Why do we need to get closer to Hassan Khan, and what sort of encounter awaits those who come in contact with his work? Between February 25 and 29, Gudran For Art and Development hosted “Three Attempts to Get Closer to Hassan Khan” and the Alexandria Fine Arts Museum hosted a discussion titled “An Encounter with Three Works By Hassan Khan.”
In side talks at the end of the five days, I heard some attendees say to their friends that these titles were off-putting, implying a hierarchy between Khan and the public that had to be bridged. I did not feel the same way, but it got me thinking — was a hierarchy implied, or was this a false assumption resulting from Khan’s relationship to Egypt’s art canon and institutions?
Khan is an artist, writer and musician who navigates a wide geography across media from writing and video to music and sculpture. There’s a formal flexibility in his practice and thinking that can make his artworks evasive. The objects and ideas he presents often slip away, refusing our control — there is constant movement and searching in the relationship to his works.
The February 26 discussion on the “corrupt intellectual” raised questions I found myself returning to during the following days. The fact that the idea of the “corrupt intellectual” has developed across multiple essays, talks and translations is inescapable. One attendee even told Khan during the Q&A that for her the Arabic version of the 2014 essay “A Monster Was Born: Notes on the Rebirth of the ‘Corrupt Intellectual’,” published on October 2015 on Mada Masr, felt inaccessible because “it read like a text that has been translated.”
Since a panel at Art Dubai in 2010 followed by a now well-known essay, “In Defense of the Corrupt Intellectual,” Khan has been expanding on this concept. In “A Monster Was Born,” he writes:
In the late nineteenth century, a monster was born. This monster did not know what it was exactly. It knew that it needed to articulate, describe, prescribe, and communicate. It knew it was supposed to play a public role in the birth of a new historical order. It knew it had a precise function in the articulation of power within the transforming social order. This monster was a speculator of knowledge, a peddler of identities, a fantasist, a cunning operator, an extrovert with a bloated ego, a necessary structural regulator.
This monster is the corrupt intellectual. If dreams of a “great nation,” a “great people” or “stability” are familiar and bring escapist comfort, the corrupt intellectual gives them out in well-crafted prose. (S)he exploits familiar symbols that have accumulated meaning through shared historical experience to pacify the crowd. Following moments of rupture like 2011 in Egypt, for example, when all that was solid melted into air, the corrupt intellectual, Khan says, worked in alliance with the state and its institutions to turn the air back to solids. (S)he performs and embodies the language of the “official discourse backed by, and expressing, existing power structures,” as Khan puts it.
In essays, artworks and discussions produced around this idea, the discursive space created through its initial introduction has repeatedly reconfigured. Even beyond the corrupt intellectual, however, Khan’s ideas as they manifest themselves in his artworks often go through many negotiations of meaning as they travel through various media, from music to sculpture. Perhaps this is why translation became a conceptual tool I went back to again and again during the four days in Alexandria.
In an 8-minute black-and-white video titled The Slapper and the Cap of Invisibility (2015), one of the three works Khan showed during the February 28 museum talk, he approaches the language of narrative cinema through the formal and conceptual language of experimental cinema, within the space of art. In it, two actors interact in an empty room. They re-enact scenes from old Egyptian slapstick comedies but go off-script into new territories. One actor behaves, gestures and speaks like Ismail Yassin, the most famous of Egyptian slapstick comedians. The other re-presents the gestures, tone and persona of actor Tawfiq al-Daqqn, who was always given the role of villain.
Set in what appears like a vacuum chamber, this video explores the function of collectively recognized “symbols” from Egyptian pop culture in creating a shared space of communication. Because this happens in an abstracted space, it cannot be thought of as re-appropriating symbols in a new context with different power dynamics. It just exposes the skeleton of a common visual language.
The Slapper and the Cap of Invisibility crafts its own discursive space within the supposedly decentered, global space of contemporary art, yet being avowedly “local” in its symbols it is inseparable from a history and collective experience that has not been exported into contemporary art networks. The video exists thus on multiple planes and refuses as a result to be merely a spectacle in a gallery that can be fetishized or instrumentalized in a grand narrative.
Familiar contemporary art terms like re-appropriation or recycling tend to emphasize the position of the gallery as a pristine space for commentary on the world. In contrast, translation allows for coexistence, messiness even, and it refuses to assume that one symbolic system can be fully subsumed into another. Translation as conceptual tool acknowledges the importance of in-between space and continuous unfolding.
On the reception side, works like The Slapper and the Cap of Invisibility require the spectator to cross borders from one imagined space to another. In this case, we move between cinema and slapstick to the conceptual vacuum chamber and the gallery. What is risked in this move is a sense of being lost or confused. As a result, the artwork might appear inaccessible. I’d like to defend inaccessibility and the virtues of getting lost.
Toward the end of “In Defense of the Corrupt Intellectual,” Khan writes:
[I]n the case of art history, the same consensual if outdated canon is evoked to provide support and meaning for aesthetic practices. The local is always deemed insufficient without some kind of proof and validation provided by the accepted and so-called international canons of art history.
Inaccessibility can mean a work does not lend itself easily to the canon and the tools it provides us with. And by not conforming to the familiar language of each medium, it can throw off expectations and habitual modes of engagement with film, sculpture or writing. A work that feels inaccessible can be one that exposes our reliance on dominant knowledge paradigms. It asks us to enter uncharted territory and find our way through it unaided.
In the mid-1990s, when Khan was starting to produce art, there was a resurgence of contemporary art in Egypt. Khan and others from his generation were key to that flurry of activity. Through stories shared publically during the Alexandria events or in side talks, I learned that in the 1990s the old guard invited Khan to present works of “new media” in the government-run Cairo Atelier. The inaccessibility of Khan’s works has to be understood within this context. What we understand art to do and our ways of relating to artworks are a result of a particular history dominated by the Ministry of Culture, its spaces and its patriarchal approach. For years, artists were presented as part of the intelligentsia who were supposed to “enlighten” the public. Khan refuses to be part of that. Trying to approach him through accumulated assumptions about the edifying role of art and artist doesn’t work.
In the 1990s Egypt was increasingly being thrown into the webs of globalization and the ensuing sense of hyper-spectacles and consumerism. A challenge was being mounted against Ministry of Culture hegemony and the possibilities for interaction with art that it created. Khan’s discussion with writer Ali al-Adawy on February 29, titled “The 1990s: A New Perspective,” touched on that. Institutional critique, performance, spectacle and the 1990s image as monument underlie Khan’s discussion of works from that period. He talked about the multimedia work Lungfan (1995), which got booed at the Cairo Atelier during a discussion with Khan and collaborator Amr Hosny and was not shown again publically for years. He also screened his rebellious 4-minute video Fuck This Film (1998), which features him and Sherif El Azama talking about the moving image.
To go back to the question of why we need to get closer to Khan and what encounter awaits if we try, it appears that the process is horizontal rather than vertical. It’s not about hierarchy, but about a particular relationship between the spectator, the artworks and by extension the artist. Khan presents works that do not give us the sense of playful freedom that comes with being completely absorbed into a tableau or a musical composition. We have no option but to be uncomfortably refused closeness by the artwork.
Overall the Alexandria events were well-attended. Rooms did not overflow with anxious crowds, but those present listened attentively. I looked around during one of the discussions and found an audience of men and women spanning many age groups, a guy with tattoos and a punk leather jacket, some hipsters, and a man I discovered was a doctor. There’s something about Khan and his works that invite such heterogeneity in a crowd. I take this to be a mark of great success.