Artist Soheila Sokhanvari’s intricate miniatures of 27 feminist icons from pre-revolutionary (1979) Iran are painted in egg tempera onto calf vellum with a squirrel-hair brush, set against a hand-painted mural and to the soft sound of singers Googoosh & co. to form a hugely immersive site-specific installation at the Barbican’s Curve Gallery.
The Curve cocoons us in the world of these strong women of history: writers and poets, singers and actors.
Five custom-made electric guitars are mounted on the makeshift wall at at Frieze London. These intricate objects form part of a larger artwork called ’63/22′ by LA-based multidisciplinary artist Nikita Gale. Each guitar is named after significant Black female guitarists of history: Memphis Minnie, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Barbara Lynn, Big Mama Thornton and Joan Armatrading. Every few minutes a spotlights directs our gaze from one guitar to the next. Later in the day, three musicians will activate the guitars through live ten-to-fifteen-minute performances.
This is what happens when seemingly disparate industries overlap – when ideas collide. ’63/22′ is an artwork loaded with meaning. It takes on the current discourse surrounding the politics of sight and sound, what we are guided to see, and what we are told to hear, and of invisible voices. Through the medium of design and sound, Gale is asking us to review our biases, question what has come before, and make change happen.
’63/22′ is directed by Gale in collaboration with a team of car designers and the luthier Ian Malone for BMW Open Work by Frieze. The initiative itself aims to bring together art, design and technology, and to show this in a setting outside of the auto world.
The 63 in the title refers to the year 1963, when Gibson Guitar commissioned a car designer by the name of Ray Dietrich, who had pioneered the concept of the custom-built car designer in the age of classic cars. The idea was to bring in a creative voice from outside the traditional music world who would investigate the possibilities of the electric guitar in shape and feel.
Conventions were broken with Dietrich’s asymmetrically shaped Firebird sporting a taller horn positioned on the right rather than the customary left. The wooden neck had nine strips of alternating mahogany and maple, layered for strength and stability, spanning the full length of the instrument. It featured some wonderful quirky details too, with the wings thought to resemble the car’s tail fins. Naturally, the Firebird sounded different to other electric guitar of the time.
I meet Nikita Gale at Frieze London to untangle the complex artwork, ’63/22′.
Why an interest in the politics of sound?
My mum was a music teacher, and music was always happening in our house. Alongside teaching me the piano, she would speak about historically significant musicians. Growing up on an air force base in Alaska, she was often a visiting music teacher to our school, giving lessons on Black music history and so on. For me, it wasn’t only about enjoying the music but thinking about the histories that preceded it.
Your project at Frieze continues the investigation into the politics of sound but through the lens of the car. How did this connection happen?
At grad school, I began thinking about cars not just as technologies but as objects that we project cultural and political information into, in that the modes and the means of production of these technologies are not neutral. Decisions are being made that are informed by political positions: are the cars powered by fossil fuel versus electric, or the designs and shapes they take? What cars look like is largely determined by the understanding and biases of the people designing them.
Most of whom would be of a certain gender. How did you then circle this back to music?
While investigating cars, I began encountering interesting information about music, particularly American blues and rock. Early blues and rock songs were largely about cars, such as Ike Turner’s 1951 ‘Rocket 88’ – considered the first rock and roll record. Cars are metaphors for personal freedom, sexuality, and gender expression. The overlaps kept happening during my research, which is when I came upon Ray Dietrich and his work with Gibson in 1963. It is the first time these two industries overlapped on such a large, mass-produced scale.
It must have seemed quite a surprise then to be approached by BMW for the Frieze project. Speaking with the curator Attilia Fattori Franchini earlier, she was unaware you were already thinking along these streams of ideas.
Crazy, right? I had this idea in my back pocket for seven years, so when BMW reached out to collaborate at Frieze, I already knew what I wanted to do. It was an incredible coincidence, and I knew we had to do this. Added to this, I’m a real car fan.
And how do you feel about the project that is displayed before us?
It never ceases to amaze seeing an object born out of a concept that exists in space. This project has truly taken this to a new level. These guitars are not just aesthetic art objects but functional technology; they are all playable guitars that Ian Malone helped make possible.
The guitar you’ve designed have clearly questioned the conventional shape of the instrument, its masculinity.
Yes, absolutely. During the design process, I discussed the profile of the types of users of these technologies with the BMW designers. We looked at who would be playing the guitars and how we should be designing with other bodies in mind other than the typical type who were determining the shape of things in the 60s, which would have been primarily white men. The musician St. Vincent recently designed a signature guitar that has a much narrower body to accommodate people with breasts. I asked our designers to consider ergonomics with all body shapes in mind.
Can you explain the performative side when these aesthetic objects neatly lining the wall are played?
We’ve invited three diverse musicians to perform at 3 pm each day, giving them carte blanche to do what they want and choose the guitar they like. It’s been fascinating to see which ones they go for. Luckily no two have gone for the same guitar.
’63/22′ interrogates the politics of sight and sound, what we are directed to see and allowed to hear, and how this manifests itself in invisible voices. What were you hoping to achieve with the project?
I strongly believe in the importance of modelling possibilities. So, when I think about this moment in 1963, where these industries overlap, I look at this as a demonstration of what is possible when conversations are allowed to overlap in a very direct way. I’m looking at the moment when ideas collide.
Given that general guitar design hasn’t changed so much in the last 60 years, by recreating and almost staging the scene in this context, we can shine a light on the possibilities of change.
The shapes and forms of technologies were largely determined by the biases of people designing them. As political and cultural landscapes change, those biases also shift. Where are we now? Why are we sticking to what came before? We can still change things. Nothing is set in stone. In the essay Technology and Ethos, Amiri Baraka, writing as LeRoi Jones at the time, has a great line: Nothing has to look or sound the way that it does.
The 19th edition of Frieze London takes place from October 12-16, 2022.
Voices is a new publication dedicated to the world of wine, and I’ve been involved in helping form its editorial direction on behalf of Spinach Branding. Our client is Maze Row, a new brand in the fine wine scene. They represent a select group of artisan producers who craft wines that are made with passion, respect the environment and speak of a time and place.
As a print publication and digital platform, Voices fosters their work and shares their stories. We see it as a place, a space, for storytelling that involves the wider world of wine, one that includes arts and ideas, culture, design, travel.
And it’s been an extremely exciting adventure, rewarding in both subject matter and the people – winemakers, chefs, creatives, writers, photographers, artists, adventurers – encountered along this colourful journey.
What I’ve come to realise is that wine is a symbol of so much more than just a drink. Away from the supermarket sold soul-less produce, fine wine is a celebration of life, of this beautiful planet. It is a distillation of what it means to be human.
And at the core of our concept is to actively encourage diverse storytelling, multiple viewpoints. After all, inviting different voices is to be not only inclusive but also expansive and enriching. Maybe even change the direction of our gaze.
The Maze Row guiding philosophy is: In wine, we find life. It’s a lovely term coined in collaboration with Spinach Branding which defines everything we do with Voices. Ultimately, we’re looking at the world through the lens of wine.
A canvas of sprouting greens reveals a fading figurative image of family. The watercress has taken only a few days to grow thanks to the nitrate-rich Spanish water used to cultivate the seeds. As the green grows, the negative projected onto the cress panels fades. Eventually, the living artwork returns to earth. This is Family Album, the last chapter in The Pigment Change creation by the London based Spanish artist Almudena Romero for the BMW Residency at Paris Photo. Her autobiographical and at times impermanent organic photographs ask the viewer to question production, consumption and ownership. Hers is a meditation on the ephemerality of life and our relationship with nature. I met with the artist to understand more:
You talk of finding ways of renewing the medium of photography. Can you explain?
Photography has been a conservative medium. It has taken a long time for it to move out of print because it has largely been used as a tool for representation and documentation. For me photography is a process rather than being about the result. If we start to understand photography as writing with light, then it becomes a very simple rudimentary concept that makes sense. This way it can be liberated, become more performative, more conversational.
Your work is very organic, working directly with plants to create photographic images via photosynthesis, as well as being highly autobiographical. Can you explain your process?
I started my research on plant-based photography at my grandmother’s garden in Valencia. I work with her plants and her nitrate-rich water to create my work, then I use my hands to project images onto the leaves. Some of the images are sharp, some not. There is a lot of invisible feminine labor that goes into growing a family and growing a garden. The fact that my hand images are not all obvious I feel is a metaphor for the invisible labor that makes the trees and plants and nature grow.
Your grandmother sadly passed away before the original show in the summer at Rencontres d’Arles in France, yet her legacy continues through your work.
She passed away before I exhibited and I’ve been reflecting on our relationship and her impact on me ever since. When I was a teenager, my grandmother would tend to her plants and I would listen to the Spice Girls not realizing how much of her and her work stayed with me. My mother says this is the real heritage, my grandmother’s legacy and the passion and understanding I have of plants.
That is really beautiful. I’m intrigued by the layers of multiple meanings in your work. Is this intentional?
Much of my work is self-reflecting. As an artist, I want to know what’s the impact of one’s own practice, contributing to the dynamics of producing, accumulation — all of which is at the roots of the environmental issue. I want to contribute to a wider conversation as to why and where does photography exist, what’s our relationship to nature, to photographic productions such as photosynthesis. A better understanding of plants can help us be more respectful to nature.
Your final piece, the vertical watercress for the BMW Residency at Paris Photo, is made to disappear, which to me seems like a direct commentary on art ownership.
Forthe BMW Residency I wanted to move on my plant-based photography to be alive. I have a good scientific understanding of plants and began looking at all sorts of green elements until I decided on watercress. I got the idea from garden walls which always have cress as it can grow vertically and doesn’t need soil to make roots. I had to search hard to find the right type of seeds which will bring the color and tonality I’m after. Growing it vertically gives it one focal length so you get the sharpness in the picture, then as the plant grows the picture disappears in complete greenness.
I’m reminded of an ancient Persian ritual we perform for our new year, which falls on the first hour of spring. It involves cultivating seeds on a plate, watering them for 13 days, then releasing the fully grown green into a flowing river to symbolise letting the past go and welcoming new beginning. And I’m moved by the ephemerality of your artwork.
I really like that! My work is ephemeral but at the same time in ephemerality there is hope for the future. We are facing a serious environmental crisis based on too much production, accumulation and disposal. I used to teach at the Stanford University overseas study program in Florence and I would often think of what I wanted to pass on to my students, what knowledge and skills would make sense to them in the future. This plant-based photography is part of my vision as a teacher in that these materials are ephemeral in the short run, but in the long run they are the only thing we will be able to practice. Because ephemerality is the only thing that lasts.
Perhaps it is a question of redefining object ownership in that the memory of a piece of art, that moment of connection, can be the value rather than possessing it as an object. In fact, we have an ephemeral connection to most works of art anyway since we see them fleetingly in museums or galleries after which they remain only in memory.
That’s a really interesting concept: this idea that because the piece is ephemeral it disappears. But art disappears from everyone’s eyes unless you own it. As an artist I’m interested in contributing to the wider conversation, help change our understanding of the photographic medium, of our own lives and our relation to nature, rather than decorating someone’s house.
That’s quite a radical statement. I like it.
We have to review property and ownership. This is part of the problem. “Me and mine” are the dynamics of the ego. It extends to “my perspectives”. This is why I’m very keen on collaboration and on passing my knowledge and processes to my students, as I think it’s rewarding to pass on your knowledge and see it grow elsewhere and without the need to be the master of the original idea. I feel the art world needs to move more towards this direction.
Two art projects commissioned by the BMW Group for Frieze London 2021 set out to explore the human/machine relation in new and exciting ways. Madeline Hollander’s ‘Sunrise/Sunset’ is an installation of 96 disused headlights salvaged from the company’s recycling centre. Playing on the responsive nature of these automatic adaptive car headlights which react to movement, light and weather conditions, the artist has matched each to different global time zones to create a networked map that mimics the sun rising and setting across the globe. Hollander’s art examines how our erratic individual actions and everyday technologies can synchronically align, become a collective and, in the case of the installation for Frieze, turn into a cascading technological dance.
Meanwhile, dance choreographer Wayne McGregor and experimental studio Random International’s ‘No One is an Island’ is a live performance involving a multi-armed robot and two human dancers. Playing the lead role is the robotic sculpture — an enigmatic machine whose liquid movements are steered by advanced algorithms. As it transitions from robot to human likeness, the two dancers in turn interact with the kinetics, all of which is performed to the hypnotic soundscape of Tokyo electronic music artist Chihei Hatakeyama. The idea here is to visualise how a minimal amount of information can animate form so that it can be recognised as human, while the most subtle changes in information can have an equally fundamental impact on our behaviour.