Paul Maheke: A Fire Circle for a Public Hearing
Interview by Alice Bucknell for Mousse Magazine
ALICE BUCKNELL: Understanding history through nonhuman subjectivities and reading the body as an archive are two main components of your practice. Can we start by introducing these ideas?
PAUL MAHEKE: I regard the body as an archive of personal history and transhistorical memory, as well as a space of hyper-possibility where Western representations of queer Black and Brown narratives can be disrupted, re-articulated, and reinvented. Nonhuman narratives are to me a crucial component of thinking beyond Western modes of history, in that they provide a space for new forms of life that can speak to an alternative discourse.
AB: How do these aspirations relate to your own subjectivity?
PM: In my work I attempt to remove myself from the representational aspects of memory politics in order to find new ways to address questions of erasure and permeability in the construction of identity. Recently I have found it very fruitful to address water as a feminist substance, in order to distance myself from the sorts of subjectivities that manifest in my work while still engaging with them critically.
AB: In what sense are you engaging with these ideas in your upcoming exhibition at Chisenhale Gallery?
PM: Most immediately, sound. A strategy I’ve recently adopted in choreographing my performance-based work is using a soundtrack. I have commissioned a sound piece from an artist named Sophie Mallett, with whom I previously collaborated in 2017 for my exhibition What Flows Through and Across at Assembly Point in London. This commissioned work will consist of a one-hour-long composition that explores echoing and repetition, and it will be specifically calibrated for the space. In addition to this new element of sound, I am really thinking in broad concepts, through an overlaid sequence of narratives that offer new ways of looking at time and space as well as novel ways of occupying a gallery space. Specifically, I’m choreographing a series of performances that will feature the character of some sort of ghost that lingers around the gallery. The exhibition hones in on this figure of the ghost: as a memory of the past that may or may not manifest in the present with the potential of housing itself. In sticking with the theme of threes—a number imbued with mystical power across multiple cultures—I collaborated with three performance artists who together form the core of the exhibition. One is from a theater background, one is from a dance background, and the final performer is a combination of everything. The performers won’t be present in the space all the time, but maybe three times a week, or an hour each day. I’m interested in exploring how the body can affect a space without being present. In a nod to Chisenhale Gallery’s extensive history of public programming, I have constructed this exhibition as a metamorphic series of public events and programs. The installation will be activated throughout the duration of the show in three chapters that explore the threshold between the cosmic and the domestic. I’m using this as an opportunity to extend the research component of my practice, which always emphasizes these interconnected moments between the audience and my work as well as my own relationship with my friends and collaborators. I am also using the very public and sensory nature of the exhibition to ask: Can we conceptualize a queer black understanding of time and space? What might it look like?
AB: Cosmology has always been an undercurrent to your work. Will it have a more dominant presence here?
PM: Absolutely. To me, it’s impossible to engage with sound without addressing the realm of the ghost. Because that’s how sound technology was used and regarded for a long time—that is, to connect the human world with that of the supernatural and the cosmological. Sound is a way of working beyond traditional conventions of bounded time and space. This exhibition is trying to make connections between the cosmic and the domestic, as well as exploring what’s in between. It hones in on the psychic medium, the figure who communicates between lower and higher frequencies. I’m also looking at the choreography and psychic thinking, and speculating on how the medium is taking all these mainstream outlets in the United States.
AB: Like New Age health rituals—sound baths in the desert style?
PM: Not so much embedded in New Age, but rather African cosmology, which I trace back to the clan of my father in the Congo. In addition to installing a sonic work, I have a roster of psychic experts, critics, writers, and spiritual healers who will lead workshops based on sound healing, astrology, consciousness, and movement. And magic tricks.
AB: Magic tricks?
PM: Yes. [laughs] I’m thinking about the ghost as a type of magician, as well. There are really a lot of possible narratives.
AB: Frequently in your work, the architectural qualities of the gallery end up influencing the work you show. How does Chisenhale Gallery’s cavernous space factor in?
PM: I enjoy working with the specificities of the exhibition space, whether that means formal or practical concerns or more about its history and memory. There’s also the reckoning component: how to establish connections between the outside world and interior space; recognizing the limits, boundaries, or frontiers. This exhibition at Chisenhale Gallery will be the lightest show I’ve ever done, and one of the lightest in the gallery’s recent history. Recently I became aware that if a space is darker, people tend to stay longer. I’m wondering if sound can somehow do this as well? I am opening up the six windows of the gallery, which have been covered for many years. I will install some window railing that I’m currently producing in the Dominican Republic. Chisenhale Gallery’s space will be challenging, as I normally work in a very minimalistic way, with a few choice installations. I’m not interested in overdoing or filling the space, or cramming in objects just to fill up a void. Scale will play a crucial role. To help produce a sense of fluidity I’ll install a set of curtains that will move throughout the duration of the exhibition. There will also be an airbrush painting of the cosmos running across the long back wall of the gallery.
AB: Do you envision these architectural metamorphoses evolving through any explicit narrative, or is it more affective, to be read through the body?
PM: Definitely a more subtle series of shifts. My first show at South London Gallery was very much embedded in a deconstruction of the authoritative horror of the white cube; I’ve since moved on a bit from that way of thinking. Here, I’m asking after the possibilities of uncovering an alternative queer black reading of time and space, so the gradated interaction of different media and bodies moving through the format of the exhibition itself reflects the ambiguity of this line of thinking. There’s something fascinating about all those interactions, about a soft profusion of things.