Those familiar with Prem Sahib’s work tend to associate his practice with a destabilising minimalism that encapsulates the politics of desire, his experiences as a gay man, while at the same time embracing community.
DESCENT is his latest project and his most personal and political to date. Structured as three exhibitions – or one exhibition in three parts – it collides time, space, personal and social narratives, as well as different media in an incalculable manner. DESCENT questions assumptions about race, gender and sexuality. It also plays with the exhibition format and toys with viewers’ expectations in an unforeseeable and occasionally intrusive manner.
People Come & Go, the first part of DESCENT, opened last November. It was an immersive installation featuring a 1:1 replica of a tunnel in a West End gay cruising club. When I first visited the exhibition, there was a semi-naked performer dancing to no music. On another visit, he was sleeping in the dark space. Sahib turned the viewer into a voyeur and made the whole gallery experience disorientating. It felt as if the viewer was walking into the unknown.
People Come & Go is a work about the subconscious, about unconscious desire and unearthed feelings of shame and guilt. With people constantly coming and going in our lives, the exhibition addressed the fragility of life, the sense of the unexpected through casual encounters and the inevitability of death.
In fact, death is a recurring theme in DESCENT. In Cul-de-Sac, 2019 the second part that opened in December, the death of childhood, the manic intensity of adolescence and the loss of community are all commemorated. Cul-de-Sac consists of a low-tech video that presents a distorted view of Southall, the suburb of West London where the artist grew up. The film comments on the myopic way we tend to see the world at different stages in life, and how we may re-visit our past and ourselves from a distance. It also reframes notions of community, architecture and social space.
Shown alongside archival material that the artist got from his uncle who worked in community outreach with South Asian youth from the 70s through the 90s, the film reinforces an overarching narrative of inclusion, community and urban space. Of course, this narrative is constantly shifting due to the way modern cities are changing.
The third part of DESCENT only opened a week ago and it seems to put many of the ideas of the previous shows in sculptural form. The main work here is Man Dog, 2020, a cracked obsidian surface converted into a speaker, through which audio is played. It is a conversation the artist had in a gay chatroom with an American man who does not identify as gay and whose views could easily be condemned as racist and homophobic. “I’m not angry, I’m an American. We are a superpower and have a sense of entitlement too”, he insists.
This is the portrait of a ‘typical’ Trump voter (“divine Trump” he calls him) and at the same time, of someone who is confused and irate with the state of the world. Voting Trump meant his voice was going to get heard. Again, as in People come & Go, the viewer is subjected to a disturbing situation without any warning.
What is perhaps more disconcerting than the offensive, though these days commonplace, hate-speech is the man’s view of today’s Britain. A “presumptuous” and “twisted monarchy” he says, that aims to “denigrate other people.”
We have now moved from identity politics to the question of national identity post-Brexit. The discrepancy between how we view ourselves and how the world views us. There are newspaper articles as part of installation that either allude to, or clearly mention, the rise of homophobia and racism in Britain today. How far is this version of Trumpism a political choice, and is it going to change social structures which, in turn, shape identities?
There is an implied presence of a dog in the exhibition through the dog baskets on display, named after the dogs themselves. This accentuates the viewer’s sense of entrapment. A symbol of domestication and subservience, the dog perhaps stands for what we are becoming.
The final work is a sculpture of eight identical legs with feet in identical white trainers, behind a white wall. It echoes People Come & Go and points to the lack of individuality, the desire to fit in and tribal aspect of family, community and fashion.
Should we be optimistic about the future? The blood-like resin panel that bears the same title as the entire project seems to hold the answer. DESCENT raises many uncomfortable questions that we rarely ask ourselves or the others around us. It is a powerful exhibition that distils the precarity of modern life.
Curator of Programmes