View of “Shezad Dawood,” 2016. Wallpaper: Tantric Wallpaper, 2016. From left: Cave Variation 1, 2016; Cave Interior, 2016.

View of “Shezad Dawood,” 2016. Wallpaper: Tantric Wallpaper, 2016. From left: Cave Variation 1, 2016; Cave Interior, 2016.

Shezad Dawood

Timothy Taylor Gallery

View of “Shezad Dawood,” 2016. Wallpaper: Tantric Wallpaper, 2016. From left: Cave Variation 1, 2016; Cave Interior, 2016.

In October I went to Kalimpong, a small town in West Bengal, India. I traversed the snowy peaks of the Himalayas, where I followed the hulking form of an abominable snowman until he dissolved into iridescent mist. I visited the venerable Himalayan Hotel, once owned by the British trade agent David Macdonald, with its multicultural decor, potted plants, and Tibetan scrolls. Here, I picked up an ancient manuscript and, with trepidation, approached a giant bony finger enclosed in a glass cabinet—the relic of a yeti? As I left the warm, protective atmosphere of the hotel, I entered a dark cave. I was scared; I met a Buddhist monk. And then, suddenly, the earth seemed to move, to slide away. I was floating, suspended in a midnight sky glittering with silvery stars. I had reached Nirvana.

There is a more prosaic way of describing what I did that day: I was in London, visiting Shezad Dawood’s Kalimpong (all works 2016)—the artist’s first immersive virtual-reality (VR) environment. Dawood’s eponymous solo show also included two bronze sculptures (one of spiritualist-explorer Alexandra David-Néel, the other of her friend the Japanese monk Ekai Kawaguchi), six canvases, Tantric Wallpaper (a black fabric decorated with fluorescent pink halos, mimicking tantric symbols), and Thongsha Gompa—neon lights that simulated a Bhutanese monastery or a stage (depending on the angle from which they were viewed).

“Kalimpong” deals, obliquely, with the sociopolitical history of the tiny hill station of the same name, nestled in the Himalayan foothills. Located near the border between the Indian states of West Bengal and Sikkim, it occupied a privileged position on the ancient Silk Road. Its recent past is less glamorous: It was a battleground for India and China, the launching pad for the Tibetan resistance, and still harbors separatist nationalist movements. In between, in the 1950s, Kalimpong was the site of Euro-American spy games and later a counterculture playground (Beat poet Allen Ginsberg visited in quest of spirituality and LSD). Dawood’s multimedia paintings—juxtaposing acrylic, screen-printing, and pieces of traditional textile (West Bengal is famous for its fabrics)—enacted these mixed agendas. Perched on Tantric Wallpaper, the paintings hinted at the interpenetration of the sacred and profane in Kalimpong’s heady climes. The swirling images of the painting Cave Variation 1 resemble snowcapped mountains as well as maps. Here, a dark shape hovers over a sky-blue background, forming a sinister contrast to the gold-flecked brocade nearby. Perhaps the work’s allusions to the textile trade, shifting landscapes, and cartography evoke the ephemerality of the region’s borders.

Dawood’s display seemed to play up colonial stereotypes about the “Far” East: It took us on an exotic journey and gave us a high with trippy wallpaper and neon lights like those found in Asian-themed fairgrounds. Yet it also probed ideas of authenticity. When things looked real in this virtual Kalimpong, they were definitely fabricated. Visitors’ faux passage through the Himalayas followed in the footsteps of the yeti expeditions conducted in the 1950s by Texan millionaire Tom Slick. Slick—like the (mythical?) snowman—was famously elusive. He could have been a real explorer. Or his expeditions might have cloaked CIA espionage. History books provide no clear answers. Neither does Dawood. In his Kalimpong, a yeti appears amid two kinds of snow: a simulated blizzard as well as the digitally generated video static that shares the same name. So the yeti is at his most lifelike when everything around him appears fake. Nirvana, after all, is a paradoxical concept. If we believe in the possibility of enlightenment, we believe that what is real about reality is its unreality. We live the dream; we dream we live.

Zehra Jumabhoy