A Letter from Venice – Part Three: Shezad Dawood’s ‘Leviathan’

By the Giardini’s water-taxi stop is (part of) a work by British artist Shezad Dawood. Occupying the Palazzina Canonica (the former headquarters of the Institute of Marine Sciences, no less), Leviathan is an absurdly ambitious and complex multi-media work that will unroll over the next three years culminating in ten films — ‘episodes’ — that, according to the press release, are:

‘set in an imaginary future whose inhabitants are the survivors of a cataclysmic solar event. Each episode is told from the point of view of a different character and follows them as they drift across Europe, Asia, and North Africa, encountering a series of idiosyncratic communities.’

The two episodes on show introduce Ben and Yasmine who eventually meet each other, but warily. Ben is obsessed with the biology of sea life (‘Leviathan’ is, of course, the subtitle of Moby Dick as well as being Thomas Hobbes’ philosophical treatise on society and government), and Yasmine seems as abandoned as the dilapidated staircase down which she bounces a tennis ball. It’s slow, bleak, and all rather beautiful in a visceral kind of way. Unlike a conventional narrative the story plays out in fragments and requires, appropriately enough, immersion for it to work. It also requites the viewer to move as the films are in different rooms.

To get a feel for Leviathan’s content and to understand the work’s genesis, I recommend visiting the dedicated website or reading this Guardian article as it is far too complex to describe here. There’s also a website dedicated to the project here.

The underlying theme of this work — migration — is to be found throughout the Biennale but Dawood filters it through a lens of dystopian fiction and biology which has the effect of questioning rather than recounting stories of exodus and displacement. A third episode, filmed in Venice, will be added to the first two before the Biennale closes in November.

Accompanying these films are paintings and sculptures that reinforce themes implicit in the films, and which act as a conceptual ‘frame’ for the greater work. The substrate for the paintings is fabric made by Fortuny, who have been making expensive cloth in Venice for almost a century. Added to the fabric are images of objects lost in the Mediterranean by drowned migrants. The simplicity of these paintings stands in contrast to the complexity of the unfolding narrative and they are, as such, profoundly moving while being very beautiful. They also make explicit Venice’s historical importance as a trading port and remind the viewer that travel in this part of the world is not to be taken for granted, regardless of how simple it is for us to reach the Biennale.

The richness of this work cannot really be exaggerated and the way in which Dawood has already woven fragments of stories into one another — across time, space, species — is fascinating. Its strength is in the way in which the story is told through the rhetorical possibilities of different media and not the slippage between those media. We’re actually encountering clues to the story and not the story itself and are invited to make sense of them from where we stand.

Leviathan stands as a powerful antidote to art works that empty out complexity to either browbeat an audience with an ideological position or to present an elegant visual statement that can be grasped in a moment. That’s not to say that Leviathan isn’t ideological or elegant — it really is — but it proposes a nuanced and provisional position that sweeps the attentive viewer along in a narrative that is strange and personal.

I can’t wait to see what happens next.

You can read my first two letters from Venice here and here.

Also published on Medium.


  1. Bryan 27 July 2017 at 11:15 am

    I’ve just realised that the subtitle of Moby Dick is ‘The Whale’ not Leviathan. Proof that you can never do too much research. However, the sculpture of the White Whale (shown at the top of this article) makes clear the connection to that story of madness, obsession, and friendship.

  2. Angela Rogers 27 July 2017 at 5:34 pm

    Brian thank you so much for your letters from Venice, I’ve really enjoyed them. I would encourage students to go an international art festival at least once. Ok it’s expensive but I bet you’ll see more in a few days than the rest of the year. It will be intense, it can be uplifting and enervating. It is a brilliant way to immerse yourself in international art and it’s not just contemporary work. You’ll see things you’ll probably never encounter otherwise, some of them you’ll love, some you’ll hate, some will leave you cold, but there will alway be something that takes your breath away and you won’t forget it.

    1. Bryan 27 July 2017 at 6:00 pm

      Cheers Angela. It is intense but like you say, a great way to catch the mood of contemporary art as well as see stuff from places that wouldn’t otherwise be available. There’ll be one more post that will pick out a few other pieces, but in less detail.


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