in Alexandria, the complicated names — were not scrutinized very closely. After all, what’s not to like about inclusion? Especially against the backdrop of a contemporary art world — the market-driven precincts of it, anyway — that remains a lighter shade of pale. The inclusion of the black, the brown, and the off-white might seem especially welcome for Documenta, founded at a peculiar postwar moment in Germany by Arnold Bode, a purging of Nazi guilt through the return of the repressed.
And yet some inclusions make more sense than others. The essays included here analyze aspects of Documenta 13’s pointed internationalism.Tom Francisconsiders the larger exhibition and a surprisingly nuanced notion of worldliness at play therein.Clare Daviesreports from the “Cairo Seminar in Alexandria,” Egypt, where various aspirations and topographies seemed to go mostly awry. AndSohrab Mohebbireflects on his trip to the Afghan outpost in Kassel.
Her name is Scarface. She’s a princess — from Bactria, as it happens — but you might not know it to look at her. Her hair is short, parted perfectly in the center, and she has what is properly known as a chin-curtain beard. She is wearing a pleated skirt but above the waist she’s brawny, her torso and arms heavily muscled. And then there’s the scar that runs from her scalp to her chin, bisecting her right cheek. Uncomely features for a princess, you might say.
But then Scarface has lived through hard times — four thousand years’ worth, to be precise — so a little wear and tear is to be expected. She is one of nine Bactrian statuettes that occupy a pair of vitrines in the rotunda of the Fridericianum, the former Hessian state archive that serves as the core exhibition space of Documenta. Scarface and friends are objects of rare beauty. They are small, frangible figurines, chlorite mantles billowing out beneath delicately carved limestone heads. Their faces are neither hyperrealist nor expressionist, but some tranquil, elfin in-between.
More compelling than their look, however, is their function. The princesses are exemplary of a number of historical artifacts displayed alongside contemporary artworks in the “Brain,” as the rotunda space is called. In addition to ancient Afghan figurines, there are the molten remains of sculptures from the National Museum in Beirut, destroyed during Lebanon’s civil war. There’s a group of Giorgio Morandi still-lifes, completed while the artist was living under Fascist rule in Italy in the 1930s and ’40s. And in a vitrine near the princesses you’ll find a painting by Mohammad Yusuf Asefi, the Afghan physician and iconophile who “saved” more than eighty works by Afghan modernists from the wrath of the Taliban by painting over them in watercolor.
One floor up from these remnants of life in distress is a particularly poignant room containing dozens of drawings by the priest and pomologist Korbinian Aigner, who succeeded in cultivating four wholly new apple varieties while interned in the Dachau concentration camp (his creations were named KZ-1, KZ-2, KZ-3, and KZ-4, the KZ short for Konzentrationslager). His apple drawings are juxtaposed with works by Mark Lombardi, an American conceptual artist who depicted the interconnections of the political and financial establishments in America in large-scale sociograms he called “Narrative Structures.” (Lombardi was found hanged in his apartment, an apparent suicide, after an accident at his Williamsburg studio destroyed much of his work.)
Though seemingly disparate, the inclusion of these historical works suggests at least one of the main conceptual moves at the heart of Documenta 13. And though they represent only a small fraction of the art on view, the idea of presenting the historical alongside the contemporary would have been anathema for a major art event even ten years ago. But these artifacts hint at the otherwise obscured philosophy of history set forth by this most historically loaded of contemporary art exhibitions.
Artistic director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev has written of four “conditions” informing her choice of works for Documenta 13 — stage, hope, siege, and retreat. It’s not clear what these conditions tell us about the exhibition as a whole, not least because they cannot all obtain in any single work, historical or contemporary. As regards the historical works in the Brain, for example, no more than two of these conditions — siege and hope — really pertain. But these artifacts are compelling because they transcend the jargon. Where the avant-garde always fixates on the new, reacting to the historical conditions of the present and/or recent past, the objects in the rotunda reveal the elective affinities between artworks and artifacts at a historical remove. The juxtaposition of Aignerian apples and Lombardian social network analysis, for example, uncovers both similar methods (typology) and objectives (oblique resistance).
This tells us something about intellectual history — about the constancy of certain ideas, about the recurrence of others. More, it points up the tangential and horizontal moves that history can make. (Vanguardists are necessarily focused on history’s vertical progressions.) Morandi, who painted the same thing over the course of three decades, is commemorated — alongside Dix, Beckmann, Soutine, Brecht, Picasso, and many others who suffered under European fascism — in a text work in Francis Alÿs’s storefront installation, Dedicated to the People of K (K here referring to the comparably traumatized cities of Kassel and Kabul, and also perhaps to the protagonist of Kafka’s The Castle). Mariam Ghani’s film A Brief History of Collapses portrays the parallel histories of the Fridericianum in Kassel and the Darulaman Palace in Kabul — casualties of war that have acquired new functions (as one of Europe’s first public museums and as a war tourism destination, respectively). The rotunda features Rudolf Kaesbach’s neoclassical sculpture Die Ausschauende, last seen in Hitler’s apartment, grouped with Man Ray’s Indestructible Object, a metronome whose arm bears the image of photojournalist Lee Miller’s eyeball, and Miller’s own Vogue magazine exposé on the dictator’s apartment, including her iconic self-portrait in Hitler’s bath. The lesson in all of this, in keeping with Man Ray’s title, is that art — as object, as practice, and as ideal — displays a rare talent for survival.
Documenta aspires to a kind of worldliness. This is most apparent in the establishment of other Positions (read: venues) besides time-honored Kassel: Kabul and Bamiyan in Afghanistan, Alexandria and Cairo in Egypt, Banff in Canada. These initiatives are animated, at least in the case of Afghanistan, by the idea that art might play some therapeutic or salutary role. But these expansions have generated only a few intelligent or purposeful works — Alÿs’s lovely film Reel-Unreel, about children in Kabul; Ghani’s digitization of the Afghan national film archive; Tacita Dean’s chalk drawings of the Hindu Kush (Fatigues). There is a disjuncture between the self-congratulatory rhetoric surrounding these ventures and the impact they are likely to have, either in Kassel, where Documenta-goers can’t help but feel excluded, or in Afghanistan. Unsurprisingly, art interventions are symptomatic of “humanitarian” interventions in general: benefits accrue disproportionately to the outsider-interveners. But we take the bad with the good. For worldliness is not absent at Documenta. To find it, however, does not require a trip to some far-flung Position. Just head to the Fridericianum and make your way into the Brain. Worldliness is there — amid Scarface and her sisters, in the meeting of Morandi and Asefi, Miller and Kaesbach, Lombardi and Aigner. Just give it some time.
Waiting to check in at the Grand Royal Hotel in Alexandria, I glanced over at a laptop on the coffee table next to me. The screensaver showed a photograph of a boy, about four years old, holding an enormous machine gun and smiling. The hotel was a tall narrow building with a blue glass exterior and neon lighting, a quiet shabbiness beneath its veneer of luxury. The staff appeared somewhat overwhelmed by the guests, most of them Libyans who had come to Egypt to be treated for ailments incurred during the recent conflict. Single men were sat apart from women and families at breakfast, due to some unfortunate “incidents,” one waiter explained. A few nights later, a male friend and I were cornered in the hotel elevator by a fifteen-year-old who demanded my room number, convinced by my foreign looks that I was a prostitute. His eyes were glassy and bright. A security guard who’d boarded the elevator with us stood mutely by, apparently powerless to do anything. I used my friend as a shield until the young man was dragged out of the elevator by two companions, who apologized on his behalf, laughing nervously. Inside the Grand Royal, a strange world — unacknowledged by those outside and beholden to a different set of rules — appeared to have grown up of its own accord.
A month later, I returned to the city for a weeklong series of events programmed for Documenta 13 by Cairo-based curator Sarah Rifky. The events were off-limits to the public; participation was restricted to those who had been invited to present, as well as students from the MASS Alexandria arts education program and a small group of art-world interlocutors, who served as our designated “chorus.” The proceedings were not without their own tensions; afterward more than one commentator referred to the seminar as “unhinged.” Ludicrously perhaps, the tenor of the event seemed to parallel my earlier experience at the Grand Royal. It struck me at the time as another fraught and claustrophobic microcosm produced, in part, by external forces but seemingly invisible to the rest of the world. A number of factors made for a sense of communal cabin fever, including a demanding schedule of events at sites of historical and cultural interest across the city, the limited size of the core group of participants, and the unrelenting summer heat. Outside, the people of Alexandria went about their lives, oblivious to the seminar’s intense exchanges. Inside, conventions of communication associated with the seminar format gave way to a series of missed opportunities, mistranslations and traded projections.
At times, this appeared merely a matter of miscommunication, well intentioned even, as participants spoke “at” or “through” one another. On the second day, philosopher Suely Rolnik showed up late to her own lecture at the Alexandria Contemporary Art Forum but made up it by apologizing charmingly for being bad at “switching temporalities” — that is, for taking a long time to wake up. She smoked an electric cigarette and delivered an interesting if dense lecture, establishing two possible “destinies” for a politics of desire and peppering her responses to questions from the audience with colorful denunciations of contemporary trends in philosophy and higher education. The discussion set out many of the terms and catchphrases (prominent among them bodily knowing, will to potency, affections, traces of other bodies in our body) that would become something of a refrain over the course of seminar, both in serious discussion and in-jokes about the “bodily knowing dance.” For the remainder of the week, Rolnik and others tended to recode everyone else’s contributions within this very specific vocabulary.
Halfway in, however, this dynamic took a turn for the worse, transformed by preconceived fantasies regarding the nature of contemporary politics, gender-relations, cultural practice, and poverty in Egypt, on the one hand, and fellow participants’ own motivations and frames of reference, on the other. The discussion came to a head in an unpleasant scene involving the students of MASS Alexandria, who had been originally recruited to introduce speakers and provide practical support for the visitors. Students in the audience were surrounded by video cameras, lights, and inquisitive faces; walked through “appropriate” ways of “speaking“ to visitors; grilled for their insights on Egypt’s famous eighteen-day uprising, and given advice on how to understand their experiences. The tone of the seminar remained much the same afterward, as participants demanded aesthetic and intellectual satisfaction from a context that had been deliberately excluded by the very nature of the closed sessions or remained out of reach, given the rather grim mood of the city and the faded institutions that had hosted us. The avowed desire for meaningful communication coupled with the misguided attempts at achieving this aim meant that the event wound up mirroring the tension, fatigue, and hostility of the country’s ongoing “transitional period.”
The original theme of the seminar had been “in a state of hope”: one of four conditions informing Documenta 13’s curatorial approach. But after the election of a member of the Muslim Brotherhood to the presidency a week prior to the start of the seminar, as well as regular outbreaks of violence around the country and the momentum of a by-then obvious counterrevolution, the organizers decided to rethink this approach. Hope was now the domain of the Brotherhood — which, having been outlawed for almost six decades, was now pushing forward a self-styled nahda or renaissance platform. Thus, “sleeping and dreaming” were substituted as the theme of the seminar. The first speaker, Moscow-based philosopher and activist Alexei Penzin, presented a survey of philosophical literature treating sleep, proposing sleep as a site of political subjectivity: “Maybe, instead of grasping this political state of affairs through images or metaphors of a somnolent body or its awakening, we should understand sleep politically and grasp then what is kept beyond all its metaphorical registers?” If the Muslim Brotherhood was promoting Egypt’s reawakening, we in the seminar were in a state of sleep — politically speaking, of course. The actual sleep slept by participants in the misleadingly named Cairo Seminar in Alexandria was fitful.
The change in theme signaled an abandonment of the progress-oriented nature of hope for an embrace of ahistorical disorientation. Another participant, art historian Angela Harutyunyan, saw the shift in seminar themes — and, especially, the shift in locations — as implying, despite itself perhaps, a “resignation and retreat” from the political. “This transition was not simply conceptual,” she wrote in a review some weeks later: “The often political and urban dystopia of Cairo was replaced by the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, where the northwesterly wind would inevitably disperse any political current that would dwell in the same place long enough to threaten to overtake the reality of the art event.” Nevertheless, the art event could not avoid being bracketed by the demands of waking life, which were often more surprising and dreamlike than our week of talks, performances, and screenings.
Back in Cairo, artist and seminar participant Anna Boghiguian was asked to speak at the seminar’s public wrap-up panel. She paused momentarily before delivering a commentary on Alexandria’s particular relationship to hope. Alexandria is a city of glorious renaissances and crushing defeats, she said. (And here I paraphrase from memory as, having descended into a moment of quiet desperation brought on by the unwelcome extension of the seminar, I was caught entirely off guard.) Today, when people smoke cheap, Egyptian-brand Cleopatra cigarettes, they are smoking that promise of Egypt’s renaissance. Those ruins, consumed by tourists or forgotten in plain sight — Pompey’s Pillar, the moldering villas — were sources of resentment, a betrayal that was best redeemed through inhalation, rolled up and smoked with grubby fingers. As I listened, I had the distinct feeling of looking at one of Anna’s drawings of the city with its charcoal vectors, traffic, and museum artifacts, stained with dirty fingerprints and cigarette ash. Perhaps she was suggesting a different model for hope that we’d all overlooked — one that manifests as a kind of violence toward what has already been effectively lost.
Soon after, the new governor of Alexandria — also a member of the Muslim Brotherhood — sent security services to destroy the famous booksellers’ market on El Nabi Daniel Street, frequented by students and those nostalgic for Alexandria’s celebrated “cosmopolitan” golden age. Burning books has not often been understood as a melancholic act. Yet I couldn’t help but wonder if that violence resonated locally in the terms Anna had described. Perhaps those used and yellowing pages represented something many people felt they had once loved or desired but had been taken from them or left to decay before their eyes.
Seminar organizers failed in their attempts to insulate the week’s proceedings from a pervasive sense of unease and antagonism. It’s not clear that it could have been any different, under the circumstances. Until there is evidence of deep-reaching, systemic change, people will continue scratching at, smudging, and running their hands and fingers over this ruined surface. And cultural events will likely continue to be rather dystopic affairs — fantasy-fueled, passive-aggressive, dreamlike — because there seems no way out, with panel participants and lecturers and artists chain-smoking cigarettes as though they could inhale the dirt off all those things they have been forced to forfeit.
By the time my companions and I arrived in Kassel, Documenta 13’s main venues were already closed. It was sometime after 6pm, and we had just enough time to duck into the Karlsaue Park, stumble past Robin Kahn’s makeshift refugee camp, and run by the mound of landscaping that made up Song Dong’s Do Nothing Garden — a designated area in which to “do nothing” and where people mostly diddled with their smartphones — before settling in to watch a riveting Euro Cup semifinal between Germany and Italy. A few minutes into the game, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the artistic director of Documenta 13, sat down next to our table in the Orangerie’s bar, sipped a cocktail, and discreetly rooted for the blue team on German turf. (She’s part Italian, after all.)
This iteration of Documenta, dispersed around the city of Kassel and four other satellite sites, featured works by more than two hundred artists, with additional participation from individuals drawn from the worlds of science and academia. In Kassel itself, the exhibition’s central meme was best captured by the “Brain,” a Wunderkammer-ish installation in the rotunda of the Fridericianum, bringing together a curious collection of artifacts, ephemera, and art objects ranging from ancient Bactrian Princesses to Lee Miller’s photographs of Hitler’s Munich apartment. In the Brain, there were also excerpts from the late Egyptian artist Ahmed Basiony’s videos of Tahrir Square, artifacts from Beirut’s National Museum that had been deformed by civil war, Vandy Rattana’s poignantly fantastic photographs of “bomb ponds” in Cambodia, and a Lawrence Weiner text piece obliquely proclaiming MIDDLE OF THE MIDDLE OF THE MIDDLE OF. In its own way, the Brain provided the keys to the exhibition, pointing to the show’s primary threads and themes with pieces drawn from multiple artistic traditions. (It would be disingenuous to cherry-pick favorites here; the Brain, like the exhibition at large, was by no means short of meaningful and moving art works.)
Taking cues from the works assembled in the Brain, sometimes referred to as the exhibition’s “miniature puzzle,” antique binaries such as nature and culture, Orient and Occident, animate and inanimate, art and science, rhizome and arborescence were discarded as obsolete. Everything — as in art and life — seemed to be blended into an organic, timeless mesh that, according to Christov-Bakargiev’s own text available on the D13 website, would have been unattainable given the constipated distance of a critical lens.
You might say “speculative turn” when it comes to this exhibition’s emphasis on reality, and you might be right. And yet, for the most part, the exhibition remained circumspect about its philosophical ambitions. In more ways than one, the show’s spurning of critical theory was actually refreshing, especially after a decade of turgid e-flux announcements and press releases thick with jargon and incomprehensible to both normal people and art-world insiders.
On the first full day of wandering around, we experienced Ryan Gander’s invisible intervention in the Fridericianum’s ventilation system: a steady breeze that blew through the museum as we waited in a long line to see the Brain. After, we ventured upstairs, where one of the most memorable exhibits in the show was on display — a series of apple drawings made by the Bavarian priest and activist Korbinian Aigner, who bred several new varieties while he was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. (A juice made from one of Aigner’s apple strains was available for sale at food stands around the exhibition bearing the credit line “concept by Christov-Bakargiev.”) On the second day, we started out from the city’s local commuter train station, the Hauptbanhoff, and watched The Radiant, the Otolith Group’s fascinating video on the necropolitics of post-Fukushima-nuclear-meltdown Japan, before moving on to the Ottoneum, Germany’s first theater building, now a natural history museum. It was on the way to Tacita Dean’s installation in a former tax office (delicate ephemeral chalk drawings of mountains of Afghanistan, secured from erasure by strict law enforcement) that we walked into Oberste Gasse, a former army hospital-turned-Chinese restaurant-turned-temporary Documenta venue.
One entered the exhibition space, which I first mistook for a decommissioned water closet, through a tiled entrance tattooed with Sharpies. (Later I learned this was once the restaurant’s kitchen.) I consulted the guidebook to realize that what I had just walked into was a gallery dedicated to works by Afghan artists, or rather Afghanistan (as it included works by a few non-Afghan artists who had worked, or lead workshops in that country). The graffiti kitchen, it turned out, was an artwork by the artist Abul Qasem Foushanji. It turned out that, in addition to its main campus in Kassel, Documenta 13 had annexed sites in Egypt, Canada, and Afghanistan (an unlikely trio, you might say). But the Afghans ended up clustered together in this demilitarized hospital. Here, the ceilings were low, the lighting was dim, and the works were choreographed and installed in such a way that they appeared at first glance to constitute a solo presentation. If there had been more places to sit, the whole thing could have easily passed for a slightly upscale ethnic restaurant.
Unlike Venice, Documenta has never been structured around national pavilions, so walking into one was particularly awkward. The space, which was quickly nicknamed the “Afghan Ghetto” — an appellation that, according to one eyewitness’s testimony, induced a heated exchange between Christov-Bakargiev and one of her curatorial “agents” during a public seminar staged in the Ständehaus during the exhibition’s opening week — managed to reinstitute all the tired representational clichés and cultural hierarchies that practitioners across the field of contemporary art (and other fields) have spent years trying to dismantle.
The installation, in its strange insistence on this critical mass, seemed to imply that Afghan artists can only speak in soliloquy. The grouping seemed to communicate, too, that these artists cannot possibly possess the artistic merits the rest of the Documenta participants, spread out as they are, do. Rather, they are hung side by side with a slideshow drawn from a Kabul digital photography workshop (a perfectly important project in and of itself, initiated by artist Masood Kamandy). Even works such as Jeanno Gaussi’s Family Stories, where the Afghan-born German artist commissioned the Kabul-based sign painter Ustad Sharif Amin to paint thirty images drawn from her family album before their immigration to Germany, were not offered a prominent space outside of the designated Afghan area. Yet it was Mexico City–based Mario Garcia Torres’s work on the first floor of the Fridericianum, the crème de la crème of all Documenta venues, that first introduced viewers to the exhibition’s persistent Afghan trope. Have You Ever Seen the Show? (2010), Garcia Torres’s poetic Chris Markeresque photo essay, chronicles the artist’s search for the late artist Alighiero Boetti’s now-mythic One Hotel in Kabul (see Bidoun #19). And as Boetti is one of the artistic director’s guiding lights through this Documenta journey, we visit Afghanistan via the personal experience of an Italian artist, a classic metonym for anthropological praxis.
In Kassel, Afghanistan — a country at war for three decades, ravaged by internal conflicts and foreign interventions of all kinds — is used as a prop, pointing to one of the artistic director’s four self-proclaimed “states of mind.” As such, Afghanistan in the world of D13 illustrated the state of being “under siege,” as described in this bullet point in the exhibition’s curatorial statement: “Under siege. I am encircled by the other, besieged by others.” The other three states of mind include “on stage (Kassel), in a state of hope (Egypt), on retreat (Banff, Canada).” Yes, and under siege Afghanistan is — but so is Syria, Tibet, Congo, Sudan, Yemen… . None of these places, however, had the distinction of occupying their own D13 venue. Why, you might ask, should one bother looking so far east? Or should Afghanistan shoulder the burden of representing all that is messed up in this world? In the mounds of essays and reviews on the subject of Documenta, most of them laudatory, not enough has been written about this peculiar section of the show.
It would no doubt be naive to suppose that the exhibition’s organizers were unaware of the problematics of such an approach. One could easily summon up potential theoretical arguments or philanthropic impulses behind the Afghan endeavor. When it comes to the former, it seemed that the exhibition aimed for a meta position, or a post-post position as one curator friend put it, with an argument along the lines of: If postcolonialism is forever ontologically Eurocentric with its institutional and discursive roots, and anticolonialism is too radical or derailed by extremism, this position is unburdened by ontological shackles and simply levels the uneven playing field of culture. As such, the sheer force of imagination and creativity, artistic or otherwise, brings Homo sapiens together with no hierarchies between place, person, and discipline. But then what justifies this discrimination between various creative outputs? Why in Kassel can we sit through lectures by heavyweights like Boris Groys and W.J.T. Mitchell (the list is thrilling) while the Afghan sessions offered workshops and presentations such as “Perspectives on the Art of Today,” or “Creating an Art Magazine: Testing the Grounds/Finding the Language”? Why couldn’t the so-called Afghan Ghetto enjoy the same breadth and space or the same high level of thought and sophistication that went into “the Brain”?
At the same time, the instinct to explore this Afghan state of mind may have been, not unlike a cultural NGO’s MO, imbued with a humanitarian motivation. A gesture of cultural diplomacy, Documenta 13, whose reported budget of more than 25 million euros hails from the German government, could count as a uniquely German contribution to Afghanistan’s nation-building in-progress.
Back at home in Los Angeles, I watched Letter to Jane (1972), the Dziga Vertov Group’s meditation on a single photograph born of Jane Fonda’s 1972 visit to Hanoi. Exploring the role of the intellectual in the struggle, the film analyzes the composition of the photograph, Fonda’s position in the frame vis-à-vis the Vietnamese, her facial expression and posture, and its presentation in the new global media. The filmmakers, Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, question Fonda’s motivations in visiting the country and posing for the camera. Then they self-reflexively ask whether “we risk doing them more harm than good by providing a good conscience for ourselves in such a cheap way.” Visiting Afghanistan via Kassel some forty years later, the question remains an urgent one.
Slavs and Tatars: Beyonsense
Museum of Modern Art
August 15–December 10, 2012
Legend has it that during his tenure as curator of the Museum of Natural History in New York, the anthropologist Franz Boas liked to chain hefty catalogs to the displays. There was no other labeling — if you wanted to find out what you were looking at, you had to find the relevant entry in the book and read up on it. Imperiously academic, perhaps, but it did offer the viewer a clear choice between a primarily visual experience and one based on reading and looking in equal measures. The Museum of Modern Art, however, has never demanded much reading of its audience, hewing close to a history of modernism that privileges looking over reading even when the work’s medium is text. But several recent MoMA shows have smuggled language out of the library and into the gallery, through projects that demand understanding of their textual basis if one is to grasp their contours. Beyonsense, the Slavs and Tatars’ first solo show at a US institution, attempts just such a balancing act.
Form is still an important lure, and the objects that make up Beyonsense have a punchy appeal of their own. The installation is divided into two areas by a curtain of rugs, with a museum-style display outside and a darkened reading room within. The three glass cases outside hold bizarre juxtapositions that could easily hold their own in the Surrealist galleries: a wooden cucumber on an bookstand draped with embroidery (A Dear for the Dear), a turban made of wheat placed next to a brick (Wheat Mollah), and a row of neatly skewered books (Kitab Kebab, all 2012). The book titles (on mystical Islam and Russian folklore) give clues as to the collective’s interests, while a striped branch hanging near the ceiling, covered like a shrine relic with cloth ties, adds another: Long Live the Syncretics refers to the history of religious melding that informs the research at the heart of the show. The exhibition’s name, Beyonsense, is a playful translation of the Russian Futurist concept of zaum, or the transrational. And so, Slavs and Tatars offer up a poetic approach that aims to reveal the sensory, incommensurable aspects of language.
Beyond the wall of carpets is the dark room they have elsewhere referred to as a “psychedelic Muslim library.” The subject here is a single letter, or more accurately, a phoneme (which also forms the title of their 2012 book): Khhhhhh, that throat-constricting sound common to a number of languages, among them Russian, Hebrew, and Arabic. The letters are cartoonishly drawn hands on a white-tiled platform (Kha-Kha-Kha) with a fountain spurting murky red liquid (Reverse Joy) surrounded by carpeted benches where the artist books are chained, Boas-style, to the seats. Two large mirrors decorate the space, one announcing “MOTHER TONGUES & FATHER THROATS” (Kha Giveth), the other featuring a diagram of a mouth inscribed with letters based on their pronunciation (Kha Taketh Away, all 2012).
The effect of the dim room is relaxing, disarming even. But once you squint through the lurid light and begin to read the books, a more strident argument takes shape. The disparate objects create a visual constellation of ideas, a mise-en-scène for an alternative history of modernity that drew its inspiration from mysticism rather than rational utopianism. The green neon light that suffuses the space, for example, is an installation inspired by a minimalist installation by Dan Flavin created for the Masjid al-Farah (known as “the Dia mosque”; see Bidoun #23), one of the many “mystical episodes” within canonical modernity that footnotes these objects.
It is tempting to give in to the circuitous byways offered by Slavs and Tatars’ texts — to understand their work through the funhouse of hidden histories, etymological coincidences, and sociopolitical texts and subtexts that dot their somewhat attention-deficit narratives. Stories form the body of the work and its many manifestations: books, multiples, lecture-performances, guest presentations, and even, in this case, a children’s drawing session organized by the art space Forever & Today, which featured a tiny installation of melon-shaped lamps (Never Give Up the Fruit) in their downtown storefront, a point of departure for another story involving fruits, kidnapped princesses, and even political Islam.
It is also tempting to fault their work for failing to be either research or art proper — for raising serious sociopolitical questions without doing the academic spadework needed to support them. (This charge is frequently made upon the “research-based” art of the past decade.) But neither definition can truly fit Slavs and Tatars’ multi-tentacled approach: ultimately, the goal of Beyonsense is neither argument nor commentary nor interpretation. Strewn like so many exhibits in a modernist-Oriental murder mystery (say, Alain Robbe-Grillet meets Orhan Pamuk), the quasi-coherent juxtapositions of historic fact and chatty trivia are organized not for clarity but for a perverse poetic truth. Research is less driven by a hypothesis than by curiosity, and that voracious curiosity is what lingers after the details have been forgotten.
There are dangers, of course, to open-ended curiosity. The wooden cucumber of A Dear for the Dea may aspire to invoke Eastern hospitality and fructiferous myth (explained extensively and hilariously in one of their books), but it also looks like a dildo on a Quran stand. The risk is less blasphemy than easy access: the work could be dismissed as another exotic sound bite, the artists’ insistence on the dark and subversive side of their strategically lowbrow means notwithstanding. Misunderstanding is clearly a strategy they have embraced in its productive as well as perilous possibilities. You might say what they lose in clarity they gain in agility, a nimble scrambling through histories that might not be reconcilable through conventional means.
Taken as an experiential whole, the knowledge offered by Beyonsense is less a linear study of causes and effects than a proposition for a more intuitive understanding of the world: an invitation to learning that winks from a place just beyond the limits of our comprehension, all the more seductive for its combination of enthusiasm and inaccessibility. Texts, images, and objects entice the viewer toward an unforeseen, if not entirely unlikely, place where minimalism and mysticism just might make sense together, where a guttural khhhhh connects disparate histories of art, faith, and politics. The most hospitable home for these oblique statements may well be an art gallery, where the emphasis on seeing over reading means that they can be taken together or independently, as visual or verbal poetry. It’s a delicate balancing act, but one that Beyonsense pulls off, not through the persuasiveness of its arguments, but through its faith in the intuition and interest of its audience.
Memoirs of an Al-Ahram Journalist
By Sabah Hamamou
On the afternoon of February 11, 2011, I watched a presenter from Egyptian state television extend his microphone carefully through the barbed wire barricade that had been erected around the iconic Radio and TV Building on the banks of the Nile in central Cairo. Hundreds of protesters had been gathered outside since the previous evening — following Hosni Mubarak’s announcement that he would not, as everyone anticipated, be stepping down — and the presenter, with affable condescension, asked them what “mistakes” they might like their publicly financed broadcasters to correct.
Egyptian state television had spent the last eighteen days spreading incendiary, highly exaggerated, and at times even staged reports about the by-then vast protests. (One such report featured a “protester,” her features obscured, confessing to having received training from sundry nefarious foreign organizations. She turned out to be a journalist at a state newspaper.) The message of the gathered citizens to the government’s mouthpiece was straightforward: stop lying. The strange exchange — state television suddenly allowing for live discussion of its own shortcomings — strongly indicated that the end might just be near.
It also should have been a warning as to how superficial and speedy a volte-face Egypt’s state media was about to take. The next day, the flagship national newspaper, Al-Ahram (which on the first day of protests ran a front-page story about political unrest in… Lebanon), splashed a huge picture of rejoicing protesters across its top fold, accompanied by the misty headline: “The People Brought Down the Regime.”
In the nearly two years since the Egyptian uprising set off on January 25, 2011, Egypt’s publicly subsidized media has shed a few compromised top editors, offered a few lukewarm mea culpas, and rushed to declare itself “reformed.” There is certainly more real news published in the pages of Al-Ahram today than there has been in decades, at least in part because so much more is happening; because some journalists there have taken advantage of new energy and openings; and because public criticism and competition from private news outlets has curbed the state media’s worst tendencies.
And yet, amid the chaos, political power plays, and continuing protests that have followed Mubarak’s ouster, state media has struggled to find its editorial line, not unlike a shaky sailboat looking to settle into the prevailing wind. Employees stormed the offices of editors-in-chief. For months, at the state TV building itself, protesters made the lobby ring with songs and chants and papered the hallways with revolutionary fliers and indictments of higher-ups. And yet, these groups calling for change tended to be a miserable minority, and the army generals who took over after Mubarak were not at all interested in media reform. Today, it is clear that the fundamental ethos of outlets like Al-Ahram remains identification with the state and with whoever might be in power. The national media, for example, never criticized the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces or reported with any honesty on the breathtaking army abuses against protesters. They never printed or broadcast the images that swept the internet and defined, for many, military rule: the bodies of protesters being dragged to the curb like so much trash, the “girl in the blue bra,” half stripped and dragged on the ground as a soldier delivered a formidable series of kicks to her solar plexus.
In the dog days following Mubarak’s ouster, hundreds of journalists at Al-Ahram signed a petition apologizing for the manner in which the newspaper covered the eighteen days of protest; the paper’s senior management refused to publish it. The petition’s fate is just one of the many incidents covered in a new book by Sabah Hamamou, an Al-Ahram business reporter who started out nearly twenty years ago as an idealistic teenage intern but has emerged, post-revolution, as an impassioned critic and would-be reformer (full disclosure: Hamamou is also an old friend of this writer). The self-published Yawmeyat suhafeya fil Ahram (Memoirs of an Al-Ahram Journalist) is a rare glimpse into the dizzying dysfunction of Egypt’s historic national newspaper, but also the government’s hulking and recalcitrant institutions generally.
Before the revolution, state media’s most endearing quality may have been its ability to inspire a joke. (An old one went: “Eh el akhbar?” — meaning “What’s the news?” but also riffing on the name of state daily Al Akhbar. “Zey el ahram,” was the answer — “Like Al-Ahram” — government papers’ propaganda being indistinguishable). During the uprising, it was a scandal; the abolition of the Ministry of Information quickly became a top item on the protesters’ list of demands. Now it is a widely recognized problem, but one that no one has the guts, vision, or principle to tackle.
To be fair, the task is daunting. The Al-Ahram headquarters sit on the apocalyptically busy Galaa Street in downtown Cairo, two massive office towers connected by a suspended walkway, with their warehouses and printing presses extending in the alleys behind them — “a state within a state,” as Hamamou calls them. With their maze of seemingly endless corridors and offices, their own fleet of cars, subsidized cafeteria and pharmacy, they are bastions of nepotism and sluggish self-interest.
Judging from Hamamou’s book, the biggest problem with Al-Ahram today (and one suspects, with most public institutions in Egypt) is the people who staff it. The newspaper reportedly has about nine-hundred journalists and, as Hamamou helpfully points out, the vast majority of them have been hired due to family connections or political loyalties. The children of Al-Ahram journalists are more or less guaranteed jobs at the paper: jobs in foreign-language supplements, although they don’t speak the languages in question; jobs to which they show up five hours a week; jobs that come with measly official salaries but sizable monthly bonuses. The once venerable newspaper is calcified by decades of nepotistic accretion and squatted by various familial, regional, and political tribes who view it as their own personal preserve.
It is a small wonder that Hamamou’s escalating public criticism has been met with indignation and anger by many of her colleagues who accuse her of betraying and embarrassing the paper. “You’re taking the food from people’s mouths,” and “Does anyone respectable take their home’s problems outside?” are some of the remarks she faced — even before her book’s appearance — for exposing corrupt practices at the paper and pushing for reform. (This is to say nothing of a scurrilous campaign featuring anonymous notes accusing her of illicit financial gains under Mubarak.) Memoirs of an Al-Ahram Journalist was given a small, studiously neutral mention in Al-Ahram itself. Hamamou considers her career at the newspaper more or less over; she says she is on an unsolicited “sabbatical” at the moment.
Meanwhile, through anecdote-rich chapters that move both chronologically (through her career) and geographically (through the offices of the newspaper), Hamamou vividly conveys just how inefficient and devastatingly out-of-touch the overstaffed paper is, so much so that she compares entering its main editorial room to time-traveling, albeit always to the same point in time.
“I’ve been absent from the editorial room at wide intervals,” she writes, “because of travel or illness or other reasons, but the nice thing about the editorial room is that no matter how long you leave it when you return you find the fragrance of history and the old, eternal, continuing problems” — television screens “hanging on the right side in darkness and silence, for I have never seen one of them on since the day I set foot in the room in 2004,” and “the piles of dust settled on the keyboards as they were, or a little increased.”
When this reviewer visited the room described above in the months after Mubarak’s ouster, she saw brand-new Apple desktop computers (some still in their wrapping) but was shocked to realize that the aging errand boys carrying sheets of paper to ancient dumbwaiters were delivering copy to the main editorial desk. The paper is still laid out — and most of its articles are still written — by hand.
As recently as 2008, Hamamou writes, there were two computers for the forty journalists in her department. Most of them brought their own laptops to work, which raised another set of challenges, since the offices weren’t set up to allow journalists to connect to the Internet or to print their work. (This, while senior editors and managers made millions of pounds, particularly care of the paper’s extensive advertising department).
Hamamou dedicates an entire chapter to a fruitless attempt to print a one-page article. When she finally is able to obtain a printer cable from one office and the permission to use the printer in another, she is unable to find a blank sheet of paper. Her odyssey is strikingly reminiscent of a scene in Sonallah Ibrahim’s masterful skewering of the moral collapse of Egyptian society, Zaat, in which a simple bureaucratic errand also devolves into nightmarish existential farce. In fact there are quite a few figures in Hamamou’s exposé who would make great minor characters in a literary satire, such as the politically connected advertising executive who gets transferred to an editorial position, crafts his own title (“assistant to the editor of Al-Ahram”) and spends his days perusing the obituaries while on the phone with his wife, discussing to whom it might be useful to send a telegram of condolences.
It’s the details that help us understand the at-once bland and dizzying complexity of bureaucracies. According to Hamamou, at Egypt’s premier state newspaper there is no internal phone registry and many still do not use email regularly. Reporters work for years, sometimes decades, for a pittance before finally achieving their much-sought-after “appointment,” a lifelong perch in the public bureaucracy. Meanwhile, employees are trained not to rock the boat. There are no clear editorial guidelines (just a mission statement that lists as the paper’s first goal protecting “national security”). Conflicts of interest are ignored; plum assignments are handed out to favorites; articles are suppressed and bylines dropped according to opaque and unchallengeable codes. One imagines that years of these carrot-and-stick routines must inculcate a craven hive mentality into all but the most stubborn reporters.
Penned in a confidential, colloquial style, Hamamou’s book is part of a wave of recent writing by new voices, often those of younger women, on subjects that are personal and traditionally circumscribed (such as Ghada Abdel Aal’s hit I Want to Get Married, about the indignities of the marriage market). It is also reminiscent of bureaucratic exposés such as Tawfiq Al Hakim’s Diary of a Country Prosecutor or renegade feminist Nawwal El-Saadawy’s early work. But the fact that Hamamou couldn’t secure a publisher, and that her book hasn’t received the attention one might expect given its topicality, may point to a discomfort, which extends well beyond the state media, with real muckraking.
While there is much comedy in Memoirs of an Al-Ahram Journalist, it is generally dark. The genuine frustration and disgust of an ambitious reporter, who knows that something is awry and that her chance at a meaningful career is slipping by her, is never far from the surface. In a climactic scene late in the book, Hamamou describes a violent argument that breaks out between younger journalists and their senior editors on February 12. Hamamou found herself yelling at the paper’s well-known columnists and senior managers, who were coolly running an editorial meeting, that they should make room for those who participated in the revolution. She writes that she felt “as if I was delivering the revolt of a whole generation against an old generation that silenced us for long years and occupied all the spots and podiums and words and stuck us in the deep freezer, just as they stuck articles not fit to print in the drawer.”
At Al-Ahram and elsewhere, gerontocracy rules. But that hasn’t always been the case. Hamamou points out that the paper was founded, in 1857, by two Lebanese brothers in their twenties. The famous Nasser-era journalist Mohammed Hassanein Heikal was only thirty-four when he became an editor there. This is inconceivable today, when reporters in their forties are still classified as shabaab (”kids”) and told they’ll get their own columns only “when they get some white hairs.”
Hamamou’s own story — her frustration, her “disloyalty,” the blog she set up a month before the January 25 revolution, her tell-all book — are all part of a new cultural and media landscape in which some younger journalists refuse to play by the Mubarak-era rules and where online news and the many new private newspapers and satellite channels threaten to render the old state media obsolete.
Many journalists there know this, yet attempts to propose and implement reforms have foundered. In the heady days of February 2011, Hamamou attended a meeting of dissatisfied journalists. The meeting, she writes, was “charged, full of years of silence about many incorrect practices, full of accusations and attempts to push in many directions. It ended with few results, in a general atmosphere of frustration, because the attendees couldn’t agree on a clear mechanism to organize their activity. Everyone wanted to talk, everyone wanted to complain and propose ideas, or draw attention to an issue he or she considered important, while absolutely no one suggested a mechanism for work, maybe because the whole country was looking for a way. So they unburdened themselves, threw their frustration at the room’s ceiling and left.”
The cycle of patronage and sycophancy can be broken only by undoing the existing system — creating an independent board to oversee state media, setting clear standards for appointments and hires, crafting editorial policies that guarantee papers’ independence, and passing new laws that protect journalists’ freedom of speech. None of that looks likely to happen anytime soon. Despite railing against the official media for decades, the Muslim Brotherhood has made its own appointments to the state newspapers. Papers that were distinctly anti-Brotherhood during the presidential elections have already changed their tune. The pandering, state-owned magazine October, known for its lurid covers, led the charge with a memorable cover featuring President Mohamed Morsi as a jockey riding a leaping horse and the title “The Revolution Takes Off.”