Dangerous Liaisons

At Statens Museum for Kunst, Shahryar Nashat has produced a captivating immersive experience that is both seductive and claustrophobic.

Shahryar Nashat, Start Begging, installation view, x-rummet, SMK National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen, 2019. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

Love is a suicide mission most people are crazy enough to accept. Not, like Goethe’s Werther, swooning in heartfelt agony, “I die!” But in a more sinister way, as in the final scene of Pierre Laclos’s novel Dangerous Liaisons (1782): a murder in the snow, at once desperately detached and fatally daring. Blood drips on white, and you get pink. 

“This could be us but you’re playin.” The sentence was written in size twelve-ish sans-serif font on a white slip of paper visible behind layers of plastic wrapped tightly around a synthetic cast of a slab of meat. I left Shahryar Nashat’s (b. 1975) exhibition Start Begging with this line stuck in my head. 

This could be us: dark red resin and rubber, cling-filmed as if suffocating in the far corner of X-rummet (the X-room, SMK’s experimental venue for contemporary art). Does it sound unbearable enough to be appealing? Almost. The whole exhibition is about this almost, a promise of satisfaction exchanged at the last instant for near discomfort. The windows are covered in a pink filter, the volume on the video work Keep Begging (all works, 2019) yanked up to the point that it feels like a material presence, a push from all sides. Nashat has produced a captivating immersive experience that is both seductive and claustrophobic. “Do we go to war?” a voice thunders calmly from the film. If this is an exhibition about desire – begging– this is a statement about intimacy, physical or worse. 

The meat slab is called Bone In. Like the exhibition’s title, this is perhaps an opaque imperative, a bit like “dig in.” Adjacent is Sex Position for Broken Ribs,a mobility aid crashed into a wall, which, on the other side of that wall, has been multiplied and disassembled into Rib, an army of sculptures in green, yellow, and pink. The titles of these works refer to bodies that are nowhere to be seen. But they are just as absent as they are fetishised; objectified body-parts, or, put differently, objects presented in a corporeal register. 

Nashat pays fetishistic attention to detail, and to the materiality of the surfaces. Start to beg is a mouth-watering, light-pink sculpture shaped like a coffin, or a bench, or the narrow windows that line the room. Its edges are sharp in some places, as if machine-cut; in others, they are soft and caressable. Its slickness recalls the work of Nairy Baghramian, just as the room as a whole also has, at first glance, much of her tasteful chic. But look closer, and Nashat’s aesthetic is more gross, slightly abject, even. The Rib series, covered in sloppy papier mâché, and the meta-texts speak to a perversion that is not quite sexy or funny, but alien, fragile, and reckless. Again, “rib” sounds like an imperative: a verb that would name a mobilisation of vulnerability that could only end in careless yet painful defeat. 

Keep Begging rises like a peacock in the middle of the room, spectacular and alert. Viewers enter from behind to a view of the LED screen’s countless wires and blinking lights, and step over the shiny beige tail that connects it to the speakers. Technology is clearly the agent here. The film mostly shows an armpit and, sometimes, an elbow. But both are shown from such obscure angles that they become, if not difficult to recognise, then only obstinately familiar. This is also partly due to the camera, which moves with a smooth agility enabled by a motion-controlled robotic arm. 

You’d only know this, however, from reading the accompanying text. Looking at the work, the effect is rather one of unnerving perplexity. Since Nashat has already bared the technological hinterland of the LED screen, it is worth considering whether the robotic arm could also have been visible in the installation. Left absent, it becomes another strategic excision (another almost) to fuel the desire of the exhibition’s title. This also makes for a textbook uncanny: there’s movement, gaze, body, but no life, no gravity – just a missing link. 

That missing link, perhaps, is the viewer, who is integrated into the exhibition’s dissolved distinction between the organic and the machinic body. Nashat’s non-live agents present a challenge to submit to a dangerous game in which inhuman detachment is the rule, but emotional devastation is still the likely outcome. Here, he gets to the core the contemporary affective dynamic between humans and technology: it forges a type of alienation that doesn’t desensitise us at all, but only exacerbates impact.

With the discontinuation of the X-room following the next exhibition, Copenhagen will have less of such biting reflections to offer. There is, after all, a big difference between an absence in art, and an absence of art, just as Werther would probably agree that even insidious love is better than none.  

Shahryar Nashat, Start Begging, installation view, x-rummet, SMK National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen, 2019. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.