As part of my ongoing series of interviews I spoke to 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.
I would like to start by asking how you became an artist, and whether this was always the path you intended to take?
My family are very bohemian; my great grandfather painted, my great step-grandmother was a pianist, my aunty is an artist, my mother was an actress and my dad was a hash-dealing writer at points, so this idea of being an artist has always been a part of my life.
My parents were part of a collective in Israel, a very left-wing collective called The Third Eye. It was counter-cultural, with a lot of experimenting, taking LSD, and producing zines, exhibitions and films. I put on an exhibition of theirs at the Horse Hospital a couple of years ago. Growing up in this way was a real privilege that most people don’t necessarily identify with. I think it’s a privilege that’s specific to the art world. Growing up in an artistic family is a huge form of privilege in the art world because you never really question it as a trajectory and you never really feel out of place in a creative context. I don’t have that impostor feeling or ever question ‘should I be doing this or is it crazy to want to do that?’ I was brought up with a set of particular choices: become a writer, an artist, or a photographer. There was never the idea that I’d be anything else. This life was exactly what my parents imagined for me, especially in terms of my relationship with the world. This path was never an issue instead they helped to solidify my desires to become a writer or an artist.
I started school very late, mainly because I grew up in a commune in Goa. I was 10 when I first went to school. I couldn’t read or write so my parents put me in a private school to ensure I would have more support. I was very, very behind. When I was about 12 we were living in Brussels. I can’t remember how, but I had a friend who was a lot older than me, maybe 18. She introduced me to these twin guys that attended the Beaux-Arts, in Brussels. They told me that you could apply to the high school and then continue to do your Bachelor of Arts when you finish. I just wouldn’t take no for an answer, from my family, or from anyone. I went to study art when I was 13 in a very committed way. I found quite early on that I wasn’t strong enough academically. I started to differentiate between subjects, like maths, science, etc., so I had to drop out and go back to school, a private school, which is where I completed my international baccalaureate on art.
I had very strong ambitions. I had this realisation of what I wanted to achieve as an artist when I was only 14. My main inspiration derived from this really cheesy film called Valmont. It was a Milos Forman’s adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons, a mainstream version of the original. I remember seeing it at the cinema at least 12 times and becoming increasingly obsessed with the film. I guess the consistency of its form made it difficult for me to reconcile with my desires. I wanted to experience a different narrative. I wanted to see beyond the two hours that were structured in the film. After seeing the film I would have a deep, longing feeling for the affect it had on me. To the point, when I was not in its presence, I wanted to create a sense of belonging with the film, to return and be there again. I had decided that I wanted to produce that feeling and that narrative. I wanted to be able to do that, to affect someone in that way. It seemed like magic to me.
The only thing that initially stopped me was my own limitations. I wasn’t good at anything specifically. I wasn’t a good painter. I mean I probably could have tried harder, but I was more interested in ideas than the technical aspects.
I’m aware of the multiple places you have lived over the years; I would like to ask how you came to base yourself in London?
I was born here so I had a UK passport, which made it viable. After finishing high school I’d lived in New York. From here, I went to study painting restoration in Florence, which after two weeks my father passed away so I decided to leave. I made the decision to live with my mom when she was in Israel. Whilst I was with her she told me to review my practice and think about doing something more material, mainly because we had very little money at that time. I was brought up in a very wealthy family, however when my dad died he left us in a ton of debt. We lost everything. As a result, my mom could not afford to put me through art school. We managed to find a compromise with photography, weirdly. After being an actress, she photographed the cover of quite a famous punk album. She always had a camera with her. There was certainly a commercial aspect I was initially keen to explore, and I did explore, I become a fashion photographer for many years and sustained myself from the age of 19 until 25. I didn’t have a day job as it was actually possible to live on that salary at that time. I really enjoyed that. After a period of time I suddenly had this change of mind develop inside me. I don’t know, I remember the day and I was quite grossed out by it. It was nothing specific, it was just inane to me. Very suddenly I didn’t want to be a fashion photographer anymore. I had a friend who’d opened a gallery and asked me to put on a show, but as a photographer. My photography was quite alternative, it was a bit edgier. I was still studying photography, however, after two years I made the sudden decision to leave. It was actually by walking out of a crit session crying. I left everything there, I was so sensitive, and I couldn’t take the criticism. I think as a result of growing up with such hippie parents, I just couldn’t trust authoritarianism. It just wasn’t worth it. There was also a kind of jealously and dismissing of my work whilst I was studying as people didn’t like that I had already found my voice and developed a commercial practice. I told my friend, who owned the gallery, about the piece I made for that crit and she offered me a show. I decided then that I wanted to explore other mediums and not primarily focus on making photographic work. I presented three video pieces, alongside some really bad objects. As part of the installation, I covered the gallery in grass. It was quite ambitious. There were a few good things within the show, including swings in which you could sit on to watch the videos, they were quite punky. I had worked with these children, a brother and a sister that I was friends with. He was only 12, and was a wunderkind. I believe he was doing a BA in Greek mythology. She was maybe 17, and would occasionally assist me when I was a photographer. These children were amazing. I made three videos about them. After this, I participated in an exhibition at a museum, again as a photographer, but I refused to show pictures. I made this really silly artwork, it was very juvenile.
I then decided I wanted to go to Goldsmiths, I wanted to do an MA. I came to London and I didn’t even get an interview. Nowhere. I applied to most places like three times. I was never interviewed. I just received many rejections. I felt devastated because I really thought I was going to get in. I thought I was great, you know, and that I’d done all the things you were meant to do to get in, but it didn’t matter. It meant nothing. I was really devastated. I have more of an impostor thing about being an academic than being an artist. I came to London to go to Goldsmiths and to use this passport my parents had cleverly planned for me, they came when my mom was eight months pregnant so I wouldn’t have to be Israeli.
How did you navigate the art scene in London? How did you start to gain recognition?
I did crazy stuff; I would cold-call places like the White Cube. I would call all of these galleries and ask if they wanted to see my work. They really had no idea how to deal with these types of questions. This was before email really hit off, so around 2001. I mean email existed obviously but it wasn’t the way people necessarily communicated. They would ask you to send a self-addressed envelope along with examples of your work, and I did it. I did that to lots of people, quite persistently every day. I very quickly had a massive reality check. My work, and especially my video work were very fashionable. They contained imagery of these two amazing kids along with a soundtrack of New York punk music. When I finally managed to get people and galleries to see the videos they were interested in them, people started to respond. It really started to kick off. I showed a lot with this gallery called Centre of Attention. They picked up my work immediately. I also showed extensively with the Horse Hospital. I became quite friendly with the Pil and Galia Kollectiv and their peer group. I started to show a lot with Temporary Contemporary, all of who were incredibly instrumental in the early stages of my career, as well as organisations like the Centre of Attention and the Horse Hospital.
These galleries were the first to kick start my career in the UK. It was a very different time, a very different scene. London stratified in a really exciting way. At places like Centre of Attention, you’d have all the YBAs show up to the exhibitions alongside real weirdoes, you know, like proper underground people that don’t exist in London anymore. It was a different kind of environment. I think it was less professionalised. I remember working at a place called Public Life, which were toilets that had been converted into a cool bar. We put on nights where we showed films and performances. There was a lot of scope to initiate stuff yourself, mainly because these art spaces would allow experimental programming. I remember the Pil and Galia Kollectiv did this amazing event at 291 Gallery that was called Turn to the Left; it was a fashion show by artists. I remember that being a turning point for me. As part of the fashion show I made this life-sized rag doll, which a human couldn’t actually wear. I had to cut it into a swimsuit with the top part being the rag doll. I had this really tall friend wear it with these incredibly long legs and really high heels. It was quite fetishy. She came down the catwalk holding a bin bag containing wind-up dolls to a song screaming the words ‘my monster in black ties’. There were 400 people that attended the event. That doesn’t exist anymore. We had also put on a performance at Shoreditch Town Hall where 280 people turned up. I think I started being really ambitious, putting on big events and performances where everyone does it for free with no budget. This doesn’t really exist anymore.
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?
It sounds like it’s important to explore these memories, as I’m sure it frames the life that you lead need now.
Yes absolutely. I do believe a lot of writers have a similar experience. Sometimes they might inhabit other people or will go and seek out particular stories; maybe they will go to a sex or a love addict’s anonymous meeting just to collect stories. Of course within my writing there is a lot of imagination combined with strong elements of science fiction. There is a lot of declarative writing, which is quite politicised. There are also these little moments that are very personal. It’s a true combination.
Early on in my career I wrote quite extensively about this idea of becoming ‘other’ through the act of performance. My argument centred on what happens when the ‘other’ is the one to gain power and knowledge. By ‘other’ I was referring to Julia Kristeva’s theory around abjection, referring to groups of people or individuals who are discarded or suppressed within society.
I researched methods of performance as a way to express this reaction to society’s rejection, to break free from the social constraints placed upon us. Your characters, the Neanderthal Hermaphrodite, Mnemesoid and The Vampyre Phantasmagoregasm are symbolising what it is to be ‘other’ but from a position of power and strength. Is this something you consider in your work, creating individuals who are representations of what society has rejected, looking and commenting on socio-political topics, such as discrimination?
As you can imagine I’ve had to talk a lot about this project recently. If I’m being honest, I do struggle with that. As I was saying before, when going about finding my voice for this work I have felt very invested in this idea of developing a fantastical iteration of something, like politics and how this could be iterated in a fantastical context in that it has this emancipatory, transformative power. I don’t believe that as much now. I mean it’s difficult because I might be asking or expecting too much of the work. The material aspects, particularly the discourses I’ve been exploring as well as listening to intersectional feminism, do make me question, what is the necessity of a work like this? Work, which has the kind of revolutionary energy that is being produced elsewhere. Work with a revolutionary energy that is not coming from white people, basically.
I feel the radical thinking and discourse that is being co-opted by academia and the art world is coming from black and latinx feminist activists, trans activism and discourses rooted in social movements. There is a change happening. I think art sees itself as a revolutionary agent, and sees itself at the tip of the arrow of progress, of evolution and of radicalism. I just don’t think that’s the case anymore. I think it lies elsewhere. I don’t want to think of it on racial lines, but I don’t think it’s a white middle-class revolution.
It’s a modernist ideology. If you think about the relics around the modernist purpose for art, it was a completely revolutionary agent, which in itself is rooted in male whiteness. The kinds of things that are happening now, which are seen as radical are not happening in the art world. Even just formally, like technology or Crypto currency, these inventions are actually changing the world in ways, which for me as a young person would have seemed unimaginable. There are these huge shifts in behaviour, in mass behaviour. That’s one area I am now questioning.
Are you now reflecting on this work, and how it possibly doesn’t have the voice you originally imagined?
Yes, I don’t feel it does. I’m following through on this project, I’m committed and I want it to happen. I’m sure it will be meaningful for some people, you know, but I feel the ideas that I thought it could deliver, it can’t. I hope I’m wrong.
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.
– Laura Hensser, 2018