Critics’ Picks

View of “Wael Shawky,” 2016–17.

View of “Wael Shawky,” 2016–17.


Wael Shawky

Castello di Rivoli
Piazza Mafalda di Savoia
November 3, 2016–February 5, 2017

Wael Shawky’s serial film project “Cabaret Crusades,” first presented in its complete form in 2015 at MoMA PS1, maintains its macabre ability to fascinate and horrify at the Castello di Rivoli. For his one-man show at the Castello, Shawky produced an entirely new site-specific environment for the films, with two of the three projected in bubble-gum pink facsimiles of medieval fortresses that forcefully occupy the venue’s cavernous top floor. Grotesque in appearance but comically subdued in their dramatic presence, the puppets that populate Shawky’s films commiserate, betray, and murder their way through the artist’s phantasmagoric retelling of the Crusades. Many of the puppets of the third film, The Secrets of Karbala, 2014, are also exhibited at the Castello. Specially produced for Secrets by glass workers in Murano, the marionettes evince a monstrous fragility, combining human and animal features in chimerical concoctions. The puppets that play the part of the treacherous Venetians in Shawky’s film are especially fantastical, chthonic fusions of doge and crustacean that reflect the gallery lights with their glossy shells.

New to this show are three large-scale wooden relief sculptures that appropriate Crusades-related painterly compositions by Eugène Delacroix, Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen, and Alexandre Jean-Baptiste Hesse. Collaborating with woodworkers from the Veneto, Shawky has reimagined these artists’ works by inserting bizarre additions, such as a colossal leviathan that squats on the horizon of van Wieringen’s naval battle and a cane-wielding aberration that perches on a balcony in Hesse’s court scene. As the final stage of Shawky’s engagement with the Crusades, which brought together artistic traditions from throughout the Levant and beyond in a truly cosmopolitan, utopian vision, the reliefs mark a triumphant conclusion to his artistic dialogue with the material and visual cultures of the medieval Mediterranean world.