BOMB in the Building

Yinka Shonibare interviewed by Anthony Downey

Welcome back to BOMB in the Building, where each week we’re featuring a vintage BOMB interview relating to a Season 5 artist. Next up, Yinka Shonibare, whose exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum is on view through Sept 20, was featured in BOMB on the heels of being nominated for the Turner Prize in 2004. Critic and curator Anthony Downey interviewed the London-born Nigerian artist BOMB Isuse 95, Fall 2005. “It is easy to overlook, in all the theorizing about postcoloniality and the politics of identity, about the amount of amusement and frivolity he can pack into his work,” Downey wrote at the time. In the excerpt below, the two discuss the artist’s film, Un Ballo in Maschera [A Masked Ball], which centers around the controversial figure of King Gustav III of Sweden, who was assassinated in 1792. Read the full interview here.

Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball), 2004, color digital video, 32-minute loop. Images courtesy of the artist, James Cohan Gallery, New York, and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London.

Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball), 2004, color digital video, 32-minute loop. Images courtesy of the artist, James Cohan Gallery, New York, and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London.

Anthony Downey: The act of not taking sides would seem to be part of an ethical, rather than political, approach if we’re looking at Un Ballo in Maschera as a historical metaphor for political redemption. Is the film a direct comment on the present day in this sense?

Yinka Shonibare: I give the audience two options. You see the king go into the ball, indulge himself in the excess and get murdered. But I give him the option to get up again. It’s up to the audience to decide which version prevails. Do they want him to stay murdered, or do they want him to be saved? The audience is seeing both possibilities. In real life, of course, there is no rewind, or replay; an event happens and that’s it.

AD: So you’re asking the audience to be complicit, if not in the assassination, then in the redemption.

YS: It depends on the person. Viewers have to make up their mind whether this person had the right to assassinate that leader or not. You need a leader, but what sort of leader? The film gives you the opportunity to engage with the various tensions. In the dance and the theatricality as well as the breathtaking visuals, you’re part of that excess and you indulge in it, but then it’s not that simple because there’s a dark side to this beauty. It’s not just a lavish banquet; there’s always this “terrible beauty.”

AD: “All changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty is born.” It’s a particularly apposite quote from W. B. Yeats, bearing in mind that it comes from a poem that expresses his own disillusionment with revolution.

YS: Yes, so there’s always this thing that isn’t what you imagined it to be at first.

AD: There’s also an absence of dialogue in your film. That was obviously intentional in the presentation of visual rather than aural excess. Is this what Barthes calls jouissance, the literal pleasure in the image itself?

YS: It’s really about the presence of the actors. I wanted to avoid linear narrative, and dialogue sometimes makes that difficult unless I were to use dialogue in a very sophisticated manner. I didn’t want to distract from the presence of the actors. I left in things that would be taken out in “normal” film, like the effort of their dancing, or their breathing, or the sound of their clothes. Everything’s exaggerated so that you can just focus on the people, on the movement, on the visuals. That also gave the action a slightly disturbing quality, which I liked.

AD: I quite like the idea of redemption as an ethical or relative, rather than political, gesture.

YS: I don’t force that notion onto the audience. You have the opportunity to rethink these things, but you don’t necessarily have to. There are people who believe that the war in Iraq is absolutely right, as there are people who believe that it is absolutely wrong. There are two sides, and I think that’s what an artist has to recognize: positions are always relative.

AD: And not taking a side is in fact taking a side, insofar as it opens a third space, beyond that easy agreement or disagreement.

YS: Even racism is about relativity, do you see what I mean? I guess as an artist that relativity is what I want to highlight and play with. According to Brecht, the audience completes the work of art, and that is a notion I very much subscribe to.

AD: Also the Brechtian idea that you have to draw attention to the artifice of the theater in order to involve yourself politically in what is happening. I know you’re a big film buff. I want to talk about the importance of film for you. I mean particular filmmakers, particular films. I know you’ve cited Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover as a film that interests you.

YS: Actually, for Un Ballo in Maschera I looked to that film again, because it shows how ridiculous excess can be, and how when you push it further, it becomes extremely primitive: the primitive side of humanity. I also like the pace of the film, the darkness of it, and its form. There are also some Godard films in which he focuses on form. You can do that with art; you can reference your form quite easily in a way that people understand. But with the saturation of Hollywood cinema there has also been a return to the idea of referencing the form of the film itself, which the great modernist filmmakers, particularly the French, were doing. This was something I felt I wanted to do: make an art film that refers to itself.

AD: Two things come to mind: the long shot in Godard’s Weekend that tracks along a road of burning cars, and the circular narrative of Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad.

YS: Yes, Resnais used the device of repetition in that film. That’s a very good one to reference, because of the sheer excess of that film: they’re all in this amazing hotel. It’s certainly one of my favorite films. French New Wave cinema is probably my favorite period of film. You can watch them over and over again and see something new every time.

Read the full interview in BOMB Magazine here.


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