If you enter Tai Shani’s installation and don’t find immediate joy in the colourways and furnishings of her post-patriarchal playground, then you may not drift easily in the experiential seas ahead. Personally, I want to bathe in the high-end glow and think it works beautifully here, alongside Oscar Murillo’s visceral staging of historical painterly and socio-political concerns, and book-ended by the rigorously researched film-based investigations of Helen Cammock and Lawrence Abu Hamdan.
Shani’s vision of an alternative future is sumptuous, Insta-friendly and open to all who allow themselves in. And there are many associative, often literary and fantastical, routes into the multimedia mix. Crossing the threshold, I think of the scene in Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story where Atreyu has to pass unnoticed between a pair of sphinxes. Also, the gothic sensibility of Mervyn Peake, if rebooted by Ursula K. Leguin.
The artist looks out of this hybrid episode of her ongoing project ‘Dark Continent’ from a modest screen, mouthing silently like a virtual time traveller over a pink and radically pimped Babylonia. She is narrating a series of 12 personally-penned sci-fi vignettes (that can be heard via headphones), informed by The Book of the City of Ladies written by Christine de Pizan in 1405, whose “allegorical city for notable women” has influenced the tone and shape of the multiple elements here: from tiny jade-coloured hands, to a low-flying, disco-cerise mirrored ‘sun’ and a giant, teated crimson-velvet puppet arm, which is as beautifully tactile as it is strange.
The constructed arenas for Shani’s works might best be described as sites, as opposed to sets. They may be ripe and ready for activation by troupes of performers, but given my own response to others in this space, it’s possible if the gallery were actually littered with enigmatically moving individuals, we might wish them out of the way. It’s of the body as much as a place for bodies to perform in – actively empty. And, to think about the presence of an event is to engage with what it might be and who might deliver it.
The room may be charged with the same performative potential as a theatre, but not the thespian kind. We are definitely post-Yorick when it comes to the production values – yet marinated in evidence of ancient rituals – and, if it weren’t for the wonderful whiff of drag-queen carnivalesque (and the erotic audio adventures of Shani’s protagonists), being Pied Piper’d beyond any obvious sense of human drama.
For the mood is serene, in an opulent, fairy-tale-other and non-wellness way, as if the selection of props/material prompts here have wrestled themselves out of many millennia of masculine hegemony and gathered for a celebration selfie. Not that I think Shani is in any way messing with us, or wishing to undermine the seriousness of her enquiry. But as creator of a feminine realm for all, a sense of humour and knowledge of the power of funny (as well as particular combinations of sensory stimuli) to inform where arguments fail are essential to our engagement.
It’s a playful and ludicrous form of agency she proffers – reconnecting us with things we have become remote from since childhood (if with more of an X-rated vibe). Pre adult-programming, children rarely have problems negotiating definitions, whether those governing art or human identity, and part of Shani’s poetic power as narrator/creator is to operate between labels, create something of a mirrored chamber that reflects our socially-conditioned blue- (pink-, or any other colour-) prints.
I don’t think this experience is about sitting seriously and listening diligently to hours of sci-fi feminist narratives in sequence, trying to locate the exact points of connection between what is seen and what can be heard. Though Shani is a wonderful writer and obviously the more we engage with the different layers of her rich universe, the more will be revealed to us. But neither are we being given kick-your-shoes-off-and-lounge-on-a-beanbag performative rights in the manner of a Pipilotti Rist installation (though I would imagine that as a pioneer of video-art staging Rist has been of influence. Naturally Joan Jonas springs to mind, also Tony Oursler and 2012 Turner Prize nominee Monster Chetwynd).
There are many architectural edges to negotiate and objects we would love to pocket, or get hands-on with (one can imagine some of them as elements fabricated from fragments of outlandish dreams), but as art-museum ingredients they are very much not ours to play with. Shani appears more interested in presenting aspects of the feminine as catalysts for self-reflection, rather than offering up her ideology in a carefully curated hug. We may not be here for therapy, of course, but likely to experience some useful deprogramming.
All photos © David Levene for the Turner Centre unless otherwise stated