Desert discotheque

Diana Klaosen: Fassih Keiso, Not Only Skins and Fabric

You enter a darkened gallery strategically dotted with unidentified objects. Besides the darkness, the most pervasive element is the pulsating soundscape that incorporates traditional Arabic song and contemporary Western dance/club music. As your eyes adjust, the video projections at either end of the gallery seem to change from amorphous, whirling colours to images of festive folkloric Arabic dance: on one wall, belly dancers writhing to a Syrian song; on the other, a group of dancers in bright, Arabic costumes have been paired with an upbeat, disco soundtrack, strikingly recontextualised by this unusual juxtaposition.

Welcome to Fassih Keiso’s installation at Hobart’s CAST Gallery: Not Only Skins and Fabric.

Keiso is a Syrian-born artist who completed a BFA in interior design and a postgraduate diploma in theatre design at the University of Lebanon before coming to Australia. He is currently a PhD candidate at the Sydney College of the Arts. His areas of study are echoed in the spectacle—the theatricality—of this installation, the attention to detail evident in the work and his calculated use and manipulation of interior space.

Keiso has a comprehensive history of solo exhibitions, installations and performance works in far-flung venues from New York to Poland, Tunisia to Melbourne and Syria to Sydney. He is also a film and videomaker and has taken part in dozens of group shows in Australia and internationally. He has recently capped off an impressive record of prizes, grants and residencies by being selected as one of this year’s winners of the prestigious Samstag International Visual Arts Travelling Scholarships.

Over recent years, Keiso’s work has “examined the tensions between current Middle-Eastern and western perceptions of the body and sexuality.” He connects traditional Arabic elements relating to the body with technologies and media such as video, slide projection, photography and computer-imaging to present them in a contemporary context. This permits an absorbing, personalised view of the body in Arabic culture, opening up a compelling dialogue for viewers.

Besides the technology, other elements dot the gallery. Large animal-skin drums become the ‘screens’ for the slide projections: in one instance the word “skin” is superimposed on what seems to be a vastly enlarged, confronting close-up of a surgically stitched wound on golden flesh—tiny wrinkles, blemishes and downy body hair are all exaggerated in size to create something perversely fascinating. To add to the bizarre ambience, each of several drums is accompanied by drumsticks, inviting the gallery visitor to contibute to the gallery’s soundscape.

To this increasingly eclectic mix, Keiso has added a mirror ball—symbol and cliché par excellence of western disco culture—and flashing party lights: a sort of “discothèque in a tribal, desert tent” effect and a strange amalgam of 2 very different and very strong cultures. The overall work is dazzling, even dizzying—it truly impacts on the gallery visitor who physically experiences and becomes part of the installation.

The work succeeds in Keiso’s aim of “examining the cultural politics of sexuality and morality” through the body’s absence in Arabic representation contrasted with its presence, even ubiquity, in western culture and representation. The work effectively challenges western definitions and views of Middle Eastern cultures and the perceptions and even clichés these ideas perpetuate. Not Only Skins and Fabric takes 2 cultures and questions the dichotomy between the perception of western society as open and contemporary versus the idea of Arab culture as Other, traditional and exotic.

Not Only Skins and Fabric is a celebratory, uplifting, thought-provoking work. Keiso clearly values his Syrian Arabic heritage and is able to impart this to his audience. In an Australia currently struggling to maintain its multicultural image, works such as this are particularly relevant.

Not Only Skins and Fabric, installation by Fassih Keiso, Contemporary Art Services Tasmania Gallery, North Hobart, June 8-July 1

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 29

© Di Klaosen; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2001