Failure as Protest: Tala Madani Interviewed by Gwen Burlington

Paintings that challenge received behaviors.

A painting of a excremental human figure draped across a long table titled, Shit Mom (Feedback), by Tala Madani

Tala Madani, Shit Mom (Feedback), 2021, oil on linen, 72 × 108 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias, London.

During a weekend in June visiting galleries all over London, I came across Tala Madani’s solo exhibition Skid Mark at Pilar Corrias. The show mainly featured work from her Shit Moms series (2019–), and they were exactly that: painted mother figures seemingly formed of excrement and splattered across the room by fans, melting through grates, pulled apart by babies, and smeared on painted wallpaper. The exhibition felt deviant, dark, and funny; it was a transgression within the contemporary condition of politics, motherhood, and self-improvement. Throughout our conversation, which occurred over Zoom in tandem with her current exhibition Chalk Mark at Pilar Corrias’s Savile Row space, we discussed her thoughts on shit, humor, authority, and the problematic ways children are taught values. 

—Gwen Burlington


Gwen Burlington The work exhibited in Skid Mark, and in particular Shit Mom Animation 1 (2021), felt like a dirty protest in a humorous way, especially as it’s situated in a domestic, bourgeois setting. There’s a real sense of transgression to contemporary life.

Tala Madani I’m so happy that’s coming through. I made a painting called Dirty Protest in 2015, and the Shit Moms series is a descendant of that painting. In order to take the painting toward an idea of protest, I started thinking about form versus formlessness. The use of shit in prisons for protest is such a profound choice. In a space where one’s access to objects is limited, to use the stuff of the body makes sense. I’ve always liked that kind of economy for my own work. To use something like shit, let’s say, something we’re all familiar with, where it is formless, and it is the lowest thing, the disgusting sewage that we have to get rid of. And then giving it form, making it into a recognizable figurative form.

For the animation I saw these photos of this bourgeois house and imagined a Shit Mom walking through it, making her mark. I initially started with this shit mom trying to masturbate, but she can’t because she’ll just go through herself. I put her in the house, and she roamed from room to room, and I thought this is very boring, but I’m going to lean into the boringness of this, and that is the protest. The protest against the empty promise of such an interior, the protest against mundanity, against her own constitution. 

A video projection of an excremental human figure moving through a domestic space titled, installation view of Tala Madani: Skid Ma

Installation view of Tala Madani: Skid Mark, Pilar Corrias, Eastcastle Street, June 4–July 10, 2021. Photo by Mark Blower. Courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias, London.

GB Your work has often used shit and rudimentary bodily fluids and functions to comment on larger socio-economic issues. The Shit Moms series is about the pressures, expectations, and societal critiques of motherhood, but it also feels like an extended commentary on being a shit person in general—an embodiment of failure that goes beyond motherhood, which a lot of people have felt this past year.

TM I think so too. In the recent Shit Moms paintings, there are fewer babies so that the viewer can react more to the construction of the shit mom figure. 

GB I read that you reject the idea of looking at someone’s art through their identity markers and that you fight the tendency for your work to be read in relation to you being from Iran. The Shit Moms series that primarily featured in Skid Mark also came from being a mother. Do you think your work would be read differently if you were a man?

TM Definitely. Sadly we’ve taken the audience’s confidence in approaching artworks by institutionalizing art. I would want the audiences to be more selfish when they’re looking at artworks in that they should experience them for themselves and see if they have an aesthetic, psychological, intellectual, and cultural pull on an individual level. Distancing the artwork from the viewer by inserting the identity of the maker in the middle of it is very anti-art. When I look at an artwork, I’m purely interested in what it does for me, and I wish people did that more often. What does it do for you? And if it doesn’t do anything, then be honest about that. We’re looking at artworks as if they’re in history books, and that’s a history book experience, but that shouldn’t be the art-object experience. The artwork is hoping to have a connection with someone’s eyes on a completely different level, and maybe it’s because we’ve experienced art so often in history books that when we approach the actual object we continue that approach as opposed to allowing space for an experience. That’s what I mean about putting aside the artist and having a direct experience if one wants to, if one can, if one’s ready.

A gallery space filled with large and smaller paintings titled, Installation view of Tala Madani: Chalk Mark

Installation view of Tala Madani: Chalk Mark, Pilar Corrias, Savile Row, July 8–September 8, 2021. Photo by Mark Blower. Courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias, London.

GB Humor and ambiguity have always been key components in your work, particularly in how your formal style is cartoon-like. Can you tell me a bit about how your approach to those two things has evolved?

TM It wasn’t a conscious choice to do a cartoony figure, but I wanted to paint quicker and not belabor the work with ideas of correct anatomical measurements; I wanted the paintings to be free. So in a quick painting it de facto started looking cartoony, and I think that’s quite interesting because to some extent comic strips also have to be done quickly because they have to be printed the next day. So the speed at which they have to be made gives them their look.

Humor is a release. The subjects that I’m interested in are sometimes too heavy, and I need the humor to process the ideas. Humor is also hope, and I’m not a nihilist. It’s a position. 

GB There’s a big sense of narration with your paintings—that some of them aren’t stand-alone—which really brings them all to life when seen in the same space. In this sense, moving from Skid Mark at one location to Chalk Mark in another added more dimensions to both bodies of work by seeing them in relation to each other, for instance, a dichotomy of motherhood and childhood. Can you tell me how you moved into this second body of work? 

TM I’ve been very interested at how fast acculturation happens, the speed at which we become part of a group and mimic group behavior. I was involved with these ideas in the animation The Womb (2019) as well. Chalk Mark and Skid Mark seemed to encapsulate different authority positions, social and domestic forces of acculturation perhaps. Different ways of leaving a mark. 

There is a method called direct draw, which is used to teach young children how to draw. The children copy lines and shapes that the teacher makes, and eventually these broken-up actions produce a recognizable form such as a flower, a unicorn, or a turtle. This method of teaching really separates the subject from the action of drawing, and I find that profoundly problematic. So I started doing that with the men in uniform. Copying them continuously through the same action. I was so amazed that they looked so individual despite having the same copied lines. They all still looked like distinct people; I couldn’t get the individual out of this copy. 

And then there is Blackboard (Further Education) (2021) with its line of robed fellows exiting the anus of a bigger fellow, which is echoed by a further copy consisting of a child drawing of stick men going in and questions coming out! 

A series of repeated heads wearing a military hat drawn on a green chalkboard titled, Blackboard (Salutations), by Tala Madani

Tala Madani, Blackboard (Salutations), 2021, 60 × 120 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias, London.

GB Some of the work in both exhibitions is about very specific political events in the US over the past year as well as the pandemic. I’m thinking of Babyocracy I & II (2021) but also the recurring use of the officer figure in Blackboard (Salutations) (2021). How have the events of the past year made you think about the subject matter of your work? Has it changed the way you think about your work?

TM I’ve become much more aware of our collective anxieties, as I’m sure many have. The chalkboard paintings allowed me to approach it in a childish manner, in the presumed safe space of chalkboards, education, the possibility of wiping everything away. And of course immediately something oppositional came to play, specifically didacticism and the authority that educational institutions carry in terms of repetition and imitation.

Tala Madani: Chalk Mark is on view at Pilar Corrias in London until September 8.

Gwen Burlington is a writer and editor based in Ireland and London.

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