Firsthand: Shahryar Nashat features a conversation between Shahryar Nashat and Los Angeles-based artist and writer Juliana Halpert. Together, Halpert and Nashat discuss his recent projects as they reflect on a new body work made specifically for this occasion, as well as THEY COME TO TOUCH, Nashat’s spring 2021 pop-up solo exhibition in West Hollywood, California.
The animalistic foundations of human experience; the differences between making and engaging with sculpture and moving image work; and the complex, even fraught relationships between artists and their materials are just a few of the themes addressed in this wide-ranging conversation. Firsthand: Shahryar Nashat coincides with the launch of a major new monograph on the artist, published by the Swiss Institute and Kunsthalle Basel.
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Papier mâché sculptures are, in certain ways, the centerpieces of this new body of work, and of THEY COME TO TOUCH, the pop-up exhibition that took place earlier this year in West Hollywood. It’s not a material or method I’ve seen you work with before. What was behind this decision?
A few years ago, I started this series of sculptures called Bone In, which were pieces of meat cast in resin. I’ve been wanting to make bigger works but it's difficult to cast resin on a larger scale in my studio. It gets messy, it’s toxic, it’s always a pain. During the pandemic, I bought tons of papier-mâché because it's easy to work with. And then I covered parts with resin to bring back the synthetic aspect.
What is it about meat, or meatiness, that interests you?
Is it meat? Is it flesh? That’s up to you. I don't particularly like meat. But I think of flesh when I think of sculpture. It’s the closest you can get to invoking the body without becoming figurative.
So you're abstracting flesh.
Flesh is quite abstract itself. I like the animal likeness of these works...between flesh and meat, but in any case, animal. Do we know how to die? Beasts do. There is this idea that when we die, we die like animals. I like these moments when we’re actually more animal than human.
Can you name a few?
Fear and anxiety, anger, sex. My 2020 MoMA exhibition had this concept. Three B’s: brain, barre, and blood. We think the body is this entity governed by this black box—our brain. But the body has its own intelligence.
I can see how you’ve honed in on this concept, but what were your early sculptures like? Were they also fixated on the body-as-object in this way?
For my first sculpture I went to a hardware store, bought 10 thin sheets of aluminum, and built knee protections. I’d had a pretty gruesome injury in my early teens. I fell to the ground while running and opened my knee all the way to the cartilage. I was too engrossed by the open wound, the blood and white cartilage to even feel the pain. When I finished the knee protection, I started doing other body parts too. I used rivets to hold everything together. They became armor and prosthesis. Quite DIY.
Would you consider this new work to be DIY as well?
Parts of it, yes. It’s good to be versatile. I can get off by making highly fabricated stuff or playing with materials at the studio.
This first sculpture you mentioned—with the knee bandages—makes me think about your video Present Sore (2016), which really fixates on small movements made by knees, elbows, and hands. What is it about these body parts?
But they are less fleshy than other parts of us. And we were talking about flesh—
Yes. And the mechanical part of the body is really interesting too. Joints are activated and the body awakens. I’ve always been more interested in seeing someone perform an action—and possibly repeat it—than just posing.
Video work seems particularly well-suited to capturing bodies this way. Your origins are in video, right? What made you turn to sculpture?
In Geneva I studied video and photography. Then I moved to Berlin and a friend of mine said, “You should make sculpture.” So I started…
And in both this online show and THEY COME TO TOUCH, there’s sculpture and video animation. Could you talk about the animation, Falling Into Space?
Yes. So in that show, we had sculptures made during the pandemic that were installed in West Hollywood, in a former architecture firm’s three-story office with an insanely green, soiled carpet. On the top floor of the space, we had a 17-second animation playing on a monitor, which showed an animated character repeatedly falling onto the floor of an empty warehouse.
And the color of the carpet in the animation is the same as in the West Hollywood space.
Yes. What I like is the bleeding of both spaces into each other. The sculptures are with us, but they could also be in the large empty animated space. The falling figure is in that space but could be with us, in non-virtual space, too.
And you used the same figure as the scale model in the studio shots of the sculptures you are currently showing in the OVR. It’s like you’re gradually assembling a larger ‘‘universe’’ across exhibitions and bodies of work.
Yep. There is no escape.
You mentioned the color of the carpet. Color is so important for you.
Gabriel and I just had this conversation at the studio the other day. We claim that the pink and the butter colors that are in the Holloway show are non-colors. They are a color, but they don’t—at least in the language of sculpture—register as a color. The pink-grey color of Bondo is also a non-color… Maybe it’s just in our two minds. But there is a fact that when a color is poorly chosen, the object it covers feels like it’s dressed with the wrong clothes, and it prevents its shape from standing out.
What do you mean, stand out? Do you want the forms of these new, bubblegum-pink forms to stand out?
They’re a continuation of what happened at THEY COME TO TOUCH. I intended these forms to still seem fleshy because of their ribs, but now they are also terrestrial, like islands. They're oozing tide pools. They could be altars or receptacles—something where a ceremony has taken place. But the oozing—this flowing waterfall feeling—is quite important.
The conveyance of something spilling, or flowing—can you talk more about that?
It can be as dark as you want; a sacrifice—the spilling of a beast’s blood—or simply about flow and overflow; fluids or thoughts. When they saturate their container, they need a place to go. I want to provide that space.
Can we return to these non-colors you’re referring to? Are they similarly ambiguous, free from immediate connotations? I love the color of Bondo, by the way.
Me too. And I love that its color is designed to stand out, like when it’s being used to repair the body of a car. It’s like a scab. When I film bodies that are bruised or injured or scarred, I’ve always thought of these cosmetic interruptions as a form of Bondo repair. It’s a temporary moment on the skin until the body heals itself. For me, Bondo became a material that communicates bruising and healing.
This fascination with temporary moments with and on bodies makes me wonder how the concept of death is present in your work. I understand that it can be difficult to talk about some of these concepts because once you invoke them, they lose their power, but—
Do you think they're in the room, to use that term?
Most of what we do is because of our bodies. I mean, how much of anything is not about survival, or violence, or desire, or sickness.
You, and others, have cited desire in your work. To you, is desire only of the body?
When people say, “desire,” they think libidinal. But that’s limiting. There’s something more perverted about even less sexual instances of desire. Like the desire to own an object…
Like collectors coveting a bag of your urine. Did you want to make a repulsive object?
No, because I don’t think they are repulsive.
They're quite beautiful, actually.
Their color is amazing. Honey, amber. Who doesn't want to be looking at amber? I was surprised when people were put off. These works are the most human part of the show.
How did the bags interact with the rest of the works in THEY COME TO TOUCH?
They’re the perfect companions to the boxes. When they lean against each other, I feel I am looking at two teenage lovers sitting on a low wall, looking at the moonlight.
You're exposing yourself with the pee, but the boxes are incredibly opaque —as if to say, “I'm not sharing shit with you.”
They’re memory vaults. Artists have sealed a lot of stuff in boxes throughout art history. These boxes don’t contain anything material. They’re here to store memories, feelings, experiences.
And by making them so sealed-off, you don't have to explain what those things are. They get to remain mysterious and unarticulated.
When you live with one, you can fill it with whatever spills over from your mind.
In a new series included in this online exhibition, you made vitrine-like sculptures out of translucent Plexiglas, and contrary to the boxes in THEY COME TO TOUCH, a viewer can see everything inside.
Yeah, Bad House (2020) is a display case for waste materials that I have at the studio. Its contents are underdogs…stuff that didn’t make it into a sculpture but still deserves a shoutout.
Do you like the idea of this refuse being coveted, once it becomes elevated to an art object?
When is the moment that it crosses over from waste into something else?
Put it in a Plexiglass box, place it on a pedestal, give it a title.
Is it also the process of naming an artwork, or having something announced as an artwork?
Yes. It is consecrated. Putting things on pedestals. The meat pieces are on stands too—mostly monochrome, but then they have these campy little colored bruises.
On the topic of these bruises, I want to return to this body question. Different bodies and physical forms carry entirely different intelligences, abilities, and types of awareness, as well as very disparate ways of moving about and experiencing the world. Is there any specific type of body, or subjectivity within the body, that you feel you're particularly focused on?
It’s the modernist who doesn't see that there are subjectivities. Saying, “I'm interested in the body in my work” means nothing. It produces words, but it doesn't produce meaning. It’s in the specifics that one reveals identity.
This is why I enjoy being with your work—it has an unnameable presence. Words can’t really explain the experience of being next to one of these very tangible sculptures or trying to contemplate the very intangible inner contents of those boxes. Once you name it, something is lost. To put it in a box would cause it to lose its meaning.
I don’t want to hold hands.
Shahryar Nashat has been the subject of numerous solo exhibitions at institutions including The Museum of Modern Art, New York (2020); SMK—Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, Denmark (2019); Swiss Institute, New York (2019); Kunsthalle Basel, Switzerland (2017); Portikus, Frankfurt, Germany (2016); Schinkel Pavillon, Berlin (2016); Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts (2015); Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2014); Kunstverein Nürnberg, Germany (2010); and Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen, Switzerland (2009).
Recent and notable group exhibitions include Honestly Speaking: The Word, the Body and the Internet, Auckland Art Gallery, New Zealand (2020); Made in L.A. 2016: a, the, though, only, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2016); 20th Biennale of Sydney (2016); Le Grand Balcon, La Biennale de Montréal, Canada (2016); 8th Berlin Biennale (2014); and ILLUMInations, 54th Venice Biennale, Italy (2011). His work is in the permanent collections of a number of museums worldwide, including Centre Pompidou, Paris; Galleria d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Bergamo (GAMeC), Turin, Italy; Kunstmuseum St.Gallen, Switzerland; Art Institute of Chicago; and Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Nashat lives and works in Los Angeles.
Shahryar Nashat: Keep Begging is co-published by Swiss Institute, New York, Kunsthalle Basel, Switzerland, and Lenz Press, Milan. Edited by Simon Castets and Laura McLean-Ferris, the book includes contributions by Negar Azimi, Jordan Carter, Elena Filipovic, Huw Lemmey, Adam Linder, Laura McLean-Ferris, Aram Moshayedi, and Hamza Walker.
Artwork photography by Jeff McLane, unless otherwise noted
Virtual model graphics by Alejandro Medina
Videography by Tony Ung, produced on the occasion of SHAHRYAR NASHAT: THEY COME TO TOUCH, 2021, organized by Aram Moshayedi, 8758 – 8766 Holloway Drive, West Hollywood, California
Shahryar Nashat, Present Sore, 2016 (CLIP), HD video with color and sound, 8:21 minutes, Edition of 5 with 2 AP. Click here to watch the full version of Present Sore.
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