BODY / POLITICS
A Conversation between
Sheida Soleimani, Liz Cohen, &
Chanel Von-Habsburg Lothringen
While living in Detroit briefly a few years ago, I met two women that helped shape my perspective as an artist: my mentor, Liz Cohen, and my peer, Chanel Von-Habsburg Lothringen. These two women later became my friends, while also challenging me to reconsider the ways I approached my practice. The three of us had a lot more in common than I thought when I first met them; although each of our respective artistic practices tackles different content, our research practices and interests all target the struggle required for self-determination in the face of resistance. While thinking about how we are considering our work and negotiating the world around us, we began a conversation to catch us all up on what each of us is working on, and how we are beginning to approach new content in all of our works.
What are you working on in the studio right now? What’s got you occupied?
Sheida Soleimani: I’m in the process of finishing up a series of sculptures and photographs I started last year, called 'To Oblivion', which focuses on the unjust executions of women in Iran under the current regime. Most recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the oil industry and trade (specifically the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) and how political systems are always male-dominated economies. Through using costuming and creating masks of prominent political figures in the oil trade, I’ve been creating characters to inhabit tableau sets that portray the socio-economic situations in each of the 14 OPEC countries.
Liz Cohen: I consider all of my projects ongoing even though they may experience periods of dormancy. My preoccupation with the body and agency continues. Lately, I have been working with a poet, focusing on his experiences of gender personally and within social contexts. The process of producing the work includes collecting the poems, interviews, home visits, and prolonged periods in the studio reacting to what I’ve learned to produce collages and weavings. The studio output and I return the material to the poet’s body and have an experience in the presence of the camera.
Chanel Von-Habsburg Lothringen: Right now, I’m finalizing the proofing of my first book, Deadstock, which brings together “stock” photography generated from my first body of work Seduced & Abandoned. I’m also storyboarding the video components for Family Opera, a performance and installation that investigates the politics of family, privilege, aspiration, persona and redemption.
How are you all using the mash-up or collage in your practices? Do you see overlap?
Inauguration (United States, Iraq), 2016,
archival pigment print, Sheida Soleimani
SS: When thinking about all of our practices and how we conduct research in conversation with what we create, I think we all use “mash-ups” in our works, both theoretically and visually (through collage as well as layering imagery/content). in these mash-ups, our distinct politics become visible.
In my practice, I force subjects to contend with one another in close proximity within the frame of an image; first in a physical realm (sculpted tableaus), then thorough still image, using the camera to flatten any depth in an image as an aggressive act to reassert the acts of violence occurring in the source imagery. The physical content creates what I refer to as a “symbolic lexicon,” something I also view as a form of “mash-up” that references trade and economies in direct conversation with social justice and human rights violations (specifically in the East vs. the West).
"THROUGH USING COSTUMING AND CREATING MASKS OF PROMINENT POLITICAL FIGURES IN THE OIL TRADE, I’VE BEEN CREATING CHARACTERS TO INHABIT TABLEAU SETS THAT PORTRAY THE SOCIO-ECONOMIC SITUATIONS IN EACH OF THE 14 OPEC COUNTRIES."
LC: I see my artistic practice as coming from a tradition of documentary storytelling. As I approach people and situations I am initially unfamiliar with, I am conscious of my subjectivity and that I am unprepared to offer a conclusive document. I begin stacking or layering content to expose what I see as co-existing. These layers may include content that alludes to a geopolitical backdrop, the struggle of the individual in the face of others, and how experiences reside in the body.
CV-HL: For me, the collage is a means of engagement with time and psychology. I think quite a bit about the way in which scale and the relationship between the center and edge of an image are in conversation with our relationship to the screen and, in a way, generate tension. I think we all are using the collage (this formal displacement and reconfiguration of images or objects) in order to think about the idea of marginalization.
"I THINK WE ALL ARE USING THE COLLAGE (THIS FORMAL DISPLACEMENT AND RECONFIGURATION OF IMAGES OR OBJECTS) IN ORDER TO THINK ABOUT THE IDEA OF MARGINALIZATION."
-CHANEL VON-HABSBURG LOTHRINGEN
How are you all using the body in your practices?
LC: The body is seen and carries the burden of experience. As an artist rooted in the traditions of photography, I deal in representation. I am drawn to exhibitionism. The body can be a very effective tool for self-expression, and it often betrays us. The body is a hanger for expressive garments and our primary tool for producing artifacts. It is marked by experience and is only escaped by death. I have looked at bodies that are engineered by the motives of the psyche. The drama plays itself out in the body. Trans bodies may be canals, auto bodies may experience recurring erections, and the very sexual body that makes a person conspicuous may render that person invisible.
SS: I’m returning to trying to use the body in my works. I grapple with the usage of human form often, as I find that the body is such a recognizable image, and much of my practice aims to obstruct subjects that are immediately identifiable for their specific form/function. In my newest body of work, titled Medium of Exchange, I have been investigating the relationship between the leaders of the oil-rich OPEC countries and Western military leaders, complexes, and governments that have been involved in warfare as a result of oil interest. By casting a variety of bodies to play the roles of each OPEC Oil Minister, the series of photographic portraits and screen-plays probe the interplays of love, sex, and politics that the petroleum industry has created at the hands of those in command while scrutinizing the patriarchal systems that hold power over societies, economies, and marginalized bodies.
She’s not a eunich! (Re-Birth of Venus), Chanel Von Habsburg-Lothringen, 2014, Archival Pigment Print, 48 x 38.4 inches
(121.92 x 97.536 cm), Edition of 5 (+2AP)
Minister of Petroleum, Venezuela, 2016, archival pigment print, Sheida Soleimani
CV-HL: The body is an investigatory tool to understand power structures; each body carries a specific socio-political code. The use of desire and sexuality within our visual lexicon of understanding “femininity” is where my most recent study lies. How is power being exercised onto a body, and how is that very same body rebelling against that imposing power structure?
How do you simultaneously grapple with the dire need for diversity within the art world and the feeling of being the token “racial” artists? Where does change come from in terms of an art world that is more inclusive? Or a society that is more inclusive?
LC: Identities are very layered. The shortcuts and words we use to describe people often over-determine them. My projects are layered and inconclusive. That’s a politic.
"THE BODY CAN BE A VERY EFFECTIVE TOOL FOR SELF-EXPRESSION, AND IT OFTEN BETRAYS US. THE BODY IS A HANGER FOR EXPRESSIVE GARMENTS AND OUR PRIMARY TOOL FOR PRODUCING ARTIFACTS. IT IS MARKED BY EXPERIENCE AND IS ONLY ESCAPED BY DEATH."
SS: “Diversity” has become such a buzz-word in both the art word and academia that trying to pinpoint exactly what that means can become problematic in itself. I’m always frustrated at the lack of visibility that marginalized bodies in the art world face, but I’m also frustrated, in turn, with the constant fetishization of these identities, especially with exhibitions that show artists solely based on their race, gender, or orientation. Recognizing that we need to be inclusive of these identities is extremely important, but the way we go about it needs to be re-assessed. I’m always urging myself, my friends, and my students to analyze what they look at and why. If we can shift our paradigms to be cognisant of the ways we are conditioned, we can challenge these models to promote inclusivity without exploitation, while also pushing to re-condition those around us.
Chanel Von Habsburg-Lothringen (b. 1989, Detroit, MI) holds an MFA in Photography from Cranbrook Academy of Art and a BA in Social Science and History of Art from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her work addresses the American notion of aspiration, mortality, and persona. Her previous exhibitions includes: Conditions, ltd los angles, Los Angeles (solo), Grey Goo Gardens, Arturo Bandini at Ballroom Marfa, Marfa, Nuclear Family, 1.5 Rooms, Brooklyn, Figure as Form, LTD Gallery Hollywood Hills Home, Los Angeles, TRUNK SHOW 2, gallery1993, Los Angeles (solo), NADA New York, Boyfriends, Chicago (solo), Flat Foldability, Harmony Murphy Gallery, Los Angeles, Female Body Inspector, Arturo Bandini, Los Angeles, Meanwhile in Lonesome Valley, Loudhailer, Los Angeles, Detroit Independent Film Festival, and Royal Albert Hall. She is the recipient of the Toby Devin Lewis Award, Mercedes-Benz Emerging Artist Award Finalist, the Warren and Margot Coville Scholarship Recipient. She is the co-founded of EMBASSY and has curated projects at Los Angeles Museum of Art (LAMOA), Detroit Design Festival, the Mike Kelley Mobile Homestead and Cranbrook Museum of Art.
Sheida Soleimani is an Iranian-American artist who lives in Providence, Rhode Island. The daughter of political refugees who were persecuted by the Iranian government in the early 1980s, Soleimani makes work that melds sculpture, collage, and photography to highlight her critical perspectives on historical and contemporary socio-political occurrences in Iran. She focuses on media trends and the dissemination of societal occurrences in the news, adapting images from popular press and social media leaks to exist within alternate scenarios. Soleimani’s research and work critically references the Eurocentrism that pervades the study of art and art history. She is specifically interested in the intersections of art and activism, as well as how social media has shaped the landscape in current political affairs and uprisings. Her work has been recognized internationally in both exhibitions and publications such as Artforum, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Interview Magazine,VICE Magazine, amongst many others. She is most recently a recipient of the MacColl Johnson Fellowship, and is currently part-time faculty at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Liz Cohen is a photographer and performance artist whose work spans and manipulates the divisions between image, identity, and life. She is best known for the subversive project Bodywork, in which she transformed an aging East German Trabant into an American El Camino low-rider, and herself into a car customizer and bikini model. Her current project, Him, is an allusive and performative collaboration with the poet Eric Crosley, who identifies as a eunuch. Cohen is currently Artist-in-Residence and Head of the Photography Department at Cranbrook Academy of Art.
Cohen received her MFA degree in Photography from the California College of the Arts. She holds a BFA in Studio Art from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and a BA in Philosophy from Tufts University, both in Boston, Massachusetts. She has won numerous awards and grants including: a Studio Residency from The MacDowell Colony in 2001; a Studio Fellowship in 2002 from the Akademie Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart, Germany; a Creative Capital Foundation Project Grant in 2005; an Artist’s Project Grant from the Arizona Commission for the Arts in 2007; a 2008 Traveling Scholars’ Award from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; and a Kresge Artist Fellowship in 2011.