New York

Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Cunt, 2016, phosphorescent pigment and acrylic on paper, 8 1/2 × 11". Installation view. Photo: Kirsten Kilponen.

Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Cunt, 2016, phosphorescent pigment and acrylic on paper, 8 1/2 × 11". Installation view. Photo: Kirsten Kilponen.

Natascha Sadr Haghighian

Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Cunt, 2016, phosphorescent pigment and acrylic on paper, 8 1/2 × 11". Installation view. Photo: Kirsten Kilponen.

“Reason . . . always homogenizes and reduces, represses and unifies phenomena or actuality into what can be perceived and so controlled,” observes Abhor, the “part robot,” “part black” protagonist of Kathy Acker’s 1988 novel Empire of the Senseless. “The subjects, us, are now stable and socializable.” Along with her co-narrator and partner Thivai, Abhor navigates an alternate-reality Paris where Algerians have staged an anticolonial revolt. Here she reflects on how patriarchal violence begins with the assignment of identities. “Literature,” she argues, “is that which denounces and slashes apart the repressing machine at the level of the signified.” That is, art resists “reason” by ripping open, and ripping apart, representation itself.

In her recent solo exhibition, Natascha Sadr Haghighian tested this hypothesis with works that forced a relation between the viewer and the figures in Acker’s novel. Empire of the Senseless II, 2006, consisted of two digital projectors angled toward the same white curtain. Each flashed names and identifications culled from the book, though their overlap rendered both sets of text illegible. A viewer could read the output of one projector only by standing before and blocking the other projector’s beam. Thus, she would see on the curtain—and inside the outline of her own silhouette—words like MOTHER, CRIMINALS, and MALE ARAB, fully aware that a second litany of labels was appearing directly on her backside. Behind the curtain, in a room illuminated by ultraviolet lamps, a new series of works on paper spelled out HUMAN or TERRORIST LEADER in finger-daubs of phosphorescent pigment. Whenever the viewer drew closer and cast a shadow, their eerie, kitschy glow intensified.

What is initially striking about Sadr Haghighian’s Empire of the Senseless suite is how the works cannily implicate the viewer’s body, like low-budget versions of Random International’s Rain Room, 2012, devised by someone more concerned with Althusserian interpellation than simulated condensation. With time, however, what comes to the fore is the works’ citation of an absent text. The incongruities and repetitions of the selected words strongly signal their extraction from an original source. Sadr Haghighian here betrays the allegorical impulse that critic Craig Owens famously articulated as occurring “whenever one text is doubled by another.” If modernist symbolism insists on autonomy and unity, Owens argued, postmodernist allegory assumes contingency and fragmentation. By disrupting the “stable” artwork, allegory strikes at the “socializable” subject.

In case you haven’t noticed, Haghighian’s project invites references from the 1980s, the decade when art discourse inhaled continental theory like helium and expounded on myth, logocentrism, and simulacra in a high-pitched squeal. What does it mean to mouth these words in 2016? (As Seth Price once put it, “Must I consult art to understand that identity is administered, power exploits, resistance is predetermined, all is shit?”) To borrow further from the era’s syllabized terminology, could Empire of the Senseless II be said to possess some of the qualities Fredric Jameson has attributed to “nostalgia films”? Much like American Graffiti’s pastiche paean to the 1950s, the installation evokes a simpler time, when artists and critics earned their stripes by exposing the artifice of the media.

“The impossibility of escaping the rules of representation creates the desire to defrock them, slander, offend, destabilize them, and make them lose their authority and power,” Sadr Haghighian has said. “I guess you could see that as my main focus.” On first reading, it would seem that such a statement unproblematically repeats the party line of a passé Pictures postmodernism. That said, “defrock” and “slander” are messier verbs than, say, “reveal” and “critique.” There’s a fierce crudeness to Sadr Haghighian’s manual application of phosphorescent pigment that suggests both fingerprinting and finger painting, i.e., both police records and primal smears. Spelling out TERRORIST LEADER or CUNT with glow-in-the-dark goo, she comes close to answering Abhor’s call to “spit at all mirrors which control.”

Colby Chamberlain