British artist Prem Sahib creates conceptual scenographies that explore desire and architecture in “Balconies” at Kunstverein Hamburg.
British artist Prem Sahib explores architecture, sexuality and his first birthday. Art Radar takes a look at his latest exhibition.
Prem Sahib had his first institutional solo exhibition in his home country at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 2015, which proved him to be a rising star among a generation of artists that form what the british press are calling the new YBA group. The acronym stands for the so-called “Young British Artists” who gained art world fame in the 1990s, the likes of which include Tracy Emin, Sarah Lucas and Damien Hirst. The new YBAs of the 2010s are a little more “academic” than their antecedents as the majority were trained at Royal College of Art schools and most have already enjoyed group or solo shows in major institutions in the United Kingdom.
Walking into Prem Saib’s installation entitled “Balconies” at Kunstverein Hamburg viewers encounter a graveyard of lockers. These displaced lockers were rescued by the artist from East London’s Chariots Roman – a meeting place for the local gay scene and a key venue for cruising. Prem Sahib approached the bar and sauna before it closed down in 2016 and saved a number of lockers from being thrown away with other parts of the interior. His new work Do you care? We do (2017) consists of these lockers which the artist has installed across the space of the first exhibition hall at the Kunstverein. Their presence gives the impression of verticality and order, similar to the obelisk soviet monuments or formalist sculpture that the work alludes to. Do you care? We do (2017) mixes modernist memorial, found object, souvenir and readymade.
Do you care? We do elides the moral questions that are often constructed around sexuality, safety and risk (as well as the question of whether this space was an architectural utopia or dystopia) focusing instead on the interlocking spatial, material and temporal qualities of sexual desire as we begin to understand and historicise sexual practices in relation to modern political or economic history. While empty lockers are the object Sahib has chosen to foreground in this work, it is the materiality of the map of sexual encounters in London that emerges as Sahib’s subject. The phrase “gay cruising meets minimalism”, which has been attributed to Prem Sahib’s work, does not quite get at the specificity of his gesture, which traverses critiques of architecture, urbanism, the body and modernity.
Sahib is known for a certain irreverence when it comes to mixing materials: in the second work on display entitled Ashes, the artist has placed an aluminium drinking fountain in a block of resin. The shimmering, reflective surface of the resin gives the impression of liquid, movement and frozen life while the work’s title points rather to disappearance and death. In other works Prem selects a traditional sculptural medium such as plaster of paris to explore the appropriation of greek and roman mythology, which are used for propagating certain representations and narratives around sexual desire – whether that be hegemonic reaffirmations of the pure and divine sexual nature or recuperations of non-heternormative sexual practices of the pre-modern era.
In Helix, the artist recreates the crude interior furnishing at Chariots in relief, depicting a common scene from Greek mythology: an Olympic athlete is praised by Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. Prem Sahib has pierced the plaster cast with three oversized steel piercings, highlighting body modification practices as often accompanying an appropriation of images, narratives and symbols from the past. Here Prem Sahib again probes debates around modernity and sexuality, offering a sculptor’s take on current theories and practices of sexual dissidence.
The exhibition closes with another “scenography”: a dimly lit room referencing the darkrooms found in gay saunas and clubs used for anonymous cruising. In the dark space viewers encounter a model of the artist’s first birthday cake, which he modeled according to a photograph he happened to come across in his parent’s home. By placing the first birthday cake, associated with innocence and emergence of self, in the context of a setting that might rather be associated with maturity and production of self, Prem asks what role these “settings” or environments might play and how they inform these processes. An extra emphasis on the scenography with the introduction of the same chairs and tables from the photograph (even the same matchbox has been placed on the table), the scene constructs questions around the role of architecture and set in relation to performance, self and sexuality.
Prem Sahib offers something other than the post-modernist, post-colonial and post-human critiques of culture that often sway hysterically between questions of morality and a paralysing cynicism. With “Balconies”, Prem Sahib creates radical scenographies that map the material history of sexuality, with a few staged gestures that account for both the crass commercialisation of desire as well as its transformative role in radical political movements that operate sexual dissidence as critique of colonial capitalism.
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