The product of a peripatetic, cosmopolitan childhood and fleeting associations with miscellaneous art schools, free spirit Tai Shani went on to study fashion design and photography in New York and Tel Aviv. So how did she wind up in London creating large-scale performance art that marries historical characters with science fiction fantasy? Gemma de Cruz investigates.
Last Summer I sat amongst a group of people outside the A Foundation in Shoreditch drinking red wine in the rain. We were all waiting to check out Tai Shani’s installation/performance Oh Numinous Through o’RAH! RAHI RAH! Kel (a collaboration with Nathan Parker) I had no idea what to expect as I glanced over at a booth guarded by two girls dressed in 194os’ Majorette costumes. We queued up and were allowed to enter in groups of twenty. As a fan of classic science fiction books/films like A Clockwork Orange and Day of the Triffids, I couldn’t help but be captivatecl by Oh Numinous. The corridor was a bit like those you walk through to get on an airplane but lined with a reflective surface. We then arrived in a small room facing a black screen (actually a two-way mirror) with two plinths on either.side. On top of the plinths were busts of (real) girls (their bodies concealed within the plinth) dancing to Flip & the Dateliners’ ‘My Johnny Doesn’t Come Around’. Once the song ended the screen illuminated and revealed two figures accompanied by a voice over. The notion of watching the actors behind the screen had hint of Paris, Texas about it specifically the cabin scere at the end of the film. It wasn’t clear if the actors werc performing directly toward us, so it was hard to say if we were there to be entertained or iust to spectate.
The two characters beyond the screen were (iconic ’60s New York murder victim) Kitty Genovese & Bobby Beausoleil (the ‘actor/musician’ and Charles Manson associate). The script was a text written by Shani that included sections of an interview between Truman Capote and Beausoleil. You didn’t really need to know what was being said while the performance was taking place; it was more exciting how the various elements came together as a convincing complete, filmic collage, acted out by the characters and immersing the audience in a feeling of being inside a set. The set looked purposely handmade and temporary, yet these seemingly ‘throwaway’ surroundings belied an utterly convincing and professional performance by the two actors.
You have this cinematic expectation of your life when you’re young, but it can only be met when you are young.
Now it’s autumn and it’s still raining. I’m standing underneath the railway line at London Fields outside what looks like a derelict house. Tai comes cycling along and guides me round the block to the back of the building which is also the entrance to her studio. there are racks of costumes and all kinds of curious props knocking about. “So you went to Goldsmiths?” I ask Tai. “No”, she replies smiling, “But a lot of people think I did. Even people that went there sometimes think I was in the year below them.” Tai explains she actually attended five art school but never made it through any of them. And this was not just in London. There are some people you meet who tell you they went ‘travelling’ as if it was an amazing job they did for a year or two, and they all regale you with pretty much the same stories. But for Tai, the daughter of hardcore hippies who moved around regularly, the travelling started when she was a kid. She was born in London, brought up in India, went to school in Belgium while also spending time in Italy, then lived on her own in New York, Israel, Holland, Spain and Indonesia. The list goes on – she has to repeat this to me at least three times before I feel I like I’ve got the gist of it.
I’m glued to my seat as Tai tells me about her time in New York living in a huge loft, roller skating everywhere and hanging out with all kinds of bohemian characters. “You have this cinematic expectation of your life when you’re young”, she says, “but it can only be met when you are young. When you’re twenty, walking around New York City listening to Pavement is really satisfying. I’m really happy that I’ve known that sensation – there is nothing that I would change. I was so young it feels like a trip in my mind, it was so surreal and bizarre”.
There’s something telling in the Tai talks about her younger years and the way she looks back at her life. Her first ‘proper’ job was working as a fashion photographer which she did for seven years. There’s an obvious link here between the extravagant sets she creates and her understanding of lighting, props and casting. Quitting commercial photography to be a full time artist isn’t as huge a leap as starting completely from scratch, but doing it without going down the art school route is pretty brave. Tai sounds justifiably proud of the track she’s taken:
“Finally, I’m really glad I didn’t go to art school,” she confesses. “lt’s been harder trying to establish myself. My practice was a mess for years. I’m not denying it but there was something beneath the surface I could not really reach and now I’ve worked out how to transfer what I’m interested as a person into my practice. The subjects that engage and stimulate me are the same preoccupations that my work explores.”
The idea of a ‘self-trained’ artist always sounds quite radical and almost as if it shouldn’t work. How do you connect with the contemporary art world? Tai reminds me that only something like 5% of art school graduates actually carry on marking art once they leave college. Given this statistic, the notion that someone who hasn’t attended art school can make a career in art shouldn’t be that shocking.
So, when Tai moved to London, in 2001, she got a studio, made work and trawled the galleries. She started to get included in group shows, first at The Centre of Attention and then The Horse Hospital which led to bigger more ambitious projects.
Her main focus recently has been the performances usually comprising props and actors that have a cartoon-like feel to them. It’s very extravagant and over-the-top with some involving 25 actors and live bands.
She overlaps ideas from films, plays, novels, art and turns it into her own work of visual fiction. Her performances are like a live collage of the visual and theoretical ideas that were present in ’50s and ’60s sci-fi films. “I’m interested in early science fiction because of the way primitive technologies had the ability to spark the imagination with regards to possibilities and the way these technologies would evolve and the influence they would have on our lives”, she explains. “I also like the gap between failing technology and outcome; there is something very sincere about it, but often these predicted ideas- such as synthetic full featured reality- are correct but the journey is very different. I’m also fascinated by the timeless sphere create by sci-fi. I like it when a story which was set in the future now takes place in the past. It creates departing alternative narratives to history- almost like a parallel reality. I’m interested in the idea that sic-fi can not only be a platform to explore utopian or dystopian possibilities but also a means to engage with immaterial or more metaphysical constructs while avoiding the codification of normal reality.”
Tai specifically chooses and celebrates imagery from the past for its clunky, pre-digitised effects. She concludes: “There is nothing that defines the aesthetic of an era more precisely than the way it imagines the future.” She’s completely right. Think of the lunar lounges in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey- ’60s minimalist design at its best; while Jane Fonda in Roger Vadim’s futuristic fantasy Barbarella, from the same year, is the epitome of go-go chic.
But Tai’s work isn’t just a fun mix of all the cool ’60s sci-fi looks; she’s also interested in presenting some of the forgotten or overlooked areas of sci-fi, questioning what writers chose to document and what history chooses to remember. I like the idea that Tai’s interest in science fiction allows her to create a non-linear narrative thread scooped up out of historical material that reflects alternative notions of the future. It’s as if she’s merging these versions together to create her own hybrid image and narrative.
Tai’s latest project is called W.O.W Noumenon Dilation: Reduced to 3– a live event that will take place at The Rio cinema in Dalston (presented by Artprojx). It combines films ad performance built around Rainer Werner Maria Fassbinder’s sci-fi TV movie World on a Wire. Without giving too much away, the piece includes ‘teleportation’ of the film’s protagonist, Vollmer, into three ‘time machines’ using animation, CCTV footage ad an invocation by a Greek chorus. It sounds a little fantastical, and after hanging out with Tai, I don’t doubt it will be.