On the far side of the Helix: In Conversation with Fiona Anderson and Prem Sahib

In May 2021, The Perimeter’s Research Associate Matthew Holman sat down with art historian Fiona Anderson and artist Prem Sahib to discuss the precarious possibilities of the queer archive, inter-generational artistic friendships, and how the documentation of grief and loss in the past can offer renewed hope for modes of collective mobilisation today.

Prem Sahib, 'Helix', 2017. Plaster, Chrome, 82 x 67 x 15 cm

Matthew Holman: Let’s begin with Prem’s 2017 work Helix, a plaster cast that features a classical motif of an Olympic athlete being praised by Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, with three oversized steel piercings. Helix features as part of a series of works responding to the interior furnishings of Chariots Spa in Shoreditch, which closed in 2016. Could you say a little about how this work came about, and the significance of its imagery and title?

Prem Sahib: In terms of the title, I liked how it implied a form that you can get lost down – like a spiral. I was thinking about this in relation to the space of Chariots, which is a constructed environment made for people to lose themselves in, or to detach from the reality outside. ‘Helix’ also recalls part of the body, the rim of your ear, so there’s this bodily association as well as it being a decorative object. I remember seeing quite a few of these reliefs dotted around the top floor of Chariots, by the swimming pool and Jacuzzi. I always enjoyed how the coloured lights projected onto them looked like they irritated the emblem somehow, as it appeared so incorrigible and stern, as a fixture of the space. The work itself is a replica of the same plaster relief that once existed at Chariots, but with large steel piercings I made to fix the object to the wall, so it resembles decoration on decoration. I've used lots of jewellery in my work in the past, but here I wanted it to interrupt the image by inserting metal into the brittle plaster and thereby confusing what was body and what was object. I’ve been thinking recently about this work as a kind of spell- a means of manipulating the image to weaken it or to try and dismantle its power. The relief becomes transformed in a way that problematises its form. By re-pinning it back onto the wall with a gap, it’s almost as though it’s being prized away, this image of whiteness that was once such a fixture. It’s a bit like a poster that reflects the history of bodies that are celebrated or given agency, as the kind of somatic norm in a space.

MH: Could you say a little more of the significance of the whiteness of the works and what kinds of traditions the work is looking to expose or critique?

PS: The relief depicts the image of this white, athletic, male body being rewarded by the Greek god Nike, and I was thinking about some of those classical histories and how or why they are referenced in so many of these spaces. It’s as though they are trying to equate with certain histories or utopian ideals that seem quite removed from the reality of the spaces themselves. As I mentioned, I’m interested in how these works can explore a somatic norm and how certain images are upheld or exist in a pervasive way. There’s also something about whiteness, its presumed ubiquity and invisibility that I think the work deals with.

Fiona Anderson: It really emphasises the brittleness of the material; that comes across so clearly. In relation to broader questions around archiving, if we consider works like Helix alongside the lockers, objects that were physically taken from Chariots in Shoreditch – they’re not pristine, they have this grainy quality and material that’s accumulated in them – then we see that this is not a found object, that they were taken from the space. So the process of casting these works undermines this pure origin myth.

PS: The other objects I cast from replicas included a Head of David [a bust of Michelangelo’s David], which I found in a hotel that used to be a brothel, while on a site visit to Hamburg for my exhibition at the Kunstverein. It was quite a surprise to come across this object in that context. It might sound bizarre, as these ‘Heads of David’ are so common but I couldn’t find this particularly one that existed at Chariots anywhere – not on the internet, or in London, nowhere – but when I came across it at the hotel, I was able to buy it from them and recast it. I also tracked down the same Lions that existed outside Chariots. As you mention, casting became an important way to replicate and therefore interrupt the form, allowing the objects to be re-staged differently again and again. So with the Lions for instance, I cast them in this ashy grey concrete, like a shadowy grey colour, a bit like how I remember them as peripheral objects that marked my entry into the space. I then smashed them up, which was actually quite an enjoyable task. I think casting them in the first place, was a way of preserving them somehow and I do see this as an act of care. At the same time, there is also a sense of mimicry and creating another story– one that I hope calls into question the authority of archiving something or preserving an essentialist narrative. There is obviously something iconoclastic about this act.

FA: I think that combination of casting and smashing, and also shopping around for these objects, is such a compelling form of queer archival labour that does disrupt a sense of continuity and a fixed point of origin. Often, one of the reasons we see Greco-Roman imagery in spaces like bath-houses is this historical demand to say: ‘We were here’ and to remind ourselves that queer people have been here since time immemorial. With that said, this classicising of queer continuity is also so bound up with white European identity, and even queer supremacy more broadly, and this is shown in Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart (1985) where he says: ‘I come from a long line that includes Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Walt Whitman and Socrates’, and so on, and it’s a powerful statement and a rallying-cry in a sense but it’s also a tremendously elitist statement on white exchange. I find Helix a fascinating way in to thinking about ideas of what it means to be queer and European together. In this way, I cannot help but think about what Fatima El-Tayeb says in European Others: Queering Ethnicity in Postnational Europe (2011) about the ‘very precise racialised understanding of proper Europeanness’ and ‘queering ethnicity’ in post-national contexts, so it opens up those conversations as well.

PS: You mention Larry Kramer, and this ‘coming from a line’, or a line of descent, which is something I’m really interested in – especially through Sara Ahmed who also talks about the production of whiteness as a straight line. There’s great power, therefore, in interrupting a line and taking a line off course that equates to a kind of queering, too.

MH: Let’s talk about the photographs of Chariots and put that in contrast and conversation with the works. Prem, could you say a few words about the significance of this space for you and how it became transformed in your mind and in your practice as a queer space that was being decimated by gentrification – but also what you want to say about the process?

Chariots, photography by Mark Bowler, courtesy of Prem Sahib.

PS: It was very personal in a way, while it might seem extreme to call Chariots a ‘home from home’, I certainly used it as that sometimes. My family are in Southall, which is where I grew up and in those early university years, when I was often living at home, it was a place I would go to save myself from getting the night-bus back. It was one of those places that if sex wasn’t part of the design, it may have been thought of even more as a community space. Before today, I was going through some old notes and diary entries and it was curious to come back to some events that I had forgotten – conversations I had, or things I’d witnessed – and it’s no exaggeration that it fulfilled the role of a community centre where people would go for their Sunday lunch or just to hang out if they needed company. Its position in East London was also quite interesting, because it attracted such a mixed generational crowd that was probably more racially diverse than some of the bars in the area. My interest in the space came from it being a constructed environment. In many ways my experiences there were feeding into my work, even if not directly. For example works form the All Eyes series – like Peeper (2013) and Sorry Sight (2013), which are also in The Perimeter collection – and which are composed of a round rod with a circular disc that balances precariously. I remember being in Chariots once and noticing a perfectly round hole in an exterior wall, not a hole between cubicles which was more usual. I had to stretch to look through the hole, but it perfectly framed a view of Shoreditch. I just remember loving that interruption in the architecture and it being a reminder that the inside and the outside operated in such a fragile relationship. It was just this small divide that separated such different kinds of action. With some of the earlier works I made, as in the ICA show [Side On, 2015], I had been transcribing measurements of objects and furniture from the space using my body, so I’d go into the dark room and measure the plinth or the furniture in there in order to transcribe its scale and make a copy of the fixtures that way.

Prem Sahib, 'Peeper', 2013. Aluminum, paint, perspex, 8 x 50 cm.
Prem Sahib, 'Sorry Sight', 2013. Aluminum, paint, perspex, 8 x 50 cm.

FA: It’s fascinating to think about the body as a unit of measurement, or the ways we might conceive of the hand as a lexicon or as a way of translating particular kinds of experience.

PS: I’ve always been interested in how the hand is so implicit in the form of a tile for example; like how a regular tile is made to fit the tiler’s hand so perfectly and then becomes this unit that re-iterates formally. However we speak about hands so liberally, as though they are all the same somehow and they’re not. I think bodies are so often spoken about in this way too – as though some bodies are universal and others are characterised as matter out of place. In terms of the photographs of Chariots, I’ve always been conscious to not document the space in a way that might have breached some of the ideas around privacy, despite it being a public space. It was only once the venue had closed that I ended up photographing it with Mark Blower. The documentation happened with a sense of urgency because I knew the space would soon be demolished. It was being squatted when we got in there.

MH: When you arrived and took photographs of this personal space, a ‘home from home’, did it feel elegiac in this new state? Was it a challenging return?

PS: It was a reminder of how quickly the use of a space can change. I was walking into rooms that were once saunas and had now become someone’s bedroom – it’s like I was trespassing. It was still very theatrically lit and felt like a set. Seeing it with the lights on was very strange and surreal. One stores so many residues of history in the materials of a space, even in the dark rooms where people have been sitting for years, with their head-marks or their body-marks left on the walls. Even the ‘D-I-Y-ness’ of how it was taken care of was quite beautiful. But it was also gross to witness! It’s important not to over-romanticise it too, but when I think back about the mazes and the routes through the space, they are tied up with so many memories. In my notes, I kept coming back to moments like: ‘people were twerking in the corridor while discussing the price of organic chicken’, these kinds of amazing stories and conversations that I would have with people or overhear. I remember speaking to someone who took home the door number above one of the cubicle doors on the closing night – he was taking it as a souvenir of his favourite spot to hang out and cruise.

FA: That was something I wanted to raise: these as non-romanticised or non-romanticising representations or histories of a space like Chariots. I know that’s something that you really endeavour to do in your practice, and I think also about the Balconies exhibition [Kunstverein, Hamburg, 2017] as an effort to tell a non-romanticised history of the space, and this connects in really interesting ways to works like Descent (2019-20) in terms of addressing these questions of queer space, and inclusion or exclusion, or of community preservation. I don’t know if this is something we have discussed before but it was outside Chariots that Justin Fashanu died, and it’s important to address the ways that those histories of British queerness are racialised. How do you endeavour not to romanticise the space?

Prem Sahib, 'Descent I. People Come & Go.' Installation view at Southard Reid, London, 2019. Photography by Lewis Ronald. Courtesy the artist and Southard Reid London.

Front cover of The Southall Gazette, 21 May 1999. Courtesy of the Gupta+Singh Archives.

PS: In some ways, being both insider and outsider unfortunately enables me to do that. We’re still talking about a commercial sexual infrastructure at the end of the day and as much as I want to emphasise the sense of community that existed there, I don’t want to overlook the more difficult conversations about things like sexual racism or economies of desire that complicate how we might want to think about queer space.

FA: It enables you to challenge single narratives, as we were talking before, about resisting single origin stories about queerness and homosexuality.

PS: Exactly, by confronting these issues I hope to interrupt that linear, single narrative that simply maintains the status quo. It’s important to recognise the social function that spaces like Chariots serve for a community: for example, what the lockers really brought to my attention was the capacity for a public health messages to exist, which I think becomes more difficult when you consider the ways in which public space has become further privatised, or how the closure of venues has pushed socialising into domestic spaces. In thinking more broadly about the role of public space, I’m reminded of a newspaper clipping that Sunil Gupta shared with me, from the Southall Gazette in 1999. I think it was just after he had a show at the Dominion Center which was an art centre, library, and community space in Southall. The headline reads: ‘Gay Art Show Divides Town.’ And there was local MPs denouncing the exhibition as disgusting and others chipping in, saying that it wasn't appropriate or insinuating that it was pushing controversial ideas on people or that it was insensitive to a ‘community like Southall’. This really made me reflect on the importance of his work existing publicly for people to see. It also made me think about where I was in that point in my life, as a 16-year-old coming to terms with my own sexuality in the same town. Of course, there were people who defended the exhibition too, notably the Southall Black Sisters, a non-profit women's rights organization. Southall does have a long political history and I think seeing the article was a reminder of the context that we chart our course towards or away from certain things or places.

FA: And it's interesting that the Southall Black Sisters’ spokesperson presented this as an opportunity or a moment of reckoning for the community and said ‘that it was high time that the community dealt with its own conspiracy of silence’. It notes, too, that the exhibition marked the re-launch of Southall Dominion Centre so it’s presented as a real statement, as if to say ‘we're relaunching this Center and we're going to have this exhibition’; this work of ‘gay Indian men or transvestites’, as the article says.

MH: There’s also this sense of the exhibition as a practice of education, which actually didn't necessarily start out to be scandalous or to provoke, but [Dilbang Singh Chana, a Southall community activist] said that ‘Any educated society should be able to examine itself rather than sweeping issues like this under the carpet.’ So the exhibition is also a moment of education more than something that is deliberately setting out to provoke or challenge certain conservative elements in the town.

FA: We should also pay more attention to Sunil Gupta’s practice, which isn't just photography of gay Indian men. It's very much a complex conceptual photography practice in which there’s a really interesting interplay between text and image. The question of what particular intersections of identities mean and how photography and language help us like understand identity.

PS: I think you’ve mentioned in the past, about photography’s pathologizing gaze. I think the idea of visibility can be quite complicated and Sunil’s work is so masterful at showing that queer brown people have always existed – but not in a way that flattens out or is purely evidential. It speaks of the nuances of queer lives.

FA: Absolutely, and those meanings, the way that those identities might intersect, shifts over time as well. I think it's also really interesting to look at the history of the dissection of a project like Exiles (1987) where he was been unable to show the work in India when male homosexuality was still illegal under the British colonial penal code. But it wasn't received in the UK without the existence of these debates. And so, it undermines that east/west split as well.

PS: That's a really fascinating story. Absolutely.

MH: Fiona, would you be able to say a little more about the relationship between image and text in Exiles, and what your sense of that intersection is in those photographs? Should they be read as captions or a kind of poetic inscription, or perhaps they speak to the almost archival documentation of the photograph in some way? What is the function of language here?

Sunil Gupta, 'Indira's Vision', from the series, 'Exiles', 1987 (commissioned by The Photographers’ Gallery).

FA: So I think one of the things that Sunil is doing in that series is trying to undermine this idea of a truth or a fixed meaning of someone's identity. The tendency, as we read an image like that, is to understand the text below as what the person pictured above is saying. But that's not necessarily the case. This is information that was collected at different points, so the text comes from voice recordings that are not necessarily statements made by the people who are depicted. The people depicted are also staged in the photographs as well, so they're not candid shots of people in cruising spaces. I think it's also really important to note that there are many other modes of communicating information about identity and place in those images because they feature, in the photographs themselves, old and important landmarks in Delhi. In one image, and I'm not sure what the building is, but you see “Indira [Gandhi]'s vision”. I suppose this is very much on the nose but this speaks to a particular vision for India, and of course we might think about what kind of masculinity exists for the person who fits with that. Prem and I have spoken before about these photographs in relation to people living with HIV: photography has this pathologising capacity that is as old as the medium itself. This has of course fed into dark narratives of ‘race’ and ‘science’, but also the pathologising of poverty and addiction, as well as illness. But photography is also the means by which various marginalised communities can become visible. We can see this emerging in such a powerful way in Sunil’s practice in the 1980s, not only in the communities in which he was working as a part of organisations like Autograph ABP, the Association of Black Photographers, or in exhibitions like Reflections of the Black Experience (1986), as well as the practices of so many photographers and curators in ways that are really interesting to this debate. The Southall Gazette piece is published in 1999 – in the 1980s, many black British photographers were receiving funding from the GLC [The Greater London Council]. So once that kind of municipal funding is dismantled at the end of the 1980s by a Tory government, who are also the architects of Section 28 [a British law that prohibited ‘the promotion of homosexuality’ by local authorities], which also has a huge impact on queer visibility, education, and understandings of one's identity – especially for young people growing up – that also had shaped Sunil’s work.

Sunil Gupta, 'Untitled # 12', from the series, '"Pretended" Family Relationships', 1988.

PS: Returning to the question of pathologising, sometimes I find abstraction has been a good way to deal with that problem of representation, by refuting it explicitly. Being able to move away from the taxonomies that might mean that something is regulated in a particular way. It’s something that I think about with my own work.

FA: I’d be really interested to hear more about that in relation to your work, because in some ways your work has become much less abstract, or less visibly abstract. But at the same time, I'm really interested in David Getsy’s research around queer abstraction, which draws on that problem of representation, as well as Édouard Glissant’s ideas of opacity, and how those have been really picked up by trans artists and activists of colour, who argue that visibility is not necessarily desirable. It certainly does not always equal security and safety.

PS: Exactly, and I feel that – partly because I find it difficult to talk about it so succinctly – by using abstraction and representation in different ways, can allow them to perform different functions in different scenarios and situations. It's something that I've tried to experiment with in recent work. For example, with People Come & Go (2019) [an installation based on an interior section of a men-only cruise club], which is the first part Descent, I used the body of a white male performer. Maybe that’s not something I would have turned to in the past, but it was a means of testing the grounds in terms of representation and abstraction.

FA: It's more straightforward to talk about it in relation to particular works, rather than – and pardon the pun – in ‘the abstract’. It would be great to talk more about Descent and about Cul-de-Sac (2020) as well. I think that brings up these questions about representation not only through its relation to abstraction, but also in terms of how we archive or ‘represent’ history. Why has the archive itself become such a major part of your practice, especially the archives that relate to Southall and to your family?

PS: I'd say that the video [Cul-de-Sac] featured a somewhat distorted view of a place [in Southall, where Sahib grew up] that was so familiar to me. It was recorded with a drone, so it was shot from above, and therefore included a view that was different to the one that I would experience moving up and down the street by foot. The perspective feels disembodied and almost sexualises the entire street because it reveals its phallic shape, and the camera goes up and down repetitively until it hovers right above and reveals the structure of the street, which contains all these lives. I exhibited Cul-de-Sac alongside Archive (2020), which was both a historical archive, as well as a familial one. It belonged to my uncle who was doing a lot of outreach work and was involved in a lot of activism at the time. He was actually part of the Southall Youth Movement, which came about after the murder of a young Sikh man called Gurdip Singh Chaggar in 1976. While I knew a fair bit about the history of my area already, it was really through looking at material that he had kept, that I began to see more of his personal voice as an individual. It contains things like letters that he had written, which challenged mainstream narratives that were put forth in journals or articles about the area; he was speaking for people there, as opposed to speaking at them. The archive sat alongside my video work, as both a contextual and historical device. I wanted two intersectional positions of the same place to co-exist and for the abstract and representational to occupy the same space somehow.

Prem Sahib, 'Cul-de-Sac', 2019 (video still). Courtesy the artist and Southard Reid, London.

MH: Could you also say something about the implicit practice of collaboration on this project, Prem, and about how you worked closely with your uncle on developing this archive?

PS: After my dad passed away, I found myself wanting to know more about some of these personal histories. I ended up speaking to my uncle, my dad's older brother, and he basically handed me this file of material which I didn’t anticipate receiving. Initially I was just planning on showing the video work that I had made, so the decision to include this archive came about later. I felt like it was so generous, that I also needed to share it somehow. I also learnt about his experiences through oral histories and accounts, such as how South Asian men at the time were often picked up by the police, driven as far as Watford before the M25 was built, and told by officers to ‘walk back, you pakis’. While my uncle shared some of this in a YouTube documentary that was made about Southall, I think there are such traumatic personal histories, that much of the details weren’t shared with me until a lot later.

FA: I don't want to get caught up in this binary between abstraction and representation necessarily, because what you're saying is that abstraction can be a way of exploring questions of representation, and especially when they're bound up with experiences rooted in trauma. In this way, it raises interesting questions about how memory is triggered and is triggering as well, and that really complicates the trauma. More than that, it really complicates our understanding of the relationship between past and present, more broadly. It’s not just about opacity versus visibility, but very much about coping with that trauma and these experiences of racialised trauma in Southall as well.

PS: I was also just thinking about how my dad and another uncle of mine, used to help me make some of my earlier work like the Watch Queen series (2013), in which abstraction also became a way for me to share and process personal details about my life, without language present. It wasn't always about how I could express this through words. These works were essentially to do with cruising. I was also trying to understand certain dynamics away from literal representations. What I was trying to describe was something more emotive. My dad and uncle wanted to help make that manifest, and we did this together through making and speaking about the material and tactile qualities of an object. I knew there was care and love in that way of communicating, which also engaged difficult subject matter and positions.

Installation view of work by Prem Sahib at the RA Schools Show 2013. Photo: © Andy Keate, Royal Academy of Arts.

FA: As we prepared for today, Matthew circulated Sita Balani’s essay Without Mourning, which also responds to Southall in the 1970s, and to the murder of Blair Peach. How do we process grief as a community, and document that collectively?

PS: It was actually at the Dominion Cinema where Blair Peach’s body was laid in an open casket and where eight thousand people came, as mentioned in Sita Balani's article. It’s where the community came to mourn his death. Peach was an activist and schoolteacher from New Zealand who was killed by the police during an anti-fascist demonstration outside Southall Town Hall. This moment speaks to an authoritarian government being aware of the power of public gatherings and public grief. Of course, we are reminded here about that in relation to the current Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill [a controversial Government Bill put to the House of Commons in 2021 that, if passed, will enhance the powers of the Police to use force during peaceful protests] and how the power of public space is being redrawn, curtailed, and renegotiated somehow.

FA: Peach was killed by the Special Patrol Group, a kind of para-police body that was disbanded towards the end of the 1980s, but then became the Territorial Support Group, who were responsible for the death of Ian Tomlinson in 2009. It’s a shocking and violent history.

PS: I think those kinds of histories and genealogies are so important, because of how things transform and reshape. This is something I was interested in with the archive as well. The racism that those earlier generations experienced has transformed into the racism that we have today, I needed to know and hear about that.

MH: One of the statements that I found so compelling in the Balani essay is, ‘The history of struggle is a history of people mourning the loss of those they did not personally know.’ I suppose that’s connected to how we think about alternative archives too, and what that means for our contemporary moment whether that is the modes of collective documentation in the Black Lives Matter movement or personal testimonies of those who mourn and continue to mourn during this pandemic. The archive needs to always respond in ever more dissipated ways to the crises of the moment and the ways that those crises always threaten to recede what might be protected into the future by those archives. Prem, many of the archives that you're looking to reconstitute seem to be closely and intimately grounded in your own experience, whether that's familial in the case of your uncle, or in the community spaces of Chariots. I feel that there’s also a tone in both pieces of not necessarily mourning, but an effort to document the experiences of people who you felt an affinity with, but didn't know personally at the same time. For example, with regards to your uncle’s archive, presumably there are all sorts of contexts and stories of people contained within those newspaper reports of people that you didn’t know. The same is true for Chariots, which of course documents a space, but more than that it documents or archives personal experiences at the very moment that space no longer facilitates those experiences. To some extent those experiences are your own, but to another extent they are not.

PS: Exactly. I think it's a question about how an individual person can sit within a community and how different voices and identities can complicate master narratives. I think it's to do with that, the carving out of space for more than one voice. We don’t live completely atomised existences and are connected in ways that affect one another, with shared histories and experiences that collide. I was also just thinking, as you were saying that, about the drone footage and how it’s a technology that’s often associated with surveillance and surveillance structures. I’m interested in what kinds of histories are spoken about, get recorded or seen and what gets lost in the recording process.

Fiona Anderson is Senior Lecturer in Art History in the Fine Art department at Newcastle University. Her work explores LGBTQ+ social and sexual cultures and art from the 1970s to the present, with a particular interest in gentrification, preservation, and the politics of urban space, mostly in the USA and the UK. She is the author of Cruising the Dead River: David Wojnarowicz and New York’s Ruined Waterfront (University of Chicago Press, 2019). Her writing has also been published in Third Text, Journal of American Studies, and Oxford Art Journal. From 2016-2019, she was UK lead for ​Cruising the Seventies: Unearthing Pre-HIV/AIDS Queer Sexual Cultures (CRUSEV), a collaborative research project which explored and reconstructed aspects of LGBTQ+ social and sexual cultures of the 1970s and examined their significance for LGBTQ+ people, queer organising, and queer artmaking across Europe in the present and future.

Prem Sahib (b.1982) lives and works in London. Sahib is an artist who works across sculpture, installation and video. Their work references the architecture of public and private spaces and structures that shape individual and communal identities, senses of belonging, alienation and confinement. Mixing the personal and political, abstraction and figuration, their formalism is suggestive of the body as well as its absence, drawing attention to traces of touch and frameworks of looking. Sahibs work has been shown widely including solo institutional exhibitions Balconies, Kunstverein Hamburg, 2017 and Side On, ICA London, 2015, as well in group shows at the Sharjah Art Foundation, Migros Museum, Whitechapel Gallery, Hayward Gallery, KW Institute of Art, Des Moines Art Centre and the Gwangju Biennale. Their work is in the collections of Tate, The Arts Council, Government Art Collection, UK, Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Norway, MONA, Australia.

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