Kunstsammlung NRW
Werkstatt auf Murano: Entstehen der Glas-Marionetten, Foto: Kunstsammlung
making of

Behind the Looking Glass: A Visit to Wael Shawky on Murano

Opening at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in September of 2014 will be an exhibition dedicated to the Egyptian artist Wael Shawky (born in 1971), at whose center will be the “Cabaret Crusades” films. Currently, Shawky is working on Murano in the middle of the Venetian Lagoon on the third part of his marionette epic, which narrates the history of the medieval crusades from an Arab perspective.

During a recent visit to Murano, Doris Krystof and Ansgar Lorenz learned exactly what the artist is up to at the historically rich center of European glass production.


En Route in the Lagoon

On the way to Murano, you already receive an initial sense of why it was here in Venice, of all places, that a singular understanding of the fragile material glass developed over the centuries. Here, the so to speak “Hephaistian” charm of the glassworks and the pale light of the lagoon enter into a unique synthesis.

But it is not this striking atmosphere that brings us to Wael Shawky on the archipelago. Instead, we expect a preview of the “performers” who star in the third and final part of "Cabaret Crusades." For while historic wooden puppets from the Lupi collection in Turin were featured in the Part I ("The Horror Show File,” 2010), and artfully elaborated ceramic marionettes from Aubagne in southern France in Part II ("The Path to Cairo,” 2012), glass marionettes will be appearing in "The Secrets of Karbala.” And it was his search for suitable producers of such hitherto unimaginable, fragile, transparent figures that brought Shawky to the glass workshop of Adriano Berengo on Murano.

Foto: Kunstsammlung

More than 100 Glass Performers

Wael Shawky requires more than 100 movable and a large number of static marionettes and performers for his new work. He discovered the prototypes for the glass marionettes he has designed in the collection of historic African sculptures in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. For the past three months, Shawky has been on Murano, where he is striving to realize his vision with the assistance of a number of local glass specialists. Even for experienced craftsman, the extraordinary commission – which has for months now occupied the two maestri and a number of assistants – represents a completely new challenge. In order to fashion the glass elements of the figures, they require not just sketches from the artist, but clay maquettes as well.

At that point, the various body parts of the puppets are produced in glass. In a subsequent phase, the parts are carefully assembled into complete marionettes: when they are finished, torsos, arms, legs, heads, mouth, eyes, and eyelids are independently movable. The final products are fantastical, translucent creatures, surreal beings somewhere between human and animal. Also manufactured on Murano are sumptuous costumes in puppet dimensions, coats, furs, cloaks bearing the emblem of the crusaders, all assembled by an Italian tailor with loving attention to detail. 

photo: Kunstsammlung

Who Pulls the Strings of History?

The marionettes in Shawky’s "Cabaret Crusades" embody figures from the history of the Crusades. Given the conflicts raging today in the Middle East, the theme remains highly current even after one thousand years. Interpolated into the third part is a retrospect of the 7th century Battle of Karbala, which led to the division of Muslims into Shiites and Sunnis. The film itself is set principally in the second half of the twelfth century, and concludes with the Venetian siege of Constantinople in the year 1204. Legendary figures such as Saladin, Richard the Lion Hearted, and Frederick Barbarossa struggle for supremacy in the Mediterranean. Back then, with a vast shift in the balance of power, the stage was set for events that continue to unfold today. But who actually pulls the strings of history? Shawky’s marionettes, guided by strings as though by remote control, embody urgent questions about authority, manipulation, and the possibilities of political action.

Altogether, Shawky’s “Cabaret Crusades" is the outcome of highly intricate work stages, the collaborative achievement of an international team of highly experienced specialists and passionate amateurs. Processes of collaboration and exchange are consistently at the heart of For Shawky’s enterprise; equally central is the genius loci of the respective location where production takes place.

In the case of "Cabaret Crusades," it is not just that France, Italy, and Germany – the lands where the Crusades were initiated – serve as production locations, thereby entering into the trilogy. Important as well are the multifarious references – not always readily decipherable for Westerners – to ongoing political events in the Middle East, specifically during the past five years when the trilogy was being created.

In May, in the course of preparations for the exhibition "Wael Shawky," which will be on view in the Grabbe Halle of the K20 from September 6, 2014 to January 4, 2015, Doris Krystof (curator) and Ansgar Lorenz (exhibition assistant) traveled to Murano, whose singular atmosphere in the Lagoon is suggestive of Hephaistos, the god of fire and of the forge. Impressed by the handcrafted pieces produced in the glass workshops, they returned with this contribution to #32. In summertime, preparations will proceed with Wael Shawky in Düsseldorf: the filming on "The Secrets of Karbala" is scheduled for October, and the premiere of the 3rd part of the film is expected to take place in the exhibition in early December. Meanwhile, a number of events in the series "Futur 3" will be devoted to the theme of Egyptian art and society.