The Tirzah exhibition at SculptureCenter is as basic and enchanting as Tirzah’s music, which would perhaps be best described as mellow melancholia with spasms of grunge. If you weren’t already enamored with Tirzah, you’d probably walk into the exhibition, comprised of just two modestly scaled screens displaying music videos, all of which are readily available on YouTube, a little baffled and wondering what, if anything, is “sculptural” about it. This is a show for prefab fans who can make this exception because, well, Tirzah is rather exceptional. Instead of a deluge of multi-screens that befitted the Jonas Mekas exhibit at the Jewish Museum earlier this year, we have just one flat screen in a carpeted room and a smaller one propped up on a bar top, displaying scenes of vibrant social lives. Viewers are thusly reminded that we are losers for not being invited to the opening night where, according to a beverage menu taped to a wall nearby, negronis and white negronis were once served. We are also reminded that the SculptureCenter is a cool raw space in itself, as Tirzah’s bittersweet vocals reverberate like echolocation through its narrow brick corridors and enclaves. LED lights in the ceiling subtly change their fluorescent hues with the movement of each tune. If we were feeling generous, we could argue that the videos serve as an accompaniment to sound as a sculpture.
Bruce Hainley’s corresponding impressionistic prose poem-essay has him spinning his own top, though he hits the right associative markers: for the choreography (Pina Bausch’s Arien for the clip “Sink In”), the cinematography (the aforementioned Mekas), and then the musical inspirations, including Portishead, Massive Attack, Martina Topley Bird and Tricky, the latter of which Tirzah collaborated with on “Sundown” (a very bad music video directed by Tricky himself that I will deliberately neglect to link to here). London has always exploded with musical talent and Tirzah has sprouted alongside other dazzling outfits like Mount Kimbie, Archy Marshall/King Krule, A2, Ragz Originale, and Ojerime. Her label Domino houses an A to Z of London’s finest: from Beth Gibbons to Blood Orange to Four Tet to Wilma Archer to OK you get the picture.
Tirzah, to be clear, began as a side project to her day job as a designer for a print company and it’s certainly no solo project: it’s Tirzah Mastin plus her longtime collaborator Mica Levi à la Micachu, à la Micachu and the Shapes (can we say “longtime” if these people are still in their early 30s?). Musicians Coby Sey and Tirzah’s baby daddy, Giles Kwakeulati King-Ashong (Kwake Bass), are also collaborators that make brief on-screen appearances, which contain the intimacy and warmth of home videos. My favorite video is (of course) the most lo-fi of them all and is (of course) directed by Levi. The video is for the song “Malfunction” from 2014, and it’s just Tirzah in a baseball cap sitting at a table, possibly at home, mumbling in and out of sync, occasionally tapping away on a computer keyboard. Levi’s camera wobbles and wanders at various angles, a rough and ready cinematographic approach that mirrors Levi’s toy-like and tinkering musical compositions that straddle the edges of pop.
Nan Goldin’s influence almost goes without saying, for as with Nan, we have Tirzah’s party-going friends, lovers, collaborators – all casually gliding in and out of frame. This is not the first note taken of the cliquey friends-only vibe of Tirzah’s aesthetics, which are due in part to the relative seclusion from the rest of the city in her resident Sidcup (South London), typically a place reserved for cozy family life. Tirzah is an introverted performer with a tendency to clasp her hands behind her back as though at a school recital, her face often obscured by shoulder-length hair as she nods along to loops behind the microphone. Her modesty is endearing, and her lyrics are often in the Goldin vein of scorned love. One of the few times you’ll catch Tirzah dancing is in the clip “I’m Not Dancing,” where she gets down with Levi in a soft brawling jubilant jaunt. No elaborate dance moves, no twerks in sight. Another clip, “Go,” didn’t make the curatorial cut, but it’s worth the two-minute-and-eighteen-second wacky viewing experience of Tirzah wielding a shovel in a backyard, her head demonically lolling around in stop motion.
From green room to greenhouse, the video for “Hive Mind” is also shot home video style, where Tirzah is surrounded by Levi and friends, presumably post-show, in what strikes one as a pretty chill and charmed life – a near bohemian utopia with exotic butterflies and gallivanting infant children. Another clip, “Affection,” a choppy and repetitive tune that oscillates between defeatism and optimism, tracks Tirzah squinting in the sunlight as she walks through a bustling London street. Then, a POV shot of an evening bike ride. The more stylized pieces such as “Tectonic” offer a cavernous exploration of mingling bodies, and clips such as “Send Me” feature Tirzah and friend clad in what looks like latex, embracing lethargically by train tracks. Tirzah’s collaboration with Dean Blunt, “Recipe,” is replete with a brooding bass offset by an effervescent montage of underwater bubbles and ethereal blurs.
Overall, the sound could have gone for louder, throbbing decibels, per the knockout basement-level soundscape by Carl Craig Party/After-Party at Dia Beacon last year, yet it’s also fittingly Tirzah to be gentle and sonically subdued in every corner. I suppose they’re also taking into account the front desk staff upstairs and the quietude of Henrike Naumann’s Re-Education: featuring a somber ode to January 6th titled Rustic Traditions, a barricade of federal-style furniture, pitchforks, rakes, shovel, hammer, rock, rusted chain, and original marble from the U.S. Capitol Steps, all of which, as Emily observed, resembles Cillian Murphy’s Crane/Scarecrow “exile or death” scenes from The Dark Knight Rises. An assembly of chairs titled Horseshoe Theory austerely mocks the tenuous idea about how the radical left and right mirror each other while centrists dominate the narrative arc. From a Shaker-inspired one-step stool to horned armchairs that represent the pagan aesthetics of fascism, each chair sits somewhere on the left- or right-leaning spectrum as if foregrounding a committee meeting to come.
The furnishings that pervade this room seem all the more prescient given the recent raids on a far-right conspiracy group who call themselves the Reichsbürger in rural Eastern Germany. This group is apparently spearheaded by none other than a Prince Heinrich XIII of Reuss, who hosted member meetings at his hunting lodge as he and his 23 minions waxed nostalgic and prepared to restore pre-WWII German Empire borders by amassing weapons and training in a nearby forest to overthrow the German government. For those of you into dark tourism, you can now factor Bad Lobenstein into your future itineraries.
A back room den titled Welcome to Bedrock presents kitsch stone-age decor, juxtaposing modern-era high heels with oversized bones. A television set and screen in a window frame rotate a selection of Naumann’s films, such as Evolution Chemnitz, in which solitary men dressed in Soviet or urban attire linger idly and anxiously in a retro hotel room, making barricades and territorial demarcations with the furniture. Another film, Tag X, blends surveillance footage with an ominous male voice describing political upheaval – hinting at an earlier plot among rank-and-file officers and federal armed forces to overthrow the German government in 2018 via a ringleader pseudonymously known online as “Hannibal” and to seize power in an event they referred to as “Day X.”
Naumann observed in an interview that even in the context of prehistoric times, the creators of The Flintstones failed to imagine any scenario beyond a consumer mindset. I struggle to see how her arrangement of objects stages a “beyond” as such either. The funky rotary phone, the dinosaur version of a rocking horse, the window screen flanked with fur, the lamp with branch stem – all purchased from eBay, Craigslist, and New York flea markets – seem to be in an awkwardly contrived dialogue with fascism, though you get a sense that Naumann is at least getting her design fetish kicks. Capitalism may have destroyed our ability to conceive new horizons, but Tirzah downstairs does more to dispel capitalistic tendencies by casting its own spell and saying very little, if anything, about it.
JC Holburn has work in Art Agenda, Art Observed, Blue Arrangements, BOMB, Big Other, Caesura, Drunken Canal, Fence, Hotel, Liber Review, Overland, and others. Her first chapbook—Dribs—was published in 2021 by Pitymilk Press. She is based in New York.