Conversation with Tai Shani and Megan Nolan
- 19 December 2019
Temple Bar Gallery + Studios is proud to present, Tragodía, a new exhibition by Turner Prize-winning artist, Tai Shani.
Tragodía is a mesmerising and affecting virtual reality play, and atmospherically saturated sculptural installation. Though experienced independently, these two parts coalesce into a nebulous transcendent narrative that converses between life and death, the physical and intangible, trauma and reconciliation.
The experimental narrative is fragmentary, enacted by multiple voices and, through the virtual reality experience, the viewer embodies the avatar of the Ghost Child. Their first-hand perspective of the unfolding events and associated memories are spoken internally and the Ghost Child communicates with their loved ones from the cast of the Mother, the Aunt, Grandmother Eve, and Oedipuss the Cat. Descriptions of pierced organs, car doors, metal railings, and engine acceleration, bring forth a scenario in which Ghost Child is being called back to life from the brink of death following a terrible accident. Incantations and spells are performed by the elder characters in order to transmit between layers of reality. By reliving their shared memories of Ghost Child, including burying puppies in the back garden or taking acid in a forest, a feeling of temporary consolation takes over. The narrative continues along a desolate trajectory but is ultimately resolved in a beautiful epiphany of acceptance and love.
The play is set in an infinite celestial expanse, in which the heads of the familial characters orbit as colossal globes above, beside and beneath Ghost Child in intense close-up. Their enormous eyes and mouths are close to engulfing the visual landscape but remain beyond physical reach. The switch of scale when summoned back into the material installation in the gallery recasts the viewer as a looming deity above an expansive sculptural platform. As a topographical representation of a utopian archaeological site, the sculpture potentially exists at any point in the future or ancient past but not connected to a specific place or known civilisation. The pyramids, altars and ley line reliefs rise from the platform’s surface, bringing to mind real-world places of contact between life and death, as well as supernatural and technological forms of communication and discovery. The hand-worked sculptures situated on this platform share this mystical symbolism, with protective amulets laid on the eyes and chest of the ‘mummified’ Grandmother figure, and coiled snakes, cosmic eggs and crystal balls. 3D-printed ‘death masks’ of the play’s characters also echo the will to preserve life after death.
In a recent radio interview, Shani played Texas Gladden’s version of Appalachian folk song, ‘Three Little Babes’, a plaintive acapella song in which three revenant children converse with their mother from beyond death. Their mother is unwilling to accept the fate of her children and, much like in Tragodía, the children are charged with the responsibility of confronting their own passing. Like the unaccompanied singing, the voice of an individual carried through spoken monologues has become a central part of Tai Shani’s practice. Speaking from the perspectives of a variety of archetypal and imagined, feminised characters throughout time, Shani describes traumatic but liberating formative situations. The characters (a Teenager, a Neanderthal Hermaphrodite, a Vampyre, and a therapeutic AI) draw from oppressive events so that they become moments of radical transformation. Tragodía reinforces these values, with multiple individual perspectives that undo the traditional order of cause and effect routinely associated with pain and trauma. This speaks of the nature of close relationships between othered subjects and how intimacy has the potential to alter conceptions of selfhood.
The affirmation of violence and wounding has become a central subject in Tai Shani’s artwork. In Bridget Crone’s Introduction to Shani’s monograph, ‘Our Fatal Magic’, she describes cuts and wounds as porous points between the inside and outside, caused by physical and psychological effects from experiences in the world, as a way of being able to adapt or react to new situations. Violence presents opportunities for a person to escape immobilising confinements of being ‘torn between emergence and disappearance, between production and dismemberment’, into a more free ecstatic state. Crone also importantly suggests that empathy in Shani’s work ‘enacts a form of time-travel in its haunting of the subject’. It is a shared point of contact between different states, and thus has the potential to bind across time and space. The characters in Tragodía confront the tangible and profoundly devastating effect on a family unit from an act of violence (a severe car crash), transforming a body from a corporeal reality into a different undefinable dimension and unspeakable truth. Yet still, their empathy and care for one another has the power to communicate, even between life and death, revealing a form of acceptance wherein the memory or spirit of the deceased Ghost Child can exist freely in the consciousness of those on earth. Those left behind may adapt and be liberated through the emotional wounds left by the departed, or choose to depart themselves.
Tragodía dramatically extracts the flaws of humanity and its inability to comprehend the brutality of fate. By challenging the one-directional hierarchy of communication, Tai Shani unlocks a portal of new values and exchanges between human and non-human networks. This infinitesimally productive kinship encourages affirmative and generative experiences, and points of contact between time, space and all known and unknown forms of being.
Tai Shani is one of the four awarded artists of the Turner Prize 2019. The artists requested for the prize to be shared as a symbol of commonality, multiplicity and solidarity at this time of global political crisis. Shani’s recent solo and two-person exhibitions and performances include: DC: Semiramis, Turner Contemporary, Margate (2019), The Tetley, Leeds (2018), Nottingham Contemporary (2018), Tramway, Glasgow International (2018); Andromedan Sad Girl (with Florence Peake), CentroCentro, Madrid (2019) and Wysing Arts Centre, Cambridge (2017); Dark Continent: Psy Chic Anem One, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin (2019) and Athens Biennale (2018); Serpentine Galleries, London (2016); Tate Britain, London (2016); Loughborough University (2016); Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt (2015).
An accompanying text response to Tragodía from Megan Nolan has been commissioned by Tai Shani and Temple Bar Gallery + Studios, which will be available to take from the gallery.
Tragodía credits: Soundtrack: Maxwell Sterling. Voice Actors: Ghost Child: Maya Lubinsky, Grandmother Eve, Mother, Aunt: Eva Eklöf, Oedipuss the Cat: Dasha Loyko. VR Production: partyTime.jpeg (Adam James Sinclair, Mikhail Polshaw). Facial Performances: Lotti V Closs.
This exhibition is generously supported by The Digital Hub.
The audio from Tragodía can be downloaded from Tai Shani’s website here with a small donation to the Trussell Trust.
Our Fatal Magic, Tai Shani with Introduction by Bridget Crone, Strange Attractor Press, London, 2019.
May Day 1995, Tai Shani, included in The Happy Hypocrite, Issue 9 - #ACCUMULATOR_PLUS, Guest Edited by Hannah Sawtell, Book Works, London, 2016.
Tai Shani, Late Junction, BBC Radio 3, First broadcast Thursday 12 September 2019.
Three Little Babes, Texas Gladden, I'll Be So Glad When the Sun Goes Down: Alan Lomax’s "Southern Journey," 1959–1960, Mississippi Records – MR-060, USA, 2010.