As the culmination of her Dark Continent project which has been ongoing for the last four years, Tai Shani’s Semiramis is presented at The Tetley as the artist’s first solo exhibition in a public gallery. Semiramis has been co-commissioned by The Tetley and Glasgow International, in collaboration with Nottingham Contemporary and Wysing Arts Centre, and debuted in Glasgow earlier this year as a series of live performances. Taking as her starting point the 15th century proto-feminist text The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan, Shani has developed twelve characters who inhabit an allegorical city of women. The resulting exhibition combines sculpture, film, audio, virtual reality and text in an ambitious, long-form imagining of a post-patriarchal world that is by turns fantastical, sensuous and violent.
The centrepoint of the exhibition is a large immersive installation in which pastel coloured architectural elements mingle with disembodied hands and uncanny abstract forms. For the earlier iteration at Glasgow International, this was the stage set for the live performances where the performers used their bodies to complete some of the architectural structure. Here, the installation functions instead as an anchoring device for the ‘chapters’ presented in the surrounding gallery spaces. Part archaeological ruin, part sci-fi-tinged fever dream, it has the aura of a work that is densely packed with symbolism and meaning, if only we were able to break Shani’s code.
The creeping sense that I am an interloper in an utterly alien world is heightened as I come face to face with the characters that inhabit Shani’s city of women, inspired by the mixture of historical, fictional and archetypal figures that appear in de Pizan’s original book. Shani’s imagined city is not just for women, it is built of the women who inhabit it, and the mutable nature of the city is spoken of by the characters as ‘cubes of meat’ and the ‘pink blush of Portland stone’, adding to the overwhelming impression that this is a space where bodily experience takes centre stage.
The monologues have been sensitively installed in order to encourage an intimate encounter. Sitting in a darkened room, tethered by a short headphone cable and almost nose to nose with characters such as the Neanderthal and The Woman on the Edge of Time it is easy to forget that I am in a gallery at all. The experience is by turns uncomfortable and absorbing, and the unusual spaces of The Tetley lend themselves well to this presentation, offering semi-private cell-like rooms which heighten the intensity of the encounter.
At first, I struggle to follow and understand the stories as they are narrated. The language that Shani’s characters speak revels in poetic complexity and hyperbole, and the passion with which the lines are delivered seems to further obscure any attempt to make rational sense of their tales. Many of the figures recount erotic or violent acts and talk of intense emotion and physical pain: experiences that lie at the edge of what can be explained and understood in rational terms. The work, taken as a whole, resists our desire for a traditional narrative and I found this frustrating initially until I allowed myself to be drawn into the multilayered world of these women and their city.
Semiramis could be said to have more in common with experimental forms of literature and speculative fiction than contemporary visual art: Shani follows a strong tradition of feminist writers who have used the scope offered by science fiction to explore and test their politics by imagining other possible worlds. The scale and ambition of Semiramis is impressive in this respect: in a world where women still have to fight for the right to take up space in the world on their own terms, this is a bold and assertive act.
Tai Shani, Semiramis, The Tetley, Leeds, 20 July – 14 October 2018.
Rachel Graves is a curator and writer based in South Yorkshire.