Tai Shani’s new work The Neon Hieroglyph, a series of nine films, launches today as part of our Virtual Factory series. Charlotte Gush meets the artist.
Tai Shani has been thinking about the tools we might need to create a better world than the one we have now. After the year we’ve all had, it’s not difficult to imagine why. But the answer you or I might come up with probably doesn’t start with benevolent witches high on psychedelic bread flying across the sea to steal from the rich. These are the Maiara, flying witches commemorated in public art and local mythology on Alicudi, a remote Italian island historically afflicted with ergot-poisoned rye crops that, when milled and made into bread, dosed the entire starving and impoverished local populace with LSD.
It’s an unusual place to start for someone considering how politics works, but the usual questions lead inevitably to the usual answers, and Shani is looking for something different. The second artist to exhibit work at the Virtual Factory – MIF’s digital series launched in anticipation of The Factory, a new real-world arts and culture space currently being built in Manchester – Shani is interested in the ways that fictional stories, myths and collective fantasies can illuminate something about the structures of power that dictate the very real – and often brutal – shape that life takes for so many of us.
Launching today, The Neon Hieroglyph is a ‘hallucination around ergot’, Shani says, consisting of nine short films that take in a dizzying body of research and references – from prisons, poisons and pleasures to facist politics, dread and brutality via flying witches and transcendent joy, the story runs through stages from the molecular to the fleshy, the allegorical and outward into the planetary expanse. It is Shani’s first online work, though it channels methods such as world-building, the animation of feminine historic icons, and the performance of experimental, poetic texts that recur in her art (including the 2019 Turner Prize winning DC Semiramis).
Speaking over Zoom from her light-filled studio at Gasworks in Vauxhall, south London, Shani says she was fascinated by the folklore that emerged from Alicudi. ‘For 450 years, people were eating psychedelic bread,’ she says. Their resulting collective hallucination, the Maiara, were ‘very positive and benevolent, and kind of socially crucial, which is the opposite of most European witch narratives. They would paint their bodies in some kind of ointment and then fly to the mainland and steal from the rich.’
It’s an understandable fantasy for a community living in such poverty they were forced to eat ergot-infested rye, identifiable by black fruiting bodies that grow like devilish horns between the crop’s ears. While ergot can get you high, it can also cause gangrene that rots your limbs and was often fatal.
Witches interest Shani as characters who live on the cusp between the realms of the living and the dead. ‘It’s always a person with a body that can be killed, but they also possess powers that are supernatural,’ she says. ‘In a way psychedelics are a bit like that. You have a mushroom or an acid tab… and you have this experience that is very on the margins of effability and how you can talk about and express it.’
That hallucinogens don’t rely on the person taking them having a belief or faith in anything interests her. ‘It’s not about, like, “Oh, if you have a specific spiritual practice, you can reach these things,” it’s just a piece of fungus. [That’s why] I chose to write about these ideas through a kind of psychedelic lens as opposed to a purely mystical one.’
Shani is interested in the feelings of communality and togetherness that psychedelics can engender, and that she has experienced herself. ‘Sometimes you feel part of this really grand narrative of existence,’ she says, explaining her desire to understand ‘how these things can be put to the service of a more collective or collectivised narrative. Not the familiar story of “I took ayahuasca and discovered myself”, Shani says, but ‘instead of myself being the focus, thinking about what kind of elements of these experiences can be thought of as communist or as collective.’ (It’s a concern that was reflected in Shani’s choice, along with the three other 2019 Turner Prize finalists, to petition the judges not to choose between them – a successful request that saw them win as a collective.)
The ‘neon hieroglyph’ of the title refers to common imagery experienced by people having psychedelic hallucinations, and the spoken text mimics the free association that often characterises these experiences – the feeling of understanding connections in the universe that your sober brain can’t compute. ‘Do you, too, feel manic when you swell and are about to burst, we asked the dragon. Tiger. Paisley whey clouds. Although we are completely ordinary, we are strange creatures too,’ the augmented voice of actor Molly Moody says in the opening film, narrating CGI images by Adam Sinclair over a score by Maxwell Sterling, both Manchester artists.
Later films develop a complex vocabulary, using words like ‘necropolitical’ and ‘athropomantic’, and unusual colour names like sarcoline (pale flesh) and haematic (blood red), to make language sound strange and unfamiliar. Fluent in French, English and Hebrew, Shani also speaks some Italian, Spanish and Polish. ‘I don’t really have a mother tongue,’ she says, ‘I was brought up speaking different languages so I’m really interested in etymological sources of words and how words come to be used and forgotten.’ A friend told Shani that, in the Middle Ages, peasants hearing mass in Latin would ‘get high off the language’ though they didn’t understand it. ‘That’s definitely something that I try and do with words as well,’ she says, ‘to find words that feel like they tie to slightly different territory than the one we’re used to.’
While much of The Neon Hieroglyph text references the psychedelic results of ergot-poisoning, descriptions of the natural world and our connection to the cosmic, there are also darker and more frightening narrative threads. The fourth episode speaks of ‘red raw pain’, ‘inconsolable sadness’ and ‘the evil forces that govern our lives’. Though she didn’t anticipate it, once Shani started to write, she found that the pandemic and politics seeped in. ‘I just kept wanting to write about how terrified I was, both on a kind of mortal level of getting sick, of people I love being sick, of contaminating other people, but also on a political level. The text was very much in response to this growing fascism.’
Despite growing up in ‘hippie commune’ in Goa, Shani characterises her political journey as starting from a point of nihilism common to a ‘child of the ’90s’. She was lucky, she says, to be educated by art, film, books and friends to ‘become a communist, basically, in my desires’ and ‘become invested in society in a way that I wasn’t before.’ It was an awakening she saw reflected in the resurgence of socialist politics with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour in the UK, and Democrat politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders in the US.
‘A lot of people were so enthused and excited by the possibility of a different way of thinking about the future,’ Shani says, ‘to see all that happen and then see it also be crashed to where we are now, where [the Conservative Government] have such a crazy majority, such a wild majority that they can pass through laws that would be unthinkable a few years ago.’ (The week we speak, Parliament votes to pass the Police Bill, which puts limits on the right to protest.) ‘We live in a completely unequitable white supremacist capitalist patriarchal system, within which people are born condemned to lives that they have no control over,’ Shani says. ‘We’re in a moment of social collapse, definitely climate collapse, and it’s like, what we have isn’t working, it’s broken.’
Perhaps inevitably, the completely altered reality of our lives during the pandemic also filtered into the work. Shani couldn’t meet regularly with her collaborators and much of the work was done on Zoom calls that ran deep into the night. Unable to get to her studio at the start of lockdown, Shani started painting watercolours. ‘I had to give them a name and I decided to call them Outsides and Erotics because I felt like everything – buildings, flowers, animals, birds – started to resonate in a slightly different way, [because I was] feeling so starved of any kind of energetic transmission,’ she says. ‘That came into the writing, definitely, a desire to connect on that level.’
The physical restrictions imposed on us during lockdown also made the concept of showing work at Virtual Factory feel especially relevant to the moment. ‘I was thinking about being very constrained, our realities being quite diminished in terms of movement,’ Shani says, ‘and what the experience of limitless space of the virtual could do with that.’ Many of the scenes in The Neon Hieroglyph are set in impossible places: there’s a forest illuminated by a pink planet, a giant ice cream with a moon orbiting around it, and characters who are able to breathe underwater – impossibilities made possible ‘when you’re unshackled from having to make it work materially, in the real world,’ Shani says. As lockdown begins to lift, our opportunities for community and togetherness can expand in the real world, too.
Charlotte Gush is the Senior Editorial Manager at Manchester International Festival.