Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 28, 2024
Tai Shani: My Bodily Remains
Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, OH November 23, 2023–April 14, 2024
Tai Shani, Bodily Remains (2023), Installation view, MBR: And above the beautiful commune. Photo: Wes Battoclette, 2023. Image courtesy of the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, OH.

Tai Shani is a conjurer of worlds. Out of the murk and miasma of millennia of forgotten histories and suppressed mythologies, she sets a stage for rituals and revelations, for psychedelic hallucinations and deeply embodied experiences of other potential realities. The 2019 Turner Prize winner’s first show in the United States, MBR: And above the beautiful commune, curated by Amara Antilla, transforms an entire floor of Zaha Hadid’s iconic building for Cincinnati’s Contemporary Art Center (CAC) into a cryptic occult space that evokes contradictory senses of scale and emotion. It is as enveloping as a womb and as expansive as a spiraling galaxy, suffused with simmering indignant anger and smoldering sensual passion. Across the suite of tightly interconnecting works, which span sculpture, installation, film, video, assemblage, and watercolor, Shani produces trembling tensions between apparent opposites—the intimate and the epic, the enraged and the eroticized, the downtrodden and the insurgent. The overwhelming call of the exhibition, and its primary seduction, is for the viewer to imagine things otherwise, to create the conditions through which a more just and more equitable world seems possible. The only way to do so, Shani suggests, is by collectively dreaming our way out of the hegemonies, cosmologies, and conventional epistemologies that structure this world and constrain conceivable futures. Against the authoritarian racism and fascism that permeate the present, Shani draws on suppressed pasts and radical historical practices that might have new potential to light a path toward a queer, antiracist, and anticapitalist communal future.

Anchoring the exhibition is an enormous scarlet-red stepped platform, Bodily Remains (2023), decorated in raised paths that take the patterns of what could equally be circuit boards or labyrinthine ceremonial paths. Dotted throughout the sculpture are huge orbs, simultaneously appearing as gargantuan pearls and tiny planets. A glass vitrine holding the jewel-like remains of what Shani identifies as Baby Osiris, Baby Metatron, Baby Persephone (2022) marks the scene as a sacred space of mysteries and relics. Each religious figure named in the sculpture evokes various themes of resurrection, transition, and fertility. Their remains are jumbled, with cultures and times incongruously imbricated: fossilized bones protect glistening organs; hands, still fleshy but speckled by spores of mold, clutch gilded ears of grain. Two human-scale, bejeweled canopic jars preside over the arrangement. One fits as a caryatid into an impossibly hovering column in Shani’s virtualized architecture, which rises to Hadid’s cavernous ceiling.  Unlike their diminutive and stoic-faced Egyptian models, which contained the preserved organs that mummified pharaohs would need upon their resurrection, Shani’s jars grimace and wail in sorrow and anger. They bear their pearl teeth like harpies or exhausted maenads. What is inside, and at what scale, Shani leaves to the imagination. One expects that, at any moment, priestesses of this cosmic temple might return to perform the rites that could set this obscure machine in motion.  

A series of nine delicate, rosy-toned watercolors, reproduced for the exhibition as prints, lead to ancillary, low-ceilinged rooms that screen two of Shani’s moving image works. The watercolors, collectively titled The Passion (2023), depict hazy architectural scenes, inspired by Theodore Dryer’s 1928 film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, about the gender-nonconforming saint accused of heresy and demonic possession. The invented architectures, which merge Art Deco and medieval elements, appear through tromp l’oeil frames of veined, green marble. Each is punctuated by three dark circles, the color of dried blood. They read as wounds in the image, but their bleeding edges cite the enveloping visceral light that spills from My Bodily Remains. The wounds, then, might also be portals summoned open only by acts both sacred and profane. A related work, Our Astrolatraus Commune IV (2023), explodes the watercolor prints into three dimensions, taking the shape of an alcove altarpiece with hinged doors that materializes the process of opening portals, both spiritual and spatial.

Shani’s 2021 film, The Neon Hieroglyph, is a trippy and unnerving meditation on the effects of ingesting ergot, a psychoactive fungus that taints rye crops and provides the lysergic acid in LSD. Shani’s film woozily surfaces medieval histories that recount whole villages succumbing to mass hallucination from ergot-blighted crops. From this hardship are born myths of witches who, in their fugue states, sack neighboring towns and merchant ships like Robin Hoods to deliver their families from poisoning or privation. Ethereal Irish actress Molly Moody narrates Shani’s poetic rumination on the dissolving boundaries between the real and surreal. Moody’s body slides from naked solidity into digital simulation in eerie moments of misaligned superimposition, simultaneously evoking vulnerable intimacy and uncanny horror.  Structured as a series of vignettes, each introduced by a scene of smoke-filled darkness and the vibrating sounds of a cello, the film traces the shifting contours of the “neon hieroglyph,” a common visual phenomenon of the psychedelic experience. Shani’s narrator aligns it with both the birth of cinema, which preserves and shares fleeting images from the world as seen by an individual eye and “the prisoner’s cinema,” the brain’s automatic, hallucinatory production of phosphene imagery when faced with sensory deprivation. As in My Bodily Remains, everywhere in The Neon Hieroglyph is the suggestion that shifts in consciousness may be necessary for meaningful social transformation. We might need new or reconfigured myths to dream ourselves into better futures.

Throughout The Neon Hieroglyph, Shani alludes to themes that appear elsewhere in the exhibition—to baby Osiris and Persephone, and the rhyming of cosmic and microscopic scales, for example, as well as citing the entire, lengthy title of the other moving image work in the show, My Bodily Remains, Your Bodily Remains, and all the Bodily Remains that Ever Were and Ever Will Be (2023). Moody returns in this video as one in a small cast of female archetypes who preach revolution and passionate love. Playing the “Ghost of the Revolution” and again toggling between fleshy and digital versions, the ghost is matched by the “Reader of the Book of Love” (Maya Lubinsky), who passionately reads quotations from leftist revolutionaries like Lucy Parsons, Ulrike Meinhof, Sean Bonny, Bernardine Dohrn, and Raoul Vaneigem. Shani’s camera tails the ghost’s Mercedes Benz through the dark, wet streets of London. She’s in the back seat, looking through the rear window. No matter how far away her car pulls, her whispering voice is impossibly close in the viewer’s ear.  Speaking in the erotic poetics that typifies Shani’s writing, she analogizes human bodies to geological and celestial ones—eyes like solar eclipses, the boundaries of hot bodies liquifying like magma. Her words are an incantation, a witchy recipe for crossing borders and changing form. As she speaks, Moody’s eyes loll and roll in her head, her mouth contorts and goes slack, seamlessly slipping from seizure to ecstasy, from grand mal to petite mort. It is never certain if we are witnessing a moment of catastrophic collapse or rapturous rebirth. Perhaps there’s no way to tell the difference.

These two characters lead the viewer on a journey across space and time, from satellite imagery of Mars’s unfathomably deep canyon, Valles Marineris, to platelets crowding through the choked channels of veins. Recurring images of the solar system show the sun dark, casting all the planets as merely blank absences of stars, only to light up again in a fiery whorl, rebooting and sending everything back into spinning, lively motion. Another pair of figures, both named “Them Who Love,” speak to each other across time and space. Their direct addresses and second-person pronouns catch the viewer in the snare of their exchange. One (Jo Kukathas) wanders in a many-chambered subterranean cave, which echoes the CAC’s structure with its tall caverns and small side galleries. She wears a chiton and appears like Pythia coming out of a trance, an oracle seeing past and present. She speaks across the viewer to her counterpart (Candice Nembhard), who stands in a placeless pink and white mist, as if suspended in the first light of sunrise. Dressed in a studded and frilled white leather harness and garters, she stands, arms akimbo, like a superhero professing passionate and tender love across the cosmos. The cave-dweller pleads for a friend “at the end of the world,” but clarifies her request: “if you can’t imagine pleasures that do not brutalize others, then we can’t be friends. If you hate the riots, we can never be friends.” The other “Them Who Love” answers this call at the end of the video with a “secular prayer” that functions as Shani’s first principles for entering the new world she diagrams across MBR: And above the beautiful commune: “This is my secular prayer: all cops are bastards. This is my prayer: Free Palestine. This is my prayer: Fuck the TERFS. Property is theft is my prayer. My prayer is a spectacle of remembering that they have made a world that is hell. But this is paradise. My prayer is not to forget that this is paradise, and it is ours.” Exhibitions and artworks often produce utopian visions to swaddle and placate viewers who need shelter and respite from the horrors of the outside world. But this final prayer, which works at every alter and ritual location in Shani’s immersive, seductive installation, also works when one leaves the gallery. It clearly tasks the viewer to not just dream how the world could be otherwise but asks for a commitment to its active remaking.

Kris Paulsen
Associate Professor, Department of History of Art, The Ohio State University