Published in the May 2015 issue of ArtReview
Hassan Khan: Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said
Museum for Modern Art (MMK), Frankfurt, Germany
30 January – 12 April
The title of Egyptian artist, writer and musician Hassan Khan’s first institutional solo show in Germany is borrowed from that of Philip K. Dick’s 1974 dystopic novel which describes the United States of America of the then near future, in 1988. A police state where blacks are eliminated or sterilised, the population is kept compliant through mind-numbing entertainment, drugs and material reward, and surveillance systems monitor citizens’ every action and gesture, this futuristic society no longer seems so implausible. Khan’s exhibition features six works, four commissioned especially for the show, while an earlier video, Studies for Structuralist Film no. 2 (2013), is conceptually integrated. The multimedia works also reflect the artist’s own preoccupations: sound, text and visual forms. Much like in Dick’s novel, whose chapters are connected with a lyrical transition – stanzas from the sorrowful seventeenth-century lute song by John Dowland from which the book’s title derives – the objects in the show are also connected by poetic and obscure relations hinting at grief and dissatisfaction.
In the lobby, there are two works: a window drawing shows two colourful, rather gesturally rendered forlorn male faces looking into opposite directions while the title of the show (also that of the work) is handwritten across the top, In Live Ammunition! (2015) a polyphonic clapping rhythm emanates from four loudspeakers. The faces allude to Dick’s main characters, the policeman Buckman and the pop singer Taverner, a celebrity who one day wakes up a complete unknown, thus losing his identity, and embarks on a soul-searching journey to rediscover himself literally and symbolically. Metaphors for two pillars of power in society, these opposing and mirroring individuals are like the double-faced Janus. This work can also be read, thanks to the interpretation offered in an accompanying poetic text by the artist which can be considered the seventh work in the show, as a comment on the social situation in Egypt where the police and the people are in conflict and yet suffer the same pains , while Live Ammunition!’s tempo evokes hope and its demise, and also alludes to those brief moments of triumph experienced during the democratic protests in Tahrir Square.
In the main hall, a large cube-shaped brick-lined space accessible via stairs, physically transitioning us from one state to another, we find three additional works, while LightShift (2015), changing coloured light on the stairs, underlines this transition but also creates an autonomous environment. A paravan on the left, meaningfully titled The Double Face of Power (2015) and neither hiding nor dividing the space, shows on its three differently coloured surfaces various geometric designs that, through the magic of lighting, create subtle shadows on the floor. In the middle of the space, on a large wooden platform are carefully arranged, globular, ‘stacked glass forms’ (to quote Khan’s text) of various heights. Titled Abstract Music, this mysterious landscape might allude, the artist writes, to the ‘logic of systems’ but as with the paravan, nothing is very clear.
Behind this work is the 2013 video, projected on a rectangular piece of frosted glass suspended between two metal lines attached to the columns enclosing Abstract Music. While the other works lack aesthetic and formal force, fail to engage and are cryptic in their connection to each other and to the theme of the show, instead taking refuge in veiled meanings revealed only through the artist’s own written guide, the film establishes itself as the show’s cornerstone and clearly relates to the theme of power and oppression. In one of the several similarly shot segments of different individuals, a woman sits on a centrally placed chair in an empty white room. The camera circles her repeatedly, her eyes in turn following its movement – a dance of perspectives. Moreover,given the pervasiveness of surveillance, abusive police tactics and increasing oppression in both the democratic world and that considered to be in transition, the video’s dance between watcher and watched creates new levels of meaning and association and also alludes to the duality portrayed in the window drawing. Dick might have envisioned a future America, but our contemporary reality shows that there are no longer clear distinctions between worlds and that we all live in a dystopic dream from which there is no real exit. Olga Stefan