Kalimpong, the Indian city that is the subject – and title – of Shezad Dawood’s first show with Timothy Taylor, is a real place rich with fantastical histories. Located in West Bengal in the Himalayas between Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan and Bangladesh, the site was a meeting ground throughout the 20th century for spies and government officials: a place where exploration, war, empire, religion and tradition intertwine. Dawood’s screenprinted canvases, sculptures and neon work offer glimpses into the city: there’s a mountain with a campsite below it in Expedition (all works 2016), a screenprint coloured with acrylics and featuring a couple of pieces of fabric. Two similar works on canvas (House 1 and House 2) depict the city’s architecture. The two white, bronze and concrete sculptures are busts of those who passed through the city: the French explorer Alexandra David-Néel (who met the Dalai Lama in 1912 in Kalimpong, before slipping into Tibet disguised as a beggar) and the Japanese monk, Ekai Kawaguchi, famous for being the first Japanese national to visit Tibet and Nepal.
The busts of these two adventurers, who both negotiated closed borders, have a shiny white hue and contorted shapes, which makes them seem more like 3D prints than classical sculptures. They are examples of Dawood’s interest in finding new ways of using technology to drive a narrative, which is further explored in a virtual-reality (VR) work, also titled Kalimpong. Here, Dawood embarks on an attempt not to document the place, but to transpose you into it – a very contemporary update on the expeditions of David-Néel, Kawaguchi and their ilk. To see it, you go into a side room of the gallery where you are fitted with head- and handsets that allow one person at a time to visit five scenes the artist has designed.
The first of these is the Himalayan Hotel, run by the British trade agent and author David Macdonald and his heirs since the early 20th century. (Ironically, it is set to become part of the luxury chain Mayfair in 2017.) Wandering through the halls looking at the original, framed black and white photos Dawood has inserted into the virtual design, you’re supposed to look for clues into the days of spies and international intrigue in Kalimpong. When you knock on a door by the staircase, you’re immediately transported outside the hotel into the famous mountain range. Taking in the 360-degree animated view is beautiful, while slowly walking through the Himalayan foothills – the gallery’s cement floor feels disjointed from the information in front of your eyes – instinctively makes you pause. You step into a cave, where you glimpse the community of magic-practising monks living in the caves above Kalimpong that David-Néel described in her 1929 book Magic and Mystery in Tibet. If you exit the cave, you see a monastery and its gardens, which introduce a serene spirituality that is enhanced as you step into the final scene: the interior of a temple. Look at the pictures (painted by Dawood) on the walls; appreciate the lush carpeting and pillows strewn around the floor. If you point to the book resting in the centre of the room, the walls begin to crumble, the carpet fades away and you find yourself in a blue, star-studded haze. It’s VR nirvana: the end of your journey.
VR, at this point, is still a new technology, which very few people have had prolonged experience of. A number of artists have already created VR works, but Dawood does more than design an environment: he builds a linear narrative within it. It remains to be seen whether
or not Kalimpong will have a lasting impact on future viewers, whose homes will be equipped with VR sets; if it does, it will not be on account of Dawood’s use of technology, but for his handling of a time-honoured tradition: storytelling.
First published in Issue 183