With her painted collage Sprewell (2020), Tschabalala Self departed from her more familiar depictions of exaggerated female figures that seem to duplicate by splitting apart. In the apartment scene, a couple embrace with fragmented bodies, suggesting that we still withhold some pieces of ourselves, even in the happiest relationships. Now the artist’s newest work, a performance titled Sounding Board, brings that motif to life.
In it, a female and male actor—both of whom remain nameless throughout—deliver dialogue written by Self that ranges from literal to the oblique. The couple’s negotiations lay bare their respective desires and the gender roles and power plays underpinning this union.
Sounding Board will have a three-day run this weekend as part of Performa, the recurring New York festival known for inviting visual artists to step outside the studios and onto the stage. (Like many of the commissioned participants, Self comes to the task without training as a performance artist.) Her 3-act, 45-minute piece will unfold at the bandshell of Jackie Robinson Park in Central Harlem, where Self often spent time as a child. The actors will interact with new sculptures and furniture while wearing costumes, all elements designed by the artist. A Boney M. cover band will function as a Greek chorus of sorts, punctuating the drama with disco hits by the Afro-German troupe. Watching Sounding Board, audiences may feel that they’ve walked into one of Self’s mixed-media creations, whose whimsy and pop culture sensibility only partly conceal the heavy realities of contemporary Black American life.
In the interview below, the artist breaks down the ideas behind Sounding Board.
ARTnews: What was it like creating your first live performance?
Tschabalala Self: I’ve been approaching this whole process experimentally. Toward the end of the first rehearsal, I got a better sense of what direction I wanted to go with the production, and when we met again for the second set of rehearsals, we worked on exaggerating the differences between each act. The whole effort has been super collaborative and exploratory, which is different from my normal artistic process. Making a fine art show is a solitary experience between me and the object I’m creating, whereas with this I’m spending time with the people who are the inspiration for the work. The actors are in many ways the muses, so establishing a dialogue with them has been a completely new and really enjoyable experience.
That interaction must be nice, following the long lockdown during pandemic.
I have a newfound appreciation for collaboration post-lockdown, and a new appreciation for experimenting within my art practice, not working within narrow constraints. Last year, there were so many restrictions. Everyone is taking the opportunity now to liberate themselves, to feel free and connected. This project has been an opportunity to do that, and to try something that is entirely out of the ordinary for me. I’m working in a public space, with a large audience in mind, as opposed to a more traditional exhibition that’s confined to a specific place—which often carries its own constrictions—whether it be a gallery or institution. I’ve learned to appreciate the ephemeral nature of performance. The fact that this piece happens in one moment makes it special. Maybe it will be more likely to survive in someone’s mind as a memory, as opposed to when you see an art show. There, you may interact with an art object through taking a photo of it, but with a performance, how you remember or interpret it becomes part of the making of it. It’s an entirely new layer of collaboration.
Does it feel like this format allows for more control over the narrative? In a show of paintings, for example, you can’t tell someone what to look at first, or for how long.
In my painting practice I deal with figuration and narrative, so sometimes there’s a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the narrative. This play is an opportunity to have some control of how the audience experiences my artwork. As you mentioned, when you’re showing a painting, you don’t have the same level of control. That’s not to say an artist should have–or even aspire to–total control over all aspects of what they’re creating.
Would you call this a more intimate experience?
Yes and no. In a way, you’re having an intimate experience, but within a public space.
What was the process like for creating this piece?
When I was first asked to participate in Performa, I was hesitant because I wasn’t sure what my contribution would be, given that I’m not a performance artist. I wanted to [do the commission], but I wasn’t sure how I would fit into the conversation. But they gave me a lot of encouragement to make something compelling for a live audience. We talked about the performative gestures in my studio art practice. I’m heavily invested in narrative, and interested in the idea of an interpersonal dynamic, so I thought: Let me try to write a dialogue. And that dialogue became the foundation of the entire piece—this conversation between two lovers, who I imagine are creative types. It centers around a conflict that exists because of this stage, which can be a metaphor for a number of things. There’s Person A, who likes being on the stage, who feels happy to remain there, whereas Person B wants to leave.
I don’t think of this as being a traditional play. It’s more of an experimental play or piece of performance art that isn’t linear. There are circular elements in terms of the logic and dialogue and presentation, which were influenced by the visual motifs I incorporated: shadows that obscure the stage as the repetition of speech obscures the meaning. I paid a lot of attention to the costuming too, down to their shoes and jacket. All the props I made are based on drawings, which includes sculptures and furniture. And all the motifs have been lifted from my paintings, and some of the furniture pieces are discrete works on their own. Every element came together bit by bit. Everything was layered and accumulated.
Tschabalala Self, Sounding Board, 2021. A Performa Commission for the Performa 2021 Biennial. Actors rehearsing in UGG X Tschabalala Self collaboration boots. From left to right: Hunter Byrant, Alexis Cofield, CJ Hart and Nectar Knuckles at the Joffrey Ballet School in LIC.
Photo by Sergio Gutierrez. Courtesy of Ojeras
What do you think of Person A and B? Should the audience think of them as paintings come to life?
Sometimes I do think of them as live versions of characters I developed in my paintings, but they’re also three dimensional. I think people familiar with my painting practice will be able to glimpse the interiority I imagined for these two. Though I’m not sure they will be truly actualized until the performance happens.
Each actor made the dialogue their own. And seeing the variety of interpretations kind of proves that, even within certain constraints, there can be an infinite number of rearrangements. Part of this was creating a group of objects, ideas, forms, and props, and seeing what the actors could do with them or how many different angles the they could find to approach the text.
Has the process of creating Sounding Board illuminated anything new for you about your practice?
This experience has opened up a lot of ideas and possibilities for my practice at large that I may not have considered before. It’s shown me that whatever you’ve attached to your identity as an artist isn’t truly your full skill set. There’s a logic or philosophy that I apply to my studio practice, and I can apply those ideas to any artwork, whether it’s a painting, a three-dimensional object, or a performance.
Something being finished doesn’t mean it’s fully resolved; it means that I realize there’s nothing left for me to contribute. Maybe whatever else needs to happen with the work will happen through an interaction with the audience. I’ve been loose with the interpretation. I think that flexibility in tension with the natural constraints of the stage has created this exciting dynamic.
Post-Conquest Aztec Altar Found in Mexico on 500th Anniversary of Spain’s Invasion
When Hernan Cortes invaded Mexico in 1521, it heralded the end of an era for the Aztec people. But that empire was not finished all at once, and according to the BBC, a new archaeological find shows that some Aztecs managed to continue living after the Spanish arrived. Earlier this week, Mexican officials announced that…
When Hernan Cortes invaded Mexico in 1521, it heralded the end of an era for the Aztec people. But that empire was not finished all at once, and according to the BBC, a new archaeological find shows that some Aztecs managed to continue living after the Spanish arrived.
Earlier this week, Mexican officials announced that they found an altar formed by a family that survived the initial Spanish invasion. The altar was discovered quite deep underground. Archaeologist Mara Becerra told the BBC that she believes the altar was purposefully buried to hide it from the Spanish. Becerra also believes that the family who made this altar were Mexica, the Indigenous people who ruled the Aztec empire.
Archaeologists spent three months studying an old Indigenous house, particularly the courtyard where the ritual offerings were made. There, the archaeologists found 13 incense burners, five bowls, a cup, a plate and a pot with cremated skeletal remains.
A statement by Mexico’s culture ministry said that the altar was made “to bear witness to the ending of a cycle of their lives and of their civilization.” The announcement of these findings comes on the 500th anniversary of Spain’s invasion.
Mexico is a treasure trove of potential archaeological sites that have not yet been excavated. Even Teotihuacán, one of the most famous Mexican archaeological sites, is only 5 percent excavated. Late this past October, 500 potential archaeological sites were discovered in Mexico using Light Detection and Ranging technology.
However, in recent years there have been exciting discoveries all around the country. In 2020, a newly discovered Aztec tower of skulls, found in Mexico city, drew substantial media attention. But, due to the pandemic, progress made in the archaeological field in Mexico has faced some setbacks.
Simone Leigh, Who Departed Hauser & Wirth After Less Than Two Years, Joins Matthew Marks Gallery
Simone Leigh, who departed the mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth last October after just 21 months, has joined Matthew Marks gallery. The artist, who is preparing to represent the United States at the 2022 Venice Biennale, joins a roster that includes Alex Da Corte, Martin Puryear, and Jasper Johns. She made her debut with Matthew Marks…
Simone Leigh, who departed the mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth last October after just 21 months, has joined Matthew Marks gallery. The artist, who is preparing to represent the United States at the 2022 Venice Biennale, joins a roster that includes Alex Da Corte, Martin Puryear, and Jasper Johns. She made her debut with Matthew Marks at Art Basel Miami Beach, which opened this week.
The sought-after sculptor’s departure from Hauser & Wirth spurred speculation over whether she had found new representation. Leigh joined the gallery, which has 15 locations worldwide, in 2020 after leaving New York’s Luhring Augustine and Los Angeles’s David Kordansky Gallery, the latter of which had represented her for half a year.
In mid-October, Hauser & Wirth had prominently featured Leigh’s sculptures in Frieze London. A major exhibition at the gallery’s location in Zurich, her first presentation in Switzerland, was ongoing amid the split. The details surrounding her departure have remained under wraps, and both parties issued gracious statements at the time.
“I love and respect the people I worked with at Hauser and Wirth,” Leigh said. “But I do not feel the gallery is the right fit for me in the wider sense. I’m still figuring out what I want from a primary gallery relationship.” The decision came amid a career-high for the New York-based artist, who will be the first Black woman to represent the U.S. in Venice.
In 2017 she was awarded the Studio Museum in Harlem’s $50,000 Joyce Alexander Wein Artist Prize, and the following year she won the Hugo Boss Prize, which comes with $100,000 and a solo exhibition at New York’s Guggenheim Museum. Her work was chosen by the prize’s jury for its “longstanding and unwavering commitment to addressing black women as both the subject of and audience for her work, a focus which imagines a recalibration of the outmoded power structures that shape contemporary society.”
Leigh was included in the critically acclaimed 2021 survey “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America” at the New Museum in New York; she was also featured in the Prospect New Orleans triennial. Her work is currently on view in the group show “Black American Portraits” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Met Museum Receives Landmark $125 M. from Longtime Trustee Oscar Tang
New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has announced its largest capital gift in its 151-year history: $125 million pledged by the museum’s long-time trustee Oscar Tang and his wife, Agnes Hsu-Tang. The funds will go towards a renovation project centered around the museum’s presentation of modern and contemporary art, to include 80,000 square-feet of galleries…
New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has announced its largest capital gift in its 151-year history: $125 million pledged by the museum’s long-time trustee Oscar Tang and his wife, Agnes Hsu-Tang. The funds will go towards a renovation project centered around the museum’s presentation of modern and contemporary art, to include 80,000 square-feet of galleries and public space to be named the Oscar L. Tang and H.M. Agnes Hsu-Tang Wing.
The long-postponed “re-envisioning” of the Met’s modern and contemporary galleries, first proposed more than a decade ago, has been delayed due to a lack of funding. The project is currently estimated to cost a total of $500 million.
Oscar Tang, the octogenarian retired financier, founded the investment management firm Reich & Tang. Having served on the Met’s board for three decades, it is not the first transformative gift he’s bestowed on the New York institution. In 1997, he gave $14 million to fund the Met’s purchase of rare Chinese paintings, and in 2015 gave $15 million to establish new curatorial positions and to support programming for the centennial of the museum’s department of Asian art.
Tang is the son of Tang Ping-yuan, a Chinese textile mogul who founded a successful manufacturing company in Hong Kong in the post-Communist era. In the Met’s press release, he attributed his philanthropic activities in part to having been displaced by conflict in his home region and being subsequently educated in the U.S. Tang’s previous philanthropic gifts also include money given to the New York Philharmonic, Yale University, and the Gordon Parks Foundation. Agnes Hsu-Tang, an archaeologist and researcher at Columbia University, has served as a cultural heritage advisor at UNESCO and for the Obama administration.
“Their generosity—while breathtaking in its scope and vision—is no surprise, as it is an extension of their decades-long support of our Museum,” Daniel H. Weiss, the Met’s president and CEO, said in a statement. Max Hollein, the museum’s director, added, “The reimagining of these galleries will allow the Museum to approach 20th- and 21st-century art from a global, encyclopedic, bold, and surprising perspective—all values that reflect the legacy of Oscar and Agnes.”
The couple, whom the Met called “activist collectors” in its press release, described the museum as “an exemplary guardian and presenter of artistic heritages across cultures and time.” They alluded to their longtime support of transcultural and anti-racism initiatives as a driving factor in backing the Modern wing project, saying, “Contemporary art transcends entrenched notions of borders and identities.”