Features PerformanceQ&A and Interviews Published 24 October 2012

Body Politics: Shabnam Shabazi

The artist talks about her exile, displacement and reading the body.

Diana Damian Martin

To coincide with the launch of Chelsea Theatre’s year long season of work, Sacred, we will be exploring some of the ways in which contemporary performance artists are engaging with the body as a raw material for performance making, touching upon questions of memory, identity and ritual. Across performance, theatre and live art practices, the body has been used as a core tool to displace ways of confronting and making visible not only identity politics, but also questions of beauty, sexuality, disability, race or illness. There is a long history of work that has engaged with body politics as a form of dissent, be it in an overtly political act, or a more inward focused process of meaning-making and displacement.

Shabnam Shabazi’s work explores questions of rootlessness, exile and displacement; here the body is both material and memory map, generating questions and fueling dreams. Reminiscent of and engaging with the work of artists such as Gina Pane, Franko B, Ron Athey and Louise Bourgeois, Shabazi’s work involves journeys through landscapes both real and imagined, seeking to elucidate what the body becomes in this process of exploration, but also drawing from its reading as a personal archive, physical and psychological. In the interview below, I speak to Shabnam about the second iteration of her piece Body House, which premiered as part of Spill Festival’s National Platform last year, and is coming to Chelsea Theatre as part of their Sacred season of work. Within this showcasing context, the ritual of exploring one’s body both internally and externally becomes an act of politics, yet one not necessarily followed by a political position, and here is where Shabnam’s work is most intriguing.

Diana: Your work engages with concepts of displacement, challenging and exploring what constitutes home. How did you arrive at developing Body House, and how does it fit in the wider narrative of your work?

Shabnam: In 2005-2006 I started a period of research focused on making work inspired by my own family archive, whilst I was also being mentored by Franko B, supported by Artsadmin and sign posted by Live Art Development Agency. This generated a body of work and actions that I have executed, notably Speaker’s Corner and now Body House (vers. 1 & 2).  These pieces explore what home means to me in different ways. Like Louise Bourgeois’ revisiting, reconstructing and re-inhabiting, I was preoccupied with the question of personal identity and kept thinking about the first oracle at the Temple of Delphi – ‘know thyself’.

 This was also the topic of a one week residency with fellow artists that I assisted Franko B on in 2009 for the National Review of Live Art, whilst completing my MA thesis.  I was getting a severe attack of ‘archive fever’ as Jacques Derrida terms it, a situated of loss and fracture with Buchloh also talks about:

  “Mnemonic desire…is activated especially in times of extreme duress in which the traditional bonds between subjects, between subjects and objects, and between objects and their representation appears on the verge of displacement, if not outright disappearance…”

Several factors, notably the death of my grandmother, who made the decision for us to leave our homeland at the height of the Revolution of 1979 and was the keeper of all our stories and histories, was the trigger for my ‘archive fever’. I began working with memory as the penultimate archive.

In his analysis of Richter’s atlas, Buchloh recognises that one of the conditions of archive fever is triggered when we experience loss of the social and familial context, suffering physical or psychological displacement. Body House leads me to the departure point that my body is my house, taking me to a more spiritual realm whilst making me aware of this shell and bone, both on a material and temporal level. In a sense, I am going beyond an understanding of the body as home, which is having a significant impact on the development of my work. I am exploring the concept of the home at the intersection with the physical, geographic, material, social, attributed to language, culture and tradition. It has expended my research and allowed me to take more risk in my work.

Diana: You begin Body House with a provocation- that of exile and displacement, contained within and explored in the remit of the body. If the home is translated into an embodied space, in what ways have you developed this understanding and exploration of the home?

Shabnam: I arrived at the idea of the body as my home as a direct result of the conditions of exile and displacement.  There is nowhere else for me to go. Curiously, arriving at this epiphany has resolved my sense of displacement; I feel differently about being in one place, not reliant on material, physical, geographical and psychological definers. Involved in this was also a process of cleansing and tidying. Seeing my body as my home, allows me to be able to exist anywhere…  Marina Abramovic talks about “my body is my country”.  Faustin Linyekula echoes this “…I have been wondering on the road for so long that my only true country is my body…”

Diana: You reference one of the cornerstones of postcolonial theory, Palestinian born Edward Said, who, in his book Reflections on Exile,  speaks of being torn from “the nourishments of tradition, family and geography.” How has his theory framed your explorations in Body House?

Shabnam: Said’s theory is definitely one of the inspirations for my work.  It totally encapsulates the feelings of exile that my mother describes to me.  Expressing visually that feeling of being torn from family, tradition and geography, “it’s like death but without death’s ultimate mercy…”  There is a sense of total isolation and fractured connections, full of gaps and fissures…It is desperately sad and lonely… There is no coincidence that Bourgeois, Richter and myself started making work inspired by our own archives whilst in ‘exile’…

This body of work is entirely born out of the conditions of exile.  The processes of revisiting and reconstructing identity are akin to an exorcism of a non-religious kind.  Said sees exile as a place of terminal loss, which is also what I am trying to communicate in my performance.  So there is nowhere else for me to go other than come to the conclusion that my body is my home, overcoming my memory crisis and memory war…

Diana: You speak of a process of cleaning the home, almost in the form of a personal exorcism. What role does memory- embodied or imagined- play in this process?

Shabnam: It is entirely an exorcism.  My research, particularly during my MA, looked at the Artistic Practice of Exorcism, and was very much inspired by the work of Louise Bourgeois- this was the foundation of my thinking on the subject.

“…The past is guillotined by the present… Of course when one sees the past disappear, there’s a certain shock and a certain sorrow…it’s an exorcism…it’s very difficult to recreate the past…You must recreate the past and aim to be objective to rid yourself of it…or you stifle…”(Louise Bourgeois).

Can art making inspired by personal material be a form of exorcism to break links or distance the past? Reconstruction and re-enactment can be seen as strategies in enabling us to deal with life’s catastrophes; finding ways of healing the pain caused by trauma, loss, separation, exile and displacement.

Memory is the backdrop to the project, and it is entirely embodied.  There is nothing imagined in this work, everything is born out of something very real from my family archive. However, I am getting very interested in the role of imagination and play inspired by my explorations and recent studies with prolific US based artist Julie Tolentino in Joshua Tree;  working with memory and the archive can be quite unhealthy.

In my next work I am interested in mixing fact with fiction to create new fictions, though fact itself becomes a fiction…What I mean is from being entirely preoccupied with embodied memory, I am now getting more interested in the role of imagination and play, and these are having a profound impact on my practice.

Diana:  Within the remit of the piece there seems to be an exploration of boundaries that are physical, geographical and psychological. How did you arrive at this cartography?

Shabnam: Yes definitely, and to add… spiritual.  Elements of it have come from the physical, going on journeys or walking to generate material.  The physical becomes geographic in relation to my own history of coming to the UK as a political refugee from Iran, but also in relation to being encased and now exploring the geographic contours of my body as a country…The psychological and the psychoanalytical has always been central to my work.  Developed out of reconstruction, re-enactment, revisiting, re-inhabiting – all deeply psychoanalytical processes.

Diana: You are working, to some extent, with autobiography, placing your body as a performative device. Can you talk a bit about this aspect of the work?

Shabnam: Every aspect of the work grows from something very personal and the central action and image of the performance is about the very process of capturing and documenting something.  My body is the canvas on which we ‘project’ upon. I am always present with the work, though in Body House, to a great extent I become the work…

 Body House (version 2) is on at Chelsea Theatre on the 24th October 2012. For more information visit Chelsea Theatre’s website.

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Diana Damian Martin

Diana Damian Martin is a London-based performance critic, curator and theorist. She writes about theatre and performance for a range of publications including Divadlo CZ, Scenes and Teatro e Critica. She was Managing Editor of Royal Holloway's first practice based research publication and Guest Editor for postgraduate journal Platform between 2012-2015. She is co-founder of Writingshop, a long term collaborative project with three European critics examining the processes and politics of contemporary critical practice, and a member of practice-based research collective Generative Constraints. She is completing her doctoral study 'Criticism as a Political Event: theorising a practice of contemporary performance criticism' at Royal Holloway, University of London and is a Lecturer in Performance Arts at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

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