Shireen Taweel’s practice is not about failure. On this, she’s clear. But as a craft person working in an experimental way, accident and chance are a natural part of her process. Her handmade copper installations draw from the Islamic architectural designs of her Lebanese heritage and combine the method of the artisan with the conceptual framework of the artist.
I visited her studio in Parramatta on a warm August day. The tall windows were open and the sounds of the street drifted up and into the room. I was thinking about the ways we talk about failure in filmmaking, the things I urge my students not to do – shooting without a plan, hand holding the camera without support and for no real reason, not shooting enough footage, moving the camera too much and without direction – and resolved to do all of these things. It was a move toward and away from fear, the fear of making something ugly, something unresolved, something embarrassing.
Sholem went and stood before us, and showed us the painting he had made by doing everything he hated when his students did it, and we agreed it was truly ugly. There was nothing in it that could be called beautiful, nothing that made you want to look longer.
I used a piece of failed technology, a standard definition miniDV camera, and layered the image with photographs of Islamic architectural details I’d rejected from a travel roll. The day I took the photographs, I didn’t have the right equipment with me for the conditions. It was dark, I had 200 ISO slide film in my camera and only a 50mm lens. I felt uncomfortable shooting the space instead of experiencing it unmediated. I stood too close to the tiles and to get the image to expose at all I had to open way up so the focus drifted. Without the perfect exposure, the colours aren’t as pure as they might have been and the images, shot with the intention of cropping into the details, are uncomposed. There’s one there that’s such a failure of framing it gives me a physical shiver of revulsion.
I tried to think of an ugly I didn’t like or that actually felt slightly repulsive.
I shot Shireen working in her studio fast and free form. I kept moving and shot only ten minutes of footage. Apart from basic settings, the camera can’t be controlled, it takes the image it takes. The flat, low-fi look hasn’t got the beauty of older video technology, video that that’s so crumbling and wiry it looks beautiful.
I looked at all my colours and my instincts were like: black and yellow, black and yellow. It was very quick, you know. Like: I should smoothly blend an orange ball.
For a long time now, there’s been a current of art that embraces deliberate ugliness, that forces us to look at the classical linking of art and beauty as a failed attempt to control, to colonise, to erase. I am drawn to this work in theory, but in practice I avoid its physical affront. Why? What is this obsession I have with precision in composition, in complexity that is visually harmonious, in surfaces that perform the joy of form?
Well I think my suspicions were largely correct. The colours are ugly. Yellow and black is, like, textbook ugly, and the way that shape on the lower right-hand side is almost like a thumb. I find that so hideously ugly.
Sitting in the park, I spoke to a friend about how beautiful human failure is. How people who hide their imperfections seem somehow less real. When something breaks the surface, he said, it gives me a shiver of pleasure. There’s a theory of intentional imperfection that spans several artisan traditions including the Islamic arts. There’s possibility in failure. A slip of the hand opens the image, an unexpected incision creates a new ribbon of light. Two men lay shirtless in the sun. They hadn’t worked out for some time. It was a beautiful day.
Inserts: Sheila Heti, How Should a Person Be (London: Harvill Secker, 2013), 288-294.
Sarinah Masukor is a writer and moving image maker. Her current work explores relationships between fiction and criticism, cinema and gallery. She has participated in...
Shireen Taweel is currently practicing at the Parramatta Artist Studios in Sydney. Taweel’s practice is rooted in cross-cultural discourse, where local-global dialogues influence her work...