Sahra Motalebi: This Phenomenal Overlay
On ViewBrief Histories
January 28 – March 12, 2022
Sahra Motalebi has long been preoccupied with interrogating and disrupting the notion of performance, constantly pushing up against its boundaries, exploding its unrecognized potentialities. As a classically trained singer, she has employed the “open-form opera” in works that develop and evolve over years, manifesting in different iterations, eventually enacting their own undoing. This Phenomenal Overlay, the product of the last two years of pandemic-induced isolation, marks a shift from personal narrative and performance: the artist no longer appears in person, this absence itself a further disruption of audience expectations. Instead, she focuses on the power of the individual voice—now disembodied, emanating from without—as lived experience rather than representation. Despite its apparent sparseness, This Phenomenal Overlay is a sonorous exhibition which, layered with sensory texture, is expansive in its epistemological explorations, a meditation on materiality, material culture, the intersection between poetics and technology.
In a series of voice sculptures or “speculative instruments,” Motalebi questions the assumed neutrality of technology, beginning with an excavation of the somewhat defunct term motherboard. “A haunting linguistic artifact, a modern word with no origins,” the artist recites from a self-authored intertextual script that slowly untangles the “imbrication of technology in life;” the biological and gendered implications of the “dead metaphor” rehearsed in a flat, detached tone, her voice emerging from a speaker nestled within the artworks. The text is associational, the fragments and phrases drawn from unidentified sources that reveal a logic of the metaphorical language of technology.
Entering the gallery space, we are immediately drawn to Resonator # 1 (404) (2022) as a compelling springboard into Motalebi’s scenographic soundscape. A copper wire sprouts out of a trunk-like base while a red satin pouch hangs from another rusting coiled branch, a luscious and shiny forbidden fruit. Dramatically lit, the sculpture feels both organic and industrial, a contrast that is mesmerizing. Motalebi’s instruments are otherworldly and ancient, evoking past and future simultaneously. It is as though they have been extracted from the bowels of the earth, gesturing to the naturalization of technology and suggesting that these tools have already become anatomical, indistinguishable from the natural world. While the last couple of years have undoubtedly accelerated technology’s penetration into every aspect of daily life, the timelessness of Motalebi’s instruments is a reminder that this process has been decades in the making and is perhaps already submerged in the depths of our reality.
The coil is a key feature of Motalebi’s imagined acoustic contraptions. Resonator # 3 (Speculative Instrument) (2021-22) is perched high up in the farthest corner of the gallery, gray intestinal tubes rendered in thick latex house paint spiral and twist into an inanimate lifeform. Below, crimson paint pours down a canvas elevated on foam blocks. Resonator # 2 (Speculative Instrument) (2022) gives a fleshy intimacy to the coiled hardware through a study of the depths, the guts, of the system. Motalebi’s aesthetic lexicon revolves around the interaction and relationship between co-existing materials. The use of fabric—satin and linen—throughout This Phenomenal Overlay, draped over and around the work, framing it, adds a sensuous quality to the pieces. Reminiscent of a stage curtain, and alongside the numerous studio lights, it is a nod to the theatricality of Motalebi’s project, while introducing a human element that is in dialogue with the extraterrestrial actors.
In Another Diagram for Another Empty Stage (Diorama) (2022), an abandoned wooden maquette sits on a stand swathed in white linen, the rigidity of the simplistic structure undermined by the haphazard draping of the fabric. The title signals the ongoing and repeated idleness of these structures. Our panoramic view renders the fourth wall obsolete and only the sonic survives; unlike conventional dioramas, what is on display is absence. The set for Material Conditions for a Stage (Diorama) (2022) is similarly an exhibition of emptiness. The cardboard set, perhaps constructed from food containers, is flooded in purple light and framed by thick linen curtains that cast a heavy shadow. Only recordings of the artist singing her own librettos animate these haunting scenes.
Motalebi stages her instruments throughout the gallery space, guiding us through the non-linear narrative that unfolds against the imposed cohesion of performance. Multiple competing tracks constitute the twenty-minute soundscape of This Phenomenal Overlay. The dissonance they create necessitates a kind of intimacy, as the viewer leans into the works, straining to catch parts of the recording and once again fracturing the aura of the artwork. In drawing us into the pieces, she urges us to consider the relationship between our subjectivity and our physical participation as audience members. Over the course of the exhibition, Motalebi will add new voice sculptures to the show, further upending the notion of the performance as circumscribed or sealed, and instead insisting on the foregrounding of process as constant.