Shahryar Nashat and Bruce Hainley have known each other for a while, as an artist and a writer, respectively, and as friends. For a shorter period, a little over a year, they worked together behind the scenes on this exhibition at the Renaissance Society, which closed today, July 2nd. To mark the beginning of the show, at first there was a single photograph and a brief note on the website, not much else. This set things in motion and set the scene. In the grainy iPhone snapshot, credited to Shahryar, there’s a man in shades and a hat, a famous face in the shadows as people keep eating around him.
The note, signed by Bruce, read as follows: “We met for lunch to continue our conversation, soon noticing the celebrity, incognito, taking a meeting nearby, and such serendipity prompted a reaction: Use this strange presence as a device to work through the current moment in relation to how bodies, whether living currency or undead, circulate, distort, unalive, and, yet, love.”
Most exhibitions begin with a clear statement of intent and a press release that doubles as a description. Here, the title of the show was, and still is, conspicuously absent. In lieu of any explanation, you get an origin story — the fortuitous celebrity sighting — and a score, so to speak, a path that hadn’t yet been traveled. As days and weeks went by, other photos of the same celebrity began to appear, interspersed with cryptic posts of antic TikTok videos. Images accumulate, momentum builds. And here is where the path started to fork, perhaps. If you lived in Chicago, or traveled to the city, you walked into the exhibition on opening day, or in the weeks after, not knowing exactly what you’d find. If you were following along from afar, reading the Ren’s newsletter or scrolling social media, you had to wait and watch, or interpret based on what’s available.
Walking into the space, one entered a vestibule immersed in green light, evoking sunlight, a work by Puppies Puppies (Jade Guanaro Kuriki-Olivo). After stepping through a green beaded curtain, also by the same artist, a trio of smartphones sat on a cluster of four tables, the synched screens playing a selection of TikTok videos from a private Instagram account @halal.after.haram, their sound occasionally filling the room. Farther ahead, a video in triplicate by Larry Clark: a readymade extract from a Phil Donahue episode from the 1990s in which a boy and his mother recount his rape by his high school varsity wrestling teammates. Directly below it, a small painting by Karen Kilimnik of a faceless person with blond hair. The title tells us it’s Swampy’s friend, the blond, living in the woods, eco warriors camp.
The exhibition space itself played a role, reshaped to funnel viewpoints, channel movement, and keep a few secrets before letting them go. Shahryar and Bruce worked closely with designer François Lafortune to devise a huge wall that divided the space, the long way, north and south. This big edifice was also split in two by a passageway at its center between two rising peaks. On the backside of the wall were two identical photographs by artist Larry Johnson of a step-by-step guide of how to draw the face of the whistleblower Chelsea Manning. Turn the corner and a dark gaping doorway appeared, smaller than usual, roughly cut into the right wing of the structure. Inside was a grotto, where two livestream feeds played on embedded TV screens: the first one is of an anonymous man who streams his sleep to a live audience for money; the second a live camera of a cat shelter. As you exited the cut-out door again, in the corner just opposite was the only work of Shahryar’s in the show: a pile of clear plastic bags, each filled with yellow liquid, a palpable vision of bodily excess.
After making a circuit of the space, it was the opposite corner that more actively drew your attention. There, appearing on their own terms, with acrobatic virtuosity, local Chicago pole dancers took turns dancing on a pole, built into one of the corner alcoves, during all hours the show is open. Directly opposite the pole dancers, at first hidden from view, was a painting by Marie Laurencin, Head of a Young Woman, 1926, borrowed from the Art Institute of Chicago. Laurencin, an artist who painted many chorus girls in her time, has largely fallen out of favor and fallen out of view, but she was desirable once, too.
Other layers were added to the exhibition over time, drawing out different vampire echoes (and wavering love stories) along diverging literary paths. Twice during the show, the space became host to table reads, with other artists as the directors. Within the reverberant exhibition space, Pope.L directed seven actors in a reading of Adrienne Kennedy’s one-act play The Dramatic Circle, for an intimate group behind closed doors. A month later, Catherine Sullivan directed a reading of the screenplay of The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, in a screening room elsewhere in the building, with a live feed beaming actors in the gallery onto a screen behind the readers.
A press release, or exhibition webpage, usually frontloads what the show is all about, offering the main takeaway points. Bruce and Shahryar’s note hinted at their core concerns, but to a large degree the core concerns have taken shape over time. Above all, they manifest in the experience of the show in space: how bodies evolve into living currencies, monetized by choice or against one’s wishes. How acts of exploitation and violence, with one’s body as the crux, lie in balance with exertions of personal agency and self-possession. How image circulation and (self) display negotiate between hyper visibility and erasure, playing out various acts of hiding and revelation.
With no surprise, taking everything in, a meta-theme emerges that brings together Shahryar and Bruce’s common concerns as peers and as friends—an object of artistic and formal inquiry for the former, and a running thread in the writings and poetry of the latter. Namely, the body as an abstract idea, an image, and an undeniably physical and sensual object. The implications of each spin out in all directions. Bolstering this was a shifting sense of “liveness,” deadness, and flirtations with uncertain states in between. The lack of information early on, and throughout the show, wasn’t meant to be cryptic or willfully obscure, as Bruce and Shahryar said at the time. It carefully prioritized the direct experience of the show and turned away from conventions. In a way, maybe Bruce and Shahryar were also testing another hypothesis. They never said this exactly but it goes like this: an exhibition is also a body, something material and physical, but always vulnerable in its inevitable transformation into images or abstract ideas.
At the end of this exhibition, Bruce and Shahryar asked us (the Ren’s curators) to look back and write about it. To write a press release, or a summary, or a eulogy. They described this casually as an exercise to see what ingesting the show would produce. Maybe that word is a perfect one: exercise. An exercise is an activity done to practice something, or to test yourself. But an exercise, fittingly, can also refer to an activity requiring physical effort, something done for the body, by the body, something that makes you sweat. Let’s add another one as well, namely “exercise” as a different kind of verb, meaning to occupy the thoughts of, to perplex or to worry. They were exercised about (fill in the blank). Maybe all along, it’s been that kind of exercise too. Dial back the slight echo of panic this expression contains, though, and find some odd comfort in an exercised state instead. It can be illuminating to follow one’s obsessive thoughts, to feel perplexed, to hold onto that feeling. It can even be alright to worry, since the world is fucked up in many ways and plenty worthy of worry at length; strange fascinations are often nestled inside.
As it happens, there was another note from Bruce and Shahryar, what they referred to as a welcome note for viewers. If you saw the exhibition in person, you came across a sheet of paper in a display case just outside the entrance. Now that the show has closed, the same words function as a farewell, or a love letter, or eulogy of its own:
“Every moment takes us further from you and your bodies and they find it harder to bear the separation. You are the ceaseless object of our thinking. Your bodies are the ceaseless thinking of our objects. Fold like into unlike, repeat. We create new misunderstanding. Livestream it to death and yet it still won’t quite achieve life. More or less painful or more or less loved. Imagination exhausts itself in wondering what you did and what you are doing. Your smile is like staring directly into the eclipse.”
May this exhibition live forever, undead online, full of desire and longing in its afterlife.