Pygmalion and the pig for breakfast; Porky, Sun Ra, and suffering: an exchange on distraction and delay, and the second in a series of such exchanges of images and commentaries reflecting the work, concerns, and whims of the participants. Clare Davies, a writer and PhD candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York, spoke last year with Hassan Khan, an artist, musician, and writer living in Cairo.
“The pig” seems to have a special place in your heart. First, we have this kinky porcelain piglet over cold cuts, then these pig cartoons, stuffedpigfollies
(2007). Why pigs?
Well, the pig is anthropomorphized all the time. That’s where my interest comes from: the method through which a culture speaks, the totemic figures it produces for this act of communication. I took this picture on my mobile phone while I was staying at the Agon Hotel in Berlin. The hotel itself had an eerie atmosphere because it was large and cheap and very ’70s; the sculpture of a pig in the breakfast room to symbolize ham cutlets was irresistible.
This pig, through both its context, the hotel breakfast room, and its figurative affinity to what is human, is used to represent what we are going to consume; it therefore, ironically, becomes a marker of separation, difference, and distance. The distance between an inside (a contained, individuated unit with borders) and an undefined outside. It carves out a space between the diner, so to speak, and the object of the diner’s desire. The pig is the “other,” existing outside, to be ingested and consumed. This dynamic implies a set of limits and units—an idea of who we are, a unity that ends somewhere. All conditions necessary for a self-coming-into-being. (I tend to use the word possession
to describe that operation.) The porcelain pig (or maybe the image of the pig) is a clue, a suggestion, as to what that operation might be about.
The cartoon pigs in stuffedpigfollies
seem to be possessed in an existential sense; or, at least, they have registered the way in which they are spoken through and are quite anxious about it. Cartoons or animated characters seem to lend themselves to the kind of self-awareness and accompanying anxiety that you grant the stuffedpigfollies
Hassan Khan, stuffedpigfollies
, 2007. From a series of six, 25x20-cm print on Canson paper, 2007. Previous page: Hassan Khan, image from Lust
, 2008–onward. A photographic series of cell-phone images by the artist printed and framed, 13x10 cm. Both images: Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel.
This work seems to acknowledge the existential potential of “animated” images, as a general category. On the other hand, this little Agon pig is more oblivious, or more complicit: a porno pig (if pornography can be defined by strategic complicity).
The sense of the “pornographic” comes from several sources. First, the nature of a totem: its erotic significance must always lurk somewhere in the background. Second, the surrender to one’s fate as material to be consumed: the ham and bacon symbolized by the pig. Third, the mass tourist experience and its gentle morning creepiness: young backpackers of both sexes congregating early in the morning for bad coffee.
So there is a connection, as well as a difference. The Agon pig is oblivious because it’s plucked straight from the generic—it’s an observation that I’ve framed. While the stuffedpigfollies
pigs are actual propositions. I designed them and I wrote the sentences accompanying each panel. The cartoon pigs are possessed in the sense that they speak and perform a gesture—pointing, jumping, running.
The reference I use in stuffedpigfollies
—the anthropomorphic Disney pig—is already symbolic of this cultural operation I refer to as possession. In using that ubiquitous pig but in a highly personal fashion, I’m learning something about how my imaginary operates from the generic and then allowing these deep structures to acquire or discover a specific form. Within that kind of logic, moments in the world suddenly start to speak.
A form is always a reference to a specific set of generic conditions. The generic is a collective history of the form and
how it’s been produced and utilized, how it’s defined and identified. But a form is also always the result of a personal engagement with those conditions—i.e., the process of the artist’s work is that very engagement.
The most important question, however, is, Why take that image? Or, in other words, Why do I love it? What makes me think it’s potent in one sense or another?
CD: I think cannibalism is a useful touchstone. The horror of what’s pictured is the possibility that this very banal thing you’re doing—eating ham cold cuts—is actually a horrific transgression that’s been normalized.
HK: Cannibalism is the limit on the horizon: Without that ultimate taboo, the breakfast room would be a pool of dementia. I think what excites me is the idea that an image can speak in two tongues at the same time, be two (or more) entities simultaneously. That is, to me, inherent in the idea of an image but is clearer in some than others.
CD: Roland Barthes’s essay “The Third Meaning: Research Notes on Some Eisenstein Stills” (1970) offers another way of talking about images that present themselves as unreadable, that engage something outside the logic of the accepted narrative: images that speak in two tongues, as you said, or three.
Barthes positions this sort of image in opposition to two other types of meaning: informational and symbolic. As I understand it, the third meaning is most visible in relation to disguise. It reveals itself negatively: “This looks wrong.” Or it inserts another sense
of conviction, maybe emotional, or intuitive, instead of “suspension of disbelief.” I guess it raises the issue of what people react to when they look at something that is presented as an aesthetic work, a work of art or film.
Maybe trying to articulate this other category outside of information and symbol is just a way of making a space for “real art,” you know, as in—it has something. Barthes is perhaps inevitably vague in the end. But I like his insistence on describing an experience of recognition that necessarily remains inarticulate. I suppose I understand your use of the totem in a similar way, in terms of our ability to recognize something that can’t be articulated; it’s why I can recognize that potency that you see in the image as well.
You shot this image of a television screen at the Agon Hotel, too, also with your cell phone. You’ve mentioned the way the woman is holding her hands. Does your interest in the image hinge on what is communicated by this gesture, whether intentionally or not?
I’m actually only interested in the gesture itself, the woman’s presence, rather than what kind of information this image might convey, what kind of critique of spectacle and capital. This is only a smokescreen; the animating force here is the woman’s enigmatic gesture—which is what I can’t carefully explain and file away. The off-screen slant of her eyes is more potent because this is an image of a TV screen: the surface of a daily transmission. But the associations of the TV screen are also undercut by the gesture. There’s a casual, accidental distraction that’s enough to puncture the whole edifice.
Sergei Eisenstein, still from Battleship Potemkin
, 1925; cell-phone still of a TV screen in a Berlin hotel room, 2008. Next page: Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson, Pygmalion and Galatea
, 1819; photo-booth picture of Hassan Khan aged nineteen (circa 1994).
The TV presenter relates to another operation of “animation.” Your stuffedpigfollies
seem to speak the voice of the artist who created them. They seem to be an animation in this very literal sense. On the other hand, the TV presenter, or rather her gesture, seems to have an unanchored or unauthored presence. The relationship of the artist as an animator of the artwork or animated through the artwork, and the way a work might originally or eventually exceed the artist’s agency in that sense, seems to be a potentially anxious relationship. The work can be recognized before it is folded into an artistic process, or can seem to “get away” from the artist at some point in the process of its own creation.
Anne-Louis Girodet’s Pygmalion and Galatea
(1819) was meant to be his final masterpiece, to speak to the artist’s lifetime of work, to present the artist as Pygmalion. But it betrays the anxiety involved in making such an assertion, mostly in the time it took to finish the painting. The painting was commissioned in 1813 and took five years to complete. Girodet only gradually introduced the work to the public, staging the application of its final touches for an audience of society ladies, hosting the king for a special viewing, and then submitting it on the final day of the Salon of 1819. This delay, this distraction, and the foregrounding of his process in the service of what amounts to a portrait of the artist.
What animates the work is the artist’s activity. The question is, How do we escape the situation of illustration, where the work becomes merely a vehicle for the thoughts of the artist? Rather than expressing my own convictions through my work, I’m interested in what I might produce in spite of my convictions.
Can this be applied to self-portraiture as well? Is it possible to produce an image of yourself in spite of your convictions? Or, what do you see in this passport-booth photo of yourself that exists in spite of your convictions? This claim to self-portraiture reminds me of the Romantic idea of the artist as having a closer relationship to what exists outside of language: the ability to translate it, present it, and, in the case of self-portraiture, make it coincide with the artist’s own image.
This image was taken in an automated photo booth, a piece of information that is pertinent here. It accidentally foreshadows two major interests, automation and portraiture. It is a document from a moment in my personal history, the time when a persona was being forged, tested, and then communicated as an image. Maybe this is part of what animates the artist’s practice, the constant movement from source through process to product; there is both despair and demand. This is the artist fashioning himself as revolutionary, though even then I was quite aware that revolutions are only excuses for self-aggrandizement and posturing. Romanticism and nostalgia all have something to do with this choice.
When you say that you’re interested in what you might produce in spite of yourself, you’re also partaking of a Romantic understanding of portraiture, one based on a certain illusion, a self-delusion, a self-willing—making something out of nothing, or not much.
It seems that on some fundamental level I am unable to escape portraiture.
Géricault’s Portrait of a Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy
) Scary—nice title though. Looking is partly about being caught, trapped. I guess that’s what disfigures the subject: The object of her gaze is reflected back onto her. And the look is transfixed. She’s seeing something we’re not.
A critic, writing after the rediscovery of the painting in the mid-nineteenth century, claimed that the artist's friend, a doctor at the Salpêtrière who was interested in matching particular physiognomies to “corresponding” mental illnesses, commissioned a series of portraits of the insane intended as diagnostic tools, the idea being that a portrait can function as a scientific diagram of something intangible and invisible.
But, as you said, the sitter in Woman Suffering
seems to be on the verge of becoming completely transfixed and “possessed” by her own vision. This is confirmed by the fact that the object of her gaze is out of the frame. What you call the totem functions in a similar way; it seems to be transfixed by something we can’t see, as if that something is responsible for making it “insane.”
She is looking at something that she cannot turn into an explanation, something that does not “make sense.” However, this is an active, almost aggressive, act of looking.
The “mania of envy” title suggests that her gaze is directed outward, but what’s pathological is this grasping for something perceived as “terribly” outside. That’s the horror of envy, right?
Théodore Géricault, Portrait of a Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy
Yes. Exclusion, the limits of oneself. In Arabic, the words for one
, and limit
are all derived from the same trilateral root. But what interests me here is the challenge posed to the viewer to understand what she (the sitter) can’t put together. (I only just now noticed that challenge
, amazingly enough, comes from the same root.) The inexplicable that lies outside needs to be challenged. Another way of understanding it is in terms of some kind of melancholic defeat. Maybe it’s both a challenge and a defeat at the same time—again despair and demand.
Hassan Khan, from The Alphabet Book
, 26-page book, 80x40 cm when open, 2006. Next page: Hassan Khan, four-minute excerpt from G.R.A.H.A.M.
, 13'56", 2008. Image and video: Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel.
I was going to ask if you consider this and Portrait of Hassan Khan, Aged Nineteen
in this way?
Yes, as well as the letter c
in The Alphabet Book
(2008) is a portrait in time, one that also picks up these themes. But G.R.A.H.A.M.
—a video rather than a still—possesses something extra. It consists of one continuous ten-minute shot of Graham sitting. The piece is silent, so the audience does not realize that I am interviewing him about his life. He is not allowed to answer back; furthermore, I had asked him to keep his eyes trained on me as I moved up and down the studio. In a sense, the portrait is of a tension between a persona and its physical representation.
As in the Géricault painting, the subject is responding to something outside the frame. In contrast, The Alphabet Book
boy is just a mirror.
Yes, a literal mirror: the kid models for advertisements. I hired him for a professional shoot; he was doing his job. I posed and he imitated me. I am not interested in his subjectivity, only in his ability to imitate me and thus channel something external. Inhabit something external. I could speak about this image in sculptural terms—it’s about molding and channeling rather than representing. With G.R.A.H.A.M.
, I am still seriously interested in someone else—in someone’s presence. That’s why there are dots between the letters. It’s Graham as a logo of Graham. G.R.A.H.A.M.
is a portrait of someone dealing with who he is.
I don’t see a logo as working in the way I think you’re describing. The little boy in The Alphabet Book
is more like a logo, I think. G.R.A.H.A.M.
has more to do with your interruption of Graham-as-subject from your position off-screen.
Maybe “logo” is incorrect. Maybe what I meant was “Graham as a corporation”—something or somebody with an address and a headquarters. Which is slightly ironic knowing that Graham (the person) is in a sense quite dislocated and has been traveling around the world all his life.
You seem to be making him visible as an individual, not a big, anonymous corporation.
But an individual is a corporation. To capture his presence, it was necessary that he flag himself somehow. To do that is to possess an address, a location, even if it is tense like in that room when I felt he was going to stand up and snap my neck.
The situation creates a fragile tension—it’s Graham sitting there being Graham. The idea of a corporation here has nothing to do with the banal understanding of the term (as a socioeconomic unit) but rather from the Latin root corporare
, “to combine or form into one body.” Separation, distance, and unity are the elements of this portrait. An understanding of what an individual is. At the end, he was actually very gracious after these pretty uncomfortable ten minutes of Graham sitting there being Graham. Ten minutes can be a very, very long time.
I think that the Géricault portrait speaks to the threat that generated this tension on his part: You cornered him, made him reveal himself as pathological in some sense. In a parallel sense, Géricault’s painting was made in the service of a kind of scientific vision: seeing the individual as an identifiable but ultimately mysterious “type.”
That’s very interesting—the subject, even in science, remains mysterious even if identifiable. The sense of mystery surrounding the representation of the human figure remains, even if accidental and unwanted (in psychiatric hospitals, army files, police registers). It is as if the very act of figuring the human needs to engage with that mystery. Is this enigma related to what an image is or to what human beings imagine about themselves? That is why I am interested in changing the rules of communication slightly—when you change these rules, it becomes possible to engage with that sense, if you will, on a different level.
Capturing something, revealing that it’s not necessarily true. Your interest in authoritarianism seems to inform the way you structure this relationship, in order to force a subject, as such, into view. Changing the terms of communication puts a different pressure on the possibilities for self-presentation, whether of the artist, the sitter in this case, or the audience. Let’s talk about your interest in authoritarianism.
: This is not an interest; it is an acknowledgment.
It seems like you’re using this acknowledgment, then, to talk about honesty. For example, in I AM NOT WHAT I AM
(2005–onward) you present a performance of your own authority, as a speaker and artist, as well as a discussion of authority. The entire performance is exactly sixty minutes long. The accompanying sound and the images that appear behind you are coordinated with your own “live” discussion, down to the very second. There’s no room for response or discussion, at least until after the work is through. You allow the audience to observe the latent authoritarianism that is normalized or explained away in everyday life. In that sense, it’s a bit moralistic and antiauthoritarian-empowering.
: I AM NOT WHAT I AM
does not shy away from the authoritarianism latent in the aesthetic gesture and the spectacle—in the dynamics of communication. I reject the idea of art practice as having anything to do with a specific, more “empowering” model; the relationship is already fraught with tension and manipulation. I don't think the work is anti- or pro-authoritarian. It just refuses a knee-jerk, placating antiauthoritarian pose.
Still, you seem to be making a claim for the performative nature of authority. The depth of a “totalized sculpture/environment” depends on absenting or making invisible what is powering it. When you perform I AM NOT WHAT I AM
, you are clearly putting yourself at the center of it all.
Making the artist visible and also presenting an authoritarian performance as visually (as well as aurally) available might function as an unveiling, might be antiauthoritarian in a sense? Are you able to be equally invisible, in a sense, when you are visibly present during the performance?
: Authority has no specific nature. It’s the matrix through which communication is made possible. Your statements still imply a morality that I am attempting to step away from, at least in my practice. The important thing is quite simple: not to be boring.
Hassan Khan, video still from projection accompanying I AM NOT WHAT I AM
60 minutes, synchronized live artist talk.
OK, how do you avoid boredom? How do you define boredom in relation to authority? Are we bored if we don’t sense the authority of an image over us?
: The important thing for me is not to fetishize your raw material, but rather to engage with it. Fetishizing your sources ironically transforms them into something else. And that’s what I find boring. For example, Jonathan Meese fetishizes the icons of a specific fascism as well as the gestures of that fascism’s subversion; that, to me, is boring. Matthew Barney, repetitively, proposes a symbolic representation of narrative processes as the source and charge of the work’s power—that is, theater in the most reductive fashion. I’m interested in a less expressionistic acceptance of and engagement with what we’re calling authority here—whatever that is.
Can you point to anyone who is also interested in what you are talking about: an artist, filmmaker, etc.?
Let’s take for example two nonartists: Werner Herzog and Sun Ra.
To take Sun Ra: He developed an approach to music-making that relied on unusually extended and frequent improvisation sessions, with all elements of the rather unwieldy Arkestra coming, in a certain sense, “independently” to an understanding of their own role. Does this speak to an invisible center, that could be “authority”—the depth of a specific culture? What about comparing this approach to the extravagant outfits and parading that characterized live performances? Is the latter “expressionistic”? Does it fetishize icons of authority—however campy the approach? The performances seem to make a satiric nod to traditions of formalizing control adopted by Southern Baptist ministers, ancient Egyptian pharaohs, among others. He seems to fail and fail spectacularly, but the music and music-making are in a sense removed from all that.
Sun Ra’s theater is not theater at all; it’s a disguise for something else. The invisible center you mention unifies Ra’s activities into a whole. It is what he is constantly orbiting. It might be necessary at times to believe in things that are unknowable to be able to produce forms. The spectacle does not rely on the crutch of half-baked psychoanalysis.
I would like to compare Matthew Barney with Sun Ra and show how Sun Ra is, for me, so much better. First of all, Sun Ra’s spectacle operated within a paradigm, set its own rules, and created its own interpretative community. Although lyrically Ra seems to be discussing a whole worldview, the spectacle still manages to escape from the position of speaking about something—Ra’s spectacle is an associative barrage fueled by the intensity of the music. In comparison, Barney’s carefully constructed images (especially in the post-Cremaster
phase) seem to be precious and inflated. While Barney seems to be interested in making pronouncements about a culture, Ra is consciously engaging with a wide popular repository of icons to produce an understanding of who he is in relation to his public. The irony, of course, is that Ra is the one with the prophetic pronouncements: the one who seems more fascistic on the surface.
Judging from your examples earlier—Herzog and Sun Ra—it seems that you’re working with an intuitive (not to say illogical) approach to association. Images have a force because they recall something that is familiar, related to other images, but without its own referent. There’s something clear and persuasive in this relationship that eludes explanation.
Association is definitely at play. And association can be pretty persuasive because it can outrun you and leave you breathless at any moment and that’s also what images can do. I guess at a certain point all of this started happening when I decided to stop speaking about things and to try to work with what things are about.
I was speaking about things like society—bourgeois Egyptian culture, class, cities, etc. You know, stuff like that.
When did that happen specifically?
It was a period in between two periods. The first half of the ’90s with music and in collaborations with Amr Hosny, for example: we were interested in a sort of intoxicated, surreal state—it meant that intensity was valued above meaning or speaking about things. Later on, when I started working in journalism and teaching for a couple of years, my work became much more “documentary” in its orientation.
I remember a video you made in collaboration with Amr Hosny called lungfan
. There’s this surrealist idea of convulsive beauty, of transformation.
Yes, I think we were also informed by metaphysics, somehow: a sort of yearning for loss. Something like that was at work, too. However (which is maybe surprising), the work managed to stay very abstract. We never descended into wallowing in our subjectivities. Expressionism was also out. I guess we were lucky not to operate in a cultural environment where self-expression was fetishized.
was about hyperventilation. (The Arabic title was nafas
, which can mean “breath” or “self,” depending on how you pronounce it.) It aimed at some kind of ecstatic experience. I think that’s why the Cairo Atelier audience reacted by accusing us of brainwashing and being agents of Israel. It’s the typical paranoid reaction by an audience to forms that they are not familiar with. The Cairene audience (especially then) was both more invested and more suspicious. In a sense, their suspicion stems from a belief in the power of the work—maybe a healthier environment than all the liberal museums of the world.
Who was making the accusations?
All middle-aged, failed Egyptian intellectuals and artists.
The Israel thing, resorting to that, indicates hysteria; it’s like a signpost.
: Sure, but I think it’s more tired than this. It’s just a convenient way to insist on what you know and to shut everything else out. And to also break down anyone with whom you disagree.