Toronto-based artist Sameer Farooq, talking on absence, museum practice, and (of course) art during a pandemic.
Mosaic (2017) Unglazed paper clay, at the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, ON. Photo: Sean Weaver
Struts Gallery: Your practice often addresses archival silences and omissions, highlighting blindspots in the dominant discourse. Can you speak to the various ways that your projects give shape to the invisible or absent?
Sameer Farooq: To give a sense of presence to absence has always been a strong current in my work. Rather than looking at omissions from an archive (and in my case, I focus on museums), I’m interested in illuminating the invisible hands of museum workers and their administrations as key players in how institutions wield power and have written and located history. I also think that there is a great potential for the imagination within the empty spaces of the archive. In places like museums where everything is so tightly arranged and described, the spaces in-between objects both illuminate an imperialist logic while allowing the critical viewer to re-imagine how such institutions could be repurposed or better conceived.
Pouf, Sausage, Weight, Arc (2017). Installation view at Zalucky Contemporary, 2019, Toronto, ON. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid
SG: Are these areas of inquiry born out of frustration, or as a form of activism? Detective work?
SF: Rather than uncovering, I am interested in showing. My practice is less about detective work. Instead, I expand the lens to include not only the “rare and exotic” objects on display, but also the institutional mechanisms at work. Borrowing from anthropologist Ann Laura Stoler, I believe it is important to show an institution’s “blueprints of distress” as vital components to the full story. What does this mean? It means that the Gandhara Buddha statue is in dialogue with the display case it sits within. This dialogue not only speaks about the history of Buddhism in present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan, but also illuminates how an object was collected/stolen, traveled a great distance, and was transformed from being an object for communal use to a marker of private property behind glass.
Terma, Images from the Ear or Groin or Somewhere (2019). In collaboration with Jared Stanley. Installation view at The Lilley Museum, Reno, NV, USA. Photo: Ann Ploeger
SG: What questions does your work ask of the audience?
SF: My work asks audiences to widen their frame of analysis: mechanisms of display are equally as important to what is on display. In other moments, my work asks the audience to imprint their own experiences onto the work. In response to the tightly curated narratives of museums, I try to create spaces which allow the viewer’s imaginations to seep within the forms and crevices of the work. In my mind, my installations are attempts to unlearn how we have been told to consume institutional renderings of history. Instead, I see great agency in the experiences of the viewer to contribute to a historical narrative.
Installation view at Artellewa, Cairo, Egypt. Photo: Mirjam Linschooten
Something Stolen, Something New, Something Borrowed, and Something Blue (2014). In collaboration with Mirjam Linschooten. Bookwork. Photo: Sameer Farooq
SG: The past several months have been destabilizing on a number of levels. What impact has it had on your thinking and practice?
SF: It’s funny, but I think I have come closer to ways I had always hoped I would work. Putting aside several cycles of numbness and inaction, this has also been a time where closures and postponements have allowed me to go much deeper into my work. Pre-pandemic time had the tendency of being very deadline driven, producing work for a number of shows at once and having to rely on a reserve of previous research. Instead, I’ve experienced the past several months as being quite low-stakes and exploratory. I’ve enjoyed going to my garage studio and just sitting with materials and equipment, allowing the images to come to me. It has felt slow and generative and delightful. It reminds me of when I was a kid growing up on Cape Breton Island and the only thing there was to do was draw.
24 Affections (2019). In collaboration with Jared Stanley. Monoprint (detail) at The Lilley Museum, Reno, NV, USA. Photo: Ann Ploeger
SG: What are you currently working on?
SF: I’m working on two projects at the moment: the first is a series of new works for the Koffler Centre of the Arts in Toronto. The immersive installation of sculptural, print, and audio works will address the fraught and violent histories of encyclopedic museum collections, their colonial origins, structures, and impulses. With this project, I’m particularly interested in the mechanics of repatriation. The work asks: What would museums look like if everything was returned? Ideally, I would like to propose museums as being slowed-down and contemplative spaces for sensing rather than theatres of imperial violence. This show will open in January 2021. The second project is an experimental video with my longtime collaborator Mirjam Linschooten (Amsterdam, NL). The video, which we have been filming over the last 2 years in the Tropenmuseum (“Tropical Museum”), imagines the museum visiting a therapist. We observe the consequences of the museum’s body holding on to plundered and stolen objects for over a century resulting in several symptoms characterized by museums: obsessive cleaning, exacting displays, flashbacks, etc. The video draws parallels between the museum’s current post-traumatic response and the shame and anxiety of the institution being born from Dutch colonialism.
If it were possible to collect all navels of the world on the steps to ASCENSION (2018). In collaboration with Jared Stanley. Fired clay sculptures and stepped display at The Lilley Museum, Reno, NV, USA. Photo: Ann Ploeger
SG: Do you have predictions for ways that the pandemic will alter the art world for the foreseeable future? Any potential positive outcomes? both positively and adversely?
SF: I predict we will be more grateful when we see each other.
SG: What is influencing your work now?
SF: Tantra paintings, Adolph Appia’s theatre designs, somatic bodywork, Buddhist stupas, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s gardens, heaps as taxonomy.
SG: What are you reading right now? Listening to? Watching?
SF: I just finished Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other which was brilliant. I’m in the middle of Ariella Azoulay’s new book Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism which is also super. I would like to read more from anthropologist Anna Tsing.
To see more of Sameer’s work, please visit http://www.sameerfarooq.com/