New York, Aug. 2014: Sahra Motalebi’s multimedia performance operetta, Intangible Heritages, Belief's Demise, staged at New York’s Sculpture Center in February, told the stories of neglected archetypical characters. Among the characters that Motalebi conjured from an ancient Eastern literary heritage were a prostitute, a warrior-prisoner, and an elderly recluse. She lyrically presented their interlaced narratives while they moved through a projected shadow play praised by curator Kari Rittenbach as a “multidimensional commingling of a visually flattened, albeit moving image, instrumentation and live harmonization with other pre-recorded voices and verses."
Motalebi was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and attended Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture. She has exhibited sculpture, dance, music, and drawing at MoMA PS1, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, the Vancouver Art Gallery, and the National Portrait Gallery. She will be touring in Europe this fall. Here, Motalebi explains the methods and meanings that stitch together her diverse artistic interests, activities, and enchanting art forms.
Ana Finel Honigman: What are the core themes and concerns connecting your disparate practices and works?
Sahra Motalebi: I’d say one of the central themes in my work revolves around the iterative process between various media and this culminates in the operas I think. I write and perform all the music from the vantage point of a classically trained singer and musician and, simultaneously and interrelatedly, as a visual artist I create mixed-media sculpture, installation, and video as the scenography. My music has been influenced by the idea of the anti-opera, basically a nod to early 20th-century radical theater and what I feel is the importance of large-scale "staged" productions of interdisciplinary work. The methods and mechanics of "storytelling" seem to be at risk right now—namely, of neglect and/or being relegated to the realm of things that are "not art." I’m into repurposing a traditional form of opera, calling into question assumptions around it, especially the antipathy to the expressive gesture.
Another important thread in my work emerged around the time I did Such is the Game of Authenticity (2009) at MoMA PS1 which is about a kind of false dichotomy between concept and experience—which for me came out of my studying Tibetan Buddhism. Such is the Game involved a video installation as a stage backdrop that featured a built environment in front of which I sang a series of my love songs, quite unapologetically. In that piece I was really picking up the idea that ultra "personal" art had been deemed kind of socially irresponsible catharsis, overly-feeling, or indulgent in the contemporary art context; this was also the case in the outer fringes of the music world too. Lots of visual artists have made records and been in bands on independent imprints etc., but when I was younger and invited to sing my music in galleries and in museums, it always felt like a kind of exception to a categorical rule about high-concept, relational performance. This has all changed a great deal obviously. It’s all very on trend now.
AFH: What inspired your aesthetic decisions—set and costumes—for Intangible Heritages, Belief's Demise?
SM: The choices and aesthetic hierarchies for Intangible Heritages, Belief’s Demise developed in relation to each other over 2013. There was the world of the libretto as it related to the vocal only composition and music, and then also the scenographic and visual elements. As I was writing the music—there are 20+ vocal tracks of beats and harmonies in each song—I was also thinking through the movement, the scenes, video cuts, and vice versa. Because the shadow play has a somewhat homogenizing effect visually, the sameness of the backlit silhouette allowed for the extemporaneous outtakes to be leveled on a plane of equivalence with choreographed movement, if that makes sense. The development of the identity of the character was definitely fluid as it concerned the libretto but also in terms of her form and props. As far as the staging in a larger sense, my thinking about the history of scenography, theater, and dance from the '60s and '70s played a part. I was really into the idea of shadow-theater in its traditional cultural context, namely that it was often a one-person display (the dhalang was a priest, storyteller, puppeteer and musician) of a simplified, candlelit, 2D performance.
Sahra Motalebi, Intangible Heritages, Belief’s Demise, 2014, Rehearsal, In Practice: Chance Motives, 2014; Photo courtesy of the artist, by Zach Gross.
AFH: How do you construct a narrative and balance the interrelated identities in Intangible Heritages, Belief's Demise?
SM: The piece is played out over three scenes in which the character, the sets, and the music shift stylistically. The character is actually the same person at three different times in her life: Tyler cast as the febrile young slave woman, the prisoner played by a pregnant actress, me playing the same character as old woman in the final scene. In terms of the libretto, I thought a lot about the psychology of this person at these successive ages, bringing a lot of personal experience to bear in the music. I was also thinking about the shadow play as it relates to technology, contemporary performance, and my own work, particularly the phenomenon of the dis-articulated subject as the vocalist and the protagonist. In the performance, I sat off to the side of the projection with a music stand, both on and offstage, as it were. The combination of playback and live performance of both sound and visual elements, and also the effects of scalar shifts, cutaways, and the editing process of the video opened up non-representational, a-narrative possibilities. The subjects of my work are often one part historical fiction and part autobiographical—mostly odd, abject characters, unsung and in need of excavation. A lot of these characters are anachronistic, defying gender binaries, usually orbiting around spiritual questions that don’t really have easy answers. Even if it’s not an overt narrative arc, the soundimage is meant to come together in a way that conveys human experience, maybe universally.
AFH: How does Pierre Henry's 1953 Le Voile D’Orphée relate to the movement and sound in Iterations (Concrete) I & II? What aspects of the original felt most relevant to you?
SM: Iterations (Concrete) I & II was commissioned by Dominique Lévy for an event connected to the opening of her gallery space uptown. Around the same time she also asked me to music direct and produce Yves Klein's Monotone Silence Symphony so I was thinking a lot about both mid-century European performance and also the history of experimental music as it relates to work being made now. The word "iterations" refers to the transcription of older thematic concepts into a contemporary context; "concrete" refers to the early electronic music movement Musique Concrète with which Henry is associated. Henry’s piece Le Voile d'Orphée, or Orpheus' Veil, evokes the myth of Orpheus as a metaphor for technology and music in my mind, and what we can assume were the then perilous mid-century conversations in art. Movement 1 is a vocal only sound-piece and song-cycle inspired by an Orphic totenpass, and about the creative process itself; it’s simultaneously sincere and somewhat cynical. Movement 2 is an improvisational sound installation, a contemporary update to Le Voile. The "veil" of illusion being lifted in this piece is around the question of real-time experience as opposed to playback/recording and its bearing on durational art. Henry’s piece is quite scary actually; there is the famous recording of his tearing material in it, which sounds like the caverns of hell opening up. I also used found objects like metal, bits of old broken machinery, and wood along with my vocalizations in Iterations. This “music” making was sampled into a sound system as we rotated in four different rooms at the Academy Mansion. It was digitally processed and manipulated on the fly—both in texture and modulation of tone but also tempo by sound engineer, Matt Marinelli. It wasn’t intended to be a kind of throwback, scripted Ballet Mécanique sort of thing, nor purely chance operations or anything like that either. It’s actually a piece about the potential for dislocation in digital media in general.
AFH: How did Porochista Khakpour's The Last Illusion lend itself to a musical adaptation?
SM: I’ve been doing some performance around the work of contemporary writers and poets—in the manner of the Art Song in classical music—in my case, abstractly rendering text in terms of sound and staging. And as these things go, The Last Illusion didn’t actually lend itself to adaptation for a one-act opera easily for me, no. The tension of "whose story is it?" seems to interest Porochista as a writer, and she typically paints rather deliberate portraits with almost journalistic detail from the third person, and she isn’t particularly sentimental. I worked with the short texts in which Zal, the main character, expressed his interior world. The performance included a backing track of an almost unrecognizably distorted soundscape that I created from a recording of Fatemeh Va'ezi (Parisa) and an ensemble recorded live in 1979 in Japan that my mother gave me as a teenager. The one-act for Last Illusion wasn't meant to be orientalist or touristic. I did it rather unselfconsciously as we’d had a dialogue about historical Persian literature for some time. My piece was very eerie sounding, and rather punk because I processed the recording through amps—faintly reminiscent of Halim El-Dabh's "Wire Recorder Piece" which I'd been listening to repeatedly for some reason. My singing itself was also kind of epic as I'd been studying YouTube clips on the technique of traditional Persian singing, which is quite rigorous and demanding.
Sahra Motalebi, Ibex [diagrams for an empty stage], 2012, Installation view, Know More Games, 2012; Photo courtesy of the artist
AFH: Was the medieval Persian epic "The Shahnameh" that inspired Khakpour’s novel relevant to your artistic upbringing? How were you introduced to this story?
SM: "The Shahnameh" hasn't been particularly relevant to me, no. Supposedly all Iranians know it by heart but I didn’t grow up with my Iranian family. I know it from the old miniature paintings. That said, classical Persian music, especially the votive singing of poetry like Ferdowsi’s and also Hafez etc., has always interested me. Specifically, tahrir singing—within its complex modal and improvisational tradition—was huge for me as a young student, maybe more so than the bombastic style of someone like Maria Callas. The pathos and athleticism of Parisa’s voice, for instance, in the track used in the one-act, is kind of breathtaking—particularly if one considers that shortly after it was recorded, it was basically illegal for women to sing in Iran.
AFH: Your jagged geometric forms reappear in various incarnations throughout your oeuvre. Are these sculptural forms a signature for you? They seem to signify a domesticated form of danger. Am I right?
SM: Many of the geometric motifs in my work are scenic elements that I've been working with, drawing, and iterating for many years. They’re in some of my earliest drawings and paintings and became the basis for my architectural/sculptural stage sets. They read as jagged or dangerous I suppose, but I think of them more as graphic drawings, channeling some '90s architecture, also Expressionist theater and film sets, and Japanese furniture. As stage sets these "drawings" can be placed in a landscape or on stage as part of the mise-en-scène, usually made of semi-ephemeral material like paper and foam core that can be moved around in the performance. But the language of the sculptures isn’t specifically 3D. With Ibex [diagrams for an empty stage], the stage sets involved multiple layers of video projection and playback alongside a sculpture installation in an adjacent gallery. In Spoken Glass, the stage set was immobile, made of paintings (and also sculpture) that were meant to convey a 2D mirroring effect. I guess not all artists are necessarily always aware that they have a hyper specific visual language, but I’ll take that.
ArtSlant would like to thank Sahra Motalebi for her assistance in making this interview possible.