May 13 – July 2, 2023 at the Renaissance Society, Chicago
Shahryar Nashat & Bruce Hainley in conversation with Dan Thawley
Questioning the communication and rhetoric around exhibition-making are two of the key conceits of a provocative group show conceived by the Swiss-Iranian artist Shahryar Nashat in collaboration with the American writer and curator Bruce Hainley, currently on show at The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, Illinois. By removing the curators’ names, artists’ names and exhibition title from all literature and marketing material prior to the opening, the duo challenge the status quo of context and assumed knowledge that surround the practice of exhibition-making today.
In conversation with A Magazine Curated By’s Editor in Chief Dan Thawley, Nashat and Hainley offer insight into their radical approach to curation underwritten by both anonymity and celebrity.
Dan Thawley: The removal of self seems to be such a vital conceit before we even see any art. How do you feel that will impact the message of the exhibition and the works of other people within it?
Bruce Hainley: We’ve found that the habits of publicity around art and exhibitions are so entrenched in specific hackneyed patterns and formats that they are never questioned. As soon as you push against these habits, even by the slightest way or gesture, people are flummoxed, ‘Oh, I don’t understand this. I don’t know what to do. Why is there not more information?’ Our decision to head in a different direction with these gestures is not to be coy about information. Instead, we really want people to come and experience the show and to let the things in it – together, in concert– prompt thinking.
DT: And how did you begin?
BH: Shahryar and I have been in pretty constant dialogue, not only as peers teaching together in California but also as friends, for almost a decade. One of our favourite things to do is to get together and talk passionately, laughingly, about what we’re seeing, what we’re thinking. In some sense, this opportunity to work at the Ren is taking that conversation public in the form of an exhibition. Something is being produced between us and out of these conversations.
DT: The poster feels like another important springboard for the conversation because it speaks to all sorts of different tropes. The graphic design and stock imagery are both perverting codes in themselves.
SN: The design is very simple, yes. It’s copied from the Getty Images website. We chose two images of Robert Pattinson, paid for the licensing fees, and kept the same layout as the checkout page. When I proposed this project to Bruce, this invitation to do something together that would be less of a solo exhibition of mine, we were sitting in a restaurant in Los Angeles. We started talking about the different conceits that could kick off thinking about what an exhibition can be. And we were saying it could be good to have a mascot or a muse under whose aura the show would be organized. This was when we spotted Robert Pattinson. He was having an incognito lunch with someone. With such serendipity, we immediately thought, why not use a celebrity as a starting point? Many of the things we are both interested in American culture are embedded in Pattinson: his star status, his teen to adult rise, his early undead fame and aliveness, from his Twilight character through Cosmopolis to… you name it. This show has a lot of bodies in it. And it’s pertinent for us to start with one whose individuality is less his own because of his global fame.
DT: What about the text you’ve written to preface the show?
We met for lunch to continue our conversation, soon noticing the celebrity, incognito, taking a meeting nearby, and such serendipity prompted a reaction: Use this strange presence as a device to work through the current moment in relation to how bodies, whether living currency or undead, circulate, disrupt, unalive, and, yet, love?
BH: The candid that Shahryar took when we spotted Pattinson at lunch and selected other specific pictures of him, stock images, for example, serve as a title without using his name. The first part of the preface addresses how the candid came about – directly. The second part opens things up by using celebrity as a device to activate different coordinates in terms of the various artists and non-artists in the show. How bodies have become a living currency and relationships between bodies, living and undead, situate the kinds of works we commissioned and borrowed. The new verb, “to unalive”: I’m fascinated by a younger generation’s use of it instead of “to commit suicide,” I wanted to use it, as well as friendship and other forms of intimacy, love, and structure the proceedings. We have no wish for the exhibit to be only dour, although clearly, there are works and elements in the show that are pretty dark–partly as a response to how this moment can be overwhelmingly mired in death and violence.
DT: Getty is now this historical archive of celebrity and current affairs. There are Instagram accounts dedicated to iconic Getty Images moments, and it’s become such a part of the vernacular as well that it is indeed so recognisable in the poster as a format and as something that people choose to buy or not buy, to preserve a watermark or remove a watermark. It’s such an interesting phenomenon. Can you tell us a little bit more about the contents of the show itself?
SN: It’s something built brick by brick with gestures that we both intuitively brought to the table. Myriam Ben Salah and Karsten Wales Lund, respectively, the director and associate director, were also part of the conversation; seeing their reaction was fun. Sometimes we suggested ideas that were obscure at first but became more and more apparent. We were not trying to be secretive by not having a list of artists published, but because there aren’t only artworks, it’s difficult to summarize what’s in the show with just a list of names. There is some art, but a monitor shows a man in Japan who streams his sleep or a live feed from an animal shelter where you see kittens playing around and being cute. There is also a weekly curated feed of posts by @halal.before.haram, a Finsta account run by artist Mohamed Almusibli. He spends a lot of time on TikTok and posts a selection of his favourite videos for an audience of 98 people. On top of these, we are mixing the sound of the different media works to have one soundtrack for the entire show. Lighting effects are used similarly.
BH: A video from 1992 by Larry Clark sets up a particular reality effect; it also operates as an early version of the barrage of live streams and so-called ‘reality’ programming that has taken over, almost ideologically. While people are familiar with Clark’s photography and films, I don’t think most think of him as having worked in videos early on. A readymade that connects directly to his lifelong aesthetic concerns, the video involves male-on-male violence–complicatedly racialized, enacted against certain kinds of bodies, freaked by various unconscious drives of homoeroticism and homosociality. The daytime ‘reality’ talk show becomes a hazing ritual, with reenactments, of the phobic regimes of so-called ‘normative’ masculinity and its fraught attempts at intimacy. Certainly, thinking about bodies and how they circulate and come together in pleasurable and violent ways remains fundamental to everything in the show. Pole dancers from Fly Club Chicago dancing throughout all the viewing hours to the point of determining them. Both Pope L. and Catherine Sullivan will direct two special, live table reads that will allegorize and cut into the ongoing thematics of the exhibition.
DT: Is there a guerrilla element to their inclusion?
BH: No, we had an idea of working through certain Robert Pattinson-adjacent thematics. Collaborating with the team at the Ren and in close dialogue with Myriam and Karsten, we decided it would be interesting to involve artists based in Chicago. We had in mind a play by Adrienne Kennedy and the script for Twilight Eclipse, and both Pope and Catherine were game to take these specific dramas on. We feel incredibly fortunate to have the show open up to Pope’s and Catherine’s participation and their intellectual vigour.
DT: Shahryar, are there any of your new or existing works included in the show?
SN: There is one work of mine, bags of urine of mine that I collected while we were installing. They don’t take up a lot of space, but we wanted to have them in there. I was reluctant to have a work of mine, but there is no artists list per see, so it feels more anonymous. There is a synthesized version of Robert Pattinson’s voice that will credit all the people involved in the show, though. It’s part of the soundtrack that I was describing earlier.
DT: It’s always interesting to think about the image of a living person in that sense and that it’s someone who’s so tangible and so intangible simultaneously. Other than that voice, is the show visually labeled?
SN: The voice will be the only way to orient yourself. The more conventional press release and list will appear at the end of the show.
BH: In terms of conceits, we are thinking through what it means for an artist to be alive, or for an artist to be still thought to be alive–vital. Very early on, we decided we wanted to include work or works by Marie Laurencin. Everyone else working in the show is a practising artist or cultural producer. Of course, the parameters of art at this point are so utterly porous, for good or ill, so we’re engaging with every aspect of current aesthetic parameters.
DT: Why Marie Laurencin?
BH: We borrowed a single Laurencin painting from the Art Institute of Chicago, one they’ve had in their collection for over 40 years but have never displayed. The portrait of a young woman came to the AIC from a private collection. She’s a curiously peculiar artist in that she’s owned by many museums yet is often kept in storage, almost in a crypt if not quite encrypted. We like her work and wonder what it might be to bring her back to life, even if she’s undead, haunting.
SN: She is also the only participant who is no longer alive.
DT: Brilliant. Are there other open-source elements, like the TikTok videos, for example?
BH: The person who’s curating the TikToks for the show and our social media was invited by Shahryar. Mohamed Almusibli has his own artistic practice and works as a curator. His assembly and choice of TikTok videos arrive in the show through specific art-related channels. It would be wrong to think about them as merely open source.
DT: But there are other things in the show that could be considered open source?
SN: Yeah, the sleepers I mentioned before and the animal shelter live feed.
DT: Were the two of you looking at other disruptive formats and historical moments in exhibition practice?
BH: One thinker who has been an ongoing point of reference is Sayak Valencia, who wrote a brutally revelatory interrogation called Gore Capitalism. It’s about the femicide of trans and other women in Mexico and was written in direct response to such horrific and ongoing atrocity. She demonstrates how such violence has come to affect the monetization of all kinds of bodies everywhere.
DT: In terms of materiality of the exhibition, you’ve touched upon a couple of things: digital screens, smart phones. terms of what one can expect of the format. If the context of each work becomes so blurred and so much a part of a single piece, I’m wondering if that also is reflected in the way all those works are being shown or is there a lot of respect to each artist’s wishes as to how their work is shown? Are there any particular kinds of screens or rooms? I’m curious if the space is being changed or partitioned and if you’re planning to segregate works or if they can all sort of all be seen at once.
SN: I think there’s going to be these moments when there’s a direct conversation across and between different works. There’s not that many gestures in the show and we have thought about how things speak and interact. But as Bruce mentioned, the prevalence of bodies, what they represent and how much agency they have is the one constant in the exhibition space.
BH: Respectful is one way to talk about it. We retain an interest in the discrete artwork, its presence, as much as we intend to push at certain habits and limits of exhibition coordination and design. What’s seen is not a jumble. We hope that people will encounter the exhibit as a totality, which doesn’t mean that we don’t trust the time each work demands on its own.
DT: You mentioned ‘gestures’. Is that a common term when describing the way an exhibition is put together, or is that a way that you are referring to this show in particular because they are not all, in fact, artworks? It’s a very nice term.
SN: Yes, because they’re not all artworks. We were thinking that every gesture should not just be there for itself, but also for what it represents or what kind of politics of the body it carries with itselfWe also worked a lot in mirroring things. Untitled (How to Draw Chelsea Manning) is a photograph by Larry Johnson that documents a step-by-step line drawing of the whistleblower. When Bruce showed me this work that was never shown before it became obvious that not only did we want to show it, but we wanted to show more than one of its editions to manifest not just the work but how it exists and circulates physically in the world.
Dan: My last question is in terms of the interaction with the artists. Given the conceit of this show, I’m curious as to the response of people that might not be used to accepting such an ambiguous project or perhaps even the audience. How have those sorts of conversations played out as you’ve built up the show.
Shahryar: We’ll see. Our prediction is that the show will appeal to artists. Especially because we had to pitch the ideas to the participating artists and they all gave us carte blanche as to how to use their work in this assemblage. They were also on board when we told them that the Ren won’t publish their names until the end of the show when the press release will be published… A bit like an obituary for an exhibition. The challenge has been how to talk to my gallerists about this show, as they obviously want to promote it but don’t have “solo show by Shahryar Nashat” to work with. Instead they have a poster with two stock images of Robert Pattinson and a date. So they’re like, ‘What do we do? What do we do? What do we do?’. Which makes it interesting for us. Because for every occasion we’ve had to promote the show we had to come up with customized ideas, customized conversations, new content… the show is not just what is in the space but every post, every interview, every newsletter–we’re trying to emphasize that every public-facing decision, materialized, adds to the sum of it all. We wanted the exhibition to be promoted, but we want to have the opportunity each time to see, ‘how is this occasion to promote best used?’
Dan: Well, it’s such a refreshing consideration right now and the obsession with newness and what’s next in culture.