If looks could kill, Artistically staged, migrant manhood
A conversation between Kea Wienand and Shahram Entekhabi
Kea Wienand: In your video Mladen, there is a man with a huge moustache, who is standing at three different public places and is playing with a knife. This gesture, together with his clothes, white T-shirt and black leather jacket, and with the back-combed black hair, as well as the moustache that reaches down to the chin, draws the picture of the stereotype 'criminal immigrant'. If I now try to locate this stereotype immigrant, I – together with the name Mladen – mentally link him to Albania, Romania, or to the former Yugoslav Republic and to 'the Balkans'. Is it important for you that the observer knows that you yourself are the performer and that he knows where you come from? On the one hand I would think that the video also works without this knowledge. It is obvious that the subject of the film is the stereotype and stereotyping. On at the other hand the emphasis is put on the aspect, that ethnicity is constructed by clothes, gesture and context. At the same time I fear that my description of your work runs the risk of being not open enough. That's why my second question is, how do you raise and what questions do you raise with this work – questions to yourself, to the audience and to the art field in general?
Shahram Emtekhabi: It is not necessarily
important to know that I'm the one performing Mladen. This is not a singular
act in my work that I take over certain stereotypes of migrant masculinity.
I did the same in other works like I?, Miguel, Mehmet and Islamic Star.
My procedure has certainly to do with my personal back ground. I grew up in Iran and lived there until my late adolescence. There I experienced the image of a strong, patriarchal masculinity in the way my farther and my uncle embodied it. Real men, proud, hard, self confident. In Western Europe, I got to know different concepts of masculinity, more feminine, in a way broken variations of masculinity: the dandy, the intellectual, the alternative-spiritual man. Also in the film Mladen, two different forms of masculinity are colliding with one another: the wild, unbroken, studied masculine manliness which has, so to speak, it's climax in the moustache. And the injured, domestic and essentially endangered masculinity, almost metro-sexual, like Robbie Williams embodies it. There are of course also among the so-called whites supermen with muscle power and bodies in peak condition. In the Hollywood action movies, that are, as we all know, intelligent advertisement for the international weapon-lobby, these real tough guys have the function to protect 'us' against the 'others'. There is always the 'other', either in form of the 'yellow danger' or in form of the 'evil Iwan' from the period of the Cold War, or, nowadays, in form of the Islamic terrorists. It is clear that Mladen doesn't belong to 'us'. Mladen in the way I show him doesn't exist anymore, he is a cliché. When I perform this stereotype like Mladen, I always undergo a kind of metamorphosis. I let my beard grow and then trim it, I change my hairstyle and also go around with it during my everyday life. I revive the cliché which is a threat, a 'criminal', as you said, who waves around with his knife. But in my video, he doesn't do anything to anyone, he is not aggressive, he is the observer.
Kea Wienand: Having the position of the observer, gives you some power – Mladen is therefore not only the one being observed, but he is also acting. During the video, this impression changes again and he seems to be rather lost. Especially in the scene where he is standing in front of the posters that shows masculine pop stars like Robbie Williams and Till Brönner, the question arises which masculinity is to be described as 'being in crisis'. Sometimes I see Mladen as the embodiment of a masculinity which is not keeping up with the times anymore and sometimes, when he is standing in front of the images of Robbie Williams and Till Brönner, they seem to be weak in comparison to Mladen; he becomes a projection screen for virility and protection. In my opinion, this ambivalence is increased by the fact, that the film refuses a narrative structure and that through the cut the focus is put on the camera as a medium, as well as on the production process itself. Although the audience may now and then look for a narration in the video, this wish remains unfulfilled. What are your considerations on refusing narration? In what way are they linked to the representations of migrant masculinity? I'm very much interested in how your audience reacted to these strategies. Would you say that your work is made for a white, German audience?
Shahram Entekhabi: In the first place it is important to create a situation in which one becomes the observer. It is about the realisation of seeing. The whole complex of seeing-and-being-seen takes place on different levels: On the one hand it is important, that the people passing by Mladen, are not aware of being observed by a camera. And on the other hand my experience is, that, what the people see as 'the other', as different from them, they avoid even in their perception, they try not to seeing Mladen. They don't look carefully enough and therefore don't see the details, so that the stereotype is not de-constructed. But my video makes it possible to stare at Mladen for hours and hours. There, something like an identification process takes place between the camera lens and the observer. But the audience doesn't see only Mladen, there are also the passers-by and Brönner and Williams. As far as the narration is concerned, the thing is that I want to tell a story without telling a story. Mladen attracts the attention of the audience through his attitude. This functions as a kind of introduction to the story. You were describing the different associations, ideas and questions that arise in reference to the various concepts of masculinity, the different stereotypes, etc. – this is exactly the point where I speak about the refusal of narration. For me, the narrative is a didactic procedure that I try to avoid in my works. It is not about an explicit truth or the noble savage and the evil whites. I therefore don't have a single, e.g. white audience in mind, I imagine different watching eyes. I of course wish for an audience that is roused by my works. In my opinion, a multilayered message in the work is also a sign for a good work. I first have to confirm a cliché to then be able to undermine it. And apart from that, it's really fun to officially put on the macho's best pose. Unfortunately, it already happened that people identify me with my role. But this too hits the heart of my concern.
Kea Wienand: I would like to descend again to some details: Like many of your videos, also Mladen takes place in the public space. Already in the first shot we recognize the place: it is the Oranienburger Straße, which is one of most well-known streets in Berlin-Mitte. By placing the events in the centre of Berlin-Mitte, questions about occupying the space, about the visibility and the segregation of the public space are raised. What further ideas are linked to the choice of this place? And what is are the differences or similarities between this places and other places you used as a setting in your films?
Shahram Entekhabi: It is about occupying part of the public space. I've chosen the Oranienburger Straße because of different reasons. This street for me is a scene of crime in several respects: On the one hand the street is a place which is long-termed occupied by tourism, and here I want to bring in and to connect the complex of tourism and of migration in terms of economy and culture. On the other hand it is a street where prostitution is, which confirms the cliché of Mladen being shady. And thirdly the Scheunenviertel (how the quarter around Oranienburger Straße is called) is the centre of the contemporary art scene in Berlin. I can tell of the art scene that a certain exoticism, which is easily to be taken in by cultural politics, is a gladly accepted product on the art market. They want the noble savage but they ignore the problems with the filthy Balkan-prole.
Kea Wienand: Another detail is the moustache. It looks outsized in Mladen’s face. This kind of moustache has a long tradition when it comes to marking the masculine-ethnic difference. If it has been lately looked down upon, the moustache has now its renaissance in the fashion world, though much thinner then Mladen's moustache. Is the figure Mladen also a reaction to that?
Shahram Entekhabi: I don't like the word 'reaction', it is too strong. But being a man of my times, I couldn't ignore that right now a certain impossibly old fashioned styling is very much 'in'.
Kea Wienand: Finally I would like to know what role the music plays in your videos. The music in Mladen sometimes sounds as if a band of street musicians were playing nearby, sometimes it sounds like a soundtrack that accompanies the scene. What kind of music we are listening to in the film and what kind of message can we get from it?
Shahram Entekhabi: Music plays a role in many of my videos; it is a mix of different songs that I, as a rule, compile by myself. For Mladen I chose the so-called Gipsy-music, for Islamic Star a mixture of Arabic an Iranian music. I always try to bring out the typical music to support and, at the same time, stretch the cliché on the sound-level. It also helps to create this kind of narration without narration in the video.
Kea Wienand: To summarize everything, one could say that in the video Mladen a stereotype of migrant masculinity is created and at the same time deconstructed on the basis of the different details we mentioned, the strategies of 'narration without narrating' and the examination of the different directions of vision and habits of looking. By overcrowding and irritating the repertoire of cultural images, the video not only analyses the stereotype, but also calls into question visibility and classification of space and social hierarchy. As it appears to me, Mladen, by playing with different lines of vision and looks, opposes dominant, monopolizing discourses, that only want to fix and codify stereotypes. Representations and contextualisation of an artistic work have a great influence on how meaning is created and how the work is perceived. I'm therefore interested in how you want your works to be presented. In addition, I would like to know what you think of publishing stills from your videos – like they will be reproduced in this publication.
Shahram Entekhabi: It is obvious, that the work has to be projected, idealistically in a way that Mladen appears a little bit larger-than-life. As I was used to being an architect, I also put my videos in correlation with the place and the specific spot. During my solo show in Bunkier Sztuki in Cracow, I projected the protagonists (Mladen, Miguel, Islamic Star and Mehmet) in a totally dark room in a way that they appeared one after the other at the different walls. This created a highly uneasy atmosphere. And the installation Hayat in the foyer – a huge mirror framed by light bulbs – functioned as the gate to this world of the 'dark men'. In this way, the observer was also confronted with himself (and maybe with his or her dark sides). All this cannot be effectually captured by a video still. Video art creates a space for experience. But nevertheless also stills printed and published in e.g. art magazines are acceptable marks to remember the moving image. I hope that nobody will mix up the stills with the original work.
Kea Wienand, studied Art History, Psychology, Educational Science and Cultural Gender Studies in Oldenburg. Since 2004 at DFG-College "Identity and Difference. Gender Constructions and Interculturality”, University of Trier.
First published in kritische berichte 4.2007