London-based artist Prem Sahib’s sculptures, installations, and performances evoke emotional reactions through a highly choreographed and honed language of minimalism. Often erotically charged, the artist’s works draw on personal and communal histories, eloquently dissecting the architecture of public and private spaces.

Sahib is set to premiere their new work, Alleus, at Somerset House Studios’ experimental sound, music, and performance series, Assembly. Co-commissioned by the Roberts Institute of Art, the performance work is part of an ambitious and dynamic programme that puts sound in dialogue with other artistic disciplines — running from 20 to 23 March 2024.

Ahead of Sahib’s premiere, Keshav Anand spoke with the artist to learn more.

Photo: Prem Sahib

Keshav Anand: Can you tell us about Alleus, premiering at Somerset House Studios’ Assembly later this month?

Prem Sahib: Alleus is a new performance work that I’ve developed from an earlier audio piece by the same name; the title is ‘Suella’ spelled backwards. The original piece was first shown at Phillida Reid, London, as part of my solo exhibition The Life Cycle of a Flea, in October last year, and also at the 2023 Gothenburg Biennale. At the biennial, it was played through the metal staircase of Roda Sten Konsthall, using small devices called sound exciters, which convert the object or surface they’re in contact with into speakers – so when the audio was played through the stairs, it rattled the entire structure.

The original work manipulated a speech given by Suella Braverman in the House of Commons on the so-called ‘Illegal Migration bill’ from earlier last year. I was doing things like stretching and reversing the audio, as a means of transforming it in various ways. I wanted this treatment to disrupt the direction of the words. I was thinking about reversal in particular, as a way of refusing this dehumanising rhetoric, often spoken on behalf of ‘the British people’. But I also liked how it mirrored her sentiment of ‘sending back the boats’. It reminded me of the types of conspiratorial thinking that seeks to find hidden messages in the reverse, despite the reality of the words themselves being disturbing.

I recently listened to a podcast where the sociologist Richard Sennett was speaking about political theatre through the lens of performance. Sennett suggests that by accepting it as an art form, the art of performance, we are inadvertently complicit in its seduction.

For this new iteration of the work, I’ve developed some of these ideas further and incorporated new material from the Tory Party Conference. I’ve collaborated with the artist and composer Woodsy Bransfield on a backing track which extends the piece into three acts, incorporating three live vocalists who will perform parts of the score within a spiral arrangement of metal conference chairs. I’m using sound exciters again to distort the audio, and experimenting with the voice outside of legible language.

I’ve been thinking a lot about people like Diamanda Galas, and her work around the AIDS crisis, political oppression and genocide. It was through her that I also came across a poem by Henri Michaux, called Je Rame, or I am rowing. The poem takes the form of a malediction or a hex, which became an interesting form for me to think about speaking to power, or transforming one’s relationship to an antagonist. Lines from the poem have helped direct the different acts: act i. enter the house of suffering, act ii. I am rowing against your days, and act iii. I split into countless rowers.

Prem Sahib, what you need to know to get rid of these blood sucking parasites (in the form of a whisper), 2023. Courtesy Prem Sahib and Phillida Reid, London. Photo credit: Ben Westoby

KA: Why was it important to you to work with live vocalists for this project?

PS: I think live vocals bring something really powerful to the work. I first realised this when making the original sound piece, when we recorded a group of friends performing parts of the speech in unison, as a kind of ‘call and response’. When we all chanted the words together, it felt more confrontational and dark. It made me think about the actual reverberations of this kind of rhetoric within society, or the resonance of hate speech, and how it becomes legitimised by those in the public eye.

In looking at the source material more closely, the craft of the speech design also becomes more apparent, showing the calculated intentionality of coded or slippery language. I was interested in ideas around distance and proximity too, and the compulsion to tune-out or disengage from politics. Writers like Jaqueline Rose and Sita Balani have pointed out that ‘in watching cruelty from a position of safety, people experience a kind of catharsis’.

So I wanted to consider what it means to halt that process, and suspend this rhetoric in a space where it becomes experienced differently – where its true horror is even more pronounced. There is something fascinating about the capacity of the voice to stoke or incite certain feelings or actions, which is also why live vocals bring a directness to this refusal – operating as a kind of ‘counter attack’ in real time.

Prem Sahib, That Fire Over There, 2023. Photo: Book Works

KA: Could you expand on the idea of pluralism within your practice  — and particularly in relation to this new commission?

PS: I’m interested in the multiplicity of things, and how varying perspectives can converge in a given space or place. I explored this with my recent book, That Fire Over There, in which I looked at the overlapping histories of the area I grew up in, a suburb of west London called Southall. The project stemmed from an exhibition I made in 2019 at Southard Reid, London, that brought together an archive of material belonging to my uncle, who was an outreach worker and involved in the Southall Youth Movement, which came about in response to race riots in the late 70’s.

I was struck by how little I knew of quite recent histories, and how much they related to the realities of generations after. I showed the archive alongside a video I made on the street where I grew up, so the two works became like intersecting narratives of the same place. Archiving has definitely fed into the idea of pluralism for me, as a way of challenging master narratives. In the same book I also explore the burning down of a pub called the Hambrough Tavern by some of the local community, as an example of a different type of resistance and organising to that which my uncle’s archive documents.

With this commission, though, I’ve been thinking about pluralism as a means of re-orientating political rhetoric. I want for the words to betray and refuse their intended function, so that they become further corrupted. Power and authority can sometimes feel rooted in that singular, individual voice, but pluralism can fracture and re-shape that. Even the discrepancies that occur from saying something over and over again have been interesting for me to think about, like what can start to happen within a copy, of a copy.

So I’m playing with things like reverb, polyphony and a cacophony of sounds and voices, which through their multiplicity, can hopefully take on new forms, or transform the linguistic function of language, into one where the words start to acquire their own sense of action. I love Diamanda Galas’ description of language, how it can become active and fleshy, from In the Mouth of the Crocodile (2012): ‘the words cut and bleed, each syllable served upon a razor blade’.

Prem Sahib, Man Dog, 2019. Courtesy Prem Sahib and Phillida Reid, London

KA: What do you think the artist’s role is in society — and has your answer to this question changed at all over the course of your career?

PS: I think the artist’s role in society can be many things, and I like thinking of this as capacious. I sometimes think of art making as trying to find the freedom to create things you don’t fully understand. So, in that sense, I see an artist’s role in society as about tuning feelings, desires and unknowns into strange mirrors that might say something about who we are, and our place in the world.

Because we live in a time when there are so many threats to this freedom, whether through the influence of market logics, or political conditions that attempt to dictate the terms of ‘art’ through fear and censorship, I’ve found myself wanting to protect that freedom more and more, and remind myself of what art is to me. So my answer to that question hasn’t necessarily changed over my career, but it definitely feels like a very different time to be making work than when I first started out.

KA: What are some of your favourite cultural spaces in London?

PS: I really love visiting the ICA, Camden Art Centre and South London Gallery, but also like engaging with culture(s) outside of institutional spaces, such as cruising sites and nightclubs.

KA: And what are you currently reading?

PS: I was recently recommended Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials. I’ve only just started reading it, but it seems to blend philosophy and theory with fiction. Oil is presented as a protagonist in the book, embroiled in a narrative with geopolitics, the occult and archaeology. While working on this commission, I’ve also found myself returning to Sita Balani’s chapter ‘Dangerous Brown Women’, in her book Deadly and Slick: Sexual Modernity and the Making of Race, where she examines the sadism of Priti Patel.

Prem Sahib’s Alleus premieres at Somerset House Studios on Thursday 21 March 2024 — book tickets here. The work is set to travel to Edinburgh Art Festival in August 2024.

Feature image: Prem Sahib: Liquid Gold, 2016/2023 ongoing, Göteborg Biennial, September – November 2023. Courtesy Prem Sahib and Phillida Reid, London. Photo credit: Hendrik Zeitler

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