With a suggestive repertoire of chains, spikes and steel shivs, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Bushwick-based artist Davina Semo’s latest exhibition at Lyles & King is enacting some private fantasy. Yet WHERE LIFE IS HAPPENING is an evocative take on the human condition: a landscape strewn with industrial objects that have the ability to toy with perceptions and unseat emotions.
The title of your current exhibition at Lyles & King is WHERE LIFE IS HAPPENING. Where is life happening?
The title is an invitation to consider that objects and space are animated by our existence among them. Life is happening everywhere I am; when I walk into the show, life keeps happening. When I work in the studio, life is happening. The title is also a reaction to hearing my work described as cold and industrial. I don’t understand why concrete and flood lights and heavy metals are positioned as industrial anymore—it’s not as though we have even a living memory of life in some pre-industrial pastoral natural setting. The police have bright lights on us, on our bodies, we live through it. The streets that lead us home are made of concrete, the houses as well. We were born into built environments—in various states of disrepair—we do the best we can to make things comfortable for ourselves.
The materiality of your work—the black, the chains, the handcuffs (in earlier works)—seems to connote fetishist desire or kink, specifically in works such as I AM A PATIENT GIRL; I WAIT I WAIT I WAIT I WAIT (where the title also hints at BDSM erotica). Are you deliberately conjuring these associations? If so, why?
That title is a riff on lyrics from a Fugazi song called Waiting Room—all I did was change the ‘boy’ to ‘girl’. The sculpture is seven beige folding chairs attached in a long row with zip ties, and under five of the chairs are cast stainless steel shivs. For me, the piece evokes a charged game of musical chairs; if there was a race from one side of the room to the other, you wouldn’t want to find yourself in one of the chairs without a tool. But as a viewer, there is no game besides that of self-discipline: the knives are so overtly out in the open that they are not dangerous. Yet instinctually, I feel an impulse to reach for this familiar object. Seeing the shivs as art, out in the room, I exercise self-control in looking and not touching.
You live and work in Bushwick. How closely are your works related to your urban surroundings? Does the underground scene of New York, or the city’s history, come into play in your work?
If there still is a viable underground scene, I don’t know about it; most of the day I work alone in my studio. Before answering this question, I asked a friend if he knows what the underground scene might be, and he replied, ‘Underground from what? The Weathermen aren’t even underground anymore, ISIS is recruiting on Twitter, and junkies have websites about where the good dope is.’ I moved to Bushwick because it was affordable relative to other areas in New York. Recently, I saw a hat on sale near my studio that said ‘kushwick’ on it—the store that sells it has changed-over three times in five years. The rent is too high, to say nothing of whatever target market might conceivably pay for that hat. The press and real-estate hype of Bushwick as a hip neighborhood has helped the landlords cash in, but hasn’t done anything for the waste-transfer facility across the street from my studio building. I don’t know the extent to which my work is affected by the urban surroundings, but it probably factors in more than I realize, if only for making me feel unsettled. My experience living in New York is dominated by being pushed out further and further, feeling less and less secure, moving every few years to a new neighborhood. Though it can still be described as a struggle, I don’t think the generation of artists that inspired us younger ones to move to the city were facing the same kind of bleakness.
The titles of the works are often poetic—profound even, and are always in caps lock (for example, I MADE MYSELF STILL, TO LISTEN). Where do you source the ideas for titles? How do they relate to the works?
I make titles from things around me. Sometimes they are direct quotes from books or newspapers or the radio or emails or other things. In my mind, the titles animate the works. The titles are a bridge between the viewer and the object. If you go somewhere for the first time, you use an address, but if there is no sign or other identifying mark on the building, it’s hard to know where you are. A facade is just that. The titles are a way to speak to people who are looking at the work, and say something like, yes, this is a thing that was made that came from thoughts and feelings, and here’s a little clue for you to use in getting into it.
It’s written in the show’s description that the work ponders the confounding dialogue between the self and the outside world. Can you elaborate on this a little?
This dialogue is simply the human condition. It’s hard to say what my work is about. I find writing press releases to be times of reflection, where I look back and ask myself, What have I been thinking about? What is this work about? It’s not that there is no answer, but it’s an answer unsuited for language, or at least difficult to sum up into a few sentences. The best answer I come back to is that artworks are the aftermath of experiencing and feeling and thinking. When I try to explain to someone else what my work is about, it reminds me that there is this distance between my feelings and thoughts, and those of other people. Does that make sense?
Davina Semo: WHERE LIFE IS HAPPENING is showing at Lyles & King until 15 November