Modern Forms curator Nick Hackworth delves into a conversation with Shezad Dawood about the origins of his ambitious, long-term project Leviathan and its continuous evolution from a ten-part film series to a body of work including paintings, sculptures, and most recently a virtual reality trilogy informed by conversations with scientists and researchers. Together, this growing project interweaves the ocean, the power of the state, anthropogenic climate change, and pathology to critically reflect on the present while speculatively reflecting on an unfolding future.
Nick Hackworth : How did the whole Leviathan project start? And what’s the connection to Hobbes?
Shezad Dawood : I was writing a paper on democracy which became a sort of mad, fragmentary text, exploring different pathological takes on the future. I was separately conducting some research into the oceans, and given numerous oceanic metaphors for the state, the two parallel tracks merged together. And in a way I could place Hobbes halfway between the Torah and Melville in terms of the apocrypha of the previous cycle.
NH : Both the films, that are the main thrust of the project, and the initial body of paintings you showed in Venice in 2017, embody this idea of cycles and time and memory. The films are collectively titled Leviathan Cycle and the textile paintings collectively titled Labanof Cycle. Can you talk about both these bodies of work a little more? And their relation to time?
SD : Initially my idea was to try and make ten films, each narrated by a different character moving through our world 20-50 years from now. And each of the scripts for these films would be developed through conversation: with Oceanographers, Activists, Environmentalists and Marine Biologists. So in a sense the future time the characters inhabit would be at least a little informed by actual scenarios and scientific modelling. In that way I saw it as a kind of community-building exercise and mapping…..I like that passage from science to fiction. And then the idea of thinking about the present moment in terms of cycles of geological, as well as more recently anthropocentric time. With the paintings, these were really drawing on a dialogue with Cristina Cattaneo of the Labanof (Laboratory of Anthropological Forensics) at the University of Milan. Her work archiving recovered remains and personal effects of refugees and migrant and from the sea bed between Tripoli and Lampedusa is both vital and crushing in what it reveals about our inability to establish a level of empathy and compassion across our species (let alone across the nonhuman sphere). Cristina gave me access to her archives, and I began to mimic their process: creating my own cataloguing methods in order to distance myself emotionally from their content, while also trying to find a way to communicate it. And then I started to paint, trying to render each object and each life it pertained to, with some uniqueness and respect.
NH: How have you made the jump to VR with Leviathan, and has this been successful in communicating your message to broader or different demographics?
SD : It was the suggestion of a curator friend, who having enjoyed other work I’d done using VR and other digital media, that I expand the Leviathan project in that direction. To be honest I was wary, as I am about most things, of them getting too convoluted or complex, but it was speaking to Madeleine Van Oppen and Louise Firth – two incredible scientists (based in Queensland and Plymouth respectively), that finally convinced me. Their modelling ventured further into the future than my scenarios, and looked at everything from species hybridity and accelerated evolution to methods for mitigating sea level rise. These in turn became some key thematics and elements that I began to explore, and suddenly I had also launched the first of a proposed trilogy of VR works set 150, 300, and 500 years into the future – and so we’re back to time again. How does one start to play a part in the present, through being present to the future?
And surprisingly enough this served to further extend audiences for the work, with the first part of the trilogy having already been exhibited in Shanghai, Toronto Liverpool and Copenhagen. And I think the VR has simply added another pathway back to the website and other attendant material on the project. And definitely broadened the age range and took the work out of the traditional format of a gallery or institutional exhibition.