Hassan Khan
A Space Gallery, Toronto (April 1 - 29, 2005)

Khan's The Hidden Location stands among the strongest work that has shown at this space in recent memory, a video projection that fills its four walls. Khan demands that you keep your eyes and body in motion to follow all the action, no mean feat thanks to the absence of seating and the hour-long running time. His demanding but highly satisfying installation is structured as a series of vignettes that foreground the performative nature of urban life (specifically in Cairo) and alternately mock, frustrate and indulge the camera's colonizing eye. Unlike many lazy contemporaries, Kahn uses the multi-screen format to its utmost potential: in one vignette, an older man, middle-aged woman, young man and young woman implore us from the four walls – each using a different affective strategy – to pay attention to them right now. They demand that we listen, speak to and look at them but there is no way to possibly satisfy all at once, and even if we did, they are simply moving pictures of actors speaking into a camera half a world away and who knows how long ago. The performers know that their desires will go unsated, and Kahn emphasizes the artifice of such a scene by having all four of them stare out at us in silence before launching into their rants. The actors' self-awareness is visible in other scenes as well, where everyday activities such as a husband and wife walking and talking together after work are rendered uncanny through their performance to the camera as cinema verité. More importantly, they are made strange through their abstraction into a cubed space with the "hidden location" that of the viewer stuck in the middle. A simple narrative trajectory of a man waking, dressing, washing and drinking a cup of coffee is expanded in space, each wall showing a room that acts as a stage for a different phase of his morning ritual. (The scenes of each room are only animated when they are "in use" by the man, creating palpable suspense.) Another sequence features an empty, anonymous looking bedroom in one frame, another features a half-dozen handsome young men milling about this room aimlessly (though suggestively), a third frame shows these men splayed around the bed reading a text in unison, and the fourth features the same arrangement with the men silent. Here the homoerotic atmosphere and seamy story – a charged sexual encounter thwarted by impotence – stand in sharp contrast to the chorus’s rigid, recitational delivery.

The vignettes have a profound cumulative effect, plumbing Egypt's cultural politics through their traces in everyday gestures and thankfully avoiding didacticism. However, there are also more straightforwardly mundane images that bridge these dramatically and conceptually inventive segments: urban green spaces and boats in a harbour among them. I pity those spectators who walked into the installation during the scenes featuring a nightclub or road traffic, both are quite long and meditative, but lack the immense intelligence and wit of most of the other sequences.

Kahn's soundtrack is as multivocal and dissonant as his juxtaposed images: a symphony of subtitled and unsubtitled voices, car alarms and cell phones in competition with one another. This potential for vocal diversity is foiled most thoroughly by the scene of an English (or rather Corporatese-) speaking woman describing her company's elaborate, absurd games used to train employees in proper communication. Each of the three other screens features actors performing "work" in an office built inside a cube on a light-bathed soundstage. The trainer only speaks and never listens, the employees are unaware of her existence (their own voices drowned out by hers), and each is painfully isolated one from the other.