N.B. Originally published in the Absinthe §2 Catalogue, published by Side Quest, produced to accompany the Absinthe §2 exhibition, curated by Billy Fraser, Charlie Mills and James Capper, 18.05.19 – 17.08.19, Spit and Sawdust Pub.
Hector Campbell : As an interdisciplinary artist you work across a wide range of artistic mediums, including performance, sculpture, audio and video artworks. How do you approach the matching of concept and medium?
Lilian Nejatpour : I work quite thematically with research, so the initial stages are often written as essays and visualized further through sketches. I don’t always know how or what they will be used for, but usually it’s quite a long process. I need time to sit with different mediums to see how they fit conceptually within the research.
I also associate different mediums to different times of the day, like composing usually happens in the evening when I’m less focused. I usually read and research in the morning when I’m more alert. Running also helps me imagine objects and sculptures in various spaces when my mind is completely dissociated; it really helps me filter out a lot of visual noise.
The process of matching up concept and medium really depends on the environment I want to create for the viewer. I think my work is heavily reliant on an audience so the space it is exhibited/performed in also dictates the final outcome to an extent.
HC : Iterations of your 2018 performance piece, Choreophobia, have been staged at Turner Contemporary, Chisenhale Studios, Somerset House and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, could you explain the conceptual idea underpinning this work?
LN : ‘Choreophobia’ is the name of a book by dancer, choreographer and researcher Anthony Shay, in which he examined the intervening occurrence of colonialism and Western thought on Middle Eastern dance practices, and the term has come to define the conflict and phobia of male dance in the Middle East.
After World War II, the Pahlavi government sought to convert traditional, male dance to “new, sterile dance forms” in order to comply with Western audiences. The project explores how this propaganda was used to manipulate gender normativity through dance in the Middle East until dance became criminalized in 1979.
The work began as a heavily researched essay, which moved into performance in collaboration with dancers Eva Escrich González and Lauren Stewart. I began deconstructing Shay’s concept by placing my own geographical displacement into choreography, sampling movements from gestures associated with the now-banned Iranian solo improvised dance.
At the time I was also reading Homi Bhabha’s notion of the “third space”, exploring what it means to exist between two nationalities, a liminal space. The aim of the work was to hybridize my own identity through bodies that resisted one another and sonically represented parts of my upbringing in the North of England and the Middle East. This was highlighted through an assemblage of niche, 4×4 bassline tracks from Bradford and reversed Iranian pop songs.
Choreophobia is still a project that I’m developing; I think it requires a long time to deconstruct different interpretations of thinking from both a Western and Eastern mindset. I often find it a strange place when I discuss the East as a British Iranian. Specificity is key and I’m continually refining this further through my research practice.
HC : You’ve previously stated that your work “questions technological invasiveness and sentimentality”, this cannot be more evident than in your collaboration with artist Simon Weckert, Dumbphne (2017), created for the TADAEX & NODE exchange programme. Could you tell us a bit more about that work?
LN : TADAEX is a digital arts festival that runs in Tehran every year. I was selected to take part on behalf of Iran in collaboration with German artist Simon Weckert. We both came from different disciplines, Simon is a programmer and coder, and I was working with animation and sculpture at the time. Our ideologies towards technology and subjectivity were conceptually very similar, especially in terms of how we interpreted digital invasiveness and structures of control through the emergence of smartphones.
The installation and film, The Dumbphne, came from our interest in the production of labour in contemporary app culture. Particularly how this labour is constantly active and left unacknowledged. We thought about producing a ‘real-life’ smartphone in the form of a large, sculptural phone box that incorporated objects simulated as ‘apps’. It was quite clunky and heavy, the antithesis of a slick android (hence the title).
We then invited a performer to go around the city and interact with different applications alongside members of the public. We filmed their reactions and produced a film that documented the laborious task of using each application in real-time. It was an interesting conversation starter to ask members of the public how they were using their smartphones, and whether it functioned more like an office space rather than a device.
HC : Collaboration plays an important part in your artistic output, and you regularly work with dancers, composers and filmmakers. How do you approach artistic collaboration? Is it hard to rely on others to enact your artistic vision?
LN : I’ve been quite lucky with my collaborators. I’ve worked with dancers Lauren and Eva for over a year now and we’ve become really close friends. It’s always exciting to see how they translate my research into a movement sequence as well as interpret video research into choreography. Dancers work spatially, with clear intentions after each gesture – that was a new challenge for me, trying to break down movement into a narrative and understand how one movement transitions into another and why. I slowly became aware of a system of notation and the language of scoring movement with meaning.
I recently commissioned artist and filmmaker Rebecca Salvadori to create a short piece in response to the research surrounding Choreophobia. The film, Lilian’s Vow, is a portrait of Choreophobia and our collaborative dialogue together. It’s been an incredible process to have another artist involved, producing her own response to the work through film and text. I also produced the soundtrack of for Rebecca’s film, so there have been many outputs triggered by different artists involved in the project.
Ultimately, I need to have chemistry with whoever I work with and energy is really important for me. My approach is usually quite open in terms of collaboration, I don’t always know if it’s going to work but I think it’s about being patient and throwing yourself in with another artist. I guess it’s about how you both evolve with one another during the making process.
HC : Finally, could you give us an insight into how you are approaching the ABSINTHE project, and what you are working on for the exhibition?
LN : During my first meeting with curators Charlie and Billy we discussed the history of the pub, founded in 1856 and previously known as the Beehive, infamous for its illicit activities, including dog breeding, drug trading and prostitution. At the same time, I was thinking about the Château de Lacoste in France (ex residence of Marquis de Sade) and how these histories become imbued into the furniture of these illegitimate environments, reflecting a criminal and sexual aberrance.
This concept is notable within French literature of the 17th century. The Sofa by Claude Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon features the narrator anthropomorphised as a sofa to become a central voyeur watching over the various activities happening over the course of the novel. I thought about the context of the Spit and Sawdust pub and a piece that could act as voyeuristic furniture like The Sofa.
I responded to the history of the pub with Hoist, a sculpture inspired by self-help poles; a device used for lowering a body in and out of bed. Instead of lifting a user, the load is a half-filled Evian bottle with two necks made from plaster, withdrawn by a fishhook, hung by a galvanized chain. The sculpture becomes part of a new furniture, anthropomorphized as a medical aid – a material analogue for the erotic, cruel and failed body, which is seismic of sexual colonization; a failed attempt to lift up a bottle with a limb-galvanised chain.
Hoist is a gaze and onlooker for new histories to come.