Rehana Zaman, review by George Vasey
A good conversation should be like a great walk; start with a direction in mind and stray off course as soon as possible. Rehana Zaman’s new solo exhibition at Studio Voltaire - the artist’s first - has the qualities of conversational drift. The installation, ‘I, I, I, I and I’ is the result of a year long collaboration with a group of young people from ‘Body and Soul’, a UK charity that offers opportunities to young people affected by HIV. The commission forms part of ‘Not Our Class’, an ongoing education and participatory programme inspired by the work of Jo Spence.
Issues surrounding body politics, co-authorship and the intersection of art and education were central to Spence’s activities, and Zaman explores these legacies. The work consists of a 15 minute projected video, opposite this is a monitor displaying a group of pigs at a farm. The gallery is strewn with tennis balls recalling the aftermath of a workshop. The video itself is intricately narrated, the sound deliberately low, and the dialogue is full of digressions and non-sequiturs - it took me a couple of visits to the gallery before its subtleties became apparent. The narrative has been shaped through a series of improvisation workshops and collaborative word games with the young people before it was edited by the artist. There are constant references to food, scatology, and authority figures - a place where everything is articulated as ‘stuff’. The adolescent dialogue is incongruously delivered by straight faced actors in their thirties and forties. Hitler appears as a ‘billionaire smoker carrying a pistol’. The tone is at once mundane and hallucinatory.
Occasionally the disjunctive narrative and anecdote coalesce into moments of magical realism - ‘a pig is carrying letters stuffed in its stomach to Germany’ - Pork meets the postal service. The elliptical narrative owes a debt to the work of the Oulipo Group, a loose configuration of French writers who included George Perec amongst their ranks at one point. The group sought new writing structures utilizing creative constraints to trigger new working methods. The improvisatory and collaborative nature of the work also recalls the socialist workshops of Augusto Boal who sought a form of participatory emancipation through a theatre of the everyday. Boal understood that the logic of the group isn’t necessarily one of consensus. Counter to certain historical forms of collectivism, Zaman is attuned to this polyvocality, disavowing cohesion and advocating anecdote over statement, conversation above rhetoric.
‘I, I, I, I and I’, albeit more poetic than polemic, picks up on the strategies of Spence’s generation and entangles the political and the personal. At one point an actor states that a ‘metaphor is for hope’ while another quickly retorts that there ‘is no hope in our story’. The work seems to suggest that things can stop making sense while still reaching a moment of lucidity. Of course that’s how I remember it - but maybe I’m just mixing up my metaphors.