STORIES IN SONG+SHADOW: AN INTERVIEW WITH SAHRA MOTALEBI

Sahra Motalebi is a visual artist, composer and singer born in Birmingham Alabama, 1979. Her work has been performed and exhibited at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, MoMA/PS1, Gladstone Gallery, Museum Ludwig, National Portrait Gallery/ Smithsonian Institute, Vancouver Art Gallery, and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise/Passerby.  Motalebi has collaborated with artists Kai Althoff and Mariah Robertson, and performed with Antony Hegarty.  She has also presented work in connection with Dominique Lévy, the Yves Klein Archivess as well as Arts in Embassies for the US State Department. Motalebi’s studio albums and recording projects are released on her recording imprint Static Recital.

She received a Bachelor of Liberal Arts from Sarah Lawrence College with concentrations in studio art, the history of art and architecture, and classical vocal performance. Motalebi focused on architecture and performance in the Masters of Architecture Program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture.She lives in New York.

New York, Aug. 2014: Sahra Motalebi’s multimedia performance operetta, Intangible Heritages, Belief’s Demise, staged at New York’s Sculpture Center in February, told the stories of neglected archetypical characters. Among the characters that Motalebi conjured from an ancient Eastern literary heritage were a prostitute, a warrior-prisoner, and an elderly recluse. She lyrically presented their interlaced narratives while they moved through a projected shadow play praised by curator Kari Rittenbach as a “multidimensional commingling of a visually flattened, albeit moving image, instrumentation and live harmonization with other pre-recorded voices and verses.”

Motalebi was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and attended Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture. She has exhibited sculpture, dance, music, and drawing at MoMA PS1, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, the Vancouver Art Gallery, and the National Portrait Gallery. She will be touring in Europe this fall. Here, Motalebi explains the methods and meanings that stitch together her diverse artistic interests, activities, and enchanting art forms.

Sahra Motalebi, Spoken Glass, 2010, Video still, Primetime 2010; Photo courtesy of the artist, by Kava Gorna


Ana Finel Honigman: What are the core themes and concerns connecting your disparate practices and works?

Sahra Motalebi: I’d say one of the central themes in my work revolves around the iterative process between various media and this culminates in the operas I think. I write and perform all the music from the vantage point of a classically trained singer and musician and, simultaneously and interrelatedly, as a visual artist I create mixed-media sculpture, installation, and video as the scenography. My music has been influenced by the idea of the anti-opera, basically a nod to early 20th-century radical theater and what I feel is the importance of large-scale “staged” productions of interdisciplinary work. The methods and mechanics of “storytelling” seem to be at risk right now—namely, of neglect and/or being relegated to the realm of things that are “not art.” I’m into repurposing a traditional form of opera, calling into question assumptions around it, especially the antipathy to the expressive gesture.

Another important thread in my work emerged around the time I did Such is the Game of Authenticity (2009)at MoMA PS1 which is about a kind of false dichotomy between concept and experience—which for me came out of my studying Tibetan Buddhism. Such is the Game involved a video installation as a stage backdrop that featured a built environment in front of which I sang a series of my love songs, quite unapologetically. In that piece I was really picking up the idea that ultra “personal” art had been deemed kind of socially irresponsible catharsis, overly-feeling, or indulgent in the contemporary art context; this was also the case in the outer fringes of the music world too. Lots of visual artists have made records and been in bands on independent imprints etc., but when I was younger and invited to sing my music in galleries and in museums, it always felt like a kind of exception to a categorical rule about high-concept, relational performance. This has all changed a great deal obviously. It’s all very on trend now.

AFH: What inspired your aesthetic decisions—set and costumes—for Intangible Heritages, Belief’s Demise?

SM: The choices and aesthetic hierarchies for Intangible Heritages, Belief’s Demise developed in relation to each other over 2013. There was the world of the libretto as it related to the vocal only composition and music, and then also the scenographic and visual elements. As I was writing the music—there are 20+ vocal tracks of beats and harmonies in each song—I was also thinking through the movement, the scenes, video cuts, and vice versa.

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