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Tai Shani »Tragodía«, Grazer Kunstverein, Graz, 2020. Photo by Christine Winkler
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Tai Shani »Tragodía«, Grazer Kunstverein, Graz, 2020. Photo by Christine Winkler
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Tai Shani »Tragodía«, Grazer Kunstverein, Graz, 2020. Photo by Christine Winkler
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Tai Shani »Tragodía«, Grazer Kunstverein, Graz, 2020. Photo by Christine Winkler
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Tai Shani »Tragodía«, Grazer Kunstverein, Graz, 2020. Photo by Christine Winkler

Puzzle Me This

July 22, 2020
Text by Kathrin Heinrich
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Tai Shani »Tragodía«, Grazer Kunstverein, Graz, 2020. Photo by Christine Winkler

Mixing surrealist aesthetics and millennial capitalism: Tai Shani’s powerful contemplation of life and death at Grazer Kunstverein.

It’s a small children’s game. It requires patience. Trapped in a Perspex box, a small lilac cube with indentures of circles, a silver metal ball: Steer it to the center! Have you ever had nightmares about this puzzle? No matter how carefully you balance the cube, the silver ball skips and is off again. Click clack.

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Tai Shani »Tragodía«, Grazer Kunstverein, Graz, 2020. Photo by Christine Winkler

Just a light shatter, a breath, your hand betrays you – it will not hold still. The game is over.

What Tai Shani constructs at Grazer Kunstverein she likens to a portal: the first of a two-step journey into »Tragodìa«, her multimedia installation-cum-experience based on ancient Greek tragedy. It is the childrens’ puzzle grown in size, mutated into a nightmarish landscape, rendered in ironically pleasant shades of dusky pink and purple. The proportions here are off kilter. Tiny spoons, a large silver ball. But instead of Alice, the classic cutesy heroine of shrinkage and growth, here lies what seems to be the death mask of quite a different figure. An old woman with the face of a child. Baba Yaga with the flowing teal mane of a teenage YouTube starlet. Ladybirds crawling all over her purple hands, two tiny candlesticks for eyes, lit up. A tableau mortant.

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Tai Shani »Tragodía«, Grazer Kunstverein, Graz, 2020. Photo by Christine Winkler

Just a light shatter, a breath, your hand betrays you – steering the wheel astray. A life is over.

How to deal with the sudden, unexpected death of a loved one? Heavily buckled around the head, a VR-set is what really transports me deep into the story Shani tells of a daughter’s car crash death, constructed as a dialogue between the surviving women of the family. She puts me up close. Very close. Against an eye, a flaring nostril. As I look down my small, translucent body pulsates with color. Floating next to this enormous face, I am the ghost child. Listening to the voices of mother, aunt and grandmother, I speak up myself. The cat Oedipuss interjects every now and then.

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Tai Shani »Tragodía«, Grazer Kunstverein, Graz, 2020. Photo by Christine Winkler

While the motionless installation with its miniature-sized objects creates distance, the immersive VR-experience mercilessly pulls the viewers close; holding them in a choke of intense melancholia and physical stress, as the heavy gadget presses into the skull. By combining the two forms, Tai Shani creates a story world informed by surrealistic aesthetics as well as millennial capitalism. Her characters ponder existential questions just as much as the mundane: »Non-believers have to accept that the price for secular respite is that of eternal separation,« says the ghost child. Later on, she will recount her goodbyes, professing her love for her family as well as many different things: »I love you sky; I love you water; I love you paper; I love you piss; I love you iPhone 7.«

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Tai Shani »Tragodía«, Grazer Kunstverein, Graz, 2020. Photo by Christine Winkler

Drawing on forms of science-fiction as well as feminist and queer theory, Shani’s multifaceted practice can be contextualized within a recent tendency of artistic expression influenced by philosopher Donna Haraway or writer Ursula K. LeGuin that often makes use of stereotypical feminine motifs, themes, and color schemes to eventually turn them upside down. But at the core of Shani’s writing is a sincerity that ruptures such discursive disguises. »What can we say to the dying?« muses one figure. »Farewell I have known you. We have known and loved each other as much as anyone could hope to.« It is at such moments of absolute universal clarity and heartbreak that »Tragodìa« is at its most powerful.

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Photo by Marcella Ruiz Cruz

Michikazu Matsune: »It’s Like a Game«

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PW-Magazine is a bilingual online magazine for contemporary culture.