The Cycle follows the journeys of a cast of characters who are the survivors of a cataclysmic solar event in order to reflect on the systemic crises within our biosphere and imagine where we might end up if we fail to gain a deeper understanding of the intersections between fields of knowledge and ways of living, across and between human and more-than-human ecologies. The first five films imagine a dystopian future while the latter five - of which the latest, Seven and Eight, are on show here – explore “ways to navigate and negotiate this future with each other, with our government; ideally, a new social compact that’s not just human but extends beyond the human”.
Episode 7: Africana, Ken Bugul & Nemo, in the North Transept, takes the viewer on a journey through the Mangroves of Senegal which speaks of our interconnectedness where both science and the imaginary dovetail into a possible, collective future. Episode 8: Cris, Sandra, Papa & Yasmine, in Trinity Chapel, charts an embodied, spiritual, and ecological journey along an age-old Guarani path linking the Brazilian Atlantic Forest to the sea.
The wider Leviathan project from which the work on show in the Cathedral is taken, is the culmination of conversations Dawood has had with a wide range of marine biologists, oceanographers, political scientists, neurologists, and trauma specialists. This approach is typical of his practice, which often involves collaborations with groups and individuals from different disciplines that are transformed into expressive artworks.
The Leviathan Cycle itself has become a large community of scientists and collaborators around the world. The collaborative experience has broadened Dawood’s horizons in terms of how he thinks of the subjects of his work: “It’s not just a protagonist in a film or an artefact, it’s each of these scientists’ individual area of study that they’ve devoted a huge part of life and time to, and so it creates this huge web of obligation. It’s part of empathy and reciprocity, it’s how we work with others and try to do our best.”
As a result, he says: “There’s a debt to generations beyond us. They only stretch us just a little but we become better human beings by doing so. I think it’s also important to go beyond the human as well and stretch our empathy to include the non-human – animals, plants, algae – they’re all systems of which we are part and which we interconnect with in surprising ways. It’s something that I’ve become more actively aware of through this body of work. It just feels pivotal.”
His hope “is that the exhibition encourages visitors to think about ourselves as one humanity”: “My engagement with the topics of climate change and migration are driven by wanting to see a new set of ethical standards established for the world. How can we find new reserves of empathy and understanding for the difficult circumstances we are going through in our world?”
As we come to the end of 2023 and think about the coming new year and further into the future, the beauty of this exhibition and of Dawood’s work is that, as Beth Hughes notes, it “draws you in to explore some of the big questions facing humanity today”. World events in 2023 “have shown us how important it is to care for displaced people and the importance of looking after our natural world”. Kenneth Padley says, “The overriding message is a call to action before it is too late”, which is why the exhibition is prefaced with a verse from St Paul’s letter to the Romans that simply states, “Live in harmony with one another”.
Leviathan, An exhibition by Shezad Dawood at Salisbury Cathedral, 28 November 2023 – 3 February 2024.