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View of “Wael Shawky,” 2019. Background: The Gulf Project Camp: Carved wood (after ‘Nighttime in a City’ by Mir Sayyid Ali, c.1540), 2019. Foreground, from left: The Gulf Project Camp: Glass Sculpture # 1, 2019; The Gulf Project Camp: Sculpture # 5, 2019.

View of “Wael Shawky,” 2019. Background: The Gulf Project Camp: Carved wood (after ‘Nighttime in a City’ by Mir Sayyid Ali, c.1540), 2019. Foreground, from left: The Gulf Project Camp: Glass Sculpture # 1, 2019; The Gulf Project Camp: Sculpture # 5, 2019.

Wael Shawky

The sensuous impact of Wael Shawky’s exhibition “The Gulf Project Camp” at Lisson Gallery was stunning, immediate. Soaring walls glistened, slicked with a pearly pink that offset the poisonously fulgent cyan of a crumbly, crenellated gypsum structure zigzagging to nowhere in the middle of the room. Then we noticed the scent—a deeply historical aroma that emanated from five grand reliefs exquisitely crafted out of hefty timber planks that were between four hundred and two thousand years old. The gallery told me the ancient cellulose was obtained from a company in Mestre, Italy, known for its vast resources, but I wondered if the wood was truly that old or if I was falling for a bit of mythmaking—which would be in keeping with the program of Shawky’s “Gulf Project Camp” series, with its encrypted allusions to the history of the Arab peninsula commingled with layers of fantasy.

The first of these pieces was The Gulf Project Camp: Carved wood (after Khamsa ‘Five Poems’ by Nizami, 1442), all works 2019, whose title references a splendid illuminated manuscript of poems by Nizami Ganjavi (1141–1209), a hero of Persian literature. Sprouting out of terra-cotta and pastel-blue rocks is a gorgeous building—its facade cut with seemingly impossible and intricately rendered patterns—replete with arches, ramparts supporting azure turrets, and a dome. The palace’s various wings are depicted in a flat, stylized perspective—appropriate to the kind of art that was created in Ganjavi’s era. And looming behind all of this is an enormous animal equipped with a curiously impressive nose. Its blue skin is textured with delicate carvings to indicate shaggy fur. The beast’s eye is closed—so that the viewer could admire its luxurious lashes.

In the massive The Gulf Project Camp: Carved wood (after ‘Hajj [Panoramic Overview of Mecca’] by Andreas Magnus Hunglinger, 1803), we found a dinosaur-like being with an elegant, attenuated neck and a craggy, mountainous body. It peacefully guards the extraordinary (and extraordinarily empty) holy site of the work’s title. The Gulf Project Camp: Mirror (after Mir Sayyid Ali’s ‘Nightlife of the Palace’, 1539–1543 CE), was one of the show’s two marvelous bas-relief glass pieces manufactured by the Berengo Studio in Venice. In it, a mystical, camel-like creature presides over a monochromatic tableau in pale petal pink where the exterior of a royal dwelling has been removed to reveal a city’s worth of small figures busily engaged in activities from serving bread to sermonizing. A mirror placed behind the glass allowed us to see its crystalline layers, veined with minuscule cracks and speckled with air bubbles, adding to the sense of timeworn beauty.

Shawky then absconded into pure reverie with a theatrical gypsum construction supporting five sculptures that are paradoxically futuristic while also belonging to some alternative past. A fuchsia palm tree and roseate architectural ruin, The Gulf Project Camp: Glass Sculpture # 1, seemed to glow as if extracted from a luminous computer screen, while the bronze The Gulf Project Camp: Sculpture # 4 presented a creepily arachnoid mountain range containing a proudly erect minaret.

Shawky’s projects tend to be substantial and imposing in their materiality and are sometimes accompanied by ethereal drawings, like footnotes to his slippery stories. That was the case here, too—a side gallery presented thirty-seven mixed-media paintings on cotton paper. Recognizable figures emerged (Richard Nixon’s leering mug; a suspicious-looking King Faisal of Saudi Arabia), but they didn’t illuminate Shawky’s abstractly poetic narrative so much as interject iconography culled from numerous sources to confound a peaceful, chimerical landscape.

At the gallery’s front desk was a copy of Abdul Rahman Munif’s 1984 novel, Cities of Salt, about the discovery of oil in an idyllic oasis. In an interview about the book, the author predicted a time when “the first waves will dissolve the salt and reduce these great glass cities [of the Persian Gulf] to dust.” But his book ends with the words “hope for the best. No one can read the future.” Shawky, similarly, dismantles canonical histories of the region’s past. His art makes room for magic, faith, and strangeness, offering us possibilities we couldn’t otherwise imagine.