Like his immersive installation 5 Streams, which kicks off the Asia Society’s 50th anniversary season January 18, Ibrahim Quraishi speaks with multiple fluencies, gliding among sources, subjects, and media without skipping a beat. “All traditions are intertwined, nothing is ideal,” he says of the South Asian history and sacred religious texts propelling the work. “We are all in the same boat.”
5 Streams, built in three Visions by an all-star team of collaborators including local innovators DJ Spooky and Arthur Aviles, surrounds and provokes, ultimately leading viewers by the hand through a transformed world. Created over several years by Quraishi’s Paris- and New York–based company Faim de Siécle, even its title carries many meanings: the Indus River’s five tributaries, five core South Asian nations (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka), the five pillars of Islam, the five principles of Hinduism. Part narrative, part environment, and part meditation on choice and faith, the 90-minute work creates effects so unexpected as to make a simple explanation impossible. That’s just the way Quraishi wants it.
“It’s not about what’s going on,” the 35-year-old director explains from Amsterdam, where he’s helping to set up a post-doctoral performance studies program, “but what they understand when they see it.” Listening to him, it becomes immediately clear that art is his way of participating with his audience in a process of discovery, rather than engaging a more traditional dynamic in which a creator’s ideas are imparted to a passive viewer. “The moment we stop questioning ourselves,” he says, “is the moment we begin to die.”
5 Streams builds momentum through imagery and experience. In the first Vision, kathak choreographer Parul Shah dances atop a video projection stretching from floor to ceiling and before and behind her. At first she is enveloped in images intimating a slow-moving, blood-red sea, then by a forest and later by staccato clips of parking lots and cityscapes, the sound shifting from Fawzia Afzal-Khan’s plaintive vocal to Spooky’s thunderous, meticulous drum’n’bass. Drawn from Anarkali, a 12th-century Mughal Indian tragedy, this Vision is, for Quraishi, about “the role of women in nature and the imprisonment of the physical body.”
Vision Two—”War in Times of Love”—is informed by a conversation in the Bhagavad Gita about individual duty during wartime. “We first wanted to do it as a rock opera,” Quraishi deadpans. “Not like Rent, but in an aggressive, percussive way.” Further on, two men, one of them Aviles, fight each other to the accompaniment of aggressive drumming and jagged sound loops, in what the director calls “narration based on a form of violence.” Where other artists might take the opportunity to make comfortable judgments about the nature of warfare, Quraishi’s goal is simpler, more personal, more subversive. “Violence is a part of our nature. I’m trying to seriously understand it,” he says quietly. “Not moralize. Just understand.”
5 Streams ends with an interactive environment called “Through the Forest With Ibn al-Arabi.” Guided by the performers, viewers move among sculpted trees, projected light, and bodies in repose, while electronic music and fragments of spoken text lead and follow them. Derived from Who Knoweth Himself, a mystical treatise by the 12th-century Sufi poet for whom this Vision is named, “Through the Forest” delves into the unity between humans and God and draws together the many concepts of the larger piece.
In each section, Quraishi braids individual elements—an image of an empty street, a performer writhing, a piece of sculpture lit from inside—with an acuity that renders the term multimedia obsolete. Possibly no one else could spearhead something so complex—what Quraishi calls “a notion of imprisonment and beauty that is both literal and abstract”—and still have it come off as sincere.
If any artist was born to work with such an assortment of stories and forms, it is Quraishi. The child of diplomats, the director has lived in Pakistan, Russia, Tunisia, Europe, and New York among other locales, explaining simply, “I have a lot of homes.” After coming of age artistically in the multimedia world of New York in the 1990s, he’s now based partly in Europe, where he finds more support for large-scale, cross-media work. Claiming influences from Fluxus to the Wooster Group, from Pina Bausch to Ron Athey, he resists notions of originality with disarming humility. “Come on,” he says. “These kinds of performances have been going on for, like, 100 years.”
The creative process for 5 Streams began with planning, discussion, and experiments—in some cases he’s spent years on a single section. Then came intensive rehearsals, where everything was mapped out and actualized to the most minute detail. “If you want to create chaos,” Quraishi says, “you have to be completely precise.” Co-commissioned by Mass MOCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, where it previewed last year, 5 Streams has already breathed new life into the oft deadly post-show discussion format. “Fifty-five people stayed for the talkback,” Quraishi marvels, “where normally there are five or 10. It was frightening at first. They kept trying to relate the piece to the whole anti-war effort. I said, ‘There is no agenda here.’ “