Projects

Shezad Dawood
‘Leviathan’

Shezad Dawood, Leviathan Cycle, Episode 1: Ben (2017), Single screen 12:52 mins. Commissioned by University of Salford Art Collection, Outset Contemporary Art Fund and Leviathan – Human & Marine Ecology, with support from The Contemporary Art Society.
Shezad Dawood, Leviathan Cycle, Episode 1: Ben (2017), Single screen 12:52 mins. Commissioned by University of Salford Art Collection, Outset Contemporary Art Fund and Leviathan – Human & Marine Ecology, with support from The Contemporary Art Society.
Shezad Dawood, Leviathan Cycle, Episode 2: Yasmine (2017), Single screen 22:10 mins. Commissioned by CREAM – University of Westminster and Leviathan – Human & Marine Ecology.
Shezad Dawood, Leviathan Cycle, Episode 2: Yasmine (2017), Single screen 22:10 mins. Commissioned by CREAM – University of Westminster and Leviathan – Human & Marine Ecology.
Shezad Dawood, Leviathan Cycle, Episode 3: Arturo (2017), Single screen 17:25 mins. Commissioned by Leviathan – Human & Marine Ecology.
Shezad Dawood, Leviathan Cycle, Episode 3: Arturo (2017), Single screen 17:25 mins. Commissioned by Leviathan – Human & Marine Ecology.
Shezad Dawood, Leviathan Cycle, Episode 4: Jamila (2018), Single screen 10:36 mins. Commissioned by Arts Council, England, Barakat, Seoul, HE.RO Amsterdam and Leviathan – Human & Marine Ecology.
Shezad Dawood, Leviathan Cycle, Episode 4: Jamila (2018), Single screen 10:36 mins. Commissioned by Arts Council, England, Barakat, Seoul, HE.RO Amsterdam and Leviathan – Human & Marine Ecology.
Shezad Dawood, Leviathan Cycle, Episode 5: Ismael (2018), Single screen 19:28 mins. Commissioned by A Tale of a Tub, Rotterdam, and a Canadian partnership between Fogo Island Arts Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto, and Toronto Biennial of Art.
Shezad Dawood, Leviathan Cycle, Episode 5: Ismael (2018), Single screen 19:28 mins. Commissioned by A Tale of a Tub, Rotterdam, and a Canadian partnership between Fogo Island Arts Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto, and Toronto Biennial of Art.

Interview

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.

Leviathan – on matter, form and power

Frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, or the Matter, Forme and Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill (London: Andrew Crooke, 1651).
Research paper cover, designed by OK-RM, for the Leviathan Reading Room – Megan Hayes and Jeff Diamanti, Intermodal Aesthetics and the Dissolve of Leviathan.

About

The title of Shezad Dawood’s work references the multiple uses of ‘Leviathan’ through time, most overtly quoting Thomas Hobbes’s social contract of 1651. In Hobbes’s frontispiece, the top-down nature of the state is clear, its different components cascading from the figure of a single god-like tyrant. Dawood’s work is instead predicated on multiple subjects that are outside the power of a state, moving laterally across stories and geographies to destabilise a unitary, cohesive subjectivity. The project’s 10-part film cycle, Virtual Reality trilogy, sculptures, paintings, neon and extensive public programme and research archive are brought together on an online platform designed by OK-RM, which incorporates the visual typology of Hobbes’s frontispiece – see the cover for one of the research papers especially commissioned for the Leviathan Reading Room by Megan Hayes and Jeffi Diamanti. The political origins of Leviathan are also referenced in the episodic format of the film series, which evoke the seriality of the political pamphlet.

Serial Stories

Leviathan Cycle (2017–) envisages a future eerily like our present, whose inhabitants are the survivors of a cataclysmic solar event. The episodes are developed by Dawood in dialogue with a wide range of marine biologists, oceanographers, political scientists, philosophers, neurologists and trauma specialists. Each film – of which five are now complete – is written from the point of view of an individual character, and their fictional narratives are carefully interwoven with archival footage, linking the looming spectre of climate breakdown to human-scale stories.

Archiving Loss

Shezad Dawood, Folded banknote found inside the left front pocket of jeans, cellophane containing earth and sim card (Leviathan Labanof Cycle), 2017. Mixed media on Fortuny textile. Courtesy of the artist.
Shezad Dawood, Vaccination record (Leviathan Labanof Cycle), 2017. Mixed media on Fortuny textile. Courtesy of the artist.
Shezad Dawood, Faded photograph found in wallet (Leviathan Labanof Cycle), 2017. Mixed media on Fortuny textile. Courtesy of the artist.
Shezad Dawood, Fragment of a carton of cigarettes (Leviathan Labanof Cycle), 2017. Mixed media on Fortuny textile. Courtesy of the artist.

Leviathan expands beyond film to encompass sculptural, painting and textile works. This suite of paintings is based on Dawood’s work with the Laboratory of Anthropological Forensics (LABANOF) at the University of Milan. Led by Cristina Cattaneo, a team of forensic anthropologists go out with UN rescue teams and catalogue personal possessions recovered from the seabed, when a refugee ship sinks attempting the Lampedusa crossing from North Africa to Sicily.

This archive is then used to help provide closure to family members of the missing, as well as lobby national governments and the European Parliament when they fail to meet their obligations to refugees under international law.

Dawood worked with Cristina from LABANOF to identify a certain number of ‘representative’ objects from the much larger archive, as a way to try and replicate the forensic process, as well as to find a system with which to treat such sensitive material. Each object or series of objects is painted and screen-printed onto a Fortuny textile, to highlight the essential contradiction between what is considered precious.

These works were originally presented in Venice as part of a collaboration with Fortuny Venezia, where the artist and the chief designer at Fortuny discussed Mariano Fortuny’s own migrant position in Venice, and his use of a syncretic language combining patterns from Europe, North Africa and the Middle East – this has been one of the reasons for the success of his designs.

Beyond Leviathan: Leviathan Legacy

Shezad Dawood, Leviathan Legacy: Pt. 1, 2018, Virtual Reality Environment, Duration variable. Generously supported by DSLcollection, Plymouth Arts Centre, The Marine Institute at Plymouth University, University of Westminster’s Institute of Advanced Studies and the CreativeXR programme, an initiative from Digital Catapult and Arts Council England.
Shezad Dawood, Leviathan Legacy: Pt. 1, 2018, Virtual Reality Environment, Duration variable. Generously supported by DSLcollection, Plymouth Arts Centre, The Marine Institute at Plymouth University, University of Westminster’s Institute of Advanced Studies and the CreativeXR programme, an initiative from Digital Catapult and Arts Council England.
Shezad Dawood, Leviathan Legacy: Pt. 1, 2018, Virtual Reality Environment, Duration variable. Generously supported by DSLcollection, Plymouth Arts Centre, The Marine Institute at Plymouth University, University of Westminster’s Institute of Advanced Studies and the CreativeXR programme, an initiative from Digital Catapult and Arts Council England.
Shezad Dawood, Leviathan Legacy: Pt. 1, 2018, Virtual Reality Environment, Duration variable. Generously supported by DSLcollection, Plymouth Arts Centre, The Marine Institute at Plymouth University, University of Westminster’s Institute of Advanced Studies and the CreativeXR programme, an initiative from Digital Catapult and Arts Council England.

Building on the Leviathan film series, the Leviathan Legacy VR Trilogy jumps 150, 300 & 500 years into the future (respectively). The first part has been developed by working creatively with Marine Science researchers to inform the narrative structure and world-building of an immersive journey future-forecasting 150 years from now, where rising sea levels and calcification of the oceans have led to new hybrid species and social hierarchies.

Akin to world-building science-fiction, this project uses cutting-edge research to imagine and place the viewer in the middle of a plausible, and yet playful narrative journey through our coastal and marine environment of the future. Informed through ongoing dialogue and discussions with Marine biologists, Marine Engineers, Oceanographers and futurists – each instalment imagines the speculative future of reef ecosystems, interspecies hybridity and aquatic moons.

Follow Leviathan online

https://leviathan-cycle.com/

https://www.instagram.com/leviathancycle/

View the Collection

Zak Ové, The Invisible Men, 2016

Johanna Unzueta, Diciembre 2015 Cuernavaca May 2017 NY, 2017

Shezad Dawood, Al Alim, 2008

Urara Tsuchiya, Untitled, 2019