Interviews

The Multiple Standpoints of Hassan Khan

by Yasmeen Siddiqui on July 9, 2014

17-and-in-AUC-peformanceshot

Hassan Khan, “17 AND IN AUC” (2003), fourteen day performance, sound proofed one-way mirrored room, embedded speakers, microphones, chair and table, beer. (photo by Graham Waite, courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel)

I have known Hassan Khan since 1999. I’ve worked with him twice, having curated the Egypt portion of L’Art dans le monde (2000) in Paris that included a presentation of his video installation “re/lapse” (2000), and a deep dive into his work during graduate school culminating with the installation of “to the man masturbating in the toilet of the Charles De Gaulle airport” in my thesis exhibition Four by Four (2005) at Artists Space in New York. Hassan operates in gallery space, public space, the museum, and the international biennale circuit. He writes and he publishes widely. In each instance, he is drafting and performing new terms of engagement, new paradigms for human encounter.

This artist demonstrates through action and words the rare ability to articulate a feeling, a situation, and an idea from multiple standpoints. He develops strikingly complex projects rupturing the way messages are formed and transmitted, for instance the four channel video installation “The Hidden Location” (2004). This is one among dozens he has developed and presented that can be undressed to reveal an armature formed through his orchestration of antagonistic elements, which in this instance include contexts (office, street, domestic space), monographic dialogues, and the actors. Hassan’s desire to study and generate aesthetic forms and environments that point to processes of knowledge creation surfaced prominently over the course of our three-session chat in late March.

SALT_HiddenLocation2 copy

Hassan Khan, “The Hidden Location” (2004), four channel video installation at SALT Beyoglu 2012 (photo by Serkan Taycan, courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel)

This has been an important year for Hassan. He is a finalist for the prestigious Hugo Boss Award that will be announced this fall. He is in good company with Paul Chan (b. 1973, Hong Kong), Sheela Gowda (b. 1957, Bhadravati, India), Camille Henrot (b. 1978, Paris) and Charline von Heyl (b. 1960, Mainz, Germany).  Equally significant was his first solo show in Cairo in eleven years at D-CAF — Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival that ran from March 31 to April 26. The curator, Beth Styker, decided to put emphasis on ways Hassan uses narrative structures to draw our attention to the importance of language.

This exhibition featured seminal works such as the light and sound installation “DOM TAK TAK DOM TAK” (2005) innovatively installed in a storefront along the Kodak Passageway, a display of the objects and wall text comprising “The Agreement” (2011), texts transcribed onto walls including Mahmoud El-Ansari (2010), and the artist book that resulted from the installation “17 and in AUC” (2003).

The Twist” (2012/2013) and “Banque Bannister” (2010) are sculptures made from hearty, weatherproof material — stainless steel and brass respectively — with explicit references through their form — literally a knot and a bank banister — that orient the viewer and evoke conversation about the linguistic function of specific forms that build our social and physical environment.

videostill from the hidden location2

Hassan Khan, “The Hidden Location” (2004), four channel video installation (courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel)

We conducted our conversation leading up to and during the D-CAF installation period. This conversation is long. It spans three one-hour sessions and discusses in depth many works from Hassan’s career with a raw clarity. The chat format garnered crisp, honest insights that help elucidate some of the contradictory and obtuse aspects of Hassan’s work.

*   *   *

8:55am

Yasmeen Siddiqui

Let’s start with your project Compositions for A Public Park (2013) in Paris for Nuit Blanche. I am

interested in how the site was selected. And then we’ll delve into the content. Tell me about

how the project took its form.

8:56am

Hassan Khan

I was invited to participate in Nuit Blanche a few short months before the event

they sent me choices of possible spaces

including the park and other possibilities

I liked it the most

but they also wanted me there

so we kind of were in agreement

8:57am

Yasmeen Siddiqui

What were the other sites?

8:57am

Hassan Khan

a theater a church a sports center

something like that

some open public pedestrian spaces by the river

the festival takes place in public spaces all over the city for one night

the hidden location videostill

Hassan Khan, “The Hidden Location” (2004), four channel video installation (courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel)

8:58am

Yasmeen Siddiqui

Describe the park in contrasts with the other sites. What attracted you?

8:58am

Hassan Khan

They wanted me to do a concert and screen some videos or something like that for the whole

night

That’s exactly what I didn’t want to do

The park just seemed more enticing, particularly its relation to the public more immediate and

less moderated

8:59am

Yasmeen Siddiqui

You resist being an entertainment center to bolster local tourism

8:59am

Hassan Khan

Ha

That also has something to do with how I approached this piece because I wanted it to engage

an audience in a way that didn’t have to go through the filter of “art”

but I didn’t want it to be merely entertainment

there had to be some grain

some traction

something that resists easy consumption

but that should also be communicable

hence the texts

9:01am

Yasmeen Siddiqui

The libretto is powerful and moving. I would like to know more about its root and what you are

tapping into.

9:01am

Hassan Khan

If it was just the music and the lights it would have been beautiful and enjoyable but just an

ambience in the end

I wanted to find a place where the people visiting the park can recognize something

For instance, they can recognize the voice they hear as possibly someone they know, someone

they can be, someone they were, someone the are afraid of, or love.

But not to do that through identification

The voice is not the hero it’s possibly a voice you may hear inside your head

The Agreement D-CAF

Hassan Khan, “The Agreement” (2011), installation view, Kodak Passageway, Cairo, 2014. Five stories and ten objects. (photo by Mostafa Abd El Aty, courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel)

9:03am

Yasmeen Siddiqui

Do you feel you have accessed an experience, a feeling, a story that transcends disparate

communities with this piece through its content and composition?

9:03am

Hassan Khan

The libretto was recorded in the voice of a man and a woman

Each text is located in a different segment of the park

9:03am

Yasmeen Siddiqui

Why the voice inside your head.

9:04am

Hassan Khan

I knew that if I was to engage the voice inside my head, which is a refraction of the voices

outside of my head, then I would probably strike something that is recognizable without

claiming to be anywhere

and therefore the texts were written in an elastic fashion

The “I” keeps shifting

It’s not very clear who is speaking, at least, in movements 2 and 3

9:04am

Yasmeen Siddiqui

This is a work that I understand as standing apart in the context of your expansive production

9:05am

Hassan Khan

It stands apart because of its nature as a public piece

I don’t think it stands apart in its concerns

or in its process

or in what it worries about

9:05am

Yasmeen Siddiqui

Tell me about your interest in literature. Who do you read, what moves you. Am I correct that

you studied literature?

9:05am

Hassan Khan

Yes I have a BA and an MA in English and Comparative Literature

I don’t read much any more!

I used to a long time ago

I’ve been trying to go beyond the first hundred pages of the Brother Karmazov for a couple of

years now

Although it’s amazing

I can’t seem to be able to just keep going

The Agreement

Hassan Khan, “The Agreement” (2011), installation view, Objectif Exhibitions, Antwerp, 2011. Five stories and ten objects. (photo by Kristien Daem, courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel)

9:06am

Yasmeen Siddiqui

Hold on for a second. Let’s move back to your assertion that this is not a shift – except in the

context of public display

9:07am

OK

In any case writing plays a big role in my work

in the coming exhibition in Cairo

there are a lot of text and narrative pieces

but its just an aspect

The curator is Beth Stryker and she is the one who was highly interested in making that thread

prominent.

Although I can easily put another show together that would make it very minor and make

something else prominent

The space is four spaces, storefront spaces off the Kodak passageway on Adly Street downtown

The spaces were in terrible condition but have been beautifully renovated by CLUSTER

9:15am

Yasmeen Siddiqui

Well, I am pleased that you have made this choice. Let’s discuss the politics behind your

decision. What are your investments and current focus on narrative

hassan-khan-thetwist_w900

Hassan Khan, “The Twist” (2012/13), installation view, SALT, Beyoğlu, 2012. Iron sculpture coated with Stainless Steel, 322 cm long, widest part 13.5 cm, stem 3 cm and twist sections 1.5 cm each as they open out of the stem. (photo by Serkan Taycan, courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel)

9:16am

Hassan Khan

I have always been interested in narrative but I’ve made it more explicit lately

Chapter II is from 2007 and is a sort of disguised fragment

Mahmoud Al-Ansari is from 2010

9:16am

Yasmeen Siddiqui

How do you build narratives?

9:18am

Hassan Khan

In 2011 I was invited by Mai Abu El Dahab who was then the curator at Objectif Exhibitions to do

an exhibition there

At the time I felt a very strong desire and need to write narratives

Two works were born out of this engagement in the same year

The first was Mystery.

Mai invited me to do a performance at some meeting of different sister institutions they had

And I did a piece called A short story based upon a distant memory with a long musical interlude

(the text is published on page 24) http://www.macba.cat/uploads/20111122/02_ang.pdf

And in that piece I read an introduction, which discusses what I am doing and how I work and

why and then I begin a story, which is a sort of “sublimation,” which is an example of what I was

trying to describe

And then at one point I stop the story and perform a piece of music that I had composed for that

piece (here is an excerpt from the composition being performed in a concert as a stand alone

music piece: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R80FKYUerYQ ) and then go back and finish

the storyFor the exhibition itself which was a few months later

I produced “The Agreement”

In that same year, I made another two works very much motivated by narrative

I think the desire might have abated a bit

hassan-khan-banquebannister_w900

Hassan Khan, “Banque Bannister” (2010), installation view, SALT, Beyoğlu, 2012. Brass sculpture, 209 x 260 x 22 cm. (photo by Serkan Taycan, courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel)

9:22am

Yasmeen Siddiqui

Have you studied music formally?

9:22am

Hassan Khan

No

9:23am

Yasmeen Siddiqui

Do you like Opera?

9:23am

Hassan Khan

No, but have never really tried listening to it seriously

It made sense for Composition for a Public Park

9:23am

Yasmeen Siddiqui

What intrigues you about the intersection of narrative and music

9:23am

Hassan Khan

I think it is something else that I am interested in, which is “modulation”

Seeing things in two different ways at the same time

For example, a short story based on a distant memory with a long musical interlude is structured

as two experiences

A text and then a concert and then a text

When you return to the text it has completely changed because of the experience of the music

Yasmeen Siddiqui

With these multiple vantage points, do you use modulation as a lure

9:24am

Hassan Khan

I should explain that the musical piece is very emotional

Not as a lure but rather the actual moment

Something changes

The transformation from one condition to the next is important

I am not sure how or why exactly but I am drawn to it

To sometimes treating it coldly

For example I don’t know if you’ve seen my project in Artforum trusted sources (http://artforum.com/inprint/issue=201308&id=43120)

Each page is a different work

The works might not be cold

But the list is

Dom Dom TAK 2-D-Caf2014_Hassan-Khan-Exhibition_12th-day_by-Mostafa-Abdel-Aty_ (125)

Hassan Khan, “DOM TAK TAK DOM TAK” (2005), installation view, Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF), Cairo, 2014. Music produced by the artist, computer program controlling lights and music, lights, speakers, wall text. (photo by CLUSTER, courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel)

9:35am

Yasmeen Siddiqui

If you are exploring the possibilities of holding multiple views how does this operate in your

work and in your life

9:35am

Hassan Khan

Multiple views for me is not about having different opinions or positions

9:36am

Hassan Khan

It’s about literally seeing two things at the same time

Like a mountain and a sea

As if each eye is independent of the other

In a way, it’s more literal

9:36am

Yasmeen Siddiqui

That seems highly contradictory

9:37am

Hassan Khan

When I say that I also don’t mean it literally

It makes sense to me as an aspiration maybe

Both my eyes usually see the same thing – maybe with a minimal difference in angle

But when it comes to the field of the work

It is possible to function “as if”

That is a possible condition

It’s maybe even productive to do that

9:38am

Hassan Khan

So in trusted sources the modulation is the fact that you jump from piece to piece

The coldness I referred to is in that not necessarily in the content

But in the “list”

Like in DOM TAK TAK DOM TAK from 2005, which I also show in the exhibition

The automated room

D-CAF Installation View

Hassan Khan, “The Twist” (2012/2013), installation view, Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF), Cairo, 2014. Stainless Steel, 322 cm long, widest part 13.5 cm, stem 3 cm and twist sections 1.5 cm each as they open out of the stem. (photo by Mostafa Abd El Aty, courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel)

9:40am

Yasmeen Siddiqui

Do you believe in free-will

9:40am

Hassan Khan

You are not going to get a straight answer. I do usually say that that is a question….

Actually its at the heart of DOM TAK

9:41am

Yasmeen Siddiqui

I know

9:41am

Hassan Khan

Again, I usually refer to it as being concerned with the “cold heart of culture” ( http://

english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/5/25/97750/Arts–Culture/Visual-Art/DCAF-presents-
two-decades-of-Hassan-Khan.aspx )

9:41am

Yasmeen Siddiqui

It is effectively installed in the current exhibition, in a storefront facing Kodak Passageway.

9:41am

Hassan Khan

It is a productive location. I am wanting to “touch the cold heart of culture” and I am quoting

myself from several places here

So I’ve used this formulation over and over

Compositions for a Public Park 1

Hassan Khan, “Composition for a Public Park” (2013), multichannel music and lights installation, Commissioned by Nuit Blanche Festival, Parc du Belleville in Paris. (photo by Martin Argyroglo, courtesy of the artist)

9:41am

Yasmeen Siddiqui

Why are you so fixated, obsessed?

9:42am

Hassan Khan

I am??

9:42am

Yasmeen Siddiqui

I did not want to use those words.

No, you are rigorously tapping the issue.

9:42am

Hassan Khan

But is it that rigorous

I leave lots of space for mistakes

9:42am

Yasmeen Siddiqui

Then, relentless

9:43am

Hassan Khan

And weird desires as well

Sudden swerves

OK

Maybe relentless

I don’t know

yes

Pounding at something

It’s funny because a lot of people think I am completely inconsistent

9:43am

Yasmeen Siddiqui

I have a different experience with what I have seen of your work, which is not all of it. That

might be one of the strengths of the current show, putting emphasis on the ways you construct

narrative as an ever-present strand

9:44am

Hassan Khan

It seems to me that I’ve been incredibly consistent almost since childhood

But I modulate in a funny way

I guess there is a meta-narrative here

9:44am

Yasmeen Siddiqui

Yes, and that is what I want to articulate

9:44am

Hassan Khan

If I look at my work from around 94/95 till now

9:45am

Yasmeen Siddiqui

Just before I met you

9:45am

Hassan Khan

Yes

It starts and stops spins around and moves forward

forms change

approaches change

aesthetics transform

but

there is some core

that is not

a theme

or an issue

or an aesthetic etc

its something else

which remains

and that is the “relentless” you mention

Nuit Blanche 2013. Hassan Khan - Composition for a Public Park,

Hassan Khan, “Composition for a Public Park” (2013), multichannel music and lights installation, Commissioned by Nuit Blanche Festival, Parc du Belleville in Paris. (photo by Martin Argyroglo, courtesy of the artist)

9:46am

Yasmeen Siddiqui

Unsaid

9:46am

Hassan Khan

but actually what I wanted to say

is that if these 19 years are spread out

the way they modulate is maybe similar to how things modulate inside some works at least

like a mirror structure

this is not very tight

cause its only relevant to some work

9:48am

Yasmeen Siddiqui

A loose mirror structure that permeates some or much of your work

I do not get this paradigm. Give me something to hang the concept on

9:49am

Hassan Khan

OK, I am going to send you now a word document, which was my contribution to GAGARIN

(http://www.gagarin.be/back_issues/artist/207)

I went through my notebooks from the early 90s to the present and made a selection of phrases

etc

It is a publication that publishes unpublished stuff by artists

Don’t know if this helps explain that mirror structure

Or maybe we need to think about the “unsaid” you mentioned

9:52am

Yasmeen Siddiqui

The unsaid – is that the feeling – the anxiety?

9:54am

Hassan Khan

I do not know if anxiety is accurate

The unsaid is the consistency that we discussed

it takes me back to our discussion of The Hidden Location, around, I guess, ten years ago

9:55am

Yasmeen Siddiqui

Wow – yes, that takes me back. That work is densely packed with content. The work is organized

by four projections. There are sixteen stories that intertwine and interrelate through the action

of viewing the installation. New Yorker’s got lucky, as it was in your recent Queens Museum

exhibition (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UqbbOYA5KpE). It was supposed to be in my

thesis show in 2005, but it broke my budget. Regardless, our conversation about the piece was

fruitful.

Hassan Khan

Yes

We discussed what that “hidden location” was or what it meant

9:56am

Yasmeen Siddiqui

Bingo!

Ammunition of the Nation

Hassan Khan, “The Ammunition of the Nation” (2011), installation view, Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF), Cairo, 2014. Plexiglass letters, 6 x 180 x 10.50 cm. (photo by Mostafa Abd El Aty, courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel)

9:56am

Hassan Khan

I was thinking of that

And how it is similar to what we are describing here, “the unsaid”

9:57am

Yasmeen Siddiqui

Full circle

9:57am

Hassan Khan

But maybe not

Maybe this is the lazy way out and we should develop something else

9:57am

Yasmeen Siddiqui

I have to find the precise words to get at what many pages got at in our last interview. We can

go in a new direction once we recall that point.

9:58am

Hassan Khan

Yes

But I am going to suggest we continue tomorrow

*   *   *

Our conversation did continue. Over the subsequent two sessions we exchanged a multitude of ideas about knowledge, its formations and formulations. In the process, Hassan mapped the steps he took to create several artworks as well as recent texts, specifically Mystery, Nine Lessons Learned From Sherif Al Azma, In Defense of the Corrupt IntellectualA Monster Was Born, and The Knot.

We discussed literary genres and how he extrapolates meanings from the structure of expression employed in lowbrow mystery novellas written for boys. This moment was critical to the overarching conversation. What began to surface can be expressed in summation as Hassan’s Ontology; we were able to tackle some of the strategies he employs to articulate his existence.

For twenty years and counting, via all means possible (video, writing, sculpture, performance, music installation), Hassan has proposed and re-proposed, broken apart and rebuilt material and conceptual frameworks for the creation and dissemination of social, political, and cultural information. What may seem erratic, disparate, schizophrenic, and impatient might instead be read as a thoughtful, methodical, and relentless reconstruction of, as Hassan puts it, his process of defining the sum total of knowledge.

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