gay cruising meets minimalism in prem sahib’s ica show
The London artist’s ICA solo exhibition is proof that a new wave of British artists are here to slay.
In recent years, few artists have been granted the honour of taking over both the lower and upper galleries of the Institute of Contemporary Art, but the curators decided that Southall-born Prem Sahib was worthy. Sahib, who has been gaining a steady reputation with shows, performances and club nights in Mumbai, Rome, London and New York, has created pieces that work wonderfully with the sometimes awkward ICA spaces (watchful sculptures, carpets you want to curl up on, a cushion you want to share with a dolphin, fake windows you might not spot…) and which explore "the idea of a social space being a contested space" and how that "might elicit universal bodily responses, whether pleasure or anxiety, such as feeling physical empathy and desire for someone in proximity, or unease at their unwanted presence."
Notably, Side On brings the gay underground to a public institution; the most headline-grabbing theme of his minimal works being the thrills, frisson and dangers of cottaging (anonymous sex between men in a public lavatory for the uninitiated). Whilst Prem is keen to leave the work open to universal interpretation, the gay aspect of the work is thrilling and affirmative to anyone who's found themselves cruising in loos, losing themselves on a dancefloor (preferably Berghain) or lounging listlessly in an odd sauna. It's a show that legitimises the kind of gay experiences that you might not tell your straight mates about or want your parents to discover, and a reminder that art has a way of capturing the nuances of life that few other forms can.
Beyond that though, the show deals with intimacy, relationships, desire, repulsion, clubbing, chilling, light, dark, the private and the public. Prem is also a master of materials, so the show puts an impressive range of industrially manufactured tiles, steel and glass to a new kind of work. Whilst there's no strict figurative representation, the pieces are fully alive, standing in for the body. As well as the exhibition, Prem, who runs occasional night Anal House Meltdown with fellow artists and Royal Academy alumni Eddie Peake and George Henry Longly, will be putting on a club night with legendary gay club DJ Jeffrey Hinton and there will be talks and tours too.
With a concurrent show opening at Soho's Southard Reid from 7th October and another edition of Anal House Meltdown at the Coronet on 17th October, Prem is London's man of the moment. We met him to talk hoodies, egg attacks and dark rooms that keep the lights on.
Not much music, film or literature reflects contemporary gay experiences in any realistic way. Can art deal with such subject matters in a more clever and subtle manner than other mediums?
I feel like there's a license to deal with the things that I'm interested in through art. Jeffrey Hinton films a lot of club footage, but with the spaces I'm interested in, you can't document them so easily, and I wouldn't feel right taking a camera into a bathhouse and filming covertly. I was wondering whether some of the things about those places are missed; even the furniture or interiors differ so much. I find that by transcribing those things into objects, it becomes an interesting way to talk about those spaces.
A lot of your work references bathhouses, saunas and cottages. It's good that you don't mind being explicit about that.
I'm not shying away from what the references are. The lounger piece exists in a sauna I was going to. I started to measure things with my hands, as a way to transcribe them. It wasn't necessarily about an accurate copy of something. I wanted to make a sculpture - I didn't want to just lift it literally.
You're capturing spaces that might otherwise be neglected, or that people are ashamed to talk about freely. The lounger piece references a brand spanking new area of a gay sauna, but why add the popcorn and the mirrored laptop sculpture?
I think of that lounger as a still life really. With the popcorn, I like this idea of it being a snack that has a relation to the consumption of image. In the sauna, you are viewing porn or other people, and with the work that looks like a laptop. It's a way of expanding the narrative, rather than doing a strict document of the space.
How about the eggs placed on the framed hoodies?
I've been making those hoodie works for a couple of years now, and they've always been flat on the wall. I wanted to bring them into the space and have a sculpture you can walk around. I've been reading this book where I came across a reference about the myth of this guy who falls in love with this sculpture because he's able to circle it. The hoodie pieces emerged out of me using a very ubiquitous material, these Uniqlo puffa jackets that you see pressed up against the glass on the tube. It's this idea of contact. And I was thinking about puffas as a way to cushion you in the space that you inhabit. I had this compulsion to squash them and sandwich them between sheets of glass. I live opposite a funny park and I often see these boys hanging out and in those types of jackets. I look at them from a distance, and I was thinking about clusters of people, groups, social forms, scrums and gangs. There is something about objectifying these things, but I also wanted to make it something loving as well. It's about empathy and understanding.
How about the eggs you've placed on them this time round?
The eggs are there because I was thinking about these egg attacks outside the George & Dragon [gay bar] and places like that. You'd have people driving past in fast cars throwing eggs. There's something really charged about those encounters. It's not like they're throwing a rock or using a knife; it's still an assault, but soft.
I like the idea of gay life hiding in plain sight. Obviously everyone is negotiating different interactions regardless of sexuality, but there is something particular about the gay experience. It also feels like you're bringing these furtive gay rituals out of the dark with your show.
I think turning it back into something about a universal experience is important. We're in a public institution and these are things that are supposedly private. I like the idea of this big lounger being on display. Why not?
Tell us about your use of tiles.
What I like about the banal tiles is that they're this highly reflective surface that allow you to have a view behind yourself. I've come across that standing at a urinal, facing a white tiled wall, which is there ideologically and architecturally to be cleanable and reiterating ideas of hygiene, but it also allows you to abuse what it's about, by letting your eyes stray and seeing shadows and things behind you.
And can you tell us about the various tile structures?
I've been making these works called Watch Queens, which are these singular tile column structures. I really wanted to place that Watch Queen in the walkway, so it's a protagonist of the show. You can see it on the concourse surveilling everything. It's about opening up the concourse and the gallery into one. "Watch Queens" are men in cruising situations who don't actively participate; they're just looking out, so they are voyeurs, looking for action unfolding and keeping a watch for anything that might interrupt it. I liked ascribing something figurative to these abstract works.
All artists are bothered about materials, but some may only work with a couple, say oil, brush and canvas. Your interest in materials seems to be a bigger feature of your work than it is in other artists'.
It's only through making that I've maybe got a better idea of the materials that I'm attracted to and use. When I see the show, I'm clearly interested in materials that are in public design, and materials that have qualities of slippage. I'm using glass and metal and ceramic. They're all materials that don't necessarily like attachments. Then it's about me re-staging them in ways that encourage empathetic response from the viewer; humanising them. Like that industrial piece of metal downstairs that's on the scale of a toilet mirror. And it's got this condensation or sweat on the surface. I also frame these things through titles of works, so I talk about it as a sweaty body or sweaty surface.
There's the room with the talc on the floor, which references clubs like David Mancuso's The Loft in the 70s.
That work came about from a story you told me! That they used to lubricate peoples' movements by having talc on the floor and for a while I've been wanting to make a floor work. I'd been using all these hygienic clean tiles and I wanted to find a way to dirty them up. And rather than have something on the surface, I liked the idea of something under the surface. So I used the talc to create patternation on the floor, then put acrylic on top, so it becomes like dirt trapped under your fingernails. You can walk on it, but the talc won't move. I like these immediate ways of pressing something, or fixing it in place.
Clubbing informs a lot of your work. What are your thoughts on clubbing as salvation or discovery?
It think it's really easy to romanticise those ideas, but I think there's a reality to those places not always being that. There are dangers in it, sometimes. But to me, it is about boundlessness; a space where you can maybe test your parameters, or get lost.
When we last spoke, you weren't sure whether to do an interview with the BBC Asian Network interview, or not. What were your reservations? Your show is obviously very personal and your gay identity is a big part of that. But how about your racial identity?
I decided to do the interview. I'm quite happy to do it, but my worry with these things -- as much with gay things -- is that I don't want to limit the way my work is engaged with. It's not about being ashamed or a fear of association. I see my practice as diverse and I don't want to shut it down by pigeon-holing myself as being a half-Asian, mixed-race, gay artist. Those are all things that I am, and it's material that feeds into the work. In the end I decided the interview is important to do, because I do have things to say in relation to that.
There's a lot of play with light and dark in your work.
Yeah, there's Guy Hocquenghem's The Screwball Asses, the seminal text everyone was talking about years ago. The author talks about dark spaces as being where queers have always historically projected their desires and he talks about them as places of antagonism, and asks why we are repetitively placing our desire in these places.
No matter how far gay rights have come in the West, gay people are still cruising and continuing with certain gay habits that some think emerged because of oppression. Since many gay men are still doing that, even with greater freedoms, you wonder if it's simply a hangover from those days, or just a very sexy thing that people will always want to do.
Exactly. It's a contentious thing. I don't know!
You've included club-style posters for Bump, End Up and 10th Floor. Can you talk about those?
10th Floor was the name of a disco club in the 70s in New York. I remember reading that it was very pretentious, and also very white, and it was on the 10th floor of this building. Apparently it was so pretentious that even the dark room had lights on. I always loved this story. I was in Stromboli doing this residency on the volcanic island and I was making posters of fictitious scenarios, and was just imagining that there was a 10th Floor in the house that I was staying in.
You've also worked with your dad on pieces in the past. How is that?
I did enjoy that process. It was about us collaborating on these forms that we didn't necessarily speak about their subtext. The original Watch Queen sculptures are sculptures that my dad and uncle were helping me make, and they never really questioned what they were about, and I never told them.
It takes bravery to do pieces that are exposing about your sexuality and lifestyle, when you know your family are watching.
I do worry about that, but it also does this thing of making it come out in a completely different way, which I don't think is diaristic. There's something about that repression and squeezing it out that means it can be relevant to more than one person. I don't think the work is reliant on a backstory. It's usually just a starting point. The form might say something too, even through scale. So you might have to come up very close to the surface, because it's invisible. Or it might flirtatiously reflect something around you, or make you vulnerable by making you bend down towards it. There are other ways you can work formally.
What about working in a bigger gallery. Has it changed the way you see your future work? Are you thinking bigger now?
Totally. This is the first time I've had enough space to make these bigger works. I actually feel really excited to be going back into the studio, seeing the relationships some of these works are having. Being able to work in this bigger space has only made me want to experiment more.
Prem Sahib: Side On is at the ICA from 24 September to 15 November 2015.ica.org.uk
Text Stuart Brumfitt
Portrait Rosie Harriet Ellis
Installation views Mark Blower