As part of Laura Hennser’s ongoing series of interviews she spoke with Tai Shani, a London based artist whose multidisciplinary practice, comprising performance, film, photography and installation, revolves around experimental narrative texts. Shani creates violent, erotic and fantastical images told in a dense, floral language which re-imagines female otherness as a perfect totality, set in a world complete with cosmologies, myth and histories that negate patriarchy. These alternate between familiar narrative tropes and structures and theoretical prose in order to explore the construction of subjectivity, excess and affect and the epic as the ground for a post-patriarchal realism. By Laura Hensser for iheartwomen
I would like to talk to you about your on-going work, and probably what you are best known for, Dark Continent. As an expanded adaption of the fifteenth century feminist writer Christine de Pizan’s 1405 publication, The Book of the City of Ladies. I would like to ask a number of questions which reflect on this work but first, I’m wondering at what point you came across the publication, when and how did your ideas emerge after reading the piece, and do you see this work existing forever?
I think what had happened was, and I believe it’s quite common to most women artists of my generation, in my earlier work I was suppressing many aspects of feminist thinking, especially once I started making work publicly. It was seen as quite ridiculous to make work around gender at that time. It’s only now looking back on that work that I see it was always there, but I was definitely suppressing it as much as possible.
I wrote an adaptation of Blue Beard, so was quite familiar with the process of adaptations, for example, Fassbinder’s World on the Wire and an adaptation of Antigone. I think the process of adaptation was something I was always doing and something I was always on the lookout for. I was looking for sources that were interesting to me. Much of my counter-culture ideology came from my dad. I remember when I was living with him and his two wives, my mom and his third wife, together in a commune in Belgium they would take me to buy all the classics. My dad’s wife would give me feminist science fiction to read, like weird kind of things. There was never this idea that I was too young for these books. I would read Pamela Sargent’s feminist books when I was 12. One of them was called The Shore of Women, which is about a city of women.
I’m always looking for an interesting source. With classical sources like Antigone, there is always reinvention. My first extremely expressive piece of work, Blue Beard, contained a lot of violence. Much of my thinking was drawn from very personal sources. It was a subversive feminist piece in this sense. I was interested in psychoanalysis at the time with much of my inspiration deriving from many aspects of feminism. One of them being this idea or rule that women are not allowed to write about violence. That was honestly a critique I received. Someone asked me why I would inflict further violence on women’s bodies when it’s so prevalent in our culture. I think this idea of disallowing women to write about violence is not acceptable. Women aren’t the only ones responsible to be the good in the world. That’s part of the problem, women are not the ones to bear the responsibility of morality, everyone should basically. Everyone should bear the burden of morality. I don’t feel that women should always be good or the ones to question, we won’t do this or we won’t trespass. I think this idea of trespassing into territories that have been very male occupied and misogynistic was an interesting approach for me as a woman. With the first Blue Beard text, I wrote this for a death metal fanzine where all the lyrics were quite explicit and contained awful violence against women. I enjoyed living in their territory and kind of outdoing them in a way, but in a very different way to how they would do it obviously.
After a period of time, I had a studio visit with the Hayward Gallery. I can’t quite remember the chronology of discussions that took place, but basically I proposed Dark Continents for the Mirror City show. I was looking for structure within my work, especially in relation to my written work. This was a really exciting moment in my life. I was excited by it, and I’ll be honest, I was excited by the reception the work received as well. You know, people who had known my work for a really long time felt something had happened there, especially with the writing, which maybe hadn’t happened before. Although there was writing before, for example with the piece I did at Matt’s Gallery, all the writing follows on from the other. Thinking about it now, there was something about the one at Matt’s Gallery, which also contained elements of violence, but I think it was distanced; it focused on the actress and her mannerisms. Again, I’m not always clear on the chronology, but as I said previously, something exciting was happening. My writing became very exposed. I remember someone saying in reference to the Blue Beard work that it was a really poised bit of writing. My work was being activated. It was exciting.
I then started to look at medieval mysticism and feminist re-readings. I came across Christine de Pizan’s book and thought, wow, this is it. Unfortunately, after reading it I was quite disappointed, mainly because a large part of the content is about being pious and what it is to be a good wife. I mean, I don’t really know what I was expecting, it was written in the fifteen century. There were still really radical things about it; I think I just had very high expectations and wanted it to be a crazy science fiction book, which it basically wasn’t.
Could you talk me through the importance of writing in your work, and maybe a sense of how you imagine or come up with some of your scripts?
It’s quite interesting because I feel writing is what I’m good at, though I don’t find it easy at all. I actually find it really torturous and quite arduous; it takes a lot out of me. I can’t just sit and write. I have to inflict discipline with myself. I’ll have the laptop next to me and be like, you’re not leaving bed until you finish this. No peeing, no water or anything. I don’t want to frame it in a confessional or therapeutic way because I feel that women are often invoked under those circumstances, but it definitely is. I don’t necessarily believe that male artists are invoking the beyond and women are invoking their biographies, we all are, to a certain degree. I think there’s an emotive register or intellectualised ideology that comes out. I think we’re so constructed, but the idea that you’re not invoking the personal, it’s ridiculous. That’s why it’s important that my writing process is not seen as therapy. Though, if I’m being honest, in a way somehow it is. I’ve decided to finish with this writing now. I want to move on to a very different way of doing things after the Dark Continent: SEMIRAMIS project. I do feel like I’ve reached an end.
You mentioned earlier that maybe this work could go on forever, I don’t feel that way anymore. It could theoretically, but I don’t necessarily want that. It could, in a way, evolve or become something different but these really intense, internal monologues are painful and exhausting. I want to try different ways of writing now. I’ve started writing a fictional four-part film about the women in my family. It’s called, Tragodía, which means tragedy in Greek. I don’t have children. I won’t have children. I have a very strong bond with the women in my family. These people are all I have; there are no men in my family. My whole family line is now my mom, my aunt and I. That’s it. I have no siblings. I’ve got no one apart from these two really exceptional women that once they die, I have no bloodline. I have no cousins either as my aunt never had children. On my dad’s side, it’s more complex. My mom and my aunt are all that I have left and I think I’m already very anxious and horrified by the idea that they won’t be in the world anymore. I’m writing this film to maybe exorcise some of these feelings and obviously to delve into the nature of these very close, very intimate female relationships that I’m interested in. In the film the daughter would die, so I would invert it. There are three sisters, of which one is fictional, who really embodies my grandmother. My mom lives with my aunt, shared with a household of many cats. They often say to me, ‘we are only living for you now’; it’s really hard knowing and hearing this. My mom will say things like, ‘I’ve kind of had a good life and I’m done’. It’s not said in a depressed way, but it’s very hard to hear. In the film they will commit suicide together because they are older. They will kill the cats as well.
It’s an emotional process for me. When someone close to you dies there are these weird days afterwards that are quite psychedelic, you can still sense that person is still there. I remember when my dad died, I remember looking at the tree and the shaking of leaves and feeling a sense of his presence, like an animism, a diffusing of that person’s essence into the ether. It’s a weird thing. You have moments where you laugh, which are quickly followed by moments where you feel absolute devastation. It’s a mix of honouring and remembering that person. It’s like the impossibility of seeing a cigarette butt, which you know was smoked 24 hours earlier. It’s fascinating how objects continue to be in the world and remain possessed by the person that has now departed. I want to address these feelings of loss within the film.
It’s very interesting how you approach the subject of death. It sounds only right that the women die together.
Yes exactly, it couldn’t be any other way as otherwise there would be that one person who would remain and have the burden of it all. I’m Jewish and tend to have crazy conversations about death. I always say to my aunt, I want you to know that if mom dies before you, I’ll take you, I’ll take care of you and won’t leave you. She’s an artist and has experienced mental health problems in the past. I don’t want her to feel that the connection is via my mom. I really want to do something with that, you know. I have these really expanded ideas around loss that are universal.
It’s tough when dealing with death and my family, mainly because even though we’re so close I’ve lived in a different country for 17 years. It has never been an expectation for me to live near them. I guess that’s the thing I really love about them, sorry that was very tangential. These women in my life are incredible, they have always wanted me to be self-realised. There has never been pressure to have children or to come and live at home. They are amazing people.
For them it’s all about the full experience. I think that’s the one nice thing I’d say about the whole hippie parents aspect, is that they have this kind of philosophical edge on how they conceptualise life or what it is to be alive. They see it as an experience to be fulfilled.
Would you say this film is your most personal work to date?
Yes and no, because I think my writing has been an unravelling of trauma in a way. I’ve put a lot of myself in the work. I’ve always done this. I think a lot of people, including myself, have quite a violent imagination. It’s less so now, but when I was younger I’d always have these visions of a child falling and a motorbike running over its head, or whenever I would see someone crossing the road I would have this constant vision of something terrible happening. They were quite violent visions. I don’t know why this happened, but much of my writing contains a recounting of these visions. For example, one of the last characters I wrote for Dark Continent was a spiritual medium. She was a bridge between the living and the dead, and was actually communicating a vision. I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I guess they are able to travel in time and in different ways. Within the piece, they’re invoking this person called Rachel; she’s a conflation of two people that exist. One of them is a little girl, well she’s my age now, but I grew up with her. I remember finding her in Goa, India, which is a tough place for kids. People would give these children LSD; to two year olds, it was very weird. This young girl had difficulties. I think her parents were junkies. I remember finding her in extremely dirty conditions and very alone. I would take her to our house and wash her. I was like a mother to her, but also a kid myself. I really remember it. It’s a very strong memory. The other person is this character who embodies a woman which I had a very inappropriate love affair with when I was really little. As I mentioned, a lot of my writing is from these past experiences. Again, I don’t want it to be like therapy because it isn’t just that but really what else can I draw from?
In your work and across your practice you navigate through gestures, representations and myths as a way to excavate issues of feminism and objectification through these fantastical and psycho-social worlds. Could you talk me through your thoughts on the representation of women artists nowadays, and if this is something you have thought about, what the arts sector needs to do to represent women fairly?
I recently collaborated on an exhibition with artist Florence Peake at Wysing Art Centre. As part of the show we hosted a Q&A. The person who was chairing the Q&A asked if it was a feminist work. This was my first confrontation with the many ludicrous areas of my claims, because I said of course it is, it couldn’t be anything else. All of the thinking and ideas behind the work are completely rooted within feminism. Is it an activist work? I can’t say. The art world is a very rarefied space and people that are part of the system are often privileged, including the women. It’s also a world that very few people outside of it interact with.
In terms of how much women are treated, I mean, I think there has been a change definitely. I say that to students as well, that we do have to take heart from the changes. When I see women doing well, I still very often see beautiful, young, white, women doing well. It doesn’t seem to be very diverse if you look closely. I think that topics or subjects of work that are being allowed or that are now palatable are more diverse, let’s put it that way, but I still feel that the types of people doing well are young and attractive. I think that this libidinous economy in the art world is rife and for me, it’s hard to talk about and quantify. It’s hard because when looking at the people who are succeeding in their careers, it’s not that I think they don’t deserve the recognition. I don’t feel like they’re not good enough, but so are many other people who don’t seem to be as successful as they do. This idea that people who succeed happen to succeed because of some kind of absolutism, it’s ridiculous. They succeed because of a network of privileges that put them in that position. The privilege of attractiveness is massive in the art world. It’s something people do not talk about. I genuinely have had many experiences where I’ve gone to these dinner parties and it’s only if someone vouches for you that you are treated nicely, otherwise you’re really treated as an interloper. Your presence at these dinners is questioned because you’re not palatable, basically. I think that it’s a massive thing, and you have to accrue so much in the way of power to navigate the art world as seamlessly as a good-looking artist doesn’t have to. You have to be a fearsome curator or a more prolific artist; there isn’t this kind of like desirousness around you. It’s like you are constantly pushing, and constantly doing all the legwork. No one is delighted by your presence just because of the way you look, you don’t have that currency. I think that’s a big issue.
It’s interesting because it really doesn’t apply to men. There are loads of ugly guys that do really well. What happens then is that you don’t even think of them as ugly because they are good, successful artists. I mean, we are talking different levels here and I think when you’re younger and operating freely, it’s different, but when you get to that higher end of your career it’s more noticeable. I think as unreasonable as many male artists are, I don’t think that they’re framed that way. It’s really quite breath taking actually. They are really vilified for demanding things that people wouldn’t bat an eyelid at. Again, it’s that expectation for a woman to be good and understanding and moral and put other people first, which yes, we all should do, but only if everyone is on-board with that way of thinking and not just a certain group of us.
Your practice stretches across a number of mediums, performance, film, installation, photography and text. What is the relationship between live work and the static objects—do they inform one another, are they seen as props within the work or do they live as objects?
I want them to now. It’s a new thing for me. I really do want the objects to live outside of the performance work as I’m really interested in object making. I always have been. I’ve always justified the object making as part of a performance and I’m really now much more interested in them being autonomous. I very rarely have the opportunity where I’m asked to do an exhibition rather than a performance. More often than not, I am asked to do performances but I think that’s now changing and definitely with this project in Glasgow, it will exist most of the time as an installation. At Glasgow International we staged an opening weekend of performances, however for the remaining time it will exist as an installation. When it travels to The Tetley it will be an installation, no performances but with films shown separately of how it was used as a performance space. I’m really interested in pushing my practice more towards object making. I feel like the show at Wysing, which wasn’t performative at all, was a turning point. The role of performance in my work is tied into the slightly overly ambitious idea of what I want things to be, alongside an intensity that you have with liveness. I love it when a performance makes you cry, when everything’s working and when there’s this immersion that happens. I like the demand of it. There’s so much I love about performance, when it works, there’s really nothing quite like it. When I started working with professional actors they would read these texts live. The audience would become really immersed in the work. These moments of stillness, of a group of people coming together and experiencing something live, I find it really magical. It’s all in the intensity. I think that is a hangover from my earlier practice when I was more interested in rituals and collective experiences.
I remember a particular performance by Gisèle Vienne at the South London Gallery; it was called Jerk and was one guy with two puppets. It was a really heavy piece. It was about a gay, serial killer and was incredibly graphic. I felt as if I was going to faint. It was on the hottest day of the year. There was a fire close by in Peckham where six people died. It was a very odd experience. There was something about this collective demand where you couldn’t leave or physically move from the space. I’ve tried to craft that over the years. The first time I did a performance, it was not successful at all. I remember it was at Shoreditch Town Hall. It was a huge production. There were around 40 people in the performance and it was an anti-sacrifice. There were 12 dead virgins that were being resurrected instead of being put to death. I don’t know why it happened; someone said it was like seeing a Bowie concert just fizzled out completely. I hadn’t really accounted fot the two guys that were carrying the virgins to the high priestess, they would become exhausted after carrying the first three women. I also didn’t have any narrative with the piece. Suddenly it was just like another one goes up, another one gets put on the table, you know, the pacing having meant to be really high intensity just became awful. I remember running to the back stage and bumping into a friend, he said, what happened? I promised to ensure that never happened again.
Could you talk to me about your work at Glasgow International – a coming together of all the characters across the Dark Continent work? How do you see this piece, is it your most ambitious works to date?
It’s a weird thing to talk about because at 42, I’m really not that old, but at the same time I’ve been quite ill for the last year. I had pneumonia and have not really been able to completely get over it. I don’t think I’d have the energy again to do something like this of my own for volition. I raised the money for it, I wrote it, I built it. I don’t think I’d have the energy to do something of this scale again. The only way would be if someone offered me a budget, and organised someone to get stuff fabricated. It would have to be a bit of a different context. I really don’t think I can push a project of this scale again. I mean of this scale when using materials, the making of a film is quite different.
The work brings together the 12 characters, eight that already exist and four new ones. I am placing each of them in the same space. This installation is quite architectural and sculptural, with large objects placed on the floor and hanging from the ceiling. There is a narrator that speaks into a microphone on one side of the objects, and a floating head on the other narrating the story. I’m working with 12 performers in Glasgow; each one embodies one of the characters. I am filming it with a drone and set of cameras as well. I quite like how drones are often used to film landscape vistas. There is this amazing band called Let’s Eat Grandma, they are a group of young women doing the sound track for the work, they are brilliant.