A young man sits in the last of the downtown cafés that serve both ahwa sada (Turkish coffee) and beer, putting back Egypt’s own version of the latter (Stella) and taking in his surroundings. This is Hassan Khan and this is Cairo — a city marked by the occasional money-laundering sheikh, Prada hippies sipping Italian coffee at the American University, polyester-ed civil servants who swear by Sonallah Ibrahim (Egypt’s Kafka), and the ever-present, meticulously sifted refuse dump. Contradictions and hypocrisies abound as little is transparent or one-dimensional in this city of theatrical, oft-exaggerated proportions. Khan’s particular un-vision of Cairo defies prevailing representations — whether romantic Flaubertian images of the Orient or equally seductive images of extremism that figure prominently in Fox News-isms. His audio-visual and performative work deals with neither the veil nor the legacy of colonialisms. His art reveals nothing about his status as a Young Arab, nor a Contemporary African (he just turned down Africa Remix to tour the Pompidou Center and the Hayward Gallery among other blue-chip venues), a Post Modern Southern Male, or an Americanized Youth for that matter — despite the ceaseless labeling tendencies of the international Art Market in which he has quickly found his place as a rising star.
It is the force of the city that is a central preoccupation of Khan’s. He perceives the power it holds in structuring lives, framing narratives, positioning identities. But rather than contesting that power, he taps into it, explores its nuances, exploits it — in as far as he can exploit something that is in turn exploiting him every minute of the day. Sitting through any one of Khan’s video installations, one is immediately involved — never as a passive recipient, but rather as an active participant in the propagation of the very representational systems Khan is exposing. In this neighborhood, everything is loaded. Public media is potentially dirty, deceptive, catering to a grand mandate designed by invisible Thems. Cities are replete with institutions charged with production and dissemination, while subversiveness is the rule of thumb — embedded within the architecture of place and intimately linked to the powers that be. Khan invites his audiences to realize the disseminating potential of the mediums that he employs (video, sound, performance), while he makes it clear that he manipulates them in the same manner that they are in fact manipulating you.
Enter i am a hero/you are hero (1999), Khan’s ode to notions of heroism within the city — both of the official and unofficial variety. Quotidian stolen moments — a man watching lions at the zoo, a soldier at the October war panorama, two veiled girls shopping and looking at mannequins, a teenager going to the cinema and a man working out at the gym — are placed in the wider context of state-sponsored notions of heroism, therefore both a rigid nationalism and the good citizen template that is presented care of Official Channels. Khan’s suspension of a hammer in the middle of the exhibition concretizes the reality of the viewer’s presence within that particular space, in that particular city, through its simple insistence on the tangible. Whether the viewer will take up Khan’s veiled offer to go beyond the frame of that institution, that set of agendas, remains up in the air.
Interestingly, Khan first presented hero at the Gezira Arts Centre in Cairo, an “official space” under the mandate of the Ministry of Culture — and thus part of a system that has its own brand of heroism, Important Art, and the like.
Indeed in the context of his native Egypt — a country in which the divide between the official art realm (i.e. the purveyance of the Ministry and company) and the Independent Others is significant (though admittedly exaggerated at times to suit certain interests) — Khan resists categorization. His works are as at home in the halls of the Ministry as they are in the city’s independent spaces. While he acknowledges that the state art realm is at times ideological and intimately linked to questions of politics and the propagation of certain privileged identities, he also recognizes the potential wealth within — once their halls are infiltrated (his own militaristic term).
Last year, Khan performed tabla dubb (2002) throughout Cairo—an audio-visual piece built around a foundational element in popular Egyptian music (the tabla), and featuring both the spoken word and the projection of images connected to the city (from President Mubarak making a brief debut to shots of towering, baroque high rises). Venues included the semi-official Film Palace, the very official Cairo Book Fair (sandwiched between a ’70s nationalist singer and a really bad poet, Khan was questioned as to the nature of the brain damage he was inflicting), the American University, and even a dilapidated working garage in the city’s dusty downtown mechanics district. In the latter venue, well-heeled gallery-going audiences mixed with car mechanics, students of the state’s official art colleges and even a group of critics from Art in America and the New York Times who had just taken part in a panel discussion at the nearby Townhouse Gallery of contemporary art. The pounding rhythm of the tabla and the scale of the imagery projected onto a screen suspended in the middle of the space seemed to level distinctions of class and place, even if for a moment — rare in a city as stratified as Cairo yet fitting given Khan’s own intention to destabilize prevailing notions of self in relation to the urban topography. While he has performed tabla dubb in cities across the world, from Stockholm to Beirut, he insists that the work means little if not performed at the source, as it were.
In a related vein, Khan’s Reading the Surface: 100 faces, 6 locations and 25 questions (2001), collapses identity and geography through the exploration of discourse generating-centers: the mall, a football stadium, a mosque, a currency exchange and a Mercedes showroom. Presented in five separate rooms, 100 portraits of individuals from within the city are projected onto a wall against an aerial shot of the city, with each person stating where they make their home within a heterogeneous, hyper-stratified urban space. The banality of questions Khan poses to subjects in an adjoining projection (How do you know the person in front of you is weaker or stronger than you? Why do you live where you live? What is money?) tends to abstract his subjects into social products, codified by their consumption patterns and geographic placement, while in another space audio repetitions from public discourse (love songs, political speeches, religious sermons and the like) fade in and out of range. In the end, the exhibition space itself becomes part and parcel of the identity-making processes within as the viewer is himself confronted with questions while being simultaneously projected onto the screen — a meta-experiment in the politics of self-representation.
While Khan resists the persistent rubric of video-artist, his work inevitably raises questions internationally with regard to the place of video in the Middle East. Most notably, are there others like him? While video in Egypt may not have been as pervasive as it has been in other countries in the region (Palestine, Lebanon), it is increasingly making inroads as a vehicle for self-expression. Importantly, the Middle East has long had a problematic, oft-contentious relationship with photography and visual representation at large since little of the early body of visual documentation of the region was born at the hands of a homegrown Gaze. Perhaps a legacy of the picture postcard, there remains a narrow, particular definition of what is worthy of representation. Khan’s photograph of an unsmiling, turbaned Upper Egyptian (as it happens, the subject was Indian, but in the sometimes myopic context of Egypt, he qualified as a simple Egyptian) was forcibly removed from a public bus last spring in a project curated by Mai Abu Eldahab. Rather than a simple (and far less time/resource intensive) vandalization, the culprit bothered to forcibly bring down the large-scale placard, as if to say that representation of this kind will not happen here.
And so while the region’s experience has been marked by the use of the camera as a fetishizing tool of the Occident, narrowing its gaze to the photogenic, Khan and his contemporaries, from Akram Zaatari in Beirut to Alexandria-based artist Wael Shawky, have moved beyond such parochial frameworks. Their use of the camera, while well-informed by those historic tropes, represents a paradigm shift of sorts.
But what of the image and its historic relationship to representation(s), independent of national boundaries? In 2002, Khan debuted Transmission at Paris’s Poste de Louvre, a three-channel video installation in which inhabitants of one city (Paris) are confronted with the reality of inhabitants of another (distant) city (Cairo). Projected onto screens installed within the post office were images of Cairo at the margins — where the urban becomes desert, or vice versa. Intermittent self-portraits of Egyptians taken with a hand-held camera broke up the static landscapes, while in the backdrop, a series of statements are whispered — nothing short of existential in their frustrating open-endedness. Here, within a site of hyper-commerce, and global exchange (the post office), Khan brought into question constructions of geographical Other(s) in our surrounds, exposing the possibility of self-representation in the no-man’s land of transitional space (the desert/urban margin) and its relation to dominant representational methods at large, such as the studio portrait, the television screen, the picture postcard, the stamp.
Perhaps more than anything, Transmission was an attempt at fashioning an organic vision of the city — an attempt to unhinge dominant paradigms that firmly place the camera as a threatening representational tool, a system of dominance. For his part, Khan deems the work a subtle attempt at imploding predetermined relationships. Since the Poste de Louvre, he has installed the work in Barcelona, Bolzano, Lyon and Rotterdam — doubtlessly creating additional novel relationships between incongruous spaces.
When asked about the alleged democratic nature of video and the camera at large, Khan attacks me for (naively) using such a “destabilized and loaded” term as democracy (I should have known better, acknowledging Said’s Culture and Imperialism and remembering that we do live in the Middle East). Regardless, Khan once offered that it was the absence of a rigid art history behind the video medium that further renders it a potentially powerful, accessible tool for both artists and audiences. And there is little question as to the power of the television in Egypt, its ubiquity (every coffee shop and living room in the city) and the prevalence of its overwhelmingly soap-operatic codes. Khan calls it the baroque of image culture, and having watched hours of melodramatic Ramadan serials that put Mexican soaps to shame, it is hard not to agree.
Back at Horreya, the downtown café at which we began, televisions flicker at dazed, red-eyed sheesha smokers. Here Khan is creating scenarios for his next project: a solo exhibition at Galerie Crousel in Paris in September featuring a number of past works, a new wall text/image piece, as well as a yet unnamed new video piece. While he is not forthright about details (the project is still in progress), he does admit that this work will be about a process rather than latent meanings therein. His four-channel video installation will feature a number of fictionalized narratives — scenes from a non-film — with no apparent connection between them. And so a businessman wakes up in his posh Zamalek apartment and reads nine quotations from the book of quotations, foreign tourists stand on a Cairo street against a blue-screen background — as if surrounded by black halos — Attaba street sellers cry out their wares, ships flow through the Suez canal, and Egyptian actors play foreigners on Egyptian TV, accents and all. Khan asks us to resist the temptation to make connections between the sequences, to categorize, to discern, i.e. young Arab male simultaneously decries the legacy of imperialism (Suez reference) and makes judgments with regard to morality and commerce (the book of quotations, the posh surrounds). Instead, he asks audiences to throw away their Art History, their gallery-savvy born of hours of pounding Chelsea pavement and perhaps most importantly, their conceptions of Self. Instead, engage with this moment — because it will only last that long.