The artist appears to have a simple and urgent proposition: to render the past absurd is to neutralise the rhetoric of the political right.
Without a golden age to hark about, no one can promise to make America, the UK, or India ‘great again’. And we can instead progress to a state of internationalism, equal rights, economic parity and perpetual peace.
Rahal lives in Mumbai, but he points out that the whole planet is “kind of a scary place to be working, globally”. He is, however, welcome in the North West, where for the duration of the 2016 Liverpool Biennial, his sculpture and film is being shown across three sites.
We met at Cains Brewery, a cavernous space for art enjoying a good year. It is however scruffy, and Rahal’s work looks in keeping with the general state of repair. It is the first thing a visitor sees: nuggets of clay arranged on trestle-like tables; bits of scaffold, locally sourced, covered in clay; and black-box monitors which appear to emerge from the mess on which figurines breathe or practice with lightsabers.
“I’m a huge nerd and I obviously have all these Star Wars references”, the artist cheerfully informs me. But like many contemporary sculptors, he aims both high and low, looking to Jorge Luis Borges for ”vast metaphysical narratives”, and for that writer’s concern with “creating this itinerary of our culture”.
In short, this itinerary is dystopian. The artefacts presented appear fresh from some archaeological dig. But what kind of half-formed world do they conjure up? A: it is a world run by idiots in which technology has failed us and we have forgotten basic craft skills. And that seems to me the worst of all possible worlds.
“I like the fact that these characters, or these objects of clay could somehow become like harbingers of something, you know?” Rahul tells me as we contemplate his pottery-based triage stations which all appear to somehow breathe in the light of the moving image work.
He also says: “I’m more interested in putting them together to form meaning… from these absurd things, which are beyond reason in a certain way. In that meaning-making ritual that people perform, how do we create allegiances? How do we create bonds across space-time?”
An interest in travel and time travel chimes in well with the 2016 Biennial, which is a nebulous animal in which Monuments from the Future is one of six official themes. You may find, as I did, that as you come across Rahal’s work more than once, you build a picture of what might be becoming.
It is a picture of a primitive time around the corner. Rahal expresses concern about right wing governments that have followed the Arab Spring, the rise of presidential candidate Donald Trump, and the hate-filled effect of Brexit here in the UK.
If politics is performative, the artist has another highly political aspect to his practice. Rahul stages improvised, ritualistic performances which offer only “fleeting, fragmented glimpses” of a narrative, and which change gear according to pop cultural requests from his viewers.
“Even I don’t have a bead on [these],” he tells me. “Essentially, what’s interesting for me is that I’m also a viewer as well.” One supposes that in these powerless times, we are all to a degree little more than viewers, even as we march, occupy, tweet or blog.
But perhaps in the light of our political horizons, we’ll do well to maintain any civilisation at all.
Despite everything, Rahal is making the most of circumstances: “Earthenware has so much meaning to our origins so I’m drawn to that, but saying that it’s also so much fun to just dive into clay and get mud all over me.”
As well he might, since in Summer 2016 we are all up to the neck in it.
4000 years after their first use in Egypt, Wael Shawky has made marionettes a central part of his art practice, spooking the viewer with what some say is the oldest form of theatre.
These puppets are not found objects. The artist has them made using glass and ceramic to render a cast of plenty, in period dress, who range from ethnic caricature to alien xenomorph.
As destructible as a truce, these include more than 100 hand-blown glass marionettes made by the maestros in Venice, a city with its own minor role in the crusades.
Shawky’s theme here is the millennium-old strife between Christianity and Islam or, more accurately, between Islam and Christianity. After all, those of Islamic faith were on home turf.
But the drama is inspired by Arab accounts of the 11th and 12th centuries, when invading knights from Northern Europe waged a war – of varying degrees of holiness – in the Levant.
Take for instance this account by Ralph of Caen: “In Ma’arra [today in Syria], our troops boiled pagan adults in cooking pots; they impaled children on spits and devoured them grilled.”
Whether or not this grim moment appears in Cabaret Crusades, I can’t say. The new show in Doha is beyond my usual patch. But even on film, you sense these puppets are capable of anything.
And this. As the 9th century rolled around, Baghdad was the most powerful and civilised place on earth with 1,000 physicians, free healthcare, regular post, working sewers and good water supply.
The early Iraqis even had global banking, with several overseas bank branches in China. That’s kind of mindblowing, whereas what the invaders had was apparently chainmail and brutality.
Such factoids are on almost every page of the book mentioned by Shawky in generous interviews: The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf. It’s highly recommended.
Art also figures in this reprehensible past. Upon witnessing the siege of Acre in 1189, historian Ibn al-Athir reports the use of a painting of Muhammad beating Jesus: “to incite people to vengeance”.
Cabaret Crusades is unlikely to inspire fanaticism on either side. But what the puppets may well tell you clearly that history is full of treachery, intrigue and reversals of fate.
So if in recent years you’ve been surprised or indeed exasperated by inconsistencies in US and UK foreign policy, look upon these fragile, mutually dependent figures and realise it was every thus.
Wael Shawky: Cabaret Crusades and Other Stories can be seen at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, until 16 August.
This interview with Shawky and clips of the action is well worth a look.