A CONVERSATION WITH SHAHZIA SIKANDER
Shahzia Sikander and I met in 2000, prior to her residency at Artpace San Antonio. Sikander was already an established artist, renowned for her small-scale paintings rendered with relaxed adherence to the formal austerity of Indo-Persian miniatures. By the late 1990s, she also began to discard the spatial precinct of the miniature, experimenting with large-scale murals and installations of works-on-paper, expanding gestural elements lifted from her paintings, unspooling and presenting them in overlapping layers of mutable opacity. When Sikander arrived in San Antonio for her 2001 residency, she made the decision to experiment with a new medium: video, and I enlisted as her producer. The resulting animated work, Intimacy, is now part of the permanent collection of the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin.
Anjali Gupta: In the early 2000s, video became affordable, and more than a few artists attempted to commandeer the medium. For the most part, such interrogations felt truly binary: either/or situations in which this “new” mode of expression was out of context with—if not utterly tangential to—the formal rigor and aesthetic tenor of a given artist’s primary practice. What are the constructs and concerns that you carried from painting and installation to video that aided you in avoiding this pitfall?
Shahzia Sikander: Drawing is a fundamental element of my process—a basic tool for exploration. I construct most of my work, including patterns of thinking, via drawing. Ideas housed on paper are often put into motion in the video animations, creating a form of disruption as a means to engage. By remaining true to drawing—a medium most suited to my abilities—I also became conscious of its limitations and effects, thus opting for simple shifts of movements in the animations over forced special effects.
I also stayed true to layering, a concept running throughout my practice. For the making of video animations, I went back to the fundamental use of ink drawings, crafting form out of color and gouache, scanning and threading them via movement. The breakdown of form also gives a stationary drawing the illusion of transformation, which as a topic has given me a lot of space to experiment and imagine throughout my work.
The drawings are done in the beginning as well as during the process of editing. Entire drawn compositions or elements from within the drawings are selected and juxtaposed to create the animations. The process is often an exercise in improvisation. Simultaneously espousing narrative and its absence, I try to make works that enable multiple interpretations. I also seek elements with possibilities, whether they exist as symbols and motifs in my surroundings or from historical sources, with the intent to alter or to cultivate new associations. Abstract, representational and textual forms can all coexist and jostle for domination.
AG: You seem to have a profound aversion to absolute statements when describing your work, championing formal over theoretical readings. Aside from an obvious rejection of essentialism, is this indicative of a conscious rejection of aspects of post-colonialism and identity politics as applied to contemporary art—theories that came into play in the academic arena very early in your career, and continue to be harnessed in attempts to characterize your oeuvre?
SS: For me, one of the most compelling aspects of art making is the conception of an idea and the chase to its fruition. Ideas are assimilated over time, and are often an outcome of interrogation and reflection. As an artist, I am also curious how value is determined once the work enters public domain. I am not concerned with the unmasking of “truth,” as realities differ all over the world. I also like taking on contrary positions—to be able to believe and dis-believe at the same time—and also, perhaps, to give oneself room to improve…to change one’s mind.
Over the years, I have worked in a variety of mediums and formats, including small detailed paintings, murals, animation, installation, video and some collaboration with other artists. All the while, I have mostly been interested in cultural and political boundaries as a space for opening up new frameworks for dialogue and visual narrative. However, I have also let the shift from one medium to another dictate content that may not necessarily be rooted in any critique of so-called boundaries, like post-colonial theory or identity politics.
AG: Slippery, Ms. Sikander. Granted, being a woman from South Asia is no longer tantamount to ghettoization via the limitations of post-colonial discourse or identity politics as was a legitimate concern in the 1990s, but you cannot deny that the visual narratives you construct and the aesthetic decisions you make when sketching out these frameworks employ shorthand that can invoke a certain gaze. This seems incidental to your personal interrogation, limiting and I’m sure occasionally frustrating, but once a work of art is placed in the public realm intentionality is suspended. Perhaps it is enough to say that tensions exist and leave it at that.
I’m more interested in the blurring of boundaries within the work and the friction you create by amalgamating representation and abstraction. Can the co-mingling of your training in the genre of Indo-Persian miniature painting and the influx of discursive discourses such as post structuralism encountered later be considered an act of cultural conflation?
SS: Such tensions do exist. But neither have I been overtly concerned about being ghettoized or tried to fit my work within topical notions or categorizations. I see my work in broader historical contexts: within painting, drawing, print-making, animation, photography, film/video, continually evolving—with changing and growing interpretations—all of which add to the whole, which helps to inform my art making. My art is built with a lexicon of information, which grows and expands, is reused, edited, discarded and new ideas added. This is a fluid process that unfolds over time.
To move forward is to rethink and able to detach to explore something new. Images I may have developed and used for one purpose are constantly modified to find new areas of overlap.
Initially I explored the tension between illustration and fine art when I first encountered miniature painting in my late teens. Championing the formal aspects of the Indo-Persian miniature-painting genre has often been at the core of my practice, but not for every project I have done. Call it slippery, but it is an outcome of my training in the craft as well as a curiosity towards the charged dialogue that it sparked from the start. That said, the first serious showings of my work were at the Drawing Center in New York and the Renaissance Society in Chicago, where the context was primarily the diversity and depth of drawing. The miniature-painting field, too, has opened dramatically in the last two decades, with many artists and art historians engaging in its study in creative and critically astute ways. I’m thinking of several shows mounted by Asia Society in New York. Vishaka Desai in particular has provided very insightful scholarship and Glenn Lowry, director of MoMA, also has a unique point of view with his background in Islamic art and active interest in contemporary artists.
Boundaries have been blurring, but not only for the sake of cultural conflation.
A recent project of mine, large-scale projections at the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art in Hawaii, blurs boundaries in many ways. Some of the projections work as framing devices that expose elements of landscape hidden at night, while also extending the architecture of the building itself. Like the wall of the living room that descends to open the house to the environment, the projections erect an invisible wall rising high above the architecture and hoisted by the density of the surrounding trees. While transforming the space, the projections also re-contextualize my images by shifting the scale of the drawings and re-rendering them in foliage and architecture. Light and shadow take center stage, highlighting the textures, colors and geometry of the space into a theater of light, evolving into a dimension that is sculptural, illusionistic and temporary; fleeting like the movement of wind and stars captured in slow exposures. The work was created as an attempt to engage with the site, Doris Duke’s House, “Shangri La,” with all its inherent and fascinating contradictions.
AG: A great location for a meditative site-specific installation, to be sure. It is particularly interesting that foundations of a fixed-frame spatial construct like the miniature—the interplay of light and shadow, texture, color and geometry—can so effectively amplify both the interior and exterior corpus of a large-scale, static architectural structure.
SS: The architecture of Shangri La, built in the 1930s, is a mix of several aesthetics playing on architectural principles from throughout the Islamic world while adhering to a modernist ethos. The integration of the house into the environment with its descending walls to create a tent like zone actually lends the space a far more fluid nature than what may come across. There are many layers to deciphering the site, including its Hawaiian identity.
I was equally interested in imagining Doris Duke herself, as a strong willed woman, with her larger than life image, a figure of extreme wealth and an active participant in the construction of American Orientalism. One of the projections—a red, white and blue multi-armed female form—is a metaphor for her. Mythical, majestic and monumental, (the projection is about eighty feet high), rising from the Mughal suite (her bedroom), looming over Shangri La and overlooking the formidable Pacific where her ashes were sprinkled, with the paradox of Shangri La is omnipresent.
American patronage of the arts and culture is in itself a vast and adventurous study. Doris Duke’s interest in the Orient was indicative of her time. Her generous, intelligent and independent spirit also reminds me of Linda Pace whose passion and enthusiasm for supporting contemporary artists’ practices made her a much loved and highly respected figure who also rose as a powerful player in the art world.
AG: I would like to discuss aspects of other recent projects including The Last Post, (2010), which will be screened/performed at The Linda Pace Foundation in September—elements that reflect evolution in your practice that echo your first engagement with video over a decade ago at Artpace.
Although it can be argued that video is inherently collaborative in terms of process, aesthetic decisions have remained decidedly under your control throughout your exploration of the medium. However, you have produced work in tandem with other artists, most notably Chinese American composer and musician Du Yun. Under what circumstances—and to what extent—do you characterize a work as collaborative? I am also curious about the increasing level of performative elements in your work, specifically, live-action videos such as Gossamer (2010) and live musical accompaniment.
SS: My first foray into animation was with you! The impulse to go in the direction of animation was really an outcome of another inherent layer of tension, which was how to give dimension to the small scale and space that characterized my work at that time. When I visited Artpace twice—once for my residency and again the following winter—and worked with you on animations, I was interested in identifying forms within the older paintings that could easily be isolated and could also function visually when multiplied and moved, like the circular movement of hair motifs in SpiNN. Also, at that time I was making animations with no sound. Older works like SpiNN, Pursuit Curve and Nemesis had scores added later by David Abir, a sound artist introduced to me by filmmaker Shirin Neshat.
I work in a far more collaborative manner with Du Yun than I have with others in the past. We met at a residency in 2009, and found out that we were neighbors in NYC. Proximity has afforded an ease of sharing and spontaneity that can be hard to establish with distance. The nature of our collaboration is quite fluid. Du Yun is enigmatic, and her compositions reference multiple aspects of her interests and expertise, be it chamber music, theater score, orchestral arrangement or pop. When the opportunity came to create a live music event to accompany an animation, we both were open to it. The Last Post was made for the inaugural exhibition of the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai called “By Day, By Night, or Some (Special) Things a Museum Can Do,” curated by Hou Hanru.
The music Du Yun composed for the animation reflects her own sensibility and style, created in response to my drawings. I consider the live-musical accompaniment to be her work, but behind the work is a dialogue born out of a connection to each other’s process. Du Yun is very gestural as a composer, which overlaps with my practice in terms of my use of movement to disrupt static space. I often use a gestural relationship to materials like ink to draft out a series of images. She also writes linearly to compose a non-linear event. She is able to work well with the rhythm and transitions I employ in the animations and has often spoken about her approach as if she were writing an opera or creating a musical universe on a stage. The music is unfixed, which parallels my disinterest in linear narratives.
The Last Post uses, as a point of departure, the oscillating trade relations between East India Company and China over opium. I was looking for a visual space in which to create a series of drawings, which would link my interest in miniature painting (the Company School in this instance) as well as have some connection to China. Thus, the East India Company Man seemed like a protagonist with potential. I had previously worked on a video filming the Pakistani military band, (Bending the Barrels) so perhaps that also lent some overlap. Bending the Barrels came about as a reflection on the paradox of authority, exploring military pageantry staged against military rhetoric. The title The Last Post refers to the Bugle Call. Commemorating the soldiers who die in war, it also signals a call for the end of the day. Here it refers to the collapse of the anglo-saxon hegemony over China. At the forefront, though, is imagining the myth of a post-colonial city with its transnational and transcultural image.
The video Gossamer was an impromptu video recording done after sessions of discussion with Du Yun and it became a sort of “visual footnote” to The Last Post. The work came about in the process of discussing ideas for a multi-media project for Shanghai, the Rockbund Museum in particular. Shanghai as a site of imagination, desire or fantasy was the thrust of the piece. Since I was unable to travel during the process of making the work, Du Yun traveled there and shared her birth city from both a personal and a psychological space. In the video, she simultaneously represents dual roles—the contemporary and historical—traveling between cities (New York and Shanghai) and countries (the US and China).
I like the idea of rediscovery. Du Yun often invites other musicians to perform the live score, thereby extending the act of collaboration herself. New ways of viewing the work occur with each performance, including solos by Du Yun which incorporate improvisation. The performance is theatrical and the process of live synthesizing lends a different energy to the experience. It is the interstitial space between the various forms: the two dimensional drawings, their visual movements, the musical dimension and the chemistry of a live performance that can also be read as a moment between stillness and flux—both states that are of interest to me.
Shahzia Sikander’s exhibition The Last Post is organized and presented by the Linda Pace Foundation, on view from September 14, 2012 to June 1, 2013. The Linda Pace Foundation is grateful to the artist for her insights, dialogue, and invaluable assistance, and to Michael Jenkins and Sikkema Jenkins & Co. for their cooperation and assistance.