Just when you thought it was so last century, Orientalism is back but with a new face. A savvy, grubby, urban face. Until April 28th the IMA (Institute Du Monde Arabe) hosts a multi-media exhibition on the 1001 Nights. Unlike other shows and productions around the text, this one embraces all the kitsch and clichéd flamboyance that comes with the Orientalism which has come to characterise the tale here in the West, and throws it back unashamedly for us to contemplate. The book is presented in this show as ‘the story without end’ and as ‘the story containing all endings’, a description that almost embodies the very paradox of the imaginary nature of Orientalism itself because it is always set against the reality of the regions imagined and the political relations of countries either side of this age-old, tattered dream.
The hundreds of pieces on display range from the more classical representations of the book; fantastic editions- some of the oldest in existence, C20th and C21st illustrated prints and historical artifacts…to digital and stage renditions, for example this juicy, interactive online MAP replete with embedded audio of tales by Sheherazade in French and geo-historical signposts.
IMA also present this odd series of video vignettes (below) in which characters from the story (Haroun al-Rachid, Shahriyâr et Shéhérazade, Sindbâd et Aladin) take the city Metro to the soundtrack for Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. The musical and anachronistic juxtapositional link pointing directly to the amount of violence in both tales and to the inflated characteristics afforded characters of both today and yesterday via the medium of the tale. Yet the pantomime costumes are self aware. In the same way, these short films present us with Scheherazade speaking slang in a library, as she recounts her stories in the manner of a frantic chatterbox, a kind of contemporary female stereotype who is always gossiping on her phone. The costumes and the flaunted hamminess of these vignettes suggest the contemporary episodic experiments of Kalup Linzy, because the depth is easily missed if one doesn’t understand the context of the work and the back-story of both the artist, the filmic language it is told in and the episodes themselves. Art today, across all platforms, increasingly asks where all the magic, heroics, romance, even the ornament and attention to detail of the past has gone – has it all but disappeared? This is perhaps the new dream, a dream of the past so close and real as it is with our increasing digital archive of days gone by. This exhibition suggests certain qualities of 1001 Nights are alive yet today, accompanied as it is by a baroque musical interpretation (pic left) of the story. The musical links back to the book’s origins, following it from its genesis and Indo-Persian origin to spoken Arabic tales of the ninth century, and the era of Louis XIV’s antiquarian Antoine Galland the author of the book’s first translation into a European language. The musical this way encapsulates the entire show. The IMA says of it “la carte imaginaire d’un Orient rêvé par l’Occident s’esquisse peu un peu” – “the imaginary map of an Orient dreamt of by the Occident, sketched little by little.”