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Art review: Leviathan by Shezad Dawood (Salisbury Cathedral)

12 January 2024

Jonathan Evens views Shezad Dawood’s exhibition in Salisbury

Finnbarr Webster

Installation view, “Leviathan”, Salisbury Cathedral, Salisbury, 2023.

Installation view, “Leviathan”, Salisbury Cathedral, Salisbury, 2023.

IT IS in the smallest chapel at Salisbury Cathedral, the Audley Chapel, that the centrepiece of the current expansive exhibition is to be found.

Leviathan is a 12 × 40 × 50cm resin sculpture of an image taken from John Huston’s film adaptation of Moby Dick. In the scene from the film, Captain Ahab climbs on to the whale’s back and stabs him until Moby Dick submerges, entangling Ahab in the harpoon lines on his back and drowning him. This image exemplifies the tension in the relationship between human beings and nature which has, for many years, been primarily about the survival of the fittest, thus involving exploitation and domination.

Exhibited in a chantry chapel, the work takes on further layers of meaning in terms of whether a future can be imagined that is not simply more of the same, but, perhaps, a vision of eternity involving a new heaven and a new earth where pain, suffering, death, and grief are no more.

This exhibition at Salisbury Cathedral is the first to bring Shezad Dawood’s installations, films, and sculptures into a sacred space that opens up such questions. Dawood is a multidisciplinary artist who interweaves stories, realities, and symbolism to create richly layered artworks, spanning painting, textiles, sculpture, film, and digital media. Fascinated by ecologies and architecture, his work asks philosophical questions and explores alternative futures through “world-building” and “imagineering”.

As well as the exhibition title and resin sculpture, Leviathan is also a ten-series set of films by Dawood, of which eight have been completed to date. The seventh and eighth are being shown here. As an exercise in future-building in the light of the climate emergency, the first five films in the series explore catastrophe, while the final five consider what, in the present, might create futures in which the climate emergency was addressed. As such, they were particularly appropriate to Advent, with its themes of the Four Last Things.

Each film has involved extensive collaboration with partners (including marine biologists, oceanographers, political scientists, neurologists, evolutionary geneticists, forensic anthropologists, trauma specialists and activists) in each location featured. For the eighth film in the series, Cris, Sandra, Papa & Yasmine, Dawood acted only as editor, handing control of all other aspects to the Guarani scriptwriters, directors, and activists Carlos Papá, Cristine Takuá, Sandra Benites, and Brazilian artist and researcher Anita Ekman.

Their poetic evocation of the Atlantic Forest in Brazil intersperses the imagined journey of Dawood’s protagonist Yasmine with accounts, songs, and the retelling of foundational Guarani origin stories. The film looks beyond the environmental, physical, and psychological challenges that we currently face to consider new strategies for working and living together.

Finnbarr WebsterInstallation view, “Leviathan”, Salisbury Cathedral, Salisbury, 2023

Like many other curators currently, Beth Hughes, in the exhibitions that she curates at Salisbury Cathedral, is working with big issues and themes common to humanity. This exhibition will lead on to “Our Earth”, a 2024 exhibition addressing the climate challenge and how we are affecting this planet, while the previous exhibition, “To Be Free: Art and Liberty”, began a conversation about freedom and human rights which is then continued here.

Where do we go now? is a polychromatic painted sculpture, depicting sailors in a small boat encountering a whale, which is inspired by engravings and illustrations from Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub, a 1704 pamphlet on the nature of legitimate government. The whale represents the State, which threatens to destroy the vessel, prompting the sailors to throw a barrel (or “tub”) representing their labour (or “capital”) overboard to distract it. With figures representing refugees and placed within the cathedral’s 1215 Magna Carta exhibition space, this sculpture prompts visitors to consider the legacy of Magna Carta and the rights and freedoms of refugees.

Hung in the central aisle of the cathedral are a series of powerfully affecting textile paintings from the “Labanof Cycle” which feature objects recovered from the seabed by a team from the Laboratory of Anthropological Forensics (LABANOF) at the University of Milan. These forensic anthropologists go out with UN rescue teams to retrieve and catalogue personal possessions found after a refugee ship has foundered. Ranging from a pinch of earth wrapped in a twist of clingfilm to a passport and a faded photograph, the artworks are tribute to lives lost and those that were saved.

These paintings provide an opportunity to reflect, too, on the story of the slaughter of the innocents and the flight into Egypt. Canon Kenneth Padley, cathedral Treasurer, who chairs its arts advisory panel, has said: “This exhibition is a timely reminder, amid the anticipation and excitement of Advent and Christmas, that Jesus and his family were refugees and were being persecuted.”

“Leviathan” is in Salisbury Cathedral until 4 February. www.salisburycathedral.org.uk

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