On George Mazari’s ‘Dream of Desert Land X1’ at Media Art Festival, Leeuwarden 2021
Written by Emily Sarsam. Published on 26 December 2021
In 2016, the artist George Mazari came across the traces of the ancient desert city of Balkh during a family trip to his parents’ country of origin, Afghanistan.
During the years that followed, he would explore his fascination for the emptiness and lack of human traces which he felt amongst the dunes.
In the following conversation, I speak to the artist about his artistic practice and his video work ‘Dream of Desert Land X1’ which he created in 2021 while studying at the Sandberg Studio for Immediate Spaces, and which was exhibited during the 2020/21 Media Art Festival in Leeuwarden.
ES: Hey George, could you tell me a little bit about your background?
GM: I was born and raised in Berlin to Afghan parents. I left Berlin when I was 22 and moved to Stuttgart to study architecture at the art academy. After that, I moved to London where I worked as an architect for half a year. While I was there, I noticed pretty quickly that it wasn’t my thing. So I quit and moved to Amsterdam to start my Masters at Sandberg Institute.
ES: At least you noticed really early on that it wasn’t the right thing for you!
GM: I kind of always knew what I wanted to do. Often I think it’s too easy to give up early and say fuck it, let’s try something else. Like, at least try! Already one year after starting my BA I could feel that what I was doing was pretty annoying.
But then I thought, sometimes it’s also good to finish what you started. From boring things, you can try and make interesting things!
ES: But you are saying that you always knew what you wanted. So, what was that?
GM: I always knew I wanted to be an artist or make things independently. I was interested in different aspects of art, not only paintings. At quite a young age, I was reading about Duchamp and became fascinated by conceptual art. I definitely did not want to have a nine-to-five job doing something stupid for someone just to gain money. What I found interesting in architecture were always the ideas behind the buildings, rather than the process of building itself. But I am still quite influenced by architecture and the spatial sensitivity I gained through it.
ES: But I can imagine that having studied architecture gave you an amazing toolbox to work with as an artist! Can you make a living through art?
GM: No, I need to do a lot of freelance gigs. Also, I spend a lot of time writing funding proposals, which IS work. I think time is more important than money, however.
ES: Yeah, I feel the same way. For me, earning money is a strategy to create space for my creative practice.
So, let’s talk about ‘Dream of Desert Land X1’. While I was in Leeuwarden for MAF, I probably spent five days immersed in your video work. For me personally, one of the strongest elements of the video was the narration. Two different voices can be heard speaking in dialogue: one male and one female voice. The woman sounds like she’s speaking with an Indian accent, the man has a strong British accent. Could you share with me more about your intention and the idea behind these voices?
GM: Yes, it was definitely intentional! How about I just start by telling you how I ended up making this work?
GM: Balkh is a city in Afghanistan which I visited in 2016. It’s really close to the town which my family is from, Mazar-i-Sharif. That’s where my last name, Mazari, comes from. So today, Balkh is a little city, and located next to it is an elevated plateau in the desert surrounded by sandstone walls. While I was there, I was told that the walls were over 2000 years old. I started thinking, this is so weird, that I can just stand here! You know, coming from Europe where all historical traces are protected. While I was standing there, I was completely taken aback by the emptiness of the space. I wondered to myself, what happened here in the past? After that experience, I decided to start researching about the city.
When you go on Google Maps and look up the city of Balkh, you will find this big sandstone colored circle of emptiness next to it. It’s quite big compared to the city. And it turns out to have been a really interesting and important city which is thousands of years old. Many different civilizations passed through this place. But today, I couldn’t really find any information about it. Growing up in Germany, where everything which was of historical importance was preserved in museums or documented through publications. Here in Balkh, I could find zero representation. So through ‘Dream of Desert Land X1’, I tried to imagine what that city might have been like.
We live in a world where we always want to visualize things, so we go to Google Maps and Images and quickly notice that there is no such thing as a single image which represents a place. And then you end up reading texts and trying to imagine a place through stories. The city had been home to so many different civilizations. Starting with Persians and then even free Persians, then there was a time when Afghanistan was Buddhist and Hindu, before the emergence of Isfahan. Then came the period of the Muslims, the Arab Conquest. So for each period there are different texts. It was quite a chaotic process. I also read travel logs from the time when the British came to Afghanistan, “on the footsteps of Alexander the Great.” I found very old texts from Zoroastrian logbooks which recalled things like, “this merchant sold sheep to this merchant” and “X owes Y this much money.” Throughout the texts, there were some elements that would recur, like the architecture of some of the buildings. A little hill, for example, was always mentioned. For hundreds of years it was considered a visual marker of the city because the clerics were buried there. Next to the hill there was a mosque which used to be a monastery of the monks. So step by step, I was able to create an image, or my story.
ES: After hearing this, it makes sense that you use such diverse symbolism in the video, like different ancient sculptures which looked to me like Mesopotamian, Buddhist and Central/Eastern-Asian.
GM: Yes, exactly.
ES: And now I’m wondering, are the narrated texts which we hear in the video fragments of the texts which you read ?
GM: Yes, but even here – there are some that are ancient and some that are quite contemporary. For example, Ibrahim al-Koni’s Desert Poetry.
ES: So, did you read translations of these texts? How did you find them?
GM: Yes, all of them were in English. You know, it was all on the internet, like on academia.edu and historical channels.
ES: And did you do that research in The Netherlands or while being in Afghanistan? I was wondering whether the images you created were based on field research or remote virtual research.
GM: It was in The Netherlands, during my first year at Sandberg.
Both of my parents are Afghan, but I was born in Germany and I only went to Afghanistan when I was 20-something for three weeks. So I never really had an “authentic” image of the country. My image of the country is so strongly shaped by the media, even though my family is Afghan. And of course, I am not stereotyping and generalizing or being naive, but we grew up with the internet!
Before I went to Afghanistan I wanted to watch some documentaries to learn more about everyday life in Afghanistan. But all I could find was very historical or about the war. You know, there’s lots of shows about street food in Tokyo, but not about Afghanistan. The closest thing I could find was probably Vice doing hipster extreme tourism. And that was when I noticed how much our perception of a place is shaped by the media: sand, tanks and war. These elements strongly shaped the aesthetics of the video.
ES: But then, you also have this very strong futuristic and science-fiction aesthetic!
GM: Oh yeah, like the city with the future mosques!
ES: Yeah, what influenced this imagery?
GM: Well, I guess it’s kind of this back-to-the-future approach. Imagining a history that may or may not lie in the future? Like a speculation of what could have been — a past can also lie in a future.
ES: To me, this makes a lot of sense after learning that you completely created this story and city based on the images and texts with which you were feeding your imagination! And then at some point you must just start dreaming! To me, the video felt a lot like a dream. Time seems very fluid, you’re not really sure if you are engaging with something that once existed, or is yet to exist.
GM: I was also surprised to learn some of the things that I read about the city; like how it used to be a hub for Buddhist monks from China and it remained like that for a long time. And then when the Muslims came, of course they conquered the city, but still they transformed the monasteries into mosques, so they didn’t destroy everything. I find that really interesting, this transformation. You can really feel the power structures there. The families which ruled in these monasteries really cared about maintaining power. So in order for some of these families to continue ruling and keep their money, they decided not to fight against Islam. Finally, when the Mongols came, they completely destroyed the city and it never recovered!
ES: Did your family and relatives contribute at all to this research? Did they know about this ancient city?
GM: I mean, my Dad brought me there, but he wanted to show me an old shrine, the mosque and the city walls. Other than that, he didn’t tell me anything about it. But I guess Afghans grow up knowing that there’s this old history of Zoroastrians and Persians.
My father came to Germany as a refugee when he was 17. So also his education stopped at one point in regard to this topic. You know, this country is so historically interesting, but a war lasting over 40 years doesn’t leave much space for historical reflection.
ES: I can feel a lot of resonance with my own family history. My dad left Iraq for Austria in 1979 when he was 17, so I can imagine that must have also caused a rupture between him and the country’s history. And since there is so much racism in Austrian society, the priority is to not stand out and “integrate”.
GM: You know, national identity is formed by history. And if when we look at Afghanistan, a place where Islam has completely taken over the national identity, it becomes harder to connect with other historical narratives. What is absurd is that over the past 20 years, people have been praising the war lords and almost portraying them as gods…
ES: Did you learn Dari from your family?
GM: Yes, actually it was the first language my parents taught me. So I am fluent in Dari. I am really thankful for that.
ES: Can you tell me a little bit about the process of making the sound for the video? Did you collaborate with others on this?
GM: No, actually I composed it all on my own. There was not so much intentional thought behind it. And it has a lot to do with my mood at the time.
Before I made ‘Dream of Desert Land X1’, I made a video, ‘Take me to the Land of Unknown X1’, on Texel, an island off the coast of The Netherlands. On that island, there is a big national park of dunes. It’s such a big park, you can walk forever without seeing water, all you see is a horizon of sand. With that video, I got into a desert mood, because deserts are places with no traces of humankind. There’s no architecture, no nothing. A desert looked the same hundreds of thousands of years ago. When I made that video, I was walking for hours alone, filming my walk without a clear path. There were no people around; it was cold, too early and in late autumn. The more I walked, the more the terrain was turning generic or unknown. Next to digital post-editing to support this, I composed the electronic music to guide one through this hypnotic journey. Another important aspect for me is the electronic nature of the sound. I am very curious about the effects and interaction of the digital and analog world, so I think ‘Dream of Desert Land X1’ was kind of a continuation of this mood.
ES: So, are some of the dune scenes in ‘Dream of Desert Land X1’ filmed on Texel?
GM: Yes! Those scenes are actually filmed in The Netherlands!
ES: This is so interesting! Especially after talking about how much our images of places are distorted by the media and internet. Basically, we can tell a story about Afghanistan and film it in The Netherlands! People will believe anything.
GM: Yeah, the dunes video is like a walk through the desert for 6 minutes without a single cut. And I told people that it was filmed in Afghanistan and they all believed me!
ES: That’s crazy! So this whole desert theme in your work actually came from The Netherlands!
GM: Yes, can you believe it? The country of man-made everything!
There is one floating sand island close to Texel, and it’s moving about 100 m every year. They say that the dunes on Texel were formed by such sand islands! So this floating sand island will attach to Texel in like 100 years. I really wanted to film there first, but it’s very hard to go there without a boat. It’s between Texel and Den Helder, and I think only seals live there.
ES: I want to get back to the sound of ‘Dream of Desert Land X1’ for a moment. There’s something very violent about it. While I was observing groups visiting your work, I heard their remarks referring to the sound as gunshots.
GM: Yeah, you know – someone actually told me this and I was really not conscious about it! But you know, electronic music is generally quite post-industrial, it’s very much steel and machines, and weapons are machines and come from that time!
ES: This leads me to my next question about the intersecting images of the belly dancing soldier! Here you insert another sound, which to me sounds like a sample sound that you could find online if you type “belly dance darbouka”. How did you go about animating the soldier?
GM: So the soldier is an already-rigged 3D model which I modified. With each animation comes a set of movements that you can use, and what I did was kind of mix and change some of the moves, like making them slower, longer, or changing their direction. So there wasn’t an existing “belly dance” move but I kind of made it look like that.
ES: Could you tell me a little bit about the intention behind the dancing soldier?
GM: So, that has a lot to do with how I look at Afghanistan. In the light of all of the destruction and war, there is this trauma in my family which I have definitely inherited. There was always a presence of soldiers and it deeply impacted my image of the country.
But then the soldier belly dancing is like the complete antithesis! The animation is not even a modern soldier, but an American soldier from the Second World War. Not only does an American soldier bellydancing look very feminine, but it is also not part of their culture. There is this East-West juxtaposition which is so interesting to me; the concepts of Occident and Orient. I am always confused about how that happened, because it doesn’t make sense to me… it’s very Eurocentric!
ES: And these notions of femininity and masculinity! I’m referring very superficially to the dance as “belly dance”. In the video, it comes through as a set of motions that are meant to evoke in the viewer this idea of “Middle Eastern dance” but then, if you do spend time in some parts of the Middle East, you realize very quickly that that’s simply the way many men dance and it’s not necessarily regarded as “feminine”.
GM: Yes exactly, that’s not considered gay! You know, in Afghanistan, men are holding hands publicly. Due to the current situation in Afghanistan, women are just not very present in public life, so men are simply holding hands with their friends. With ‘current’, I do not necessarily mean since the takeover of the Taliban. Forty years of war and chaos has allowed extremists to emerge.
For people to have cultural sensitivity, just knowing is often not enough. When I speak to some very knowledgeable friends, I’m often shocked by their opinions or ideas about the region.
It makes me sad sometimes that I can’t fly to Afghanistan to visit my family and see what’s happening there. And people always say “oh no, they are going to kill you there because you’re gay.” And I’m stunned by this misconception, that’s just not how it works there. Maybe there are no gay clubs there, but they completely put their own masks on different countries!
ES: I feel this also demonstrates cultural superiority. Because in a way, these kinds of attitudes or comments undermine other cultures’ abilities to create their own codes, rituals or strategies to express their sexuality!
GM: When I was in Afghanistan, I spent time out with my cousins and all these boys, because boys are always hanging out with each other! There were some guys that really caught my attention because they were dancing and behaving so overly “feminine”, it was really nice! So I was observing them as well as the other men who were watching, and I was so impressed by the confidence of these men while performing. And you know, my cousins were even calling them out as “gay”, so there was this very open expression and it made me feel like there was a lot of understanding rather than judgment.
ES: So, is this reality of currently not being able to travel to Afghanistan one of the reasons for your newer installation, the flight simulation ‘A Real Trip from AMS to KBL’?
GM: Yeah, for sure. The work is a real-time flight simulation from Amsterdam to Kabul. It works with flight simulation software which uses real data, like set images and photogrammetry data, to render the whole world. What you see in the installation is pretty much what you would see out of your airplane window!
I programmed this flight so you could experience what it feels like to be a passenger on a real flight; except that there is no real direct flight between Amsterdam and Kabul! So when I first did it in June, it was before the Taliban takeover. It happened really quickly in August and I showed the updated work again in October, but this time in a first class booth, designed in resemblance to Emirati Airlines, so you could be a first class passenger flying to Kabul with inflight entertainment. I was showing a cut of Rambo 3 when he was in Afghanistan, fighting with the Soviets against the Mujahideen which have now become the Taliban.
ES: Is the booth still on view? And how long would people sit in it?
GM: It’s actually now in my house! And people never really stayed longer than 15 min. But the flight was over 7h long, so you would take off when the exhibition opened and land when it closed.
On George Mazari’s ‘Dream of Desert Land X1’ at Media Art Festival, Leeuwarden 2021