An exhibition at Auckland Art Gallery reflects on the relationship between the human body, technology, and language. The gallery’s Curator of Contemporary Art, Natasha Conland, talks to Francesca Emms about Honestly Speaking.
About the concept for Honestly Speaking: The Word, the Body and the Internet, Curator Natasha Conland says, ‘I was thinking about why references to the body were showing up in the work of young artists again, and especially in screen-based work. Often the screens are in dialogue with other pieces, sculpture or painting.’
She looked at works, held conversations, and travelled with this idea in mind. But when it came to putting the exhibition together, she thought first about the space, and how audiences would come to the idea. ‘I wanted the exhibition to have a big thematic umbrella, so that the projects would function separately from each other underneath that. There’s the bigger picture to consider, but the audience will also have very distinct artistic experiences through each artist’s work.’
From a large pool of possible artists, Conland settled on four; Shahryar Nashat (Switzerland), Sriwhana Spong (NZ), Frances Stark (USA), and Martine Syms (USA). She describes the rationale thus: ‘Honestly Speaking shares the interests of four prominent artists from a variety of global positions who want to reinstate the relationship between the digital image and the human subject – often through references to the body itself, and our own position in relation to media and its compelling language.’
Conland was particularly excited to bring together Sriwhana Spong and Shahryar Nashat. ‘The artists have synchronicity across the space. Both Sriwhana Spong and Shahryar Nashat deal with the body in a visceral way in their work. I think they understand that video generates a powerful relationship that is built on a desire for relationship – a captured object, and intimacy with a character, a missing story. The objects in their installations often stand in for that material relationship, which is equally at the heart of our experience with art.’
Sriwhana Spong is an artist of New Zealand and Indonesian decent working in multiple mediums including sculpture, film, writing, performance, dance, and sound. She presents a major new work, Now Spectral, Now Animal (2019/2020), which was co-commissioned by Auckland Art Gallery and the Edinburgh Arts Festival in 2019. This work is a finalist for the 2020 Walters Prize. Her multi-media installation explores the writings of the 16th-century mystic Saint Teresa of Avila. In her book The Interior Castle, St Teresa describes an imaginary space where women can think, write, and speak freely. Spong’s work considers how a fictional space can be a site for agency, and collapses the boundaries between language and the body. ‘It’s the idea that your body is permeable,’ says Conland. ‘Sriwhana offers different ideas of the body by comparing it to objects, for example fruit.’
Swiss artist Shahryar Nashat makes sculptures, videos, and other works in which the human body and its representation are central. The gallery has commissioned three new sculptural works from his ongoing series Start to Beg. Conland says the seven-foot-long pink polymer and fibreglass abstract structures are like large bodies lying on the gallery floor. ‘They’re soft looking and fleshy-coloured. They have chunks taken out of them. It almost looks like teeth marks.’ The works will be exhibited alongside a huge bank of screens playing Nashat’s video work Image is an Orphan (2017), a monologue on human desire and technological concerns.
The other half of the quartet, Americans Frances Stark and Martine Syms, both explore identity and social media in their work. Stark presents a video and painting cycle called Black Flag (2018) and Syms’s film installation is called Incense, Sweaters, and Ice (2017).
‘For many years now, we have lived with the phenomenon and fascination of the digital world presented in moving images,’ says Conland. With its attention to body, language, and technology, the exhibition raises questions about truth and power in the digital age.
Auckland Art Gallery re-opens to the public from 13 June and the presentation of Honestly Speaking has been extended until 30 August 2020.
First published ArtZone #83
Martine Syms, Incense, Sweaters, and Ice, 2017,(installation view), in Honestly Speaking: The Word, the Body and the Internet, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2020.
Shahryar Nashat, Start to Beg, (2020) (installation view), in Honestly Speaking: The Word, the Body and the Internet, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2020.
Shahryar Nashat, Image is an Orphan, (2017) (installation view), in Honestly Speaking: The Word, the Body and the Internet, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2020.
Sriwhana Spong, Now Spectral, Now Animal, 2019/2020, (installation view), in Honestly Speaking: The Word, the Body and the Internet, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2020.
Frances Stark, Black Flag, 2018, (installation view), in Honestly Speaking: The Word, the Body and the Internet, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2020.