Saturday, January 30, 2010

Wael Shawky: Translation and Seeing One Another

“Control over what the audience will see…I do not intend to control the viewer, but rather to construct the work in a precise fashion where every element is controlled” --Wael Shawky

Shawky can be seen as an artist-translator; but in translating abstract concepts to figurative, he does no constrict our vision he merely directs it. His video works through their technique and content, allow the viewer to see what they want to see, and reward the carefully informed view.

M: It is virtually impossible to see, write or teach objectively. Our knowledge and perception are filtered through our own experiences and references. Shawky’s work is multi-layered and carefully constructed. However, it is directed but not controlled. It inspires self-examination of how we see one another and ourselves; how we privilege or rather prejudice vision. Yet Shawky’s questioning of our own vision is only there for those who want to see and look deeper beyond the most obvious side of the work. Although he is conscious of all his choices, he does not try to force his consciousness or understanding upon us as audience.

The meaning of Shawky’s work, because of the very nature of video as a medium, can be pushed in endless directions. All things can/should be considered in this effect.

E: Translation itself can be seen as a series of channels that a text ravels through: from the original authors, through a translator, editor, and publisher, and finally the English reader. With this concept in mind we can consider Shawky’s Larvae Channel, a piece that interviews Palestinians about their never-ending conflict. Their stories and experiences are being channeled, not only through the cartoon that is their figures but through the medium of (television interview).

M: Replying to his ambiguous question: “what do you think?” the interviewees turn into a bland versions of themselves. They can sound whiney and droning, much like the whirring background noise of Shawky’s Al Aqsa Park video piece; a commentary on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Al Aqsa Park similarly confronts the drawn out nature of peace talks and the demeaning level to which Al Asqa complex has been brought because of the push and pull of the conflict.

E: In that sense translation can be seen as a channeling of only the blandest parts of language, an experience that gets watered down into a few words or a few sentences. Translation as a whole from one language to another dilutes the connotations/symbolism/similies/metaphors -- lost in translation, they cannot be comprehended without footnotes, without outside knowledge…

Framing One Another:

E: Take Shawky’s English Class, set in a schoolhouse in Egypt, five and six year old Egyptian boys and girls are learning English via their drill-sergeant, but well meaning, instructor. One problem: he is not speaking English. He holds up his hand “Hive fing-ahs! Hive fing-ahs! Hive fing-ahs!” He holds up a picture of the Egyptian flag “Our flag-uh! Our flag-uh! Our flag-uh!” It is not English, not Arabic, but some strange combined version of the two that, in this ramshackle schoolhouse in Egypt, is passing for a language class.

Perception also plays a key role in Shawky’s Digital Church from 2007. The film inspires an endless reel of possibilities and contradictions waiting to be found in the shadows of themselves. It creates space for questions that the audience is only forced to ask themselves upon viewing, the end goal being a confrontation of their own constructed frameworks. For when we question our own positionality, we confront the simple question of defining what is really in and out of place.

Shawky films himself walking through a church in Krakow, reciting surahs from the Qu’ran. With this action he establishes the sense of being out of place, he defies the categorization of what is expected of a person in a church. But if one looks deeper, it can be discerned that Shawky actually does fit into the space where he is filming. If the Polish Catholic bystanders could understand what Shawky was saying – if he happened to be reading the Qu’ran in Polish translation – they may have assumed that he was simply reading from the Bible. There is significant overlap. Yet the mere language puts Shawky out of place, into a category that is both strange and foreign to his surroundings, the category of the Other.

Shawky’s being perceived as an outsider can be eradicated with knowledge. Knowledge can put one in place – knowledge of a language or a culture other than one’s own can make one feel “at home,” and provide a sense of familiarity. But as we have explored with the idea of translation, Shawky’s film questions this very sense of understanding, feeling that we are actually ever “in place.”

As demonstrated by the faux-language being spoken in Shawky’s English Lesson, the acting of only seeing/knowing what we want to see/know, and of believing in this constricted vision is a shared character flaw. What we see is dependent on our own framework, and this very framework is created by our own experiences. How we translate, and by association, relate to one another is completely arbitrary. It is this sense of loss, this gain of self-realization that Shawky’s work pushes to the surface, yet it is visible only to those viewers who want to see.