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New at MoMA PS1 | Wael Shawky’s 'Cabaret Crusades'
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New at MoMA PS1 | Wael Shawky’s 'Cabaret Crusades'

Picture of Patricia Contino
Updated: 18 October 2016
Of all the things about PS 1 – the original artwork, its neighborly feel, eating at either their own M. Wells Dinette or the Court Square Diner near the subway station – the best is that it still resembles the school it once was. The current exhibition on PS 1’s third floor, Wael Shawky’s Cabaret Crusades, combines education and art to tell the complicated history of The Crusades from an Arab perspective.

Multidisciplinary is too convenient a term to describe what Egyptian-born Shawky accomplishes. In three stylistically contrasting and compelling videos (with English subtitles), he recreates a world event on a deliberately small scale. Visitors do not have to view the videos in order or watch from their respective starting points because together they form a powerful presentation of the cataclysmic legacy of the Crusades (1100-1300 AD). Shawky’s primary source is Lebanese historian Amin Maalouf’s The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (1989), which incorporates both the Catholic Church’s attempt to conquer the Holy Land and the infighting among various Muslim groups.

The actors in the videos are neither human nor computer generated: they are marionettes. Their immovable faces, limited physicality and the disturbing clicking sound they make when their eyes shut and open make them effective, time-honored storytellers; Puppet shows like Punch and Judy are rooted in violence. The exhibit’s main hall is lined with two long cases of marionettes lined up on a long march. One case contains figures appearing in Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show Files (2010) and Cabaret Crusades: The Path to Cairo (2012), and the other holds puppets from Cabaret Crusades: Secrets of the Karbala (2015). Each one is a work of art.

Shawky features a different type of marionette in each video. For The Horror Show Files, he uses 200-year-old wooden marionettes from the Lupi Collection in Turin, Italy. Their colorless skin is well-suited for the European clerics and peasants taking up arms in the early Crusades (1096-1099). The Horror Show Files’ pretty toy villages and churches are reminiscent of Hollywood Bible epics that preached the studio system’s concept of Christian virtue.

There is nothing soft about the ceramic marionettes created for The Path to Cairo. Designed by artisans from the École de Céramique de Provence in Aubagne, France, they are pock-marked and war-weary. The Path to Cairo is the bloody center of the trilogy covering the First and Second Crusades (1099-1145). Brightly colored cardboard cities are set on fire while marionette soldiers watch; their strings dangle together fusing a weapon of mass destruction. Victims of stabbing bleed. When camels playing humans are decapitated, their headless bodies made of long thin beads become unstrung. And yet, this is the only section of Cabaret Crusades that is a genuine cabaret with musical numbers. Among the causes for song are the royal weddings taking place after each siege with the same bride and groom puppets speaking the same lines.

For the final installment, Secrets of the Karbala, the marionettes are crafted by Venetian glass masters. The choice is ironic, given that Venice sacked Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade (1202–1204). Another irony is that the glass appears to have drained characters of flesh and blood from what is already a century-long conflict. Unlike the previous segments, these puppets look neither human nor animal. Their silk, burlap and crocheted costumes cannot disguise their exaggerated, grotesque features. Crusading soldiers could be Orcs or White Walkers…only this army actually existed. Less of a narrative than the previous videos, the dream state focus is on the Battle of Karbala (680 AD), creating the schism between Shia and Sunni Muslims. Perhaps the most far-reaching irony of all is that Karbala is in Iraq.

In addition to the videos and marionettes, sketches, maps and set designs are also displayed.

For now, Cabaret Crusades is unavailable on DVD or for streaming. Should this unique, visually arresting history lesson become so, the only drawback is not being able to meet the cast in person.

Cabaret Crusades is on display until August 31, 2015.

MoMA PS 1, 22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, NY