Interview: Shahzia Sikander
by Kate Green
Artist Shahzia Sikander, best known for her contemporary take on the Indo-Persian tradition of miniature painting, was born in Pakistan and is based in New York City but has several Texas connections. Shortly after completing her MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1995, she was a Core Fellow at the Glassell School of Art at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and in 2001 she was a resident artist at Artpace San Antonio. Currently, her animated video The Last Post is on view, along with several drawings, at the Linda Pace Foundation. Recently, via email, she fielded my questions about her process, work, and a performance that was presented in conjunction with The Last Post during its opening in San Antonio.
Kate Green [KG]: What kind of satisfaction do you get from working with animation versus works on paper?
Shahzia Sikander [SS]: Animations are to a great degree dependent on the drawings, especially successful drawings, since all nuances and marks are magnified in HD format. Ideas housed on paper are put into motion to create disruption. They suspend the idea of narrative inherent in the illustrative nature of miniature painting and present it as a multi faceted interpretation, open to contamination. Sound too aides navigation, creating an immersive environment. Both forms are important to my practice. I develop and test ideas by moving between the two formats.
[KG]: How does layering play into your work within each format?
[SS]: Layering is a concept running throughout my practice. It can be seen in literal and metaphorical ways in all of my work.
In terms of drawing, there are the small detailed ones done on a single sheet of paper. They are constructed through the build up of ink and gouache with lots of burnishing between the layers. The dense surface thus gains tension by trapping and reflecting light. Then there are the large wall/room installations created with vertical scroll-like drawings hung in multiple layers. The paper used here is thin and layered at times in extreme depth so as to allow a viewer to literally walk into the piece. The papers are hung from the ceiling and move about emphasizing the physicality of the material. One can hear the paper create its presence. This type of work is also theatrical and ephemeral in nature. Site-specific and temporary direction in my work came about from a desire to break out of the preciousness of the small detailed works while embracing the conflict of scale and labor.
[KG]: Can you say more about what you mean by “conflict of scale and labor?”
[SS]: Detailed miniature drawings can swallow large amounts of time, months at end. The process is very structured. The work is built in layers till it is completed. On the other hand, large-scaled works painted directly on the wall may take a few weeks or less. Early in my practice I became interested in shifting scale to test impact. Certain images became much more charged and confrontational moving from 10 inches to 30 feet. Also, tensions were built by juxtaposing precision and exactitude with gestural mark-making and uncertainty.
Scale and labor are intrinsically interwoven in my practice. Animations can take a long time to create but they can exist simultaneously in multiple locations and in varying dimensions via technology.
Compression of scale is not about compression of time either. Small-scale can become much more elaborate as it requires a certain condensing of ideas. The suggestion of space may be small in size but heroic in depth and dimension. The pursuit of detail—not the decorative kind but of the nano—is an engagement with time. Digging deep to find the minutest of detail tends to make one see things differently. Intensive labor is also one of the facets of time. Shifting between scales is also an exercise in determining a site, location, the in-between space or maybe a gap between two positions.
[KG]: Back to layering, how does function in an animation such as The Last Post?
[SS]: The first few animations came about by layering separate drawings and images in photoshop and then re-arranging them in varying sequences as well as varying opacities. The process was intuitive and to a certain degree, the multi-layered large-scale drawing installations naturally led to the direction of making animations. In the making of The Last Post, there was a specific direction, sequence, and structuring, though the layers continue to be assembled via photoshop and special effects.
[KG]: What about text? How does the content of texts or its form—traditions of calligraphic writing—play into your work?
[SS]: Text can loosely be put in two categories, one that informs me (literature, contemporary writing, journals, newspapers etc) and one that takes shape in the work. Text in my work is a tool to explore ideas about translation.
How is translation related to the original? Is original just a concept? What is the distance between the original and its translation and at what point does the translation become an original? I find myself interested in pondering such ideas, especially in light of certain texts that shift between east and west or say between Arabic and Hebrew translations in transmitting stories. To some extent I am engaging the formal aspects of writing too, as I am interested in its extension into design.
Then there is also the segregation of text from image, especially in the Indo-Persian miniature painting tradition. The paintings were often torn out of their original book context—and inter-play of image and text. This created a disjuncture and a visual unfamiliarity with the Arabic /Persian script accompanying the paintings. Whether removed voluntarily or by force, the dislocation was set in motion. Often the use of writing for me draws upon all such implications as I think about translation’s relationship to a tradition, and tradition with all its inherent redactions.
[KG]: Do you story-board a major work like The Last Post or does it develop more intuitively from formal experimentation?
[SS]: It happens simultaneously. Drawing is quite a fundamental activity for me and its nature does dictate a certain intuitive approach. I will have an idea that initiates the work. Usually I will do some simple diagrammatic drawings focusing on aspects that seem clear from the start. Once I gain momentum, I will go back and forth, elaborating and editing. At this stage I will also engage the composer about the music.
I often make changes till the very end. I don't think I can work in a linear manner. I tend to dwell on multiple aspects, all at once, sometimes not the best strategy to employ.
[KG]: Does the key figure in The Last Post—you have referred to him as the ‘Company Man’—have a back-story for you? Is he both a character and a vehicle for abstraction?
[SS]: The ‘Company Man’ is a play on the word ‘Company,’ as in the East India Company. In part, it comes out of my interest in the colonial history of the sub-continent. The Last Post uses, as a point of departure, the oscillating trade relations between East India Company and China over opium. The protagonist is an East India Company man who appears in various guises throughout the piece, often as a lurking threat in the imperial rooms of the Mughal Empire, which once ruled much of South Asia. As he disintegrates, he also becomes a metaphor for the collapse of the Anglo-Saxon hegemony over China.
In developing this piece, I was also looking for a visual space in which to create a series of drawings which would link my interest in miniature painting and the school of painting I refer to as the Company School: a style of painting whose visual language developed in eighteenth-century India as Europeans sought documentation of the country’s exotic plants, animals, and architecture.
I am always seeking elements with ‘possibilities’—whether they exist as symbols and motifs in my surroundings or from historical sources—with the intent to alter or cultivate new associations. In this instance, the ‘company man’ also functions as a vehicle for abstraction jostling for domination with other stylized forms.
[KG]: Can you talk about your collaboration with composer and performer Du Yun?
[SS]: The nature of our collaboration is quite fluid. In response to my drawings, she composed the music for The Last Post in her own sensibility and style. Du Yun is very gestural as a composer and there is an overlap 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 or a stage.
The collaboration really started when I invited her to participate with me for Hou Hanru’s inaugural exhibition By Day, By Night, or Some (Special) Things a Museum Can Do, at the Rockbund Museum in Shanghai in 2010. Apart from requesting her to compose music for my animation work, we started throwing ideas about doing a multi-media project for Shanghai as well. Du Yun is from Shanghai and I had never been there so I was very interested in the idea of Shanghai as a site of imagination or fantasy. Du Yun was quite comfortable in front of the camera playing out different personas and we ended up filming her in two distinct personalities. The resulting work, Gossamer, was shown in Shanghai alongside The Last Post.
As I reflect on it now, Gossamer has an interesting parallel to a painting I did decades ago (The Scroll , 1990-92) where I depicted myself as a diaphanous form that moves freely between a tightly represented interior space which could be a frozen moment in time. In the video Gossamer, Du Yun travels freely between two positions or locations, the contemporary and historical, New York and Shanghai, the US and China, the personal and the psychological space.
[KG]: Can you talk about the Du Yun performance that accompanied the opening of The Last Post at the Linda Pace Foundation. Does it further your animation?
[SS]: Having Du Yun perform live to The Last Post came about after making Gossamer, which includes Du Yun performing but silent. For The Last Post performance, I invited Du Yun to create sound in response to my visual language. I did not dictate what I wanted and her improvisation is very much at the core of the collaboration. The performance is theatrical and the process of live synthesizing lends raw energy to the experience. In other performances, other musicians have been invited to participate also. The score remains fixed but is delivered in varying ways, often highlighting the more dramatic points in The Last Post.
[KG]: How have audiences responded to these live performances with The Last Post?
[SS]: The reception to the work has varied dramatically. Some people love the unexpected nature of seeing the composer take on the stage with her very strong presence. Others have told me that the live performance was a distraction from the visual beauty of the animation. I am open to all types of feedback. I like the tension created in the live performances. I have often aimed to create a subversive attitude towards beauty, one which is open to contamination. While for me The Last Post exists primarily as a work in itself intact with the music composed for it, placing it alongside the live performance can lend it a certain vulnerability. This is intentional.
Kate Green is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in art history from the University of Texas at Austin, with a dissertation focusing on Vito Acconci’s performative work from the early 1970s. She has written art criticism for publications such as Artforum.com, ArtPapers and Modern Painters.