For her upcoming solo show, Object Anxiety, Seher Shah continues to deconstruct ideas from modernist architecture, this time focusing on the invention of utopian monuments, and the discrepancies that lie between the ideal and the real. Drawing upon radical points in the history of architecture (from Le Courbusier’s Unité d’Habitation – an early prototype of modern-day low-income housing, to the impossible geometries outlined by Superstudio in the 60s), Shah examines the fragmented results of New Brutalism in urban planning, and the collapse of the very ideals upon which they were built.
The exhibition is an assemblage of mixed media works that incorporates photographic sources as a constant point of reference, be it traced over, reconfigured digitally, or perhaps employed as an external appendage. Also featured are large-scale, monochromatic drawings and prints that are typical of Shah’s oeuvre and demonstrate her formal training as an architect. Spanning about 10 feet on average, Shah’s intricate drawings have often served as intimate cartographies of memory, space and place. In Object Anxiety, these drawings explore the ideas of theater and spectacle, the aesthetics of power that continue to play a part in the formation of modern cities, and the will that can be imposed upon the landscape by monuments and architectural relics.
Born in 1975 in Karachi, Pakistan, Shah grew up in London, Brussels, and New York City. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts and Bachelor of Architecture from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1998. She currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.
Pey Tan: You have mentioned that growing up in various cities has influenced your artistic approach. Could you tell us more about this?
Seher Shah: I was born in Pakistan, and then moved to London, Brussels and [finally] New York when I was about 13 years old. It’s always strange because I consider myself a Pakistani, but I’ve never really lived there. So many people in the city find themselves in the position where they function as many different personas, or find it hard to identify with just one aspect of their personalities. I am interested in buildings and monuments because my family traveled a lot when I was younger, so I was exposed to a lot of architectural styles as a child. Everything just sort of finds a place in the drawings for me; it wasn’t something that I was conscious of. I can pull together different references in my work and drawing just facilitates the process for me. Sometimes it becomes problematic when I am asked to be specific about my work and pin it down to one thing, but I like the fact that I’m perfectly comfortable with straddling multiple influences.
PT: So, would it be fair to say that your visual language is defined the most by places you have been and monuments you’ve seen?
SS: Interior Courtyards was a series of work that I started around 2005, and it explored the idea of the “interior” courtyard. For this I looked to the courtyards I had seen in Brussels, Versailles, various baroque styles, as well as Islamic courtyards…just looking at the various systems that combine to create a courtyard. It was the most biographical work I had done because it brought together particular types of architecture that were distilled through memory, and some of these impressions were fairly hazy. For me, the series represented an interior perspective of how we see things. It brought together moments that could exist simultaneously on the drawing plane and yet retain their separate identities. My work isn’t about European-meets-Islamic architecture, and it isn’t about recording places that actually exist. It’s about retracing the architectural forms I have seen in my childhood, and re-imagining how they would have appeared at different moments in time.
PT: That is interesting because for most people, childhood memories consist of comfort food, Sunday morning cartoons and stuff like that, whereas yours revolve around geography and architecture.
SS: That is true. I guess growing up, I was just surrounded by it. I remember going to cathedrals, plazas, centers, and every single place in Europe had a different characteristic to it. It was a great privilege to have that kind of perspective, traveling in Europe and then making sporadic trips to Pakistan.
PT: How did you arrive at the title of your new show, Object Anxiety?
SS: In the beginning, I was looking at the idea of an icon of modernism as a relic, like Le Courbusier’s Unité d’Habitation. The building fascinates me, but even though all these Utopian ideals are brought together, for the person that’s living there, it’s a not-so-great experience. The spaces are small, the corridors are narrow, there’s no natural lighting. It’s self-contained but there’s no connection to the external landscape.
The light boxes that are part of the exhibition display photographs that I took on a road trip to Nevada and Utah about two, three years ago. I saw things like a corrugated metal shed in the middle of nowhere, with the symbol of a cross on the roof. It represented a place of worship, but there’s really no sense of scale, and it’s just a box on the edge of town. There were trailers in the middle of nowhere, with no connection to the landscape, so it was just alien and surreal.
I’m also presenting a pair of photographs, Cross Conference Scheme I and II, that I created for the publication, Manual for Treason at the Sharjah Biennial earlier this year. The first image shows an architect, presumably, looking upon the projection of a fantastical urban landscape, but in the second instance, he is absent. For me, these bring together ideas of spectacle, monumentality, and the ego of the urban planner that is imposed upon the landscape.
These are just a couple of things I was thinking about. They’re all different in terms of imagery but it’s all coming in a state of anxiety, so I called this series Object Anxiety. Whether it’s a large object like a public housing block, an isolated structure in the desert, or fantastical urban plans that never materialized, these works confronts the failures of modernism, these architectural ideals that never quite worked out.
PT: What were some of the things that influenced your new work?
SS: Some are specific and some are completely non-specific, but it’s the imagery that I have in my mind. Towards a New Architecture by Le Courbusier is this little book about housing and building prototypes that every architecture student owns. Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing was something that I read two years ago, and the structure of the novel really blew me away. You would have these landscapes that were deadening and slow, but suddenly they would be punctured by dialogue or acts of violence. And then it would return to a slow, monotonous pace. Everything that occurred was just amplified. The Fractal Geometry of Nature by Benoit Mandelbrot talks about how there are very specific geometries to everything that happens in nature. I love the idea that those forms don’t merely permeate manmade cities and urban design, but exist very much in the natural order of things as well.
PT: Your work is rooted in classical architecture, but more recently, you also delve deeper into ideas of modernism and urbanism as well.
SS: I think classical architecture is something that will always appeal to me because of its principles of rationality and symmetry, but these are very much a part of the modernist aesthetic as well, only it’s coming from a different place. Both classical European architecture and the modern ideal of the grand boulevard pay attention to symmetry and the idea of imposing order on the landscape. And that’s what I’ve been into lately, that idea of the will imposed upon the landscape, the spectacle of architecture and the subsequent failures of modernism.
PT: Your large-scale prints are usually black and white, with a stunning range of perspective. I am quite curious about the processes that go into your work.
SS: In terms of drawing, I just like the simplicity of no color. At some point I might venture into color but for these, I like the idea of epic, monumental works done with the simplest materials. Even though it’s just pen and paper, I’m still intrigued by that simplicity.
With regards to the way in which the positive and negative space is set up, I tend to think a lot about the way the perspective is going to interact with the person who is approaching the work. The perspective, horizon line, and volume of the black… these are just some things that I think of initially. The weight of the black has a different relationship with the viewer, depending on where he is standing. I don’t usually know how things are going to look, but I do want to have the perspective in place at the start.
PT: Can you talk about some of the recurring motifs in your drawings and prints?
SS: The main thing that I’ve looked at in the past two years has been the idea of the wall – a very blank, simple wall. It’s the idea of the wall as a separator that can break down a monument. In my work, I like to insert black, triangulated wall, but it could also represent a void. As with symmetry, there are always ideas of duality that play a part in my work. Then there are other symbols that I like to consider, such as the significance of a cenotaph, column, or flag. I’ve also worked extensively on variations of the cube and its permutations into basic reductive forms. When it opens up, the cube becomes a cross. And when you look at it in planar form, it’s six-sided and symmetrical.
PT: Are there any new ideas that you will be working on next?
SS: Definitely getting into three-dimensional sculptures and objects. Since I’ve been so interested in objects and monuments within a drawing space, I think I should explore the idea of 3D objects. So I’m thinking about totem poles and the idea of the totem as a cultural signifier, whether it’s an overseer of the tribe, a cultural marker, or a symbol. Maybe find a way to create a totem that could be a representation of modernist architecture and its ideals.
September 7 – October 3 2011