Stopping for Death

John Haber
in New York City

Wael Shawky and Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook

Is death a mere puppet show? Perhaps nothing else can explain nearly two centuries of brutal, senseless war. For Wael Shawky, the Crusades truly are a puppet show, but of an unanticipated poignancy and epic scale. And for Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook just blocks away, quite another new-media encounter between East and West begins and ends with death, only in the classroom and with actual corpses. First, though, the puppets and their masters.

Popes, kings, and at least one charismatic preacher channeled piety, fear, discontent, and demands for religious reform into eight campaigns to conquer the Holy Land, only the first a fleeting triumph and one more hopeless than the last. Even at first, the greatest victories came to leaders more concerned for their own stake in a changing Europe and the Near East. Arabs in turn channeled bitterness into xenophobia and divisions within the Islamic world. Wael Shawky's Cabaret Crusades (MoMA PS1, 2015)As the Byzantine Empire came to an end, the puppet show continued, with the desperate and forgotten still all too ready for war. In the end, Constantinople lay in ruins, but the invaders had tasted the Mediterranean world, and lives would never be the same again. The early Middle Ages was giving way to burgeoning cities and nation states, while Turks asserted their newfound power and religious fervor in the east.

Shawky's Cabaret Crusades runs from Avignon to the siege of Constantinople, with stops in Antioch, Aleppo, Baghdad, Jerusalem, and ever so much more. Its videos purport to show the Crusades through Arab eyes, building on the work of Amin Maalouf, a Lebanese historian, but even that sells them short. They do not shy away from the fear and trembling of Crusaders or the ruthlessness of Arab against Arab. Much of the last details the split between Shi'ite and Sunni that persists in all its militancy today. Ultimately, though, the work's power lies not in the breadth of the epic but the intimacy of compassion. And the division that matters is between the self-interest of rulers and the lives so readily sacrificed along the way.

Death as a puppet show

The temporal and cultural scope of Cabaret Crusades appears right off in the puppets for the three videos, rich in their costumes and finery. The Horror Show Files, on the First Crusade, adopts marionettes fashioned two hundred years ago in Italy—ones that Wael Shawky found languishing in a basement in Turin. The Path to Cairo, on the unsettling aftermath of that Crusade, involves more than a hundred ceramic figures, newly cast in France. The Secrets of Karbala, named for a Shi'ite stronghold in present-day Iraq, has glass puppets inspired by African art in the Met. The texture of fired clay lends faces a fragile, grisly reality, while glass merges the human with the animal. Yet neither procession, in display cases on the way in, prepares one for the vivid humanity that they assume in video.

A puppet show, the museum suggests, softens the horror or the Egyptian artist's point of view with its "lightheartedness." Do not believe that for an instant. Puppets necessarily move awkwardly, but so here do ordinary lives. One might smile at a warrior's demand for the location of the "true cross," or he will "sever your extremities"—but only because of the cringe-worthy nature of ideology and war. One might delight in the tinkle of a rod against glass, but it resounds with the frailty of human flesh. That the puppets survive at all as museum pieces is this Crusade's only miracle.

Also on display are models for fortifications and cities, black to one side and white to the other. Their outlines have their own austere beauty. Another room has dark flags as props for Arabs and Crusaders, in cloth, tar, and pigment shot through with wire—more like contemporary abstraction, as in past shows of "Iranian Modern" and "Iran Inside Out," than traditional Islamic art and art of the Arab lands. (A room for drawings is less convincing.) They, too, take on a greater immediacy on video, accompanied by dialogue and music that draws on East and West. Scenes play out against cities of real but uncertain depth, shrouded in mist and lit by torches.

Villains are easy enough to find. Eleanor of Aquitaine displays a nasty certainty of her worth, while Arab leaders display a particular readiness to put others to death, from beheadings to roasting alive. Confessions of sins that a god could not possibly forgive quickly become excuses for intolerance and violence. Shawky shies away from the battle scenes of a Hollywood epic, leaving each blow to resonate in its cruelty. Still, even the most treacherous actors may appear lost. Peter the Hermit, whose alleged mistreatment on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem provided a pretext for war, stumbles on his way to nowhere.

Much more, though, one comes to know the forgotten. Key names appear on-screen, in English and Arabic, but who could possibly absorb them? The second video concludes with a lone figure fallen to the ground in exhaustion or prayer, the last with boats at sea, their flickering lights reflected in water. An Arab pleads in vain for tolerance of all faiths, if only the invaders will come in peace. One voice after another wonders when the heavens or armies will bring support. Hearts are with you, a doomed figure learns, but swords are against you.

Few will take in all three and a half hours of video in three separate rooms. One can try jumping back and forth between them, but then one has to tear oneself away. The length corresponds to Shawky's "micro" version of history, a viewpoint that has become common since Fernand Braudel in France first mapped The Structures of Everyday Life. It also corresponds to the experience of so many of the actors, uncertain of a place or an ending. How, one asks, can a campaign that struck such fear collapse in a matter of days? It seems only right that the First Crusade reaches Jerusalem in darkness.

Death as a lecture hall

Want to know the meaning of life? Consider asking the dead. Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook does, although she does much of the talking. Standing at a chalkboard, she delivers singsong platitudes to half a dozen corpses draped in white sheets on the floor. This being a modern classroom, though, she desperately wants it to be interactive—lecturing and reading, sure, like Joseph Beuys at a blackboard or Gary Hill in his pioneering new media, but also pleading, questioning, pacing, hectoring, leaving it ever so uncertain what she knows. Suffice it to say, her audience is either unmoved or rapt.

Plainly Rasdjarmrearnsook cannot stop for death. While Class began as a single video, it now runs to three channels, as part of a modest but busy retrospective at SculptureCenter, its first solo show since the Center's renovation. She found the bodies in a mortuary because they had no loved one to claim them, and their different arrangements on each monitor calls that much more attention to death's uncanny presence. In a ghostly projection on the floor, she fusses again with death, in the form of piled fabrics. Is she covering and recovering a still frailer body? And is her taking of the dead an act of compassion, defacement, or fear?

It is by no means mere egotism, although the artist, like Rirkrit Tiravanija from Thailand, is never more than a step outside her art. An unhealthy number of vials and bottles set on pedestals hold remnants of life or death, such as human hair, that might well be hers. In Chelsea, she even displays an operation on her back, on TV within a vintage cabinet. She has become just as obsessed with her dog as well. She photographs it, bases sculpture on it, runs beside it in slow motion, and stars with it in a video about stray dogs and animal rights. If only for a moment, she has set aside death.

One has to be wary of art about the meaning of life and cute dogs, and Rasdjarmrearnsook does raise suspicions. Even when she enters an asylum to give voice to the insane, she willingly courts objections. The isolated figures, in stark but blurry images on separate walls, can easily blend together. One can barely make out their stories, given their inability to speak fully for themselves. They become incoherent or even boring. They are harrowing all the same.

Almost everything in her art stops just short of coherence, because it thrives in that space between compassion, comedy, and fear. Sometimes it gets there only in the retelling, as with a performance piece in which she faked pregnancy on her return to work. Sometimes it never gets there at all. I never did figure out another video, with tiny figures moving through an open field. Perhaps only with the dead is Rasdjarmrearnsook both unsettling and funny, and there she faces a particularly challenging audience. So what if she also holds center stage?

All along, her art asks about the distance between herself and others. Apart from Class, that theme comes across most vividly in a video in which she does not appear at all. It does, though, involve life, death, a prototypical feminist, and an artist with virtually the patent on calling attention to himself. In a Thai temple, a monk delivers yet another lecture, this time to a living audience and this time about art. One easel holds a reproduction of Judith Beheading Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi, the other a photo of Jeff Koons and scantily clad women that served, sure enough, as an advertisement for himself. Still tackier art covers the temple walls behind them, but then the real mysteries lie within.

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Wael Shawky ran at MoMA PS1 through August 31, 2015, Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook at SculptureCenter through March 30 and at Tyler Rollins through April 11.


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