Tai Shani is not an artist who fits neatly into one category. Which makes sense, because she has spent the past 18 years interrogating the very structures and narratives that civilisations use to define themselves. Writer, director, film-maker, sculptor – her wide-ranging practice has seen her direct life models in performance at Tate Britain and record erotic tales at the Serpentine Gallery. If you were looking to her largest exhibition to date, Semiramis at the Tetley in Leeds, for conclusive answers as to what it is she does, you would be disappointed. Categories are not Shani’s style: disrupting hierarchies is more her bag.
The first hierarchical system to go is the patriarchy. Semiramis is a city of women, built by women. “Not just women with a womb,” Shani is quick to point out, rather it is to be a place outside traditional gender systems. This “city” is made up of 12 characters based on Christine de Pizan’s 1405 proto-feminist text The Book of the City of Ladies where an allegorical city is inhabited by mythical and real women of the time with no distinction. Shani has spent the past four years transforming each character into a monologue, all 12 of which were performed at Glasgow International earlier this year – one of the highlights of the festival. For the Tetley, she reimagines these monologues using film, audio, music, VR and text with assistance from a troupe of female actors and pop duo Let’s Eat Grandma, who wrote the music for the Medieval Mystic character.
In the centre of the gallery sits an immersive, candy-coloured installation that was the set for the original Glasgow performances. Reconfigured in the atrium of the Tetley, the piece has also gained a fleshy looking sculpture that plays a recording of gibberish. Ironically, Shani refers to it as an “oracle”. A large, long-nailed hand made of Jesmonite, card and foam sits in one corner and beckons us in. From the ceiling several shapes hang, including what appears to be a bunch of blue grapes. On the floor, pairs of tiny hands hold pyramids, balls and cylinders, while a marshmallow-like arch takes centre stage. With the oracle speaking nonsense in the background and mysterious forms filling the space, it feels as though we’ve landed on another planet – or perhaps in the city of women.
In contrast to the bright atrium, Shani’s monologues are found in the dark rooms surrounding the installation. There is a rhythm to her words that draws the listener into a meditative space. Her text is visceral and erotic: “buttery, yellowy, blossoming foam” is a memorable phrase. At times, a narrative appears and then dissipates suddenly, subverting the familiar storytelling genre.
However, this structureless space where language appears directionless makes for a difficult viewing. It’s hard to distinguish one character from the next. Many phrases repeat, unravelling any unique characteristics that had started to appear. Given more time, perhaps things would become clearer, but I was informed it would take five hours to watch everything.
We have landed on Shani’s planet where even history and science is ripe for a restructuring. “Can we organise history and negate hierarchy?” she asks, as we wander past two mint-green pillars melting into the floor. It can’t be denied that she is having a good crack at it. On the surface many of her characters appear to be familiar cultural touchstones – the teenager, the siren, the vampire – but Shani gives them agency so they have new storylines and new ways of speaking. Even the attribution of history to fictional women is a radical idea.
Traditional structures are blown out of the water in Semiramis, right down to the way the art is produced. It is unusual for an exhibition to exist first as performance only to be reinterpreted as physical pieces further down the line. But with structure ripped away, it becomes harder to contextualise the art. Rather than enjoying the freedom of these unharnessed characters, I find myself frustrated and bewildered, looking for something solid to hang ideas on. I can’t help but feel this new city might just be too discombobulating for me to take up residence.