Film about Eyptian artist Wael Shawky‘s exhibition at Kunsthaus Bregenz, a museum designed by Peter Zumthor.
»Saladin is still considered an Arab hero. He managed to return Jerusalem to the Muslims. The story is a topic in any Muslim nationalist discussion. It is the same language Pope Urban II used in 1095. He said, ›If you go to Jerusalem, you will have more food and a better life and if you die, you will go to heaven.‹ You can still hear these words today.«
Wael Shawky, Bregenz, April 2016
The foreign and the other are topics of fierce discussion. The waves of refugees from the Middle East dominate public debate. Images and reports of humanitarian catastrophes in the Mediterranean and along the people trafficking routes are a continual presence on television. Europe is being afflicted by Islamist terror attacks. This invokes the frictions between cultures, differences between East and West, and not least competing claims to hegemony by both religions and national constitutions. Whilst art is unable to solve problems, it can nevertheless present different points of view and shed new light on urgent issues.
The Egyptian artist Wael Shawky (born 1971) uses his filming of puppet theater to tell the story of the Crusades. In his film trilogy Cabaret Crusades, based on a book by the French-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf, the story of the war is told from an Arab perspective. In 2011 the first part of the trilogy, The Horror Show File (2010), made Shawky, who comes from Alexandria, well-known overnight. The film takes place in Damascus, Mosul, Jerusalem, and Aleppo – which today are again sites of conflict. The Arabic speaking puppets are clad in sumptuously oriental clothing: embroidered capes, velvet corsets, or metal armor. Their heads evoke molten crystal rocks or honey-colored amber, which Shawky has had fabricated from Murano glass. The dark button eyes are set into glassy beaked faces, their bestial faces and opulent headdresses embodying a bizarre mixture of the medieval and science fiction. The puppets have been assembled on an illuminated stage at KUB, just as they were last year at New York’s prestigious MoMA PS1. Their colored glass glitters within the wooden frames of the display case, a silent army of surreally sparkling creatures, exquisite and precious; they are shielded in Bregenz by a massive blue wall, filling the room with a mystical light.
Two parts of the Cabaret Crusades trilogy are being screened in Bregenz: part two as well as part three, Secrets of Karbala, which was only completed in 2014; this final part telling the story of the second (1147−1149) and third (1189−1192) Crusades. The Crusades ended with the destruction of Constantinople in 1204 by the Crusaders. Pope Innocent III had called for the conquest of the Holy Land, for which the fleet of the Venetian Republic was made available. However, the enterprise already began to falter in the Adriatic, as the negotiated sum had not been paid on time. The Christian army decided to loot the city of Zadar during this fourth Crusade, in order to generate additional funds. Christians murdered Christians in order to subsequently murder Muslims. The Pope excommunicated the warmongers, but later pardoned them.
The work addresses wars of aggression, expansionism, treachery, and deceit. Shawky places both carnage and hypocritical morality on display. Whether Saladin or Richard the Lionheart, the Frankish kings or the Muslim leaders, there are no heroes. Nevertheless light, fog, cardboard landscapes, and fantastic dolls cast the events in a dreamy, unreal haze. The earthen architecture placed on a revolving stage is a means of not only creating cinematic movement but also symbolizing the idea of the world as a flat disk. The scenes are accompanied by music compiled from the songs of Arabian pearl fishers and Egyptian electronic music. The second part of the trilogy, The Path to Cairo (2012), was produced two years earlier, handmade ceramic creatures, half human, half animal, recreating the events from the first half of the 12th century. Shawky avoids any central point of view, the narrative space emerging symbolically, the analysis of how and why we believe in this historical text being a significant aspect for Wael Shawky.
On the upper floor of Kunsthaus Bregenz four glass panels are on display, their backs mirrored, and in which Wael Shawky has had a historical map from the Orient cut. The city of Babylon, today Bagdad, is recognizable, unfolding in an Oriental vista. On the same floor a kind of flying object has been installed, that is both a metaphor for the 9/11 attacks and the Hajj, the legendary pilgrimage to Mecca. The sculpture, filling the space, has been especially created for Kunsthaus Bregenz. It could be a bird, perhaps a dragon, a giant insect, a fabulous monster, or – more prosaically – an aircraft. In the same space a flag has been spread on the floor. A second also hangs downward over the outer façade of Kunsthaus Bregenz. KUB, itself a pale green Kaaba, has been adorned with a colorful wrapping for the duration of the summer exhibition. Visible from afar, the exhibition announces itself in the form of a symbol from a medieval citadel.
The actual task of a museum, namely to be a place for works of art and a place for people who would like to encounter these works of art in peace, were the ones the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor committed himself to, in his own words, in his design for Kunsthaus Bregenz.
»The Kunsthaus is located in the light of Lake Constance. A body made of glass paneling, steel, and a stony mass from cast concrete, generating structure and space within the building. Seen from the outside, the building resembles a filament. It absorbs the changing light of the sky, the misty light of the lake, emanates light and color and, depending on the angle of view, the time of day, and the weather, permits something of an insight into its own inner life.« – Peter Zumthor, Architect
Adjacent to the vorarlberg museum and the Vorarlberger Landestheater, KUB positions itself as a self-assured gem within the center of the town and on the shores of Lake Constance. This is likewise true of the administrative building on the side towards the town center where, in proportions appropriate to several other smaller buildings on the square, the KUB Café is also located next to the administrative offices. Such a distribution of the premises increases focus, sensitizing perceptions to art, space, architecture, light, and enhancing self-awareness in Kunsthaus Bregenz.
The Ground Floor:
The ground floor serves as a foyer with a ticket and catalogue sales counter and a cloakroom. These functions have been reduced to minimum, so that the largest part of the nearly 500 m² floor space can be employed as an exhibition space and – as required – as a multifunctional activity space. With its exterior walls, consisting completely of sandblasted glass, this floor emphasizes the supporting construction of three variously arranged exterior wall panels, which define the exhibition space throughout the floors, whilst at the same time separating the vertical access zones (stairwell, escalator, people and goods lift) from the actual exhibition space. Due to the uniform positioning of the entrances and exits, a tour of the three upper floors differs only in the heights of the spaces.
The Upper Floors:
All three upper floors are designed as skylight spaces, enabled by an open light cavity located above the dust protection ceiling made of etched glass panels, into which light penetrates through lateral daylight gaps running around the building. The artificial light –likewise integrated into the cavity above the dust protection ceiling – supplements and replaces the daylight when required, the individual lighting sources remaining invisible to visitors.
The Basement Levels:
Two basements complete the spatial scheme. A light well still provides some daylight to the higher basement level where, in addition to the sanitary facilities, the lecture and museum’s educational space is located, which is separated from the non-public areas (packing area, workshops, staff rooms) by light-permeable glass brick walls. An archive, storage areas, and the technical center are located in the lower basement.
The exterior of the exhibition building is defined by the striking glass façade. The air-permeable scaly skin, comprising semi-opaque glass paneling, mounted in front of the concrete core, ensures an initial filtering and the optimum refraction of daylight into the skylight ceilings of the exhibition floors. At night an inverted effect occurs: the artificial light radiates through the daylight gaps from the interior of the building, penetrating outwards through the glass skin. Technical service areas, fixed-mounted cleaning scaffolds and lifts are integrated into the filigree support structure between the building and the glass façade.