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Dream Machine Project

Modern Art Oxford’s incumbent exhibition, Piercing Brightness by the London-based artist Shezad Dawood, is not for the casual viewer. Indeed, comprising two video installations and a number of ‘Paintings on Textile’ this collection is an intellectual and aesthetic assault on the senses. However, this is not a dismissal of the artistic merits of the exhibition but simply a warning to those who might normally expect the art to do the bulk of the work. Instead, Dawood forces his audience into unexpected places, following channels of thought that confront ideas of racial integration, universal existence and transcendence of reality. The task is not easy but Dawood surprises us with his ability to transform MAO into his own playground of dreams.

Still image from the film Piercing Brightness

The exhibition leads us through three distinct phases of thought, each one building on the previous until the final climactic film, which is both the culmination of the previous works and the apex of Dawood’s achievement here. Ascending the stairs to the first floor, on which the entire exhibition is laid out, one is plunged into an overwhelming darkness punctuated only by the sounds and sights of Dawood’s Trailer to the eponymous feature length film Piercing Brightness. We are told that the film ‘tells the story of Shin and Jiang, a young Chinese man and woman, sent to earth from another planet to retrieve the ‘Glorious 100’’, but plot is irrelevant to this film of rapid cuts and hypnotic sequences, such as the repeated image of a hand stacking sugar cubes. The non-linear narrative forces the reader to forfeit their ingrained perceptions of film and embrace a fragmented vision of the world. If the film achieves anything beyond merely the presentation of a chaotic existence it is to suggest that whilst life is a continuous process, death is itself a singular event; the collision of human interaction, made explicit through the violent coming together of both characters in a road accident, reminds us of our own desire to communicated on both a verbal and a physical level.

Rock of Ages

Dawood’s second room is somewhat anti-climactic after the powerful imagery of his initial assault.  A series of painting grouped under the title Textile Painting is at best an examination of alternative texture in the medium of painting. Rather than building up a layered dimension with the paint, Dawood reverses the process, painting flat blocks of colour onto undulating textile surfaces.

Cosmic Egg

 The effect is somewhat less radical than his films, but nonetheless interesting in the context of his entire project. With pieces such as Cosmic Egg, a giant red egg-shape with a blue centre, and Iris, a similar shape to the previous but on its side, we appreciate Dawood’s joke on context and perception. Structural Organisation by contrast disorientates with its lack of focal centre, the image destabilises and collapses under the weight of its own construction. In all of Dawood’s paintings, the apparent randomness of the image is given meaning – whether sincerely or ironically – through the title, demonstrating, perhaps, the disjuncture between art and language in presenting ideas and images.

Still image from the film New Dream Machine Project

The final room is certainly the most engaging. The distinction between art and life breaks down as we view this film, to the point at which we can no longer be considered viewers but instead, participants. The film, New Dream Machine Project, builds a visual and musical dreamscape in which modernity and tradition collide. The hypnotic effect of the Moroccan music combined with the abstract images of light and the moments of figurative representation of the musicians creates a meditative vision in which the film becomes for us a waking dream. By providing giant beanbags in which to rest while watching, the soporific effect is redoubled. The mystical elements of the film, as it pays its debt to Gysin’s Sufism influenced Dream Machine, fascinate, but it is ultimately Dawood’s expansive vision that entrances.

Dawood’s artistic project will no doubt be condemned by those whose experience of art has been, until now, exclusively understood through the mediums of painting and sculpture. Whilst I am the first to question the use of film in art, having seen many examples in which the potential artistic impact was lost in the excitement of technological modernity, Dawood’s films, especially New Dream Machine Project, rank alongside the most interesting one will ever see.

W. J. Humphries

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