A sense of place pervades the work of British artist Shezad Dawood, but we’re not talking about your picture-postcard nostalgia. Dawood’s first feature film, Piercing Brightness, is at the surface a stylized science-fiction tale, but it could equally be read as a public artwork of sorts. Commissioned by In Certain Places, a public art project in the northwest English town of Preston, this alien intelligence story is in fact the result of several years of visits and interviews with local residents and organizations.
As it happens, Preston has the highest rate of UFO sightings in England, was an early site of the Mormon Church in Europe, and has the fastest-growing Chinese population in the country. The film, which follows two extraterrestrials who land in Preston to round up the “Glorious 100” they sent to Earth generations ago to observe our planet, concerns itself as much with otherness as with the otherworldly. Dawood used locals as extras and shot in abandoned and little-known parts of the town, casting Preston as a maker in its own uncanny portrait. While moving fluidly between documentary aspects and fiction, the film opens with a card declaring, “THE FILM IS BASED ENTIRELY ON FACT-BASED RESEARCH.” Dawood cites John Cassavetes’s film Shadows, a self-declared improvisation, as a reference for this playful opening statement. (That one can come across to references to Cassavetes, Philip K. Dick, and Sufism in writings by and about Dawood speaks to his diverse and inspired lexicon).
In a departure from the genre’s formula, the robe-clad visitors, while disrupting the daily goings-on in the town, do not display ill intent. The ambivalence they exude is matched by that of members of the 100: a government official has taken to Earth and doesn’t want to leave, a Pakistani shopkeeper yearns for home but has developed an affinity for Buster Keaton films, one woman forgot she was an alien at all. Dawood has likened his approach of searching for alternative lines of inquiry to the light spectrum; there are more frequencies than the ones we can see. Science fiction acts as a conduit to speculative realms of imagination and other ways to approach meaning. Dawood’s film has much to say about immigration, identity, and diaspora, but does so without a cut-and-dried edict. Where are any of us from these days, anyway?
Another form of open-endedness exists in relation to format. Dawood’s 2011 piece Trailer purports to be a preview for the unrealized film and functions as a gallery installation; a 45-minute cut is accompanied by an improvised score by Makoto Kawabata, of the Japanese avant-garde group Acid Mothers Temple (who also scored the film); Channel 4 commissions an “actual” trailer that still bears little resemblance to the Hollywood format; a vinyl record soundscape is developed as an artist’s edition. Dawood has spoken of approaching artworks as open-ended research projects that develop over time through collaboration and new contexts. He creates hermetic and densely layered universes in his work, while moving fluidly between them, and there is much to learn from going along for the ride.
On Monday, April 20, Shezad Dawood presents the New York premiere of </i>Piercing Brightness</a> in a special Modern Mondays program. Tickets are on sale now. The Channel 4 version of Trailer will be on view in MoMA’s Film lobby April 17–20.</p>