Shervin/e Sheikh Rezaei
An encounter between emotion and rationality
A studio visit with Shervin/e Sheikh Rezaei, on the occasion of her solo exhibition Analyse 01.23 -11: Anaesthetised. Images: © Shervin/e Sheikh Rezaei.
Els Roelandt: Last year you presented your debut at BLANCO—it was ENSEMBLE: An Architecture of the Inbetween, the exceptionally beautiful book that was also your graduation project. Let's go back to those college years that aren’t so far away: why did you choose to study architecture?
Shervin/e Sheikh Rezaei: I always wanted to study something in the arts, but it was not that easy. There was pressure from home, because my parents gave up everything to give us a future here in Belgium. So I had to choose something that offered some security. That certainly played a part in my choice of architecture. But there was also something else: I took drama lessons for ten years, which may explain some of my personality. I thought that architecture could also be my ticket to scenography—that possible link with theater was important to me in the training. I also studied solfège and had opera lessons. I always had many hobbies, I wanted to have my schedule completely full. At the same time, I took the step to architecture very consciously: spatiality was important to me. I have always been very aware of how space reacted and moved around me. I want to create a kind of theatre for myself.
ER: That is very visible in your studio: you have completely moulded the space and its furnishings to your liking. At a certain point, you went to study at the Bauhaus. How did that happen?
SSR: When I was still studying at the Academy, I had a lecturer who taught me how to work with the grid. All my designs in that period had something totalitarian, something constructivist too. The avant-garde started to have a strong appeal, particularly the Russian architect, graphic artist, and visual artist El Lissitzky. His compositions became very important to me, they provoked me. I was also influenced by the way constructivists dealt with color: one basic color, and black and white. That's what I do now: I use black and white, and if I really have to I bring a shade of yellow into the drawings. In those days, I increasingly wanted to archive the world around me, I made a world around myself. Now I've become a kind of persona, which is not something I aspired to—but as I'm so constantly engaged in my work, it comes naturally.
ER: But back to Bauhaus?
SSR: I took a media architecture course there through the Erasmus program. The visual artist Oskar Schlemmer became important to me, but at the same time I discovered that everything I was doing, everything I thought up, had actually been done before me and that I wasn't that special... In the media architecture course at Bauhaus, I learned to use different media to express a certain idea. As an architecture student, I really felt that I had to prove myself and I wanted to be super efficient. At Bauhaus, I learned a lot about materials, I learned to work with animation, and I took many technical subjects such as lighting technology. I also got to know avant-garde film. I studied at Bauhaus in Weimar in the year 2017, and among other things I worked on preparations for the celebration of one hundred years of Bauhaus. I was interested in the history of Bauhaus and yearned for that past, but the school itself taught us to look ahead. I understood then that I had to learn to take that step into the future myself and leave the past and the stylistic behind in order to try something new -something fluid above all. Letting go of the hard stylistic and introducing the organic, I learned this gradually and only really succeeded for the first time in the works that I made for this exhibition at KIOSK.
ER: What subjects did you take at the Academy in Ghent?
SSR: I selected mainly fine arts electives. That was also what interested me while working on my master's thesis. In the end, it was a trip to Iran, my parents' country of origin, on which the book ENSEMBLE (which came out of my thesis) was based. The visual work and the models and pavilions that I made in that period were never purely architectural, but rather sculptural, autonomous. That was very important to me at the time.
ER: Early this year I saw your first exhibition, ENSEMBLE, at BLANCO in Ghent, and your second exhibition, Art Meditation Process, was also on display there later in the year. At the time, I thought that there could not be any other space better suited to show your work than that beautiful space on the Coupure canal. But actually it was the other way round: you installed the works perfectly, you manipulated the sunlight and the walls to create a special interplay between architectural details and light. I found that enchanting.
SSR: Thank you. For the Art Meditation Process exhibition, the space was the most important thing; for the ENSEMBLE exhibition, it was the book. In between—that was in the spring of 2021, I also participated in the exhibition Renaissance, organized by the Astrid Collectief in a squat at the center of Ghent. I experienced participating in that exhibition as a huge relief, because it allowed me to break away from the serious. Astrid Collectief was actually pure pleasure. The only thing that was not allowed was painting on the walls, yet that was exactly what I did. It was the only way to create the work that I wanted to make there. I improvised in the space starting from a crack in the wall. I was working for the architectural firm of Jan De Vylder and Inge Vinck in Ghent at the time, and working on that wall in the squat was sort of my outlet. Stairs interest me, maybe they are a form of desire for escapism. I was very happy with the space I was given—it all looked so weighty. Perhaps because this exhibition went on during the spring 2021 lockdown, it was also a huge success: it was only supposed to be open one weekend, but it became four days. More than 1000 visitors came, including museum directors from all over the country.
ER: It was indeed a special event. Has the building been demolished since?
SSR: No, it's still there, maybe we'll have to take it over a second time.
ER: That spring was an intense period for you, and then in the summer came the exhibition Art Meditation Process. What did you show then?
SSR: After my best friend became seriously ill, I went through a very dark period. I made a whole series of Excel drawings for the architectural firm I worked for. To relax, I started making small drawings that left a residue on paper. I discovered that I could find peace in my work, that I could use it as a tool for meditation. I showed those works in the summer at BLANCO.
ER: Both exhibitions, ENSEMBLE and Art Meditation Process, resulted in a book. Is graphic work important to you, or is it the process of archiving? Or both?
SSR: Archiving plays an important role—you can record things in a book and then easily distribute those things. A book can serve anyone, anyone can understand it, and, not least, you have full control over it. The graphic aspect is also important to me—arranging and ordering. I love archiving.
ER: You graduated as an architect and are now taking a path that leads toward the visual arts. Do you miss architecture?
SSR: No, not yet. And I certainly don't miss office work. I do miss talking to architects, like the conversations I had with Jan De Vylder and Inge Vinck. I could listen to them endlessly. They are two special, talented architects, older than me, who continue to inspire me, and I am extremely grateful to them. My dream is to build my own house one day, a house for myself—that is the highest goal I want to achieve at the moment. Architecture is everything: sculpture, knowledge of materials, drawing...
ER: Jonas Mekas is important to you?
SSR: Yes, I haven't seen many of his films but I really like the honesty of his diaries. I often tend to go for theoretical books, but here I am interested in his personal archiving, which is something I also really enjoy doing. Incidentally, people who are involved in film look at the world in a very different way—through the camera everything seems more staged and also more performative.
ER: You are currently taking a film course at KASK, School of Arts.
SSR: Yes, I am taking a film analysis course with Hilde D’haeyere, among other things. That is a theoretical subject and I find it quite intense but super interesting, all those different ways of looking at things. I want to make a film myself one day.
ER: In preparation for the exhibition at KIOSK, you already made a short film?
SSR: I filmed a horse-fishing scene, as it is still practised in Oostduinkerke, among other places. Fishing for shrimp on horseback has a special beauty, peace, and simplicity. I made a lot of shots, but am still a bit afraid to bring them together. It's like a book: you write several fragments that don't necessarily form a whole. A drawing, on the other hand, is there right away. I needed seaweed for the installations I wanted to make for KIOSK and that is how I came into contact with shrimp fisherman Gunther le Bleu and his horse Martha, who took me and a friend along early in the morning. We could follow the quiet fishing process. It was special. I look for this kind of peace in my work. During the pandemic, many people have developed anxiety disorders—we are no longer used to a lot of stimuli and life makes us anxious. But the shrimp fisherman works extremely slowly and is in contact with all the natural elements: water, earth, air, and fire. He is physically and mentally active at the same time. Ultimately, this is super romantic. We just do way too much. I'm mega happy that I've realised that it can also be simple.
ER: In the installations that can be seen at KIOSK, why do you use seaweed?
SSR: The structured in my work quickly takes over, and I wanted to bring some flexibility, fluidity back into it. I saw a documentary by photographer and filmmaker Jean Painlevé (1902–1989), who specialized in underwater fauna. Images of an octopus in that documentary gave me such a nice feeling that I went to the sea, where I found only dead jellyfish until I noticed the seaweed. That was the beginning of my idea for an installation at KIOSK. I also find aquariums interesting: transparent, closed, and limited space that you can fill yourself. I put the aquariums on pedestals. Pedestals have a funny concept: you make a work and only when you put it on a pedestal does it become a real work of art. Using Autocad, I made drawings of still lifes on the glass to add something emotional to the work. They are dead memories presented on a pedestal, isolated from outside stimuli. The pedestals are made of grey cardboard, and you can read the dimensions on them, but the cardboard is otherwise unprocessed. Honesty in materials is important to me, the purity of it. The grey cardboard refers to scale models. I wanted to keep the drawing at the top of the work, as a kind of dominance of the mechanical over the human.
ER: Are the drawings inspired by the seaweed?
SSR: No, they are made completely separately from it.
ER: What is the additional significance of putting some of the pedestals and aquariums on plastic sheeting?
SSR: Initially, the plastic served purely as protection against the dampness on the floor of my studio. But I discovered that it also lent an aspect of preservation, of cooling. I used to be very nostalgic, but I don't experience nostalgia as a positive feeling—I want to get rid of it and no longer live with dead things. That's why I put the work on pedestals, so the nostalgia is still there but isolated.
ER: We haven't talked about the title of your exhibition: Analysis 01. 23- 11: Anaesthetised.
SSR: Anaesthetized refers to being under anaesthetic; the numbers 01, 23, and 11 refer to the eleven works that form a whole. I take away the life of the seaweed by putting it in a vacuum and covering it with paraffin. I take away the life of the seaweed and put it on a tombstone, as if it is paused, anaesthetised. I also wanted to give the installation a certain coolness, something scientific and numerical. Unfortunately, that also has to do with our view of the white man in this world, which urgently needs to change. I try to break through that rigid logic and mix it with emotions. In fact, I am trying to prove myself, to free myself, partly as a woman and partly as a colored person: I can do this too.