Isaac Chong Wai

Performance, Politics, and Perception: The Art of Isaac Chong Wai

In the midst of a changing world, Isaac Chong Wai brings his unique artistic vision to the Venice Biennale. Born in 1990 and working between Berlin and Hong Kong, Chong’s art transcends borders, exploring themes of power and human vulnerability. Through various mediums like performance and photography, he captures the essence of our interconnected world. As he prepares for the Biennale Arte 2024, curated under “Foreigners Everywhere,” Chong’s work promises to inspire reflection and unite us in our shared humanity.

Memories seem to be a recurring theme in your work. I’m curious, are there any specific memories or moments from your childhood that continue to inspire your artistic process today.

In Hong Kong, it has been common for kids to learn art in some sort of centre. When I was 3 or 4 years old, I took drawing classes. I still vaguely remember drawing a stuffed animal resembling a rabbit, a mouse, and a monster. The tiny stuffed animal stood still in the center of the table while all the kids sat and drew in a circle of chairs. I patiently drew every hair on the stuffed animal. The teacher was amazed by my work. That was the first time I felt like a small famous artist. This practice of drawing has stayed with me. I often draw to articulate ideas. Meanwhile, I see drawing not only as using a pencil to outline a stuffed animal but as a gaze through which an object, a movement, or a feeling maintains its familiar form but is altered.

How do you manage to strike a balance between drawing from personal experiences and delving into broader conceptual explorations within your work?

Sometimes, certain personal experiences lead me to create works. In 2015, a stranger abruptly hurled racial insults and then bludgeoned my head with a glass bottle in Berlin. I went to the hospital afterward. In the same year, I was sexually assaulted by a man on the street in Berlin who forcefully kissed me at a tram station. I pushed him away, shouted at him, and ran away. I then remembered that I was in a running team in middle school. I ran fast. You know, it’s like the bad luck all show up at the same time without advanced notice. All these violent incidents happened in a blink; it feels like it’s less than a second of human interaction. The speed of violence makes me think, if there would be a way to slow it down through artistic practice.

I really needed to do something. I felt bad and useless. I then created a series of works looking into the moments of falling and if by any chance, support can be there when one falls. I don’t think my personal experience has to connect to broader conceptual explorations, but things often happen within a system. By looking into the problematic system, I imagine, through my artistic practice, and my imagination sometimes finds ways to resist those inherent violence.

How do you push against conventional limits of the body, both in terms of physicality and theoretical frameworks?

I would say that I imagine the impossible, and I question why it is impossible? For example, in Falling Carefully (2020), a sculptural piece, I created three copies of myself capturing a simultaneous fall. When the sculptures fall at the same time, they get stuck and freeze the moment of falling.

Sculpture has the quality of stillness. Integrating stillness and the collective body as a means to stop time and fall, I was interested in looking at the external forces that create the choreography of many fallen individuals in our societies and how falling myself, or “repeatedly” making myself fall could be a way to rehearse in order to prevent or resist dominant powers. It is impossible to duplicate myself in order to get some help (I wish I could) when dangers come, but it is important to know that I am not an individual who might encounter violence, but someone who can offer help when others are in need.

How do you manage the equilibrium between individuality and collectivity in your artistic expressions? 

It is an ongoing question. Sometimes it is a struggle, but oftentimes it is natural. In a video piece that I created, The Silent Wall (2014), I used my hands to touch the bullet holes in Sarajevo and later tuned the volume of the city’s sound from loud to silent in every clip, every wall that I touched. It was my first time seeing bullet holes in my life. I remembered seeing the memorial Sarajevo Rose where mortar holes were covered by red resin resembling a rose.

I was with other master students from MFA Public Art and New Artistic Strategies led by Professor Danica Dakić at the Bauhaus University Weimar. During this research trip, I listened to stories about the bullet holes and how local people perceive them. I questioned my presence in the traces of the war. I was not there, but I should remember.

It was clear to me that I wanted to do it myself as my personal approach to remember and archive all those “insignificant” bullet holes, according to many locals. While it seems personal, it does lead me to think in a wider context, especially about what it means when it comes to the idea of collective memory.

Could you elaborate on how you view the importance of physical space in your site-specific performances? Additionally, could you share which performance you feel best utilised or complimented the space in which it was held?

When present at a site, one cannot avoid its history and context. In 2015, I invited numerous people to stand as “memorials” and talk about their personal stories in a square named Weimarplatz (previously Gauforum). This square was built by Hitler with the intention of people gathering there to live out Nazi principles. The square has been renamed several times in history and was called “Hitler’s Square” by some. Nowadays, it is an empty green area that looks out of place in the city, as it is large and rarely visited. The dominance of history often neglects the voices of individuals, including those whose houses were destroyed to build this square. I wonder how our personal stories could weave our voices together and write a new collective narrative consisting of different moments in time that we share from the past, contrary to the dominated discourse which actively silences people’s stories. It was a very special performance. Many people came to my studio to share what they talked about during the performance. (During the performance, we couldn’t really hear what other people were saying, as each of us was at a distance, and when speaking, we couldn’t hear the others). Some people cried, and some complained about the weather (it was very hot). It was both personal and collective.

Do you perceive your work as primarily reflective or proactive in its engagement with social issues?

They are often a reflection of experiences. Sometimes, I perceive my work as an autonomous body, a free being. The audience encounters the “body.” Those emotions and reflections might shape how we engage with social issues, but they might not as well.

Which recent social changes and global phenomena have you tackled in your artistic endeavours?

I often feel powerless when confronting social issues. For example, the anti-Asian racism that has worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic. There are so many emotions and tensions in public spaces. These years, the world is full of tears, with many deaths and much suffering. The profound sadness is so close that it sometimes leaves me speechless. I am not an activist, but I find my own way to tell my stories and help others. I always say that I hope I can help, because I might or might not be helpful. Recently, I have been looking into how mourning could be a way to deal with the powerlessness that individuals hold in everyday life. 

In 2022, I worked with composer and singer Dagmar Aigner, who has been working with mourners for over a decade. Her voice heals me. I collaborated with her to create a two-channel video piece where one can see a group of performers moving in a circle while singing mourning songs and lullabies in a loop.

The title of the 60th edition of the Biennale, ‘Foreigners Everywhere,’ conveys a distinct message. How do you interpret the concept of being a foreigner?

It is a celebration, but also a struggle at the same time. Working at the Biennale, there were “foreigners everywhere.” I encountered artists, technicians, specialists, assistants, and curators from different parts of the world. We sat at the same table, ordered the same food and drinks. It was a big celebration of our encounters in Venice.

Being foreign sounds objective, but in my opinion, objectivity is always a lie. It is important to recognize differences. I often say that if we are all the same, we are not okay. No one is the same. If we do not point out the differences, we lose them. Being different, being foreign, is something beautiful.

As we look forward to the upcoming Biennale, I’m genuinely excited about the chance to witness your project in Venice. Could you please share more details about the project?

Falling Reversely (2021/2024) is a seven-channel large-scale video installation and performance created specifically for la Biennale di Venezia, “Foreigners Everywhere,” curated by Adriano Pedrosa. 

I conceived the work Falling Reversely in 2021, during the Covid-19 pandemic, when many of my friends who are Asian diaspora living in the US and Europe, including myself, encountered verbal and physical assaults in public spaces. We shared our fear and told each other our stories, trying to find ways to protect ourselves and voice out against these attacks. 

Many individuals fall when an attack happens. Some of them were alone in public spaces. I then imagined, what if we could rewind those falling movements through artistic practice. This is an imagination possible in art but impossible in reality, as a fall cannot be reversed. 

I worked with Asian diasporic performers. We studied CCTV footage of Asian individuals who fell due to physical assaults in public spaces. In the large-scale video installation at the Venice Biennale, the screens are sometimes on and off, creating an immersive experience as if a performance or an event is taking place in the blink of an eye.

What upcoming projects or themes are you currently delving into in your artistic journey?

The past few years, I have been exploring how human interactions and emotions transform into bodily movements and materials. My current series of work is called Breath Marks. The idea originated from a video work of mine called Neue Wache, where I use my breath to leave traces on a window facing the memorial Neue Wache, in an attempt to cover/blur its image.

In the ongoing series Breath Marks (since 2022), I use my breath marks as a “paint brush” to depict images. In Breath Marks: Queen Elizabeth II and Crying Hong Kong Girl (2023), comprising a photographic print and a glass sculpture, I use my breath marks to depict an image circulated amongst Hong Kong social media, of a crying young girl holding a framed photograph of the late Queen Elizabeth II.

I believe I will continue following my works, as they always lead me to future projects.

In order of appearance

  1. Portrait of Isaac Chong Wai. Courtesy of Innsbruck International/ Mia Maria Knoll.
  2. Falling Carefully (2020) Isaac Chong Wai. Courtesy of Asia Society, Blindspot Gallery and Zilberman Gallery.
  3. The Silent Wall (2014) Isaac Chong Wai. Video. 10’43’’. Video still. Courtesy of the artist, Blindspot Gallery and Zilberman.
  4. The Silent Wall (2014) Isaac Chong Wai. Video. 10’43’’. Video still. Courtesy of the artist, Blindspot Gallery and Zilberman.
  5. Falling Reversely (2021-2024) Isaac Chong Wai. Venice Biennale 2024. Photography by Atsushi Kakefuda.
  6. Falling Reversely (2021-2024) Isaac Chong Wai. Venice Biennale 2024. Photography by Atsushi Kakefuda.
  7. Falling Reversely (2021-2024) Isaac Chong Wai. Video still by Isaac Chong Wai, Julia Geiß and Lana Immelman. Courtesy of the artist, Blindspot Gallery and Zilberman.
  8. Falling Reversely (2021-2024) Isaac Chong Wai. Video still by Isaac Chong Wai, Julia Geiß and Lana Immelman. Courtesy of the artist, Blindspot Gallery and Zilberman.
  9. Falling Reversely (2021-2024) Isaac Chong Wai. Installation view. Photography by Riccardo Banfi. Courtesy of Blindspot Gallery and Zilberman.
  10. Breath Marks: Queen Elizabeth II and Crying Hong Kong Girl (2023) Isaac Chong Wai. Courtesy of the artist and Blindspot Gallery.

Silt

‘Silt’ a 35 minute documentary film produced by Iida Jonsson, Ssi Saarinen and Ona Julija Lukas Steponaityte, is an exploration into the post-soviet landscape following the formation of rapidly occurring lakes in Lithuania, one of which, rests on Lukas’ family land in Likanciai. The newfound body of water is a by-product of a failed multi-decade soviet drainage project, aimed at making wetlands more suitable for agriculture. Following the collapse of the regime, the Lithuanian municipality gained responsibility of such drainage systems, but high maintenance costs resulted in the prioritisation of farmland and infrastructure. As time passed, the drainage systems started to clog and what was once a drainage pipe, became a vessel for a lake to emerge on the family’s backyard.

The documentary demonstrates the group’s interests in the rendering of landscapes and is a response to the embedded narratives within it that influence our understanding of ecological emergencies, and the relationship between the landscape and systems of maintenance. The visuals are accompanied by a sculptural sonic landscape produced by composer Alexander Iezzi, referencing the historical interrelationship between landscape and sound. The dissonant harmonies, polyrhythms and metallic growls, coupled with foley and field recordings are almost reminiscent of musique concrete styles of music, providing the perfect soundtrack to the unnamed, unmapped lake.

Following their most recent exhibition ‘November’ at Inter Public and the screening of ‘Silt’ at the Danish Film Institute in Copenhagen, I had the pleasure to talk to them about how their collaborations and inspirations inform their approach to the creative process and their relationship to the entangled landscape.

I noticed you all completed your MFA degrees at the Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam, is this where you first met as collaborators? How did this shared experience help you grow in your individual creative practice’s and come together with a shared artistic vision?

SSI: Iida and I were already collaborating, so we are used to sharing a project and practice. But yes, all three of us were studying the Master of Fine Art programmes at the Sandberg Instituut and this was the starting point for our collaborations. We had shared interests, and we just admired each other’s work. We were all interested in this idea of an accumulation of knowledges and bringing in our own experiences to our collaborative practice and approach. We were already working with similar topics, so for us, working together, was a way of making the work more rich, opening up shared discussions and accumulating these pools of knowledges.

LUKAS: We know each other’s aesthetics well and we know what we are interested in. There is definitely a process of building a shared library of references and a vocabulary of shared aesthetics that has a big impact on the work. We also have similar tastes and sensibilities, so we have a lot in common which creates a good basis to develop a shared language together.

S: We are also coming from similar professional backgrounds, but we still have different perspectives and skills we can bring into the work. For example, Lukas was working as a professional colourist, and Iida and I used to run a production studio, and I have also worked as an editor and cinematographer before. So when we talk about collaboration, we are bringing in our different skills and knowledges to our practice.

I’ve noticed that you don’t work under a collective name, but instead, you use your own individual names to credit the work. Why do you feel this is important to you and how does this impact your collaborative processes?

I: I think there is a certain openness and honesty to it which is interesting. Maybe there is a fourth or fifth name added to the collaboration in the future? So I think it allows us to expand and change shape to become different things.

S: I think to a certain degree, there is still a sense of separation within the work as I can recognise myself in the work and see the parts that have been touched by Lukas or Iida. Additionally, there is an entanglement in this; where our individual expressions are also informing each other, and we are benefiting from one another. So, there’s this intersection of aesthetics and ideas which becomes how the group work is ultimately presented.

I: We are also not crediting our individual roles within the work. It is still a shared process where we are all involved in the conversations and the various tasks that need to be executed. As Ssi mentioned before, it is really useful to bring together our individual, extensive research and knowledge that has been accumulated over several years.

You have worked together before to create the works ‘Terranium / Greywater’ and ‘June’. What do you enjoy about working together and what is important to you when collaborating? How has this facilitated the creative process for your recent exhibition ‘November’ and the production of ‘Silt’?

I: Being a fan of the people you work with is really important. You can really encourage and support people to invest in their work and their ideas by being a true fan of your collaborators.

L: A big part of our work as a collective, naturally comes down to talking. We need to find common ground on an idea or a vision which happens through communication. We spend a lot of time talking, understanding and approaching the shared vision in various ways. This also always comes with challenges, because communication is often one of the most challenging things when it comes to people.

It is also interesting, when working in a collective to see how your own individual expectations towards your production, expands. For me, collaboration allows me to do things that I would not necessarily be able to do alone. So maybe it is also about feeling more brave when you are working with people.

I: Yes I agree, because ‘Terrarium’ was a film using found footage and ‘Greywater’ was an installation, so ‘Silt’ finally gave us the opportunity to create something from start to finish, using all of our interests and skills in a complete way, giving us the opportunity to do everything we had talked about.

I’ve noticed your works are often inspired by the environment, exploring sites of environmental or urban decay. What is it about ‘landscapes in depression’ that inspires you artistically and what draws you to these kinds of landscapes?

S: I think this idea of the landscape and landscape depiction is very essential to our collective practice. Our research expands way back into landscape depiction in the 16th century, looking at the political intentions in mappings and topographies. We are especially interested in the use of landscape depiction to exercise power, focusing on how embedded ideas of nature dictates the way we should experience and interact with the landscape, creating this very essentialist view of an unchanged or static image of the environment. So I think we are working with complexifying this image and contributing to the discourse around it.

L: We aren’t looking for places where urban meets nature. For us the relationship is so entangled, there is no point in finding where one starts and the other ends. We want to talk about this crazy entanglement between the two, and the messy consequences of it.

I: What is also interesting, is, when you constitute the landscape, you also sign up to a variety of infrastructural injections such as, building bridges, maintaining trenches and constructing hiking trails. So there is an enormous number of resources and effort going into maintaining the static image of the landscape. This is specifically interesting for us, the landscape always comes with intention.

Often times, the landscape is undergoing constant change; people throw trash in the street, they create new footpaths in a field, but the government often intervenes to counteract these events, creating an interesting dynamic and tension between the ever-changing landscape and systems of maintenance.

How have your experiences, growing up, studying and living in different cities, shaped your relationship and understanding of the entangled landscape and how has this influenced your artistic process as a result?

L: We tend to work with stories and images that are accessible to us, so naturally this leads to working with images and ideas that we are surrounded by. ‘Silt’ is the most literal example of that, the film is about the sudden formation of a body of water in my family land, where I grew up. The land has been with my family for generations and naturally because of that, there is a story to tell about the soviet occupation in Lithuania and its impact on the nation and the landscape.

I: It wouldn’t have been possible to make ‘Silt’ without Lukas having this really personal relationship to the land. It is important to have a person in the process that has a strong cultural relationship to the site at hand because only they can see the various nuances that you can only understand through spending a lot of time with this culture and space.

S: Iida and I come from rural Finland, so we have a tendency to relate to those types of spaces and images. I think aesthetically this is the language that feels relatable to us because we understand it. The subjects of our films are about the entanglement of environments, and I think we are more asking the questions; what is shaping our experience and what are the signs that are given to us to navigate? We are interested in understanding and complexifying these signs.

In ‘Silt’ we were influenced by a landscape painter called Petras Kalpokas, who made a series of paintings depicting Lithuanian rivers defrosting after winter as a symbol of resistance against the soviet occupation. We were also looking at painters from the Finnish Golden Age spanning from the late 19th Century to the early 20th Century.

I: What is interesting about these artists, is that they both existed in a time of resistance, through the independence movements of Finland and Lithuania. So there is a clear inspiration for us in these two examples of how you can use art as a political mediator.

For your most recent exhibition titled, ‘November’ and the production of ‘Silt’, I have noticed that you have worked with the found materials within the landscape and incorporated these into your pieces. There’s a certain level of transparency and honesty between the subject and its representation within the art. What role do these materials play in the meanings of the pieces?

L: In ‘November’, we used disused solar panels and silt from the water, a found material that is like dust of the water. We were interested in thinking about the landscape as an event and the solar panels as ambassadors of such event, almost like how photography film is the ambassador of its subject when it is exposed to light. So, the found objects are almost like canvases, we develop them into something new as we respond to the found materials.

I: There is a honesty to it but there is also a dishonesty to it. The ways the objects are re- arranged and dealt with always becomes an interpretation of the space and the material itself. Any kind of documentary, painting or photograph is always altered and dramatised by the author. For us, there is sense of liberty in this; When we start to acknowledge the individual’s interpretation of a subject, we can start to critically analyse the tools used, start to construct narratives and create art that might have seemed untouchable before.

You often use film within your works. Why did you feel film was the most appropriate artistic medium for ‘Silt’, do you feel that film can portray something else that other mediums cannot? What is it about film you enjoy working with?

L: There is something beautiful about film being a container of many different skills and tools that can be used to tell a story. It has a duration and demands time of attention, more time than a still expression and it is important to sometimes ask for time from the viewer.

I: There is also a sense of accountability in this because you are taking someone’s time. I like the duality in this, you demand time from your own practice as well as the viewer’s.

S: We also all have previous experience making films. So it is a medium we all feel we can be very precise with and it is a medium we know how to use to our advantage. It is a craft we have invested a lot of time into learning, and we enjoy it because it creates an experience for the viewer.

I: I think it is important to embrace the crafts and the skills that you have. I don’t want to be an interdisciplinary artist, I want to be a disciplinary artist. It’s like when playing an instrument, you play the instruments that you can play. I think this is when you have the potential to say something really sharp, in a precise way that resonates with people. With film, we all have that close at hand.

Do you feel film, offers you a sense of freedom through creating limitations as it provides you with a framework to work within?

I: I think working together is a lot about this, establishing various frameworks that you can collaborate within and film has been one of those frameworks for us, like a playground.

L: There is also something very nice in letting the tools and materials you have dictate the content of the work. It creates a sense of openness which is developed through practicing the skill.

S: There is a text that compares the control over an artistic medium to weaving a basket. The shape and form of the practice is coming from the precise application and strength that you put behind each knot being weaved. It takes multiple attempts to know how much pressure to apply to a certain part and where you should be more careful. It takes time to be able to understand how to emphasise parts and how to portray a narrative through the work. When making a film, I enjoy how you can direct the way you narrate the story and you know how to guide the viewer through the narrative, when you want to do that.

What was your thought process behind the composition, script writing and assembly of the scenes within ‘Silt’ and how did this serve the narrative you were wanting to tell?

S: The film is basically divided into three different parts, and they all come from the videography styles of television broadcasting and documentation of sudden events. The first part of the film is filmed from the point of view of the cameraman. When we were devising those scenes, we were looking a lot at how sudden events are filmed by the by-standers, we were inspired by the sense of intimacy and immediacy portrayed in handy-cam footage of real-time events.

I: There is something beautiful about the ‘vlog’ video format because often, the cameraman and the cinematographer have discovered something simultaneously, so the encounter captured is very immediate.

L: In ‘Silt’ we are portraying this new body of water that has suddenly appeared as a result of a failed drainage system. Through borrowing languages from broadcasting videography, we are able to visually translate the speed at which this new lake has emerged. As a child I could run on this land, but now I can only swim there. So there is something also quite sci-fi-esque about the speed of this event occurring.

S: For the second part of the film, we approached the lake with more of a forensic lens. Focusing on what is happening under the water through the leeches and floating algae. During this part, we wanted to draw attention to the bottom of the lake, which was once part of the land. You can see the trees that were once emerging from the ground and growing on the field as if it were only yesterday. We are creating these clear images of a field that has been flooded and showing the new life that has started to emerge in this new lake. When we were writing these scenes, we were drawing inspiration from forensic discoveries of shipwrecks.

The last part of the film uses visual languages displayed in television broadcasting footage, taken from a helicopter view. We imitated a lot of camera movements from footages of volcanic eruptions, and we used these tools to portray the vastness and the scale of the lake, giving the viewer another perspective of the event.

I: A question we were exploring in our process and method was, ‘how can we capture something so serene and still while also showing the violence and rapidness of the emerging lake?’

The aesthetics of the film are cold and dark referencing the decay of the soviet infrastructure in the ‘depressed landscape’. What were you aesthetically inspired by and how did this influence the production process in ‘Silt’ and help you communicate the narrative you wanted to tell?

L: Digital colour grading possibilities are endless but at the same time the image is often dictating its own rules, so you are always adapting to the rules of the existing image. Sometimes it offers its own solutions and so, it is about attuning your eye to what the shot already has and then interpreting it further.

I: We have also talked about the false pretence of the documentary as a style, discussing this false idea of the neutral documentation of an event. Many people ask for neutral colour grading for a film, but there is no such thing, the footage and the image is always reinterpreted.

There’s also this element of horror in the film, I was reading about gothic literature at the time and I was inspired by the separation of terror and horror. Terror being something you anticipate and horror being something that’s already happened. I think the film holds a little bit of both; with horror being in the emergence of the lake and terror in the potential scale of this lake. I think the colours also help reflect this tension and emphasise the depressive state of the land.

The film music is composed by artist, Alexander Iezzi who releases music under the alias ‘33’. What was it about their work that inspired the collaboration? How did you feel their work and sound design complimented the aesthetics in ‘Silt’?

S: We work very sculpturally when we make film, drawing inspiration from a variety of sources such as 16th century cartographies, romanticist and modernist landscape paintings referencing different parts of art history and political ideologies that have dictated how spaces have been perceived. In a similar way, Alex’s work draws inspiration from a variety of genres, from metal punk to baroque music and is also assembled in a very sculptural way as these inspirations are collaged together creating both abstractions and figurations of the music. So, we could definitely see ourselves in their way of working, we could resonate and relate to their musical productions.

The textures and sounds used in the soundtrack of ‘Silt’ are also very sculptural. Do you think this style of sound design lends itself to the themes of horror and terror Ida described? How does the sound design help deliver the narrative you wanted to tell in ‘Silt’?

I: Creating a composition that embodied the history of the lake was important to us. This is a new lake, very few people know about its existence, and it is also a tragedy for the people that live with it. We worked with alarm sounds and bended them into violins and used the helicopter sound from the television broadcast footages we had used for visual inspiration for the film. So I think the textural layering of these different sounds and the sculpturing process behind the composition helped us narrate the story of the lake.

S: As with landscape depiction in painting, there is also a long history of landscape depiction in music. In Finland one of our most famous composers, Jean Sibelius, is known for having created this piece called ‘The Spruce’ about the Finnish forest. So it is interesting to relate the making of music to the portrayal of the landscape and understand how music can also feel like a painting or a portrait.

Do you think the piece almost challenges the traditional way music has interpreted the landscape in the past?

S: I think it is a response to it. Our work is also speculative, and it is a subjective interpretation of the landscape. We are interested in the traditional methods, but we also want to inject our own perspectives into the discourse. I think the landscape and our urban environments are so much more entangled and dynamic than they once were, so it feels natural that they are interpreted and represented differently.

Yes, I felt that through the dissonance of the music which seemed to reimagine the harmonious romantic way landscapes were portrayed traditionally.

I: Yeah, I think this is what is interesting about Alex’s practice. He works a lot with dissonant sounds and polyrhythms which, in the context of landscape depiction, challenges the rules and orders the classical representation of landscapes present. Especially as many landscapes we know today have been established through classical painting and music.

Credits

Silt Stills. Courtesy of the artists.
Order ‘silt ost’ here

Julia Kowalska

The importance of figuration

Julia Kowalska (b. 1998 Warsaw, Poland), lives and works in Warsaw, Poland, where she graduated with an MFA from the Painting Faculty at the Academy of Fine Arts in in 2022. Her work intensely interrogates the importance of figuration: beginning by looking inward, she produces paintings that exctract the physical from the subconscious, in delicately devised dreamscapes.
The result is a simulated subconscious from which ephemeral performances present themselves in the foreground, before fading again into the recesses of a restful or restless psyche.

Julia, can you tell me about your work in general? How would you describe it to someone who has never encountered it?

I engage with painting, mostly figurative, centred around the human, although there are single deviations from this. I depict figures in ambiguous states and mutual relations. Most often my focus falls on intimate and subjective experiences.

Looking at your paintings the figures always seem to be extracted from the background, an effect that is not only due to the contrast of color (light vs dark) but also to the blurred lines of the bodies, which seem to suddenly materialize in front of us like characters emerging from a foggy environment. This stems from your desire to depict a scene that is abstracted from space and time, becoming a symbolic dreamscape. Can you tell me where your fascination with the oniric stems from?

It comes from my interest in dream poetics, with the concept and aesthetics of the uncanny. I am inspired by the enigmatic quality of dreams, in which it becomes possible to have lucid and tame experiences in a way that allows them to be both familiar and strange. Dreams push the boundary between imagination and reality, from something familiar and accessible into something peculiar, striking and unexpected. These qualities allow me to explore the fluid, shifting perspectives of Self. And just as Self includes both consciousness and unconsciousness, in dreams unconsciousness comes to the fore, systematic and chaotic collide. This opposition allows for the simultaneous existance of ambivalent meaning, which remains the core of my exploration, because I believe it says the most about ourselves. No matter what I happen to be focusing my research and painting on, whether it concerns dichotomies related to the body, the complexity of relationships or the complexity of desires, the common link is always ambivalence and the tension arising from ambiguity. I love such qualities because they challenge our relationship to reality and destabilise the Self, and in this way they are the best means of realising that Self means otherness.

Your main body of work consists of paintings. You have, however, experimented with other media, specifically sculpture and installations. Can you tell me how you translate your research differently according to the distinctive techniques and materials you use?

When I work with an object in space, I find it easier to think about the form abstractly, as about an isolated tissue, closer to defragmentation or hybridization. This simply shifts some conceptual emphasis. During my first solo exhibition, I experimented with wax sculptures imitating skin-like, carnal tissue. At the time, I exhibited an object – a chandelier in which I replaced the clear crystals with wax forms resembling flesh-like, meat wastes, – and an abstract sculptural form which materia and shape suggested a carnal origin, only without any indication of its interior or exterior. Both forms were associated with the body, but remained abstracted from it, unidentifiable. They could evoke associations with the abject, in places resembling subcoutenous biology causing anxiety and repulsion, while staying visually attractive, pinkish, smooth to the touch. Using a wax imitation of the body, its crafted form, I tried to find corporeality in another context, or rather, to locate it in all the contexts in which the body exists – in a kind of conflict – organically, naturally and culturally. I am currently in the process of working on my fourth solo exhibition, where I plan to juxtapose wax sculptures with painting. I think that conceptually the sculptures will similarly oscillate between meaning and divergences around the body.

In a previous interview someone asked about the way you imagine your shows, and you talked about the fact that you think of a singular work always in terms of its relationship with others. I find this very interesting, because it relates to the construction of meaning. Instead of seeing it as intrinsic to the single painting, you seem to believe that it is gradually built through a relational aspect. Could you tell me a bit more about this?

The relationship of the images is important to me and I take care to ensure that they maintain a dialogue with each other and act on each other. This works for me rather intuitively. Of course, it helps to build or complement contexts. I can duplicate certain meanings and at the same time contradict or undermine them in the next painting. This allows me to intensify, for example, the impression of confusion.

In our conversation it emerged that this belief is also translated in your actual working method: you work on multiple paintings at the same time, carrying impressions and fragments of each of them with you as you paint, therefore almost scattering traces in all of them. Is this link amongst all of your paintings something that you see once you visualize them finished, all together in a space?

Yes, more or less. When constructing an exhibition, I have all or most of the paintings in my mind and on sketches, although it is never a finished idea. A great deal happens in the process. I think that working on multiple formats at once allows for this dynamic of work, where I can navigate the relationship of paintings with each other on the fly. It’s just easier to gather thoughts and put a concept together.

This approach towards meaning and the relevance given to the relational aspect of the works stems also from the acceptance of change (and transformation), which is seen as a constitutional element of your working method. I am curious to know how you see, for example, the role of the public in relation to your work.

I do not yet have a formed view of this relationship, although I do indeed often consider the viewer and imagine the potential trajectory of the reception of my work. I deliberately work with attractive, visually pleasing figuration, using an aesthetic that may flirt with patriarchal sensibilities. Attractive, pinkish, soft bodies, often female, and nudity – subtle and erotic, not obscene – are meant to seduce with the promise of endless viewing pleasure. The image triumphs when the consuming gaze stops confused at an ambiguous detail or, questioning the initial impression, begins to presume the ambivalence of the whole scene. Perhaps in such viewing dynamics I find the potential for realizing ever-present patriarchal sentiments and clashing dichotomies related to communing with the body.

When looking at the overview of your works the blurred effect of your paintings- but also the choice of your materials, such as wax, as we already talked about – I can’t help but thinking about the non-finito. The wax sculptures of Medardo Rosso, for example, were often left unfinished or with features partially incomplete: this was a deliberate choice aimed to suggest continuity. Or, better said, possibility. Is that something you consider in your practice?

Absolutely! The susceptibility of wax to heat and to touch, this plasticity means that the sculpture is never final. The process of molding and solidifying liquid wax is easy to associate with this. Once during my studies, while forming a wax sculpture, I spontaneously recorded my hand massaging and stroking the slippery, fleshy surface of the wax, which while still warm yielded to the pressure of my touch and changed shape, just like living tissue.

To conclude, I would love to know what excites you about your research and how you see it developing in the future.

Well, I have no idea. Each exhibition results in new insights into the subjects I explore. I guess that’s what excites me the most.

Credits

  1. Julia Kowalska, Milky Blind Eye, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.
  2. Julia Kowalska, To give to eat or to allow oneself to be eaten, 2023. Courtesy of the artist.
  3. Julia Kowalska, Flash of a smiling heart, 2023. Courtesy of the artist.
  4. Solo exhibition Pleasant touch, like talc powdered inside, 2022. Sklep Galeria Karowa, Warsaw, Poland. Courtesy of the artist and gallery.
  5. Julia Kowalska, Untitled, 2023. Courtesy of the artist.
  6. Julia Kowalska, Unseen, an animal, 2023. Courtesy of the artist.

Miles Greenberg

Navigating space and body in contemporary art

In the realm of contemporary art, Miles Greenberg stands as a Canadian-born artist and sculptor whose work unfolds as a dynamic exploration of space, movement, and the intricate interplay between the physical body and its surroundings. 

Unraveling his history, we progressively revealed the intricacies of his artistic approach, prompting a more profound question: who is Miles Greenberg in the present moment? As we journey through his narrative, we seamlessly move between the Amsterdam and Paris presentations of “TRUTH” and the impending showcase at the Venice Biennale.

To kick off our conversation, I’m curious about the profound influence New York holds in shaping your artistic expression. How does the dynamic environment of the city contribute to the thematic elements woven into your work?
Louise Bourgeois once said, on New York, “I love this city, its clear-cut look, its sky, its buildings, and its scientific, cruel, romantic quality.” I think that sums it up for me too. Something about it allows me to think and breathe – in the exact opposite way that my other home, Reykjavík, allows me to think and breathe. It’s important to be able to think and breathe in the place(s) you call home.

As you ventured beyond Montreal to explore diverse cities like Paris, northern Italy, and Beijing, could you share the insights and experiences you garnered during these residencies? How did the unique characteristics of each location shape and enrich your artistic perspective?

I grew up with a very ambiguous sense of origin. My mom was adopted by Canada to a Jewish family, but is biologically Ukrainian and Brazilian (something we only learned last year after the passing of her mother) and my father’s never been in the picture so much and I never met his family, so feeling like I’m from nowhere gave me permission early on to be from everywhere. I didn’t use to have a studio, so every time I’d travel with a pocket folder pregnant with scraps of paper and drawings and printouts that i’d pin up on the wall of every residency, airbnb or hotel room i’d stay in for days, weeks or months and commit wholeheartedly to being of that place. It’s taught me to switch in and out of the worlds I create very fast, which I think helped me do all these shows in such rapid succession.

I’m fascinated by the four-year period of independent research you embarked on, delving into the realms of movement and architecture. Can you elaborate on the nature of this research and how it played a pivotal role in shaping the evolution of your artistic practice during that time?

I left school very young to start working. After a year of performing in nightclubs and doing various experiments in DIY artist-run spaces in Montreal, I went to work for a Canadian choreographer in China. I was doing extra night classes in various languages throughout high school, so by the time I dropped out at seventeen, I was proficient in Mandarin, Italian, Spanish, German with a base in Russian, in addition to my native French and English. By the time I finished the two months interning at the dance academy, I got an artist residency and stayed on in Beijing a bit longer. Shortly thereafter, I moved to Paris to start doing classes and workshops at École Jacques Lecoq in movement and space. I did that for about nine months with intermittent workshops in butoh, sculpture, and artist residencies in Italy and the US. I did the Watermill Center summer programme with Robert Wilson two years in a row, and intensive workshops with Marina Abramović in Greece. By the time I moved to New York in summer of 2019, applied to Cooper Union and got rejected, I basically already had a pretty substantial education. But because I never really had adequate closure on my academic career, I really still feel like a student. I was always a decade or more younger than everyone around me. I’m only now at 26 starting to feel like my age is beginning to catch up with me.

How do you utilize the physical body as a sculptural material in your performances, and what significance do this approach hold within the context of your larger body of work?

I think of all of my work as sculpture, whether it’s performance, video or sculpture. It’s all designed to be looked at like sculpture; the duration, the pace, the role of the audience, I want you to feel the same as when you’re looking at classical statuary. It’s just the most accessible form of art to me, the relationship between a viewer and a statue is something I understand, so it’s what I make.

“TRUTH” seems to challenge conventional boundaries between performance art, sculpture, and installation art. What inspired this interdisciplinary approach, and how does it manifest in the viewer’s experience?

I wanted to make the audience feel implicated in the show by suspending them in some liminal, inaccessible vacuum between the worlds of the performers and the spectators – two worlds which are visibly radically different; banality or fantasy. I was going for a “sunken place” à la Get Out and/or Under The Skin.

The interplay of mediums feels natural and necessary to me. I secretly kind of hate the term performance artist, to be honest. Performance is something I’ll come back to constantly for the rest of my life, it’s my centre, but I do a lot more than just that.

Chino Amobi’s original soundtrack is mentioned as part of the immersive experience. Can you elaborate on the collaborative process between you and the composer, and how the music complements the visual aspects of the installation?

I’m a gigantic Chino Amobi fan, I’m so glad he said yes to this; I was listening to him a ton in the studio while working on the show and it just felt logical. We haven’t even seen each other IRL since the project began; I sent him one or two quick WhatsApp voice notes with the premise and he concocted exactly what was in my head right from the first draft within like ten days, it was insane – It felt like one of those really effortless telepathic collaborations, I’m super grateful.

The term “reflective landscape” is intriguing. Could you share more about the symbolism or metaphorical significance of the reflective pool in “TRUTH” and its relation to the overall concept of the piece?

I like making works with no beginning or end, and I like making pieces with no top or bottom. When you put a piece on a reflective surface, the bottom becomes the middle and the top becomes its extremities – It just feels better to me. I also love working with water because it ripples at the slightest movement and it makes the public sensitive to microscopic movements that they’d otherwise miss.

The 7-hour duration of the battle in “TRUTH” is quite unique. What inspired the decision for such an extended performance, and how does the duration contribute to the overall impact on the audience?

All my work is that long, sometimes longer. Duration is transformative for the performer, yes, but on a more practical level, I find it’s more accessible to the public. There’s no expectation of the public to watch a seven or eight hour performance in full, there’s no format – the viewer is responsible for their viewership experience. If they’d like to be very serious and monastic and watch every minute of it seated with their phones off, they can. If they’d rather take pictures and chat about it while strolling through, that’s also welcome. Again, think of it as sculpture.

Knowing you’ll soon grace Venice’s premier contemporary art event, the anticipation must be palpable. How do you ready yourself for the reveal of your work, and what emotions do you navigate in the lead-up to the performance?

I’m in Montreal right now training about six hours a day with an ex-Cirque du Soleil physical therapist and movement coach. I try to be very rigorous. I probably shouldn’t even be on my computer right now.

Can you offer a sneak peek into what audiences can expect from this particular showcase?

Saint Sebastian and robots.

Credits

  1. Miles Greenberg, 2020. Video by Adrien Bertolle. Courtesy of the artist.
  2. Miles Greenberg, Etude pour Sebastien, 2023. The Louvre, Paris, France. Courtesy of the artist.
  3. Miles Greenberg, Etude pour Sebastien, 2023. The Louvre, Paris, France. Courtesy of the artist.
  4. Miles Greenberg, Water in a Heatwave, 2021. BOCA Lisbon, Lisbon, Portugal. Photography by Bruno Simao.
  5. Miles Greenberg, Water in a Heatwave, 2021. BOCA Lisbon, Lisbon, Portugal. Photography by Bruno Simao.
  6. Miles Greenberg, Lepidopterophobia, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Sky Arts.
  7. Miles Greenberg, Truth, 2023. Powerhouse Arts, Brooklyn, New York. Courtesy of the artist
  8. Miles Greenberg, Truth, 2023. Powerhouse Arts, Brooklyn, New York. Courtesy of the artist
  9. Miles Greenberg, Sebastian, 2024. Palazzo Malipiero, Venice, Italy. Courtesy of the artist, Museum Berggruen and Neue Nationalgalerie. Photography by Francesco Allegretto.

spazioSERRA

Found in Transition

Since 2017, spazioSERRA has been subverting the paradigms of art curation in Milan. The unique exhibition space occupies a formerly dismissed aedicula within the Milano Lancetti train station, a site of commuting, certainly not catered for the arts.

However, over the last five years, spazioSERRA has grown into one of the most distinguished curatorial realities of the city, adopting a grassroots and collaborative ethos that revolves around a multidisciplinary collective of young personalities. They are not afraid to challenge the artistic status quo and try to democratise arts, making it a daily experience for passersby.

Its curatorial practice speaks to the present, moving within sculpture, performance and mixed media, with the now not so utopian aim of sparking a discourse on arts, culture and beauty in a suburban setting that, traditionally, was only seen for its pragmatic and structural means. 

Defying labels and refusing the conformist definition of gallery, spazioSERRA is busy narrowing the gap between art and the public sphere, growing seamlessly with the local community.

We sat in conversation with the team behind spazioSERRA.

Lorenzo Ottone: spazioSERRA aims to promote contemporary art in a suburban context. Howimportant but also challenging it is, within that specific social context, to establish adialogue with such a broad community, made of both locals and commuters, whichmay not be necessarily exposed to nor interested in art and culture and who mayhappen to find themselves by the space for other purposes? 

spazioSERRA: spazioSERRA was established to specifically cater to this audience. Our unwavering mission revolves around fostering an authentic and meaningful dialogue with the community, rendering it a matter of great significance to us. Our ultimate aim is to democratise art, liberating it from constraints both literal and metaphorical, thereby fostering accessibility, openness, and transparency. 

The challenge lies in the undeniable reality that the passersby, intentionally or fortuitously interacting with our space, constitute an immensely diverse collective. Certain exhibitions possess the power to ignite the curiosity of specific visitors, while others engender intrigue in an entirely distinct set of observers. We aspire for the passersby, who traverse the Lancetti railway station on their daily commutes, to discover something within our space that can transcend their routine, infusing it with curiosity and a touch of liveliness. 

Furthermore, cultivating a dialogue with the community holds paramount importance. The irrefutable truth remains that spazioSERRA derives its essence and purpose from this very collective. As an integral part of a bustling urban ecosystem, nestled within a public space of a train station, it finds itself intricately interwoven with the broader social fabric. Failure to maintain this vital connection would invariably result in the gradual erosion of its significance and eventual obsolescence. 

Lorenzo Ottone: The exhibitions you promote range widely, from performances to sculpture and mixedmedia. Can you please guide us throughout your curatorial approach? Within an artworld that is quite multi-faceted and fragmented, what stimulates you the most rightnow? 

spazioSERRA: We actually acknowledge and embrace the diverse and expansive nature of artistic  expression in the present era and ever-evolving landscape. We try not to confine contemporary art into a singular definition or medium and instead we aim to promote art that addresses pertinent societal issues and provokes meaningful conversations. Works that challenge established norms, promote inclusivity, and shed light on underrepresented voices resonate strongly with us. We are committed to providing a platform for artists whose practices embody social consciousness, cultural diversity, and critical discourse. We recognize that different perspectives, cultural backgrounds, and social contexts influence artistic expression. It allows for the exploration of unconventional materials, interdisciplinary collaborations, boundary-pushing artistic experiments, and the fusion of traditional and contemporary techniques. 

Ultimately, our curatorial approach is driven by facilitating meaningful connections between artists, audiences, and the broader cultural landscape. Our curatorial collective is formed by multidisciplinary individuals with diverse backgrounds, expertise, and walks of life. So we try our best to curate exhibitions that both inspire and engage, inviting visitors to embark on a thought-provoking journey through the rich tapestry of contemporary art. Over the years, our curatorial approach has evolved significantly, and we anticipate that it will continue to evolve in the future. 

Lorenzo Ottone: At the moment we are noticing an increasing attention towards archive culture.Whereas a spazioSERRA is located in an environment that unfolds at the speed ofsound, dictated by the passing of time and trains. How can art capture the presentand the zeitgeist when there seems to be so much emphasis on the past? 

spazioSERRA: Art, with its innate versatility and capacity for interpretation, possesses the remarkable ability to bridge the gap between past, present, and future. While archive culture may be rooted in preserving and revisiting historical records, art can infuse the present moment with vitality, relevance, and contemporary resonance. Rather than being constrained by the weight of the past, art can engage with history as a source of inspiration and reflection. Artists can draw upon archival materials, cultural artifacts, and collective memory to create works that explore the contemporary human experience. By recontextualizing historical narratives, art can shed light on the enduring themes, struggles, and aspirations that shape our current reality. 

Moreover, art can serve as a catalyst for dialogue and critical examination of the present. It has the power to evoke emotions and provoke thoughtful contemplation. Artists can respond to the pressing issues, complexities, and transformations of the modern world, using their creative expression to capture the zeitgeist and stimulate collective consciousness. Moreover, the immediacy of art’s impact lies in its ability to engage with the viewer on an emotional and visceral level by creating moments of connection and reflection that go beyond the barriers of time. Through these dynamic and experiential approaches, art can vividly reflect the spirit of the present, surpassing the perceived emphasis on the past and artists can evoke a profound sense of connection to the ever-evolving world around us. In short, art’s capacity to transcend temporal boundaries and its potential to explore historical narratives in a contemporary context enable it to capture the present and embody the zeitgeist.

Lorenzo Ottone: You work with young, up and coming artists. Even your own definition of collective issomething that often hails from youth and underground culture. How is the collectiveand social dimension of spazioSERRA shaping your identity? 

spazioSERRA: The majority of the artists we have worked with are in fact relatively young and emerging; we also had the chance to work with artists who are well established and belong to a different generation. We do want to provide a platform for emerging artists to showcase their talent, share their perspectives, and gain exposure within a supportive community. It is truly needed in the current art world. 

By embracing the essence of youth and underground culture, we shape our identity. We also find our distinct character and purpose through our commitment to fostering a collective spirit and creating a vibrant social space. The social dimension of spazioSERRA is equally significant. Our space is designed as a gathering place, where diverse individuals can converge, engage, and experience art in an inclusive and dynamic environment. By facilitating interactions and dialogue between artists, visitors, and the community, we cultivate a sense of shared ownership and participation. Our identity is driven by the collaborative energy that permeates spazioSERRA while fostering a sense of belonging. We strive to remain receptive to emerging trends, societal changes, and the ever-changing landscape of contemporary art. By engaging in ongoing dialogues, we ensure that our identity remains relevant, vibrant, and in tune with the aspirations of our artists and audience. 

Lorenzo Ottone: Last year, your call for artists was titled “Un posto impossibile”, an impossible place,which is what a gallery within an underground railway station may look like at first sight.Have you found an answer to your question? How utopian is spazioSERRA’s visionnow, 5 years after its opening? 

spazioSERRA: It depends on the question to be answered. Our aim is not to necessarily provide answers but more so to create an environment that could potentially generate questions. Every visitor can have their own answer or simply reflect on the questions they personally perceive. spazioSERRA is a peculiar place situated in an underground train station but it is not really a gallery and this is why the expectations from a space like this can be somehow unusual but certainly not entirely impossible. We never set out to have a utopian nor a dystopian vision. While our vision continues to evolve, we find that spazioSERRA’s essence remains firmly rooted in serving the community. The journey of the past five years has allowed us to realize that the vision itself is an ongoing pursuit—a continual exploration of possibilities and a quest to defy limitations. By seamlessly integrating art into this dynamic urban environment, we seek to reduce the boundaries that traditionally separate art from the general public sphere. Yet, we acknowledge that the road to achieving our vision is ever-unfinished. As we navigate the complexities of operating within a train station and engaging with diverse audiences, we continuously adapt, learn, and refine our approach. We try to promote art as an integral part of people’s daily lives. Art has a transformative power. The diverse voices that have graced our space, and the connections forged between artists, visitors, and the broader community determine spazioSERRA’s impact as an exhibition space. The fulfillment of the vision also depends on its ability to sustain its operations over time. These factors can shape the overall vision and determine the extent to which it aligns with the initial starting point.

Shirin Neshat

In Search of Opposites

Shirin Neshat (Farsi: شیرین نشاط, b. 1957) is an Iranian-born visual artist who lives in New York City, known primarily for her work in film, video, photography, and opera; directing Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida at the Salzburg. Her artwork focuses on the notion of opposites between the East vs. West, femininity vs. masculinity, spirituality vs. violence and the beautiful vs. the disturbing; highlighting the contradictions between these subjects, through the lens of her personal experiences of exile and finding a sense of belonging.

She has exhibited her work internationally at numerous museums and galleries, including: the Serpentine Gallery, Stedelijk Museum, Hamburger Bahnhof, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Faurschou Foundation, the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal and Museo Correr, which was an official corollary event to the 57th Biennale di Venezia in 2017. Neshat’s Turbulent was awarded the Golden Lion Award, the First International Prize at the 48th Biennale di Venezia (1999). Her first feature-length film, Women Without Men (2009), received the Silver Lion Award for Best Director at the 66th Venice International Film Festival. Her other feature films are Looking For Oum Kulthum (2017) and most recently Land of Dreams (2021), which premiered at the Venice Film Festival.

In concurrence with her recently released short film and exhibition The Fury, NR Magazine spoke with Neshat about her memories of her childhood, transition from working between different mediums, working with subjects originating from the Middle East to the US, and about the excitement of embarking on her most recent projects. 

Dara: I would like to start by asking you about your early memories of your childhood growing up in Iran and later moving abroad.

Shirin Neshat: I grew up in one of the more religious cities in Iran, Qazvin, with a lovely family. My father was a farmer and a physician, and my mother was a housekeeper. We were 5 children, and we had this dream life in a home with a beautiful garden. Therefore, my early life in Iran, up until I was 17, was quite normal and peaceful. I left Iran at the age of 17 because my father, like many other Iranian families at the time, wanted me to continue my education in the West. So, I came to Los Angeles with my sister, and that was a pretty dramatic transition for me. This was because the image I had in mind of America and what had been depicted for me was very different from what I saw and experienced, which caused me to fall into a depression. This period was in 1975, a few years before the Iranian revolution, and I remembered I really wanted to go back to our small town because of how ill I was feeling leaving the proximity of my family. 

Unfortunately, my father was quite persistent for me to stay, and shortly after the revolution happened in Iran. During this period, I had just turned 20 and began my studies at UC Berkeley. Therefore, the early days of my studies in college coincided with the revolution taking place, followed by the war with Iraq that led to the breakdown of diplomatic relationships with the US, and my total isolation from the rest of my family due to not even having remote family in the US. This experience was quite horrifying as a 20-year-old who never really felt comfortable living here, and this feeling was perpetuated by the inability to communicate with Iran through post or telephone service. 

Therefore, my early memories of my childhood in Iran were quite peaceful and happy, but this quickly transitioned into a very dark period of my life was quite traumatic, as I’m sure many other Iranian people that experienced this separation could relate to. During this time, I suffered from anxiety and was stuck in this constant feeling of being ill that caused me to not perform well in my studies. I think this period, from when my sister left back to Iran a few years prior to the revolution until when I eventually moved to New York in 1982, was the most difficult period of my life. 

After moving to New York, I started to finally find the right community, and I married my Korean partner at the time, which led me to join him in running a non-profit organization dedicated to art and architecture. Starting this new life in New York was hard at first because I didn’t know anyone and had no money, but due to the nature of the city, it allowed me to find a sense of security and community. During this period, I didn’t have the opportunity to go back to Iran and see my family for 11 years, partially because of the war between Iran and Iraq and the diplomatic breakdown between USA and Iran, but I finally had the opportunity to go back in the early 1990s. 

The reason I explain this background is that it has a lot to do with the art I create, and the emotional, psychological and even at times political substance of my work. My work is a reflection of the sense of exile and loneliness I experienced during this period, and the anxiety and alienation that came from that. Therefore, many of my characters in my films are very representative of these feelings. Following my return from Iran in 1996, due to me beginning my work as an artist, I have been unable to revisit ever since. 

Dara: I can’t imagine how difficult this transitional period was for you, especially considering all the events that took place during that time in Iran. I’m sure many Iranians moving abroad prior or during this time can relate in their own way to the feelings you’ve shared. I’m curious to hear more about your experience of visiting your family for the first time after over a decade, and how this experience felt and influenced your work that followed.

Shirin Neshat: It was both exhilarating and horrifying. I remember during this time my son was born; he was 3-4 years old and had a Korean-Iranian background. It was kind of strange after 11 years because there was a distance between the life that I had lived and the life that my family had lived in Iran. There had been so much that had happened: the revolution, war with Iraq, and the economic situation that had followed, which caused a gap between us that was hard to distinguish for me – understanding who they were before and who they were now.

On a public and societal level, everything had transformed, even visually. It was almost as if the color had been lifted off the cities, and everything had become black and white. In some ways, I felt excited because I felt the life that I had lived during this time away was so meaningless. I thought my life during this time was so individualistic and so much of it was about me caring for only myself. Being in an environment where people had suffered so much, in the early 1990s where all these events had taken place so recently, and having the opportunity of seeing and reconnecting with many of my old friends, I finally could try to understand and feel what had just happened. I had the opportunity to read books and material on all the events that had taken place, and also hear experiences to try to immerse myself in this time that had already passed.

Therefore, when I returned to New York, I found it really difficult because my heart was no longer in working on our non-profit organization with my husband. I just really wanted to go back again and I did a few times until I had trouble being able to visit. All of these interactions, impressions, and inspirations I had during my visits to Iran ultimately culminated into my art. What many don’t understand is that prior to these initial visits to Iran, I wasn’t an artist, and I was mostly interacting with art through helping other artists in their practices. But I realized that all I wanted was to connect with Iran and what I had just witnessed during my time there, and art very organically became this connector and a great tool for raising questions or creating a dialogue with all the issues I found interesting.

I believe that there was a misunderstanding of people thinking I was trying to make a statement or claim towards the events that had taken place, but this was never my intention. I knew very well that I was an outsider, and my intention with my work was to focus on a subject that interested me, and I would try to research that idea. For example, with Woman of Allah (1993), I read my friend’s philosophy thesis on the subject of Martyrdom (Shahâdat) in post-revolutionary Iran, and I was mesmerized by his analysis of the correlation between love of god in religion and the violence in death. To me, this was an incredible paradox that inspired me to make that series of photographs,. To this day, I’m attacked because people think that by creating this body of work I supported the fanaticism of the current regime, and on the other hand, the government thinks that I was critiquing the regime. My intention with this body of work was to raise questions on a very symbolic and conceptual level.

My artwork was triggered by my return to Iran through my experiences and inspirations during these visits, and it grew from there very organically from one medium or topic to another.

Dara: What really moved me about this body of work, Woman of Allah, is the juxtaposition present in the heaviness felt in the composition of the images and the use of calligraphy, and on the other hand, the sense of vulnerability felt through the presence of the woman’s body. As a viewer, I found myself positioned at the center of this paradox. Can you further discuss your position and process behind this series and your decision to use calligraphy in your work?

Shirin Neshat: You have to keep in mind that I was educated in the West and due to this, I developed a Eurocentric background in my relationship with conceptual art. On the other hand, my subjects are very rooted in Islamic and Persian art and architecture. If you look carefully into my work on an aesthetic and visual level, you notice an emphasis on symmetry, repetition, harmony, and integration of text. There is a reference to sacred text experienced in Persian poetry and Islamic architecture. Therefore, many of my ideas are borrowed from authentically traditional Persian and Islamic art that points to my heritage, but the language of my work is very much that of conceptual art. I grew up influenced by the work of artists like Cindy Sherman and artists who were predominantly working in self-portraits. Therefore, the enigma and abstraction that are present in my work are not coming from traditional influences but my experience of Western conceptual art.

The paradoxical sense of duality you mentioned about Woman of Allah and my work at large comes from my subconscious strategy of finding contradictions, opposites, and paradoxes in the work I create. This duality is evident in Turbulent (1998), Rapture (1999), The Fury (2022) and my other work as well. These conflicting ideas and notions of opposites, for example, men vs. women, spirituality vs. violence, the beautiful vs. the disturbing, or open natural landscapes vs. controlled fortresses, both aesthetically and conceptually influence my work, ranging from photography, film and opera. This duality is represented in my emphasis on working in black and white, juxtaposing realism with surrealism and dreams, and has stayed constant throughout my work.

Dara: Before we move on to your films and your transition into moving images, I want to take this opportunity to further discuss your body of photographic work, such as The Book Of Kings influenced by social and political movements throughout the Middle East.

Shirin Neshat: Over time, I realized that subconsciously I found myself referencing history in my work. For example, The Book Of Kings (2012) was influenced by the Green Movement, Women Without Men (2009) was influenced by the 1953 Coup, and Looking for Oum Kulthum (2017) was influenced by Egyptian history during my time there in the Arab spring. I tend to approach history in a very fictionalized way, and in The Book Of Kings there is a focus on this notion of patriotism influenced by Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (Book Of Kings), which is a long epic poem of tragedies that focuses on the core narrative of these heroes that self-sacrificed for their virtues and their nation. Ferdowsi’s book is largely credited for saving the Farsi language following the Arab conquest that ignited the introduction of Islam in the Middle East. Also, The Book Of Kings is influenced by the more recent Green Movement in Iran, which was a forward-thinking movement not focused on religion, and people demanding a new idea of liberty while not overthrowing the government. These powerful notions of the spirit of patriotism that later on continued throughout the Arab spring tend to always intersect with genocide, violence, and cruelty, similar to what is present in Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh where you read about men’s heads being severed. I found this tension between compassion and love for the nation, and the brutality, violence and genocide that came with it incredibly moving and profound. I represented it in this series of photographs through symbolic gestures such as having a group of patriots with their hands over their hearts, a group of villains with scenes of war from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh inscribed on their bodies, and a group of 45 images depicting innocent bystanders observing this circus. My intention with the series of photographs was to capture the spirit of patriotism during the Green Movement in 2009 and for it to serve as a remembrance for those who lost their lives, and also as a reminder that history tends to repeat itself.

Dara: It’s interesting to hear you move from such a personal subject so close to you to a more expansive conversation with a wider audience throughout the Middle East. I’m curious to hear why you decided to transition from photography to moving image as a medium to continue this discourse. Also, as a starting point, I wanted to ask you about your first short film Turbulent and your application of music as a communicative tool throughout this project.

Shirin Neshat: I think after Woman of Allah I received such a dogmatic response to it as a project, a response that was quite political and the judgment was so heavy. This experience made me feel that the nature of photography limited me from building more ambiguity, and to be able to take the audience to a place where they were not forced to impose their relationship to the subject of politics. Therefore, transitioning into moving images felt like a massive departure for me. It opened a new door to a whole new medium that refused to be reduced to these types of judgments because I had the opportunity to be far more evocative and abstract – even if my work was politically charged. The other advantages this new medium offered were the opportunity to set a background or a landscape, and to introduce music and choreographed performances. Also, it gave me the ability to situate my audience to have them experience it in a way that I could control as an artist.

With a photograph, as a viewer, you are placed in a situation where a single photograph has to say everything. This became quite difficult and problematic for me because most of the time, that image is reduced to a few symbols such as a veil and a gun, and this leads to the loss of every other complexity present in the work. Therefore, I found my transition into film as a beautiful new and freeing journey. Turbulent focuses on critiquing the sociological issue of women in Iran being deprived of the experience of music. It does so by again placing the audience in a conflicted point between two opposites: one being a man performing a song to an audience and being applauded for his performance, and on the other hand, a woman performing alone with no audience, and her performance escalating into a form of protest. But this is the impression that is first felt on the surface of the film. Gradually, there are these layers of meaning that begin to show themselves below that surface. There is a conflict between the conformist and the rebellious, but also between tradition and the act of breaking away from that tradition; to start something new. What I loved about Turbulent was that I felt that my audience, from every corner of the world, got it and truly understood it, and I didn’t have to say anything in that process.

This was a great realization for me that moving image and all the qualities that it comes with granted me the opportunity to create experiences that are far different from what can be achieved with a photograph. This made me step away from photography for a few years and make other films, such as Rapture, which again introduced a paradox through two separate screens; one showing a group of men in a fortress and the other showing a group of women in nature. But at the end, the audience understands the message behind this enigmatic film, which was that the women started this journey from where they started and end up in this boat that they depart in and leave, whether to commit suicide or reach freedom, but the men end up staying and being left behind in the same place. So there was this symbolically calculated outcome that was delivered through form, shape, music and poetry leading to an end that evidently had its sharp knife.

This quality of progression in storytelling in moving image inspired me to continue making many more films and staying away from photography. When I finally decided to return to photography, I had a completely different approach to it as a medium.

Dara: I found your use of two screens in these films quite effective because, as a viewer, you find yourself in the middle of two subjects that are having a dialogue with each other. This experience can be quite emotional and moving, but can be quite overwhelming and uncomfortable as well. Sometimes, you get one screen focusing on one subject and the other giving you a wider context of the surrounding scene or environment. I found this duality in the experience quite powerful.

Shirin Neshat: As mentioned earlier, all my films are built around the notion of opposites, and having the two separate projections only adds to that. The audience cannot watch both screens simultaneously, and they become an editor that has to make a choice. When they focus on one screen, they are missing something else on another. I like this idea of forcing the audience to be a true participant and to be drawn in by the device that this film has created, hence becoming a part of the film. This experience can sometimes be quite uncomfortable for the viewer.

Dara: I felt that sometimes we, as viewers, make the decision of where to look subconsciously. We get drawn into a particular scene and want to continue to follow that narrative and subject. I found myself watching parts of the film again because I had completely lost sight of what was happening on the other screen. I think this ability to have a choice to follow what you connect with is quite freeing.

Shirin Neshat: The viewer’s role becomes much more active. They are not just passive recipients of the content; they become engaged participants who are making decisions and interpreting the narrative in their own unique way.

Dara: I want to ask you about some of the other films you worked on, moving onto doing full feature films and switching from black and white to colour.

Shirin Neshat: When I work with a medium for some time, I end up in a place of stagnation, similar to how I felt with photography. Also, I felt a bit exhausted from only working within the art world because everything was more or less focused on commodity, and you were valued based on how much your work was worth. At this point, I received an invitation from the Sundance Film Festival asking if I was interested in making a feature film, and my immediate answer was no. But after reflecting on where I was at that moment with my artwork, I realised that I was at a point where I wanted to take a new risk. This led to Women Without Men (2009), which is based on a book with the same title by Shahrnush Parsipur. It took six years for the film to be made.

I think the opportunity to make feature films was interesting for multiple reasons. One was the ability to connect more with popular culture and to show my work to an audience that may not necessarily know me as an artist from galleries and museums. But for the most part, I wanted to know if I had it in me to make a feature-length film. So, it became an education for me over the years, working with different scriptwriters and learning how I could invent my own language in cinema by borrowing from what I’d done previously in my work as an artist, while fully embracing cinema as a medium.

Although I had received a lot of criticism telling me to stay in art and not to take the risk going into cinema, Women Without Men was quite well received and this motivated me to keep pushing making more feature films. My next project, Looking for Oum Kulthum (2017), was much more difficult because I was making a film in Arabic about an iconic figure in Arabic culture. As a non Egyptian and someone that didn’t speak Arabic, making this film became a tremendous effort. This film became semi biographical and semi artistic, and I wouldn’t say it was fully successful. But I believe none of my work had come without their flaws, yet I never regretted making them. 

My next feature film was Land of Dreams (2021), which was shot in New Mexico staring Matt Dillon, Sheila Vand, William Moseley, Isabella Rossellini, Christopher McDonald and Anna Gunn, was one of my favourites because I had learnt by this point how to direct and how to think about scriptwriting in a way that I didn’t before. I had the opportunity to work with Jean-Claude Carrière alongside my husband Shoja Azari to create an original story, which was humoristic and based on my own ideas. This process lead to me being very happy with this film, and I never expect to make films that are main stream but for them to be very uniquely a manifestation of a visual artist.

With Land of Dreams, it was the first time that I simultaneously did a feature film, 110 photographs, and a double channel video projection. It all came from my obsession with my own dreams, and followed a three part video project I did two years prior called The Dreamers, which depicted my own nightmares. So Land of Dreams came from taking that obsession and going after other people’s dreams and nightmares. There was a parody about America being the land of dreams; this place where people come to make their dreams into reality, which I believe is true in many ways. I wanted to play with this idea of me going after Americans dreams and collecting them. In doing so, questioning if dreams are a manifestation of our fears, which I believe that they are, and what the subjects are fearful about. 

The video that is part of this project involves this strange colony inside of a mountain where all these Iranians are busy analysing Americans dreams. The same actress I worked with in Land of Dreams, Sheila Vand, acts as a spy for the colony, going into a near by town, pretending to be an artist asking American’s whether she can take their photograph, later asking them about their most recent dream, and then taking this information back to the colony. 

But with the feature film itself (Land of Dreams), We took it a step further where she (Sheila Vand) is working for the American government’s Census Bureau, and that the Bureau has made a new requirement that, along with regularly requested data, every citizen is asked to share their latest dream. This concept is rooted in my interest in the way governments and corporations are using surveillance to develop an understanding of our subconscious. There is a humoristic but also disturbing side to this film; in the fact that we ourselves are targeted by people in power, whether governments or corporations, to be controlled. Also, the film focuses on a main character who is an Iranian woman and an artist, which is based on myself, that is quite haunted because of personal and political reasons.

Therefore, Land of Dreams ended up being quite layered sociologically in regards to America, but also on a individual level. I think with this film we did well in terms of developing a script or story that is very concise, while having many layers and enigmatic subjects. There is a true balance between humour and absurdity in this film, but also between what our ideas where and what we were able to convey.

Dara: This is a good point to ask you about your latest work The Fury, your process of making this short film and your decision to go back to the two screen installation experience.

Shirin Neshat: The Fury (2022), in some ways, goes back to the same nature as the Woman of Allah, which is something I tried to stay away from because I knew that if you get close to some of the issues in Iran, people tend to come after you. However, I was influenced by the testimonies shared during Hamid Nouri’s trial in Sweden about women’s experiences in prison, similar to what is being shared today, and how even some of them ended up committing suicide after they were freed. Also, it is important to mention that this film was shot in early 2022 before the recent events that have happened in Iran following the death of Masha Amini, even though many people think this film was influenced by these more recent events. I was very interested and moved by the psychological and mental breakdown of women who are traumatized by sexual exploitation, and due to my consistent focus on the subject of women and how the body of women is used as a space for ideological or religious discourse. In a sense, women are forced to embody the rules of men. 

In the case of The Fury, this idea evolves much more into the concept of the women’s body both being the subject of desire, but also of violence and brutality. I wanted to tell a story from the perspective of a person outside of Iran, and the story of a woman who can no longer cope with her reality and goes mad. I referred to my own experience of living among a large Hispanic community in Bushwick, New York, which are hardworking people and come from poor backgrounds. Sometimes, I found myself walking in the streets, listening to Persian music, and feeling like an alien, asking myself what I’m doing here. I experienced this feeling of displacement or disconnection from living among a foreign community, all the while constantly thinking of Iran. 

With The Fury, I wanted to create a work that emphasized this experience of displacement, conveying a story of a woman who feels completely out of place as soon as she walks out onto the street, while going mad in her head because of all the traumas she’s dealing with. She’s living inside her own head, and you can get a sense of this early on in the film from her dancing by herself to no particular person. My intention was for the film to progress into a flashback of a trauma where, in order to survive and not be killed, she had to dance nude in front of a male audience – and this is in no way comparable to what women experience while being incarcerated in prison. In the film, the men never actually touch her, but they are brutal in their gaze towards her. When she finally escapes their gaze and runs outside into the middle of the street, she reveals this sense of vulnerability. What is very profound at this point is that all the people on the street who are initially shocked by seeing her outside end up coming to her rescue. This is something I’ve felt in my own neighbourhood; even though the people I live among and I are worlds apart, if anything were to happen to me, these people are my community and would go out of their way to help me because they are good people. To see this community come to her rescue and it turning into a form of protest or dance, in an uncanny way, is exactly what happened after Mahsa Amini’s death. Her death became an impetus for the unleashing of other people’s rage because we’re all angry and we’ve all experienced some form of injustice. Therefore, it is an opportunity for everyone else on the street to also express their pain and anger, turning the scene into this fury. For me, it was about how the pain and suffering of a single human being can be contagious, unleashing our pain, and that we are all ultimately part of one humanity. Many of the people cast in this scene are my friends and members of my community, making this project quite personal to me. 

I didn’t want to create a work that tells you what is right or wrong, but I wanted this work to place emphasis on the idea of power, the male gaze, and the vulnerability of this fragile body. The idea that we can all be fragile in the hands of power, but when bad things happen to certain people, it affects others as well and that is our greatest weapon. I received criticism for the assumption that I was labelling all women as victims, and I do not believe in the notion that all women are victims. However, Mahsa Amini was a victim because she was killed and all the other women imprisoned or killed are victims. That is the reality, but the other reality is that we respond to that because it is unjust and unacceptable. 

I believe that The Fury has a very bright light at the end of the tunnel, meaning the connection between people, no matter where they come from in the world. Even though they may not fully understand what has happened to her, it causes them to come together in solidarity with her.

Dara: Shirin, I want to finish by using this opportunity as a platform to ask you to share a message with women, especially Iranian women, that are practicing art and are pursuing their creative journeys today.

Shirin Neshat:Firstly, I believe that art shouldn’t be anything else than an obsession that you are at its service. Secondly, I often think about liking myself more when I’m vulnerable, and not liking myself when I’m not. I think it is important for women to allow themselves to be vulnerable, and look at their vulnerability in a positive light because by doing so you are more truthful and can make art that is more truthful as well; art that leads to other people seeing their own vulnerabilities in your subjects. Unfortunately as Iranian women we’ve had so many setbacks, and when we make art there are so many expectations and judgements towards us. Therefore it is so important for us to go within and connect with our internal world, and not care too much about the external world. This is a way for us to check what is so pressing within ourselves to bring out and share with the world, and if there isn’t anything at that moment we shouldn’t do so. Leading to my final point, I hate to say it but mediocracy is the worse of it all and we don’t need to contribute to mediocracy. It must be work that we absolutely feel the need to do and bring out because it has something significant to say and is asking us to be brought out into the world. Otherwise, be patient and don’t rush it.

Dara: I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for being a part of this issue with us. It has been a pleasure to have this conversation with you, and I hope it will move and inspire our readers the way it has done so for me. 

Claire Barrow

In The Middle of It All 

Claire Barrow’s work balances in between worlds of pop culture, politics and ethereal creatures. With a combination of the media she consumes and the topics she’s passionate about, the result is an unexpected display of these themes colliding into different disciplines. Whether it’s paintings, sculptures or illustrations she has dreamed up and then translated onto clothing, her art is boundless and unpredictable.

Born in Yarm, a town in Northern England, Barrow grew up watching Disney films on repeat and listening to bands like Slayer and Sonic Youth. Daydreams of moving out of her small town and a career in fashion didn’t seem so far-fetched when she moved to London in 2008. She studied fashion design and it was not long after, her career in fashion started to bloom. Catching the eyes of industry leaders Barrow describes her move out of the traditional fashion calendar to be more freeing and expressive. 

“I’m grateful to come from a fashion background, there’s been so many benefits and collaborations that have evolved from my history within that but I’m also grateful I can pick and choose when to enter back into that world, it’s not about money for me,” 

Barrow tells me over Zoom, behind her lies a stack of boxes and canvases ready to be moved after almost 10 years of living in the same house and studio space.

There are many passions and interests Barrow weaves into her work– her theater upbringing, fashion and makeup seamlessly appear through her work. Her most recent show, Victim of Cosmetics, presented in an office space was inspired by the wasteful nature of the beauty industry. Currently, Barrow is in the midst of expanding her studio space, where she’s excited to create more sculpture work.

In this very exclusive interview we catch up about inspiration, creating in a climate crisis and pop culture.


Jessica Canje: The venues you pick to showcase these shows are often unique like the Piccadilly Tube station or a reformed office space, how do the venues you pick intersect with that specific show?

Claire Barrow: I love to build worlds that resemble the spaces you visit in dreams, trapped places, and half-remembered theme parks from childhood, the big supermarket where your mom dragged you around that felt like an eternity. Recurring places and scenarios stick with you and get filed in your brain’s office cabinet. The feng shui is off.

The tube station (Piccadilly Circus) was thanks to Soft Opening for inviting me (thanks 👍), but otherwise, the office, the field in Hackney where I did a show, and my website reflect this kind of experience. Being big into games and theme parks as a kid, and then in my teens and 20s, creating fashion presentations and experimenting with the use of space to showcase my collections. It’s something that has stuck with me as I’ve transitioned into making art my primary practice, and I would love to explore it further going forward.

Jessica Canje: I love your current website, do you often think about how people will interact with your work virtually if they don’t get to experience it physically? What was the thought going into making your website the way it is? Can you describe it for those that may not have seen it or may never get to?

Claire Barrow: Glad you like ! So, it was created in collaboration with Rifke Sandler of DXR Zone, who formatted and coded it. The site is heavily inspired by early, now-defunct net platforms such as Active Worlds and Geocities and it functions as a hybrid of an 3D online museum, an underground bunker, and a frozen metaverse of my current art and archive, complete with a gift shop! It is designed so that you can navigate it with clicks, clicking on different areas to move around the site. When you first enter, you find yourself in a field with earth in the sky above you. Going into the pink Wendy house with the blue roof in the garden leads you underground into the foyer, where you can choose a door and explore different galleries. The galleries feature 3D renders of my art, sometimes flat to the wall, and sometimes arranged in themed rooms, secret passageways, with soundtracks and GIFs. There is the option to view it all in 2D instead, if you’re that way inclined, or too confused.

Essentially, this platform serves as a way of inviting people to view a gallery showing of my work, outside of the traditional gallery system or Instagram, irrespective of their location. So, when I’m exhibiting work physically in a specific location, I think it’s nice for people who can’t attend in person still have a way to engage with it through this platform. I understand 3D viewing rooms at Art Fairs are becoming super popular, so I’m leaning into the trend in my own way.  

 
Jessica Canje: Your last show was partly inspired by the wasteful nature of the cosmetic industry–how do you feel about the impending doom of climate change and waste? How does it translate into your work?
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A name from your recent show Victim of Cosmetics came from a quote by Khloe Kardashian, Bury Me In Lip Kits and Eyeshadows, 2023
Is your work intuition led or is it through thought and research and much deliberation?


Claire Barrow: I got the title from this lady, Maria Gunning, Countess of Coventry, who died 1760 from the lead poisoning caused by her makeup. She was a superstar beauty icon, like the Angelina of her day, and named the “Victim of Cosmetics” in the papers.

This body of work was heavily research-based, more than most of my others, which have been led by absorbing my reference points into something initiative. But still I used intuitive techniques; like, I was often creating wet canvas then applying paint, allowing it to dry then informing the structure of the painting. Before the invention of the world in the 1640s cosmetics were referred to in general terms as ‘paint’, so I used paint, and dyed concrete powder.

My algorithm selected this project for me, it’s just something I felt I had to make due to the images and research I was receiving. Then it further developed into a response to beauty capitalism and pressure to work hard in the beauty and cosmetic production industry. The sculptures resemble inside-out makeup bags, keeping things hidden inside them, but flipped out.

I re-watched the Kardashians, from top, everyday while making the show. Which was such a slog and depressing, honestly.

But I was to try and pinpoint a time when the world changed and yassified itself, like they did, valuing beauty and perfection above all else. It was around season 12, a few years after Kylie’s Lipkit success.

Jessica Canje: You’ve been based in London for quite some time now, how is the creative atmosphere in the city at the moment?

Claire Barrow: A claustrophobic feeling of coexisting but it’s exciting and scary and fun, and being a bit shit, but that’s ok.

 Jessica Canje: It’s always exciting seeing you release new work as you’re often reinventing your output, what can we expect to see more of in the future?

Claire Barrow: I’ve just just moved my studio to Camden, the punk graveyard, I think it will have an impact shortly. I hope to give back more, to be strange and brave… and make up some dances.



Jessica Canje: Have you seen Barbie?


Claire Barrow: Yeah I liked it. It didn’t talk about anything to do with plastic, I thought it was quite interesting, you know? In the midst of a climate crisis. It’s a crazy waste of plastic, all these toys with non recycled plastic.

Jessica Canje: Do you like sci fi?

Claire Barrow: I love Sci Fi and horror and tacky action films I’ve been really into. I love John Wu films. 

Artworks

  1. THE BOTTOM, 2022
  2. ETERNITY BITCH, 2023. Installation View
  3. PIPE, Dinner Party Gallery, 2021
  4. THE ESTABLISHMENT
  5. VICTIM OF COSMETICS, 2023. Installation View. Fieldworks, 2023

    All artworks courtesy of the artist

Ai Weiwei

Navigating Through Life 

Ai Weiwei (b. 1957, Beijing) is undoubtedly one of the most influential and fearless voices of our time. In a world where the right to express oneself is often taken for granted, Ai Weiwei’s unwavering commitment to this cause emerges as a clarion call to create inclusive spaces where every voice is respected and cherished.  “Expressing oneself is a part of being human. To be deprived of a voice is to be told you are not a participant in society; ultimately it is a denial of humanity”. A statement followed through by the immense outspoken nature of what Ai Weiwei’s body of work testifies to be. As he beautifully puts it in this interview, without free expression, we lose our expressive uniqueness, “akin to flowers that fail to bloom, birds that cannot soar, fish that cease to swim, and clouds that no longer drift across the sky.” Ai Weiwei’s art transcends mediums, seamlessly merging with activism in works like Remembering (2008) and Human Flow (2017) where he sheds light on the plight of refugees, compelling us to take action and empathize with those in dire need. 

His exploration of cultural heritage, craftsmanship, and the value of everyday objects in his latest exhibition at the Design Museum in London serves as a testament to his enduring commitment to preserving our shared history. Our conversation with Ai Weiwei also delves into his relationship with technology and social media, illuminating the complexities of online engagement in a world marked by censorship and rapid change. He offers his perspective on the evolving role of design in contemporary society and reflects on his deeply personal connection to the objects he collects. 

In this interview, Ai Weiwei also delves into how his journey with his father, Ai Qing, not only shaped the man he became but also paved the way for the unique connection he shares with his son. Standing at a crossroads of generational wisdom and personal growth within the complexities of parenthood, identity and the world he envisions for the next generation, Ai Weiwei finds himself tasked with the delicate balance of imparting the lessons of his past without allowing them to cast a shadow on his son’s future.

Ai Weiwei shares not only his artistic vision but also his unwavering commitment to the values of human rights, freedom of expression, and the enduring power of art as a force for change.

Jade Removille: Ai Weiwei, it is a pleasure to be able to have you as part of this upcoming issue. Where are you now? 

Ai Weiwei: I am in London at the moment, but my residence is in Portugal.

Jade Removille: On your website’s homepage, the powerful statement “Expressing oneself is a part of being human. To be deprived of a voice is to be told you are not a participant in society; ultimately it is a denial of humanity”, urges society to create inclusive spaces where everyone’s voice is respected and honoured, reinforcing the notion that self-expression is not just a privilege but an essential aspect of our shared humanity. As an outspoken dissident artist and a fervent activist for human rights, could you delve into how significant self-expression is to you? 

Ai Weiwei: Thank you for your insightful interview question and for taking note of my comment on free expression. Free expression is often perceived as a core element of human rights. In a deeper sense, without free expression, each individual loses their unique attribute that belongs to them. If such circumstances prevail, our society would be robbed of its expressive features, akin to flowers that fail to bloom, birds that cannot soar, fish that cease to swim, and clouds that no longer drift across the sky. Such a world is indeed a daunting prospect.

Free expression facilitates our ability to perceive the world as an extension of our senses and emotions, enabling the manifestation of our unique perspectives. It is through this individualized articulation that we can truly appreciate the richness of human nature and the value of our shared humanity. 

In my view, free expression is not exclusive to artists or to those who construct foundational thinking paradigms. Rather, it is the most crucial element that defines us as human beings. Stripping away the right to free expression is perhaps the most damaging action against individuals, as it strips away their very essence.

Jade Removille: Has your sense of belonging to China been undermined since your exile in 2015? Have you found your oasis of peace? Do you see a future in which you would come back?

Ai Weiwei: My sanctuary of serenity resides solely within my heart. Much like a diligent gardener, I continually tend to my personal thoughts and expressions, nurturing them so they can flourish. It would be accurate to describe me as a person without a homeland. From my birth, my father was deemed an enemy of the state, so I grew up in exile within my own country during my early years.

Subsequently, I embarked on a journey abroad, having lived in the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Portugal. None of these places can be referred to as my hometown. My maternal language is Mandarin Chinese, which makes my existence in these foreign lands akin to navigating life with a disability, relying heavily on body language and gestures to barely communicate. Nevertheless, I am profoundly grateful to these countries for providing me with opportunities to engage with issues that matter to me and to remain active.

Jade Removille: At 15 years of age I was introduced to your work through the Sunflower Seeds installation in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern (Kui Hua Zi, 2008), and it left a lasting impression on me. I remember my parents and I were utterly amazed by the meticulous craftsmanship of the seeds, their delicate nature, and the sheer scale of the installation, which was difficult to fathom.  In an interview for Tate, you mentioned that sunflowers symbolised the revolution, providing both spiritual and material support for the people. The immense quantity of seeds created for Tate Modern was unimaginable, yet you accomplished it. Witnessing such a meaningful installation also benefiting and providing employment for the hundreds of artisans involved was truly moving.  Could you talk more about this work? Did you plan on the installation to interact in a specific way with the location and the visitors? 

Ai Weiwei: Thank you for sharing your experience of encountering this artwork as a teenager. I must confess that I also first saw this installation in its entirety at Tate Modern. At that moment, my feeling was the same as yours. 

When an artist embarks on creating an artwork, it begins merely as a concept. The particular characteristics of this concept were its grand scale and voluminous nature. What is more important is that these 100 million sunflowers were each meticulously painted by hand by 1,600 women. These women, dedicating two weeks of their lives to this project, rendered it almost a religious activity of a kind of daily expression. The sunflower seeds are the embodiment of their craftsmanship.

In Jingdezhen, the town of these women, this is their tradition as well as a means of survival. Concurrently, their straightforward task of painting sunflower seeds encompassed a profound sense of interest and engagement. This imbued me with a feeling of the enduring power of art. It doesn’t simply draw people’s attention, but its creation is also a testament to the investment of time, the grandeur of volume, and the concerted labor of many hands.

Jade Removille: I would like to address your practice as an architect. You used to run FAKE Design with which you realised 60 projects. FAKE closed down shortly after the Olympic ceremony for which you had designed the Bird’s Nest’s stadium in collaboration with Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron. Your involvement in this project helped to shape its iconic and innovative structure. You brought to architecture, the humanity it needed but you have mentioned before that you had had enough of it. Why does this medium not suit you anymore? 

What was your very first architecture project? 

Ai Weiwei: My first architectural project occurred before I even recognized it as such. It was when my father and I resided underground, in a ‘diwozi’, devoid of electricity and water. Our bed was merely a platform left from the excavated earth, topped with straw. Our only source of natural light was a small window above. Occasionally, pigs would pass by, sometimes partially sinking through and hanging halfway from our ceiling before scampering off in panic. That was our reality.

Amid these circumstances, I needed a place for a lamp. We carved a small square hole, around 20cm high and 30cm wide, where we placed our oil lamp. This humble hole, dictated by the constraints of our environment, has left a strong impression on me. I hadn’t realized it then, but it embodied an essential element of architecture: providing solutions for our fundamental needs in the most basic ways. Such solutions can range from a modest hole for an oil lamp to a colossal stadium meant for an entire nation.

The year we completed the National Stadium was also when I decided to abandon architecture. I came to realize that the application of architecture wasn’t based solely on individual desires but could be manipulated as a tool for national propaganda. I felt a sense of regret for our work. Despite creating an ambitious and unparalleled piece of public architecture for Beijing, its usage contrasted starkly with our original aspirations. It became a symbol of power projection and a mechanism to sideline individual existence. That’s why I chose to step away from this highly politicized practice.

Jade Removille: Intensity, care, resilience, memory and recovery in the face of immense destruction are recurrent threads in your work. With Remembering (2009) at the Haus der Kunst museum in Munich, Germany, 9,000 backpacks were arranged to display a quote in Chinese characters that read, “She lived happily for seven years in this world. Each backpack in the installation represented a life lost in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China, particularly the young students who perished due to the collapse of poorly constructed school buildings.

In your 2015 exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, you had created a striking and thought-provoking installation using 90 tonnes of steel bars salvaged from the debris of the earthquake. Each steel bar was meticulously straightened by hand, a labor-intensive process that imbued the artwork with an additional layer of meaning and significance. 

Through your work I sense that part of your message is conveying the indomitable spirit of affected communities and their ability to rebuild. How do you think governments could be held more accountable on systemic issues and what is our role in this? 

Ai Weiwei: My focus on straightened rebars as artworks emanates from a deeply personal place, as they are connected to the lives tragically lost during the 2008 earthquake. Uncovering their names and identities became a necessity. Yet, such simple and concrete facts can often be brushed aside and forgotten in some societies. In my view, neglecting our shared memories and disavowing our communal sense of guilt for the disasters of the past render us accomplices in evil. Consequently, if we believe in our right to seek freedom, expressing human rights equates to our duty and obligation to remember those who have been hurt and forsaken. Such endeavors serve to constantly remind us not to devolve into beings devoid of feelings and a sense of justice. The recollection of past experiences, the understanding, and empathy require a language and means of expression. My artworks are an exploration for such a language.

In terms of whether my artworks strive to hold governments accountable for disaster management, I feel that I have failed. My artworks only represent what I, as an individual, can accomplish, in tandem with those who resonate with my cause. They do not appeal to the government, which is not a single entity but a complex mechanism operating on the principles of bureaucracy and power. More often than not, the governmental understanding of human life and rights stands in stark contrast to our own. This dichotomy underscores the necessity for every individual to voice their perspectives.

Jade Removille: You touch upon interconnectedness of life and art, how art is about life and its reality. Art becomes a means of activism. Human Flow (2017) your film about the refugee crisis is a poignant call for action. Had you always thought about the role of art or the role of an artist in this way? How far do you take art as a means of activism?

Ai Weiwei: My interest in the refugee crisis stems not from the principles of activism, but from my desire to comprehend the world more deeply. When I left China in 2015, my understanding of global issues was rudimentary, superficial even. I needed a pressing international event to deepen my insights. Consequently, I immersed myself in the refugee issue over the following years.

I traveled to numerous countries, visited countless refugee camps, and conducted interviews with hundreds of refugees and the volunteers aiding them. These experiences culminated in several films and provided me with an understanding of the political landscape in the context of globalization. Whether as an individual, an artist, or an activist, the labels don’t matter. What truly counts is how I use my limited time to acquire a comprehensive and balanced understanding of humanity as a collective and the world in which we reside.

The formation of such understanding requires the assistance of both activism and art. Without activism, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to engage firsthand and experience these situations deeply. Without art, my involvement wouldn’t find an adequate channel for expression and release.

Jade Removille: You place great value in the past and artefacts and throughout the years you have researched history, ideologies, materials and artistry. Within your work there is an embrace of the handmade and reverence for craftsmanship in an era in which automation and mass productions are revered.  What does destruction of cultural heritage mean to you?

Ai Weiwei: Humankind is hurtling at an unprecedented pace towards accepting new realities, a process that demands the hefty price of forgetting our roots and striving to erase our most innate attributes. These original attributes encompass our need to employ our hands in work and our feet to gauge distances – aspects now largely replaced by technology. Consequently, we no longer actively use our hands as we once did. Our hands, once vital and irreplaceable extensions of our creativity and thinking, thus becomes disconnected and irrelevant to our struggles and understanding of the world.

In this light, human nature is evolving because the functions of the human body are changing. This leads to shifts in human logic and language. It is why I persist in believing that we must retain these basic abilities – not only do they ensure our survival, but they also imbue our thought processes with meaning.

Jade Removille: Your new exhibition Ai Weiwei: Making Sense at the Design Museum, London explores the value of everyday objects, from ancient stone-age tools, fragments of pottery from your Beijing studio (which was demolished by authorities in 2018), as well as an impressive collection of approximately 100,000 ceramic cannonballs and 200,000 broken spouts from teapots or jugs. You have said we are products of our time, giving new interpretation based on their own knowledge. What does design mean to you in relation to our time now?

Ai Weiwei: Whether intentional or not, design has always primarily been a reflection of one’s identity, and subsequently, it communicates our collective identity to others. To truly comprehend who I am and who we are, we must delve into our understanding of history, our origins. It is only by acknowledging where we come from that we can grasp our present state. As for where we are headed, that remains uncertain.

What we possess are the history and memories that have shaped us, the processes that have defined our identities. Our understanding and recollection of history, our awareness of various conflicts and contradictions, these are indeed what will form the foundation for who we might become in the future.

Jade Removille: What was the first object you consciously decided to collect and why?

Ai Weiwei: In fact, I’ve never regarded myself as a collector. In the society where I grew up, there was no private property or personal ownership; everything we possessed, including our thoughts and individual actions, belonged to the state, to be assessed by its standards. The only possessions I could call my own were my early memories.

Upon my return to China, I found many items that I deemed valuable casually for sale in markets and on display, without anyone paying much attention. These items included Neolithic stone axes, spouts, and porcelain balls. My impulse to collect them stemmed from the belief that the sheer volume of my collection could serve as tangible proof of our collective disregard for our own history and the values it embodies. It reflects our blindness to the foundations of our existence.

Jade Removille: All this materiality and collectibility contrast highly with a sense of having survived at some point with nothing but yourself, your mind and your health. How has your self-perception in relation to the collective evolve after remaining isolated in secret detention for 81 days, in 2011?

Ai Weiwei: We arrive in this world bare, and equally bare shall we depart from it. All our collections merely signify our deep affection for the people and things in this world, or perhaps, a certain curiosity. However, these are attachments we can’t carry with us in birth or death. They are public resources, yet under many circumstances, they must be understood and curated by individuals.

When I was secretly detained, my loss was not simply of the items I had collected. Instead, I was deeply affected by the reality that everything lost its meaning because I was isolated and could not communicate or exchange with others. This included memories, which also lost their significance, as they are resources meant to be shared and utilized by the public. That’s why I embarked on writing my memoir immediately after my release, even though it took almost a decade to complete.

Jade Removille: Which specific places in the world have had a profound impact on you and left a lasting mark? How have these places helped position yourself in relation to the collective? 

Ai Weiwei: To be frank, my travels have taken me to many places, driven by work or personal curiosity. Yet, the place that has had the most profound impact on me is one I hadn’t appreciated for many years – the ‘diwozi’ where I moved in with my father as a child. Out of all the places I have lived, the ‘diwozi’ holds the greatest significance. It was there that I came to understand common human nature, the value of things and political idealism, which has enabled me to stay alert and aware to this day.

Jade Removille: As a keen user of technology and social media, to which extent do you think you are reaching a level of connectedness with your audience? Do you feel more free online? 
In these recent days we have been seeing the introduction of a new social media platform. Will you be using Threads?

Ai Weiwei: In my time in China, I initially believed that social media could help us overcome communication difficulties, censorship, and restrictions on expression. However, my experiences soon revealed the absurdity of such a notion. Today, social media in China operates under severe political censorship, leading to a limited form of expression. It manifests as a peculiar form of media—altered by power, favoring entertainment over depth, serving as a platform that lacks profound expression. In the West, social media isn’t entirely free either. It’s akin to a bustling disco, where the clamor, the overarching melody, and the rhythm still dictate the overall environment. I don’t perceive social media as a medium for deep thinking. Its real strength lies in serving as an information channel and fostering a diversity of expression. It enables us to experience a time, unimaginable prior to its advent—a time imbued with mythical connotations, feelings, and expression. As for its impact on societal development, I believe it merely accelerates society’s existing trajectory. Be it politically or economically ascendant or descendent, social media hastens the pace.

I’m not familiar with Thread; I’ve only recently heard of it. My requirements for social media are akin to my needs from a pair of shoes. I wouldn’t purchase a new pair simply because it’s available, not until my current pair is beyond use.

Jade Removille: Which other artists inspire you?

Ai Weiwei: In my younger years, I found inspiration in Duchamp, the artist who shattered the barriers of conventional thought. Alongside him, I regarded Andy Warhol as a pioneer in the realm of communication and artistic expression.

Jade Removille: What does process mean to you and what does the finalisation of a project bring to you? 

Ai Weiwei: To me, process signifies everything. Life, from birth to death, is a continuous process. The completion of one project merely marks the inception of another. Until our final breath, nothing is ever truly finished.

Jade Removille: Looking towards the future, which current projects are you working on? What do you wish to learn more of? 

Ai Weiwei: First and foremost, I don’t believe I possess a future. I don’t hold any grand ideals or ambitions either. My desire is simply to navigate through life with greater serenity and tranquility.

Jade Removille: Finally, the theme of this issue is Personal Investigation. In your memoir, 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows, 2021, you delve into your personal experiences and shed light on the events that unfolded in your life and that of your father, Ai Qing, a significant figure in Chinese literature. Drawing parallels between your own journey and that of your father, who faced challenges in his time, you were also finding yourself a father to a two-year-old son. Considering this context, could you share your reflections on the intergenerational impact of personal experiences and how they shape your role as both an artist and a father? How do you navigate the complexities of your own life while also contemplating the kind of world you want your son to inherit?

Ai Weiwei: When my father was alive, our father-son relationship was largely unfamiliar to me. I bore the brunt of the calamities my father brought upon our family as a writer and thinker; these adversities were shouldered by us all. Our relationship was always fraught with complexity. My father never envisioned us becoming a thinker or artist, mainly because it was evident that such individuals often brought immense hardships to their families. As I strove to extricate myself from these political chains, my efforts persisted for decades. Throughout this time, I never considered starting a family or having a child. However, when my son turned two and I was secretly detained, I began to realize that my understanding of my father was quite limited. I also acknowledged the responsibility I had towards my son, namely, the obligation to pass on what had transpired between my father and me. This was necessary because there was always a risk that I could perish at any moment, and it would be a shame if I didn’t fulfill this duty. The relationship I had with my father shaped the one I have with my son. I don’t want him to be influenced by me at all, as he will face a time and lessons utterly different from my own. However, I also don’t want him to forget his roots. My son is now 14 years old, and I must carefully consider how to prevent my experiences from negatively influencing him.

Images

  1. STUDY OF PERSPECTIVE: TIANANMEN SQUARE, 1995-2011
  2. AI WEIWEI PORTRAITS Photographs by Luba Kozorezova
  3. WEIWEI CAM, 2012 DROPPING A HAN DYNASTY URN, 1995 (1)(2)(3)
  4. GLASS HELMET, 2022
  5. MARBLE TAKEOUT BOX, 2015
  6. AI WEIWEI PORTRAITS Photographs by Luba Kozorezova

    All artwork images courtesy of the artist

Yuri Ancarani

Practicing Reality

I met Yuri on a warm morning of July in Milan, the city where we both live.

The original idea was to interview him with specific questions concerning his works, but it quickly became clear that our conversation would span way beyond the question-answer dynamic. 

Unpacking his extensive body of work means tackling a plethora of themes: from the idea of reality and imagination to the concept of truth, from language, symbols and the importance of sound to the overall theorization on aesthetics and the genre of the documentary. The core of his works lies, I believe, in his idea of reality, and the consequences that this vision entails.

In each of his films, from the oldest series Memories for Moderns (2000-2009) to his most recent work Atlantide (2021) Yuri’s depiction of the here and now is so dense in its realness that it manages to transform into its opposite: imagination.

Quoting one of his key inspirational filmmakers, Dario Argento, Yuri says that reality is the true source of horror. The horrific aspect of the everyday is, however, not always sinister.  The extreme simplicity of things, the daily life of the portrayed subjects, can be felt as scary if seen from the outside, but there is also an element of fascination, a strange allure to it.

Moreover,  instead of inserting imaginative elements from the outside, Yuri portrays things as they are, showing how it is precisely the ordinary that allows the otherness of things to emerge. Reality in itself is framed as intrinsically imbued with possibility: everyday working environments, with their specific set of rules and vocabulary, contain a certain mystery, a subtle touch of magic, which does not come from the outside but from WITHIN. 

The usual unfolding of regular practices, such as managing a marble quarry (Il Capo, 2010), the functioning of an hyperbaric room in an underwater station (Piattaforma Luna, 2011) or performative actions in a medical setting (Da Vinci, 2012) is filmed in its naked truth, each environment characterized by its specific language. The vocabulary varies, sometimes it’s gestures, sometimes it’s a list of orders, sometimes it’s silence. 

The construction of a world of symbols within the realm of the familiar is what generates this switch: a normal setting becomes fascinating, mysterious, not fully graspable. This lingering feeling is strengthened by the employment of close ups and camera shots that are carefully edited, delivering a strange dichotomy between the closeness of the subjects, whose gestures are filmed in detail, and the detachment of the viewer’s gaze, who observes as an outsider. Intimacy is suggested and denied at the same time.

In this context music and sound play a key role, carefully studied either as translations of the epiphanic moment partially reached (see the end of Piattaforma Luna, for instance, where the composition by Ben Frost represents a moment of freedom, an escape from the almost claustrophobic reality of the hyperbaric room), or as a suggestion, like the ironic employment of orchestra music in The Challenge (2016), hinting towards the classical pomposity of Hollywood Cinema. 

Some of his films, like Whipping Zombies (2017), a documentary on a dancing ritual in the tradition of a Haitian village, are entirely without dialogues. The faithful documentation of this cultural phenomenon relies entirely  on the registration of sounds and music produced by the local community. In his San Siro (2014) the stadium is filmed as a concrete entity that functions as the container of an almost mystical happening, its architecture framed in its curves and angles, inside and outside. The stadium is the protagonist, the game is never filmed. Here again the only sound is given by the footsteps and the roar of the exultant crowd, and the preparation towards the football match can be read, once more, as a ritual, punctuated by different practical steps.  

This idea of rituality, seen as a constitutional element of any society and fundamental in the construction of meaning, comes back often in Yuri’s works. 

Its most blatant form is seen in the short film Séance (2014) in which psychologist Albània Tomassini entertains a spiritual conversation with the deceased Carlo Mollino. Fulvio Ferrari, tenant of Casa Mollino, serves the dinner to the two guests, one visible and the other invisible. Through the voice of Tomassini Mollino speaks about the sense and the aim of his passed life, as well as the direction towards perfection. This agonized perfection is reached, in Mollino’s view, through the conjunction of idea and realization. The projectualization of a work and its actual form become one, in what is beauty and truth at once.

This precise correlation was at the core of Yuri’s working method in his latest film Atlantide. While talking about this idea of truth he told me about his choice of not using any script for Atlantide, the dialogues in the film consist of footage collected during the almost four years of research, in which Yuri followed the protagonists in their daily life around the Venetian lido. 

The entire creation of the film was an ongoing process, in which also practical elements such financing was collected throughout and not entirely beforehand. This experimental approach allowed for a unique challenge, in an attempt of capturing reality ‘’as it is’’, reflecting precisely Mollino’s conception of perfection in the work of art.

After our conversation I left with different thoughts in my head and the belief that a lot had remained unsaid, but the overall feeling I keep to this day is the full comprehension of Yuri’s desire:  to create a work in which truth unfolds in its totality, in a temporal frame that is both process and end. For a brief moment, entirely real. 

Credits

ATLANTIDE (2021) Video stills
THE CHALLENGE (2016) Video stills
SÉANCE (2014) Video stills
PIATTAFORMA LUNA (PLATFORM MOON) (2011) Video stills

All images courtesy of the artist.

Vanessa Beecroft

Rules of Non-Engagement

Vanessa Beecroft (b.1969) discusses how her work serves as a form of therapy, exploring personal conflicts and universal issues within a group. Her exploration of body image and gender politics has influenced her perception of herself and society. 

Her performances are known for their powerful portrayal of vulnerability and invulnerability, creating a unique interaction between the audience and the performers.The intentional discomfort provoked in her performances pushes boundaries and stimulates thought-provoking reactions.

This interview offers profound insights into Vanessa Beecroft’s artistic journey, delving into her personal investigation and its transformative impact on her life and art.

Alexandre-Camille Removille: Vanessa, throughout your career, your work has been deeply personal and introspective. Could you tell us about a specific work where personal investigation was particularly critical to its development?

Vanessa Beecroft: The way I work is to live my life like an artwork in all aspects. The hard part is life. Once that is addressed, work comes as a consequence. 

A particularly challenging experience has been the project in South Sudan, which started as a personal venture and became an intricately tangled dilemma that compromised the stability of my own family. I traveled to South Sudan immediately after the war in 2005 in the attempt to shoot a documentary film on the presence of the Church and was invited by the bishop to the local orphanage where three newborns were unable to latch onto plastic bottles. I nursed them for two weeks and continued to return to South Sudan several times while in New York I was nursing my son Virgil. I developed a bond with the twin boys and wanted to adopt them, but in the end I was persuaded by my ex-husband that it wasn’t the best option for the children. I photographed myself breastfeeding the twins in an image that suggested a white Madonna with two baby black Jesus’s which became controversial. I was commenting on the new form of neocolonialism espoused by the Church, using myself as a symbol of white righteousness. The image was purposefully ambivalent—loving, maternal and confrontational. 

Alexandre-Camille Removille:You often use performance art to express complex emotions and concepts. How do you prepare for these performances mentally and emotionally? 

Vanessa Beecroft: I don’t prepare for the performance. I prepare by living a certain life, abstaining as much as possible from the mainstream, living my own version of a contemporary romantic life and always being alert. Many times, I am not prepared for a performance. I just hope that nothing tragic happens. Artistically, regardless of whether the audience is happy or not, I am never satisfied.

 The models are given “Rules of Non-Engagement,” simple instructions to follow during the performance: do not talk, do not smile, do not move too fast, do not move too slow, wait until the end of the performance, you’re like a picture, your action reflects on the others… etc.

Alexandre-Camille Removille: What role does vulnerability play in your artistic process, and how does personal investigation tie into the therapeutic aspect of your work?

Vanessa Beecroft:Vulnerability is in dialectic with invulnerability. Two parties, the audience and the performers, are confronting each other in real time, for the duration of a few hours, without a rational awareness of what is going on or the nature of the confrontation. They are both vulnerable from different positions. The audience is vulnerable in the face of their taboos and the women are vulnerable to the audience’s gaze.

I think the models in my performances express personal issues and these personal issues become universalised by being multiplied by the many women in the groups. What was a particular instance becomes universal by extension to a larger group. I handle my personal conflicts and investigations by projecting them into a larger group of individuals more or less similar to me (at least at the beginning of the work, in the 90’s).

Alexandre-Camille Removille:Given that your work often revolves around body image and gender politics, how has your personal investigation of these themes affected your perception of yourself and society? 

Vanessa Beecroft: I wasn’t fully aware of the themes of my work. I tried to approach my performances as a portrait of a large group of women, similar to how we painted the model in art school. While portraying this woman in the performance, many other traits emerged, mostly not formal, but emotional, social and political. That is when I started to push in that direction, regardless of how that would impact myself socially. Sometimes I went really far and got in trouble.

Alexandre-Camille Removille:In your experience, how has the art world responded to the type of personal investigation you portray in your work? Has there been any resistance or particularly impactful support? 

Vanessa Beecroft: I felt as if art world abandoned me after the initial success. The other worlds embraced me, but I didn’t want to be embraced by them so I tried to use those platforms to further the themes that I couldn’t otherwise investigate. The art world may come back. I became desensitised to these ephemeral worlds that are fundamentally false. I believe in addressing the art world in a historical sense. I had fun pushing my visions, while being financially depleted by these facts.

Alexandre-Camille Removille: In many of your performances, you seem to be exploring issues related to identity and body politics. How have these performances been a means of exploring your own identity?

Vanessa Beecroft: They have been means of exploring my own identity by studying other cases and relativizing mine. Externalizing these issues through my performances perhaps avoids a true healing of the self, which recalls the acts of a saint martyr, which is a hero of mine since a young age (Joan d’Arc, Santa Lucia, Santa Barbara etc.)

Alexandre-Camille Removille:Your work is often characterized by a strong female presence. Can you talk about your intentions behind this focus? 

Vanessa Beecroft: It is self-representation. A portrait. I couldn’t accurately depict anything other than a woman. By being a woman, I can push the subject further. Experimenting on myself first and the group second.

Alexandre-Camille Removille:There have been debates about your work from a feminist perspective, with some critics arguing that it reinforces harmful stereotypes of women. How do you respond to these critiques? 

Vanessa Beecroft: By presenting a group of women naked in front of an audience I am not objectifying the women, I am showing the audience a group of naked women, which triggers them—their beliefs, self-perception, anger, prejudice, and more. The women are placed there for this reason and until they cease to provoke this reaction will continue to be exhibited. The fact that they’re exhibited as art makes them “intellectually safe,” like being on diplomatic ground.

 Alexandre-Camille Removille:You’ve spent a significant part of your career in the United States. How do you navigate your dual sense of belonging to both Italian and American cultures in your work? 

Vanessa Beecroft: I never felt as though I belonged somewhere since I was a child. I relocated to Italy when I had already learned English in London and from that point on, I felt displaced. So what I do is to assimilate the elements to which I feel closer in every culture. Italian language and artistic heritage, music, architecture, landscape. American contemporary spirit, ethnic diversity, power, politics. I absorb culture from other countries too. My work is where all of these elements converge.

Alexandre-Camille Removille: Have you ever felt any tension between your Italian roots and the global, often American-centric, art world? If so, how have you navigated this? 

Vanessa Beecroft: I am probably considered an immigrant. I will never completely adapt to the new country as I don’t need to, and I like to be alien in all countries. The proliferation of my work is probably compromised by this, but I am not running a business. As long as the work itself is not compromised I am happy with the discrepancies. 

Alexandre-Camille Removille: What learnings or insights have you gained from projects that didn’t materialise as planned?

Vanessa Beecroft: Many projects didn’t materialise as I’d hoped. The learning is that certain topics are untouchable politically and that the wider world is one. And it is all connected and self-sustaining.

Alexandre-Camille Removille:How do you decide whether to persevere with a difficult project or to let it go? Are there specific factors or considerations that guide this decision?

Vanessa Beecroft: If I decide that a project is worth pursuing, I will continue until it is completed. Unfortunately the project sometimes gets artistically weakened by complications and adversities. 

Alexandre-Camille Removille: What role does your family play in your creative process? Do they influence your work in any direct or indirect ways? 

Vanessa Beecroft: As they participate in my life, they influence the work too. They humanize me and therefore indirectly affect my perception of the world, of other human beings and my life experience. My son Dean, for example, helps me in the creation of music and photography, I photographed my daughter and in general I created a large photo album of them which isn’t public.

Alexandre-Camille Removille: Many of your performances are known to provoke discomfort in the viewer. How intentional is this in your work? What do you hope the audience gains or learns from this discomfort? 

Vanessa Beecroft: Initially I sought to apply the Brechtian idea of staging the drama, giving clues to the audience from which they might come to their own ideal conclusion or synthesis. As the audience resisted, I started pushing harder. Developing concepts to provoke a reaction. Making them graphic. I could only present the problems with paint or mise-en-scène. I thought the audience to be educated and righteous. I didn’t think the art audience needed to learn anything, but they did. I want the audience to go home touched and to think about what they saw as if it was real.

Alexandre-Camille Removille: Vanessa, looking back over your career so far, what impact do you hope your work has had?  

Vanessa Beecroft: It is almost like a dream. Today I see the world I was dreaming of as a child, visualised. Many ideas and images I had in my mind are now current. Aesthetics mostly, but also fashion and images of women, colors, patterns. Many times they appear differently to how I envisaged them, but now they exist so that I can move forwards towards new dreams.

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