Shezad Dawood’s Virtual Reality Artwork The Terrarium (2020) – which will feature in his installations for the Deutsche Bank Wealth Management Shows at the Frieze Shows in October – transports us 300 years into the future, where climate change has made the Earth’s surface 90% composed of ‘water. Here, after being subjected to a series of complex genetic splicing programs, new humans were released from an experimental laboratory in the open Baltic Sea to explore their surroundings.
Donning immersive VR headsets, participants first find themselves in a pitch-black space, which Dawood describes as “a waiting room, where you just get used to your new body.” The phrase ‘waiting room’ evokes historian Dipesh Chakrabarty’s notion of the ‘imaginary waiting room of history’ – a space to which he claims colonial powers banished their subjugated populations. In Dawood’s waiting room, we are all on the threshold of the present and the future, both disembodied and embodied, where the boundaries between the virtual and the real begin to blur.
Once we start exploring The TerrariumThe surreal topography of , we find, dismantles our imposed understanding of ‘true’ perspective – from the front, back or side – offering instead a cosmological and moral break. While this departure may be unsettling, it is inevitable: we must begin our journey from the familiarity of home to the strange. It is precisely here, in the vast and largely unknown depths of the Baltic Sea, that borders dissolve, words no longer point to a thing or an idea, and a state of becoming is unleashed. We no longer belong to our earthly self but to a space, or “ecumene”, of transformation.
Dawood envisions the viewer exploring terranium with a new body, ‘a post-human cephalopod hybrid.’ To imagine this, turn to Dawood’s sculpture, on display at Frieze London, of a multi-tentacled humanoid: Become virtual octopuses (2018).
The work is the artist’s response to Terence McKenna’s 1990 essay “Virtual Reality and Electronic Highs or On Becoming Virtual Octopi”, in which the American ethnobotanist wrote: “I believe that the totemic image of the future is the octopus […] because squids and octopuses have evolved a form of communication that is both psychedelic and telepathic; a model for the human communications of the future. In the not-too-distant future, men and women could shed the ape’s body to become virtual octopuses swimming in a sea of silicon. In this way, Dawood’s figure is both a model of cognition and a portal in time, his jetpack eyes telling tales of future pasts.
Those who will survive the impending changes – and especially the climate crisis – Dawood seems to assert, will be hybrids. Although the notion of hybrid speaks of a post-human(istic) future, it also extends to the past. In the Middle Ages, the margins of illuminated manuscripts – the liminal space where the sacred meets the profane and the profane – were occupied by hybrids: half-man, half-beast, all pell-mell. Like the margin itself, the hybrid is neither, it is what theorist Homi K. Bhabha calls “a subject of difference that is almost the same, but not quite” .
Hybridity is important for its ability to create what Bhabha, in The location of the culture (2004), defines it as a “third space”, an intermediate, virtual, diasporic and transnational space. Dawood’s presentation at Frieze allows us to enter this “third space”: that inhabited by various breaths, which have co-evolved with us, and those which are agents of their own evolution.
For more on Shezad Dawood’s interactive presentation at Deutsche Bank’s Wealth Management shows, stream the latest edition of Art:LIVE here
Main Image: Shezad Dawood, Anthropopangea (Hapalochlaena lunulata)2022. Courtesy of the artist
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