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In conversation with Tarek Lakhrissi at the 22nd Biennale of Sydney (NIRIN)

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ACMI is proudly supporting two artists who are participating in the 22nd Biennale of Sydney (NIRIN), Tarek Lakhrissi and Aziz Hazara. ACMI curator Shelley McSpedden met with Tarek on the eve of the Biennale opening to the public, to ask him about his work and his experience of participating in the global exhibition (please note: due to the impact of coronavirus, much of the exhibition has since moved online). 

Tarek Lakhrissi is a French interdisciplinary artist and poet who works on the performativity of language and the construction of identity. For the Biennale he presents a cinematic installation of his work Out of the Blue (2019) at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), Sydney. Drawing on a rich tradition of queer futurity, Out of the Blue is set in a radical moment in time, when established political, economic and cultural structures are under imminent threat from alien invasion. Rather than presenting this as an apocalyptic vision, Lakhrissi’s film meditates on the nature of transition itself.  

Shelley McSpedden: Can you tell us a little about Out of the Blue?

Tarek Lakhrissi: Out of the Blue is a film that I produced and have shown previously, but for the Sydney Biennale I have created a new full installation for the movie. The installation consists of a blue velvet curtain, sectioned off, then some seats and blue lighting.

SMc: So, the whole idea of the threshold is exaggerated through the installation?

TL: Exactly. 

SMc: Can you tell us a little bit about the significance of that, the threshold?

TL: Well I think it's quite interesting to also read Out of the Blue in relation to another work showing at the MCA. Joël Andrianomearisoa has done a large-scale installation with curtains, black curtains through the whole gallery space. It’s kind of invading every room, every artwork in the gallery. The work is very beautiful and hangs like dark black urns, hanging from the ceiling. So, when you get into the space it is like you are in a labyrinth. And that is perfect because I really, really wanted to create this same atmosphere. In the space you will encounter a lot of these black curtains, at some points on the right, you will see a blue light with a blue velvet curtain and then you enter the space of my work and you are in the dark. Kind of like a cinema. A room where you can view the movie. 

Joël Andrianomearisoa, There might be no other place in the world as good as I am going to take you, installation view, MCA 3

Joël Andrianomearisoa, 'There Might Be No Other Place in the World As Good As Where I Am Going to Take You', 2020

SMc: So, your work emerges out of this other labyrinthine space?

TL: Exactly. I'm really happy that my work speaks to other installations and artworks in the Biennale. When we (Tarek and Joël) first met, we were discussing our projects and it was funny that we literally had the same ideas, the same vibes, even though our works are different. He's an artist that I really like, so I was really happy that we both had the same kind of intuition. 

I feel like the bonus of the Biennale is creating immersive spaces. I really wanted to create my own space where you can watch a movie, enjoy your time, lose track of time and are literally immersed. 

SMc: I guess one of the interesting things about a Biennale is that your work is seen alongside other works and that's a really important dynamic, how those works speak together. 

TL:  When you work on an event like this, you work with a curator, mostly with an exhibition team and a curator, like Brook Andrew. But it's also quite interesting, especially when it's a group show like this, with so many different artists, to also have spaces and connections with other artists. I love the Biennale for that, because you really meet other perspectives, other people, other philosophies. 

SMc: NIRIN, the name of this edition of the Biennale, means ‘edge’ in the Wiradjuri language. Brook Andrew has done an incredible job of bringing voices that often get seen as existing on the periphery onto centre stage. In some ways that almost seems to fulfil the fantasy of Out of the Blue: the work’s premise is that all the leaders of industry and CEOs have been abducted by aliens, leaving space for other, more marginalised people to come to the fore. 

TL: This work actually began during my first residency on the outskirts of Paris. And I also come from the outskirts of the city. I grew up in an area that is mainly poor, mainly with people of colour. So obviously when I was in that space for the residency I was like “Okay, I want to work on the specifics of this kind of space”. And for me, my first intuition was thinking of those spaces as transitionary spaces, where the future can actually exist, where utopia can actually happen. 

The work was also really nourished by a couple of different texts. I've been very influenced by two authors. One is Audre Lorde, the black feminist and poet. She wrote a beautiful poem called ‘A Litany for Survival’ and in this poem she states, ‘We were never meant to survive’, which is basically a statement about how different bodies, and especially racialised, queer, trans bodies, were not supposed to be part of the plan. 

SMc: That has huge resonance here in Australia, for First Nations people. 

TL: Yes, I love this connection because obviously the French context is totally different but there are also connections to slavery and colonial history. There are some connections to make around questions of how to survive; how to be; how to exist in a space where you're always at the periphery, when you don't have the right to be in the centre. Okay, but what does it mean to be the centre? Do we really want to be in the centre anyway? 

And the second reference is José Esteban Muñoz, who is a Cuban American theorist. He wrote a book called Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009) and in that book he talks about this beautiful space that is the in-between space between two clubs. One is a gay club and one is a punk club. He uses this expression, like, this is the actual space of utopia, this in-between, this corridor between the two clubs. I think that this is a beautiful idea, because I feel like a lot of things are actually happening in these transitionary spaces. Like corridors, like halls, like the corridors around the whole of this hotel that we are in now. Like airports, these in-between spaces. 

SMc: Yes, these passageways that allow movement, where things are not fixed. 

TL: Exactly, and I like creating a movie that's actually based on that and also one that is giving more spaces and more freedom to people of colour. All of the actors in Out of the Blue are my friends. None are professional actors, I just invited close friends in to work on the project. 

SMc: Thinking about those kinds of literary references, the theorists and writers and poets that you've referred to, you yourself studied literature, so what drew you to the visual arts? 

TL: It was an accident. 

SMc: All the best things happen by accident. 

TL: Right. Yeah. I first studied literature and I was also studying theatre at the same time. I'm very influenced by artists like Robert Wilson, and the opera Einstein on the Beach has been very important for me. I'm really obsessed with this opera.

But at that time, I was also working in a queer bookstore in Paris. So, for six years I was also a bookseller and this experience was a changing point in my life because I was able to meet a lot of people and have access to a lot of books, a lot of things that I didn't have access to before.

I was obviously always interested in art. I was always going to exhibitions. I was always obsessed with cinema; I was going to the cinema all the time. And France is quite amazing for that because there's still a lot of very independent cinema. Even in very, very small cities. So, I had the chance to grow up in a space where there was a cinema and theatres.

Becoming an artist was an accident. I was in Montreal for a year. I made this documentary (diaspora/situations [2017]), based on interviews with activists and artists. I was quite surprised because it was a very intimate documentary that I did for nearly nothing but eventually it got a lot of attention. So, I ended up travelling extensively with this documentary, and at some point, some curators came to me and asked if I wanted to create a new work for an exhibition they were doing. They said that they had seen that I’d done poetry and stuff like that, so I got a lot of pretty amazing opportunities. 

Tarek Lakhrissi, Out of the Blue still

Sorour Darabi in a still from Tarek Lakhrissi's 'Out of the Blue'

SMc: You work as a poet and a writer and an artist. Do you see those practices as fluid and all part of the same thing? How do they feed into each other?

TL: Every project I do is based on text. It’s always text first. I think poetry and language are my first two obsessions before visual arts, before moving images or anything else. For me, it just makes sense to start with a text or a poem, and then come to a culture, or performance or movie. It’s just very natural, in a way, and it's also a way to experiment with other languages, because every language is complex. I feel that there is an intersection between all the aspects of these different mediums. I'm inspired by so many different things. I'm not just interested by a painting from the 17th century. I love pop culture, I love music, I love it all. And I hope that I fuse all of these different languages.

SMc: It's interesting, thinking about what we were talking about earlier in relation to passageways, and transitory spaces. That idea of language applies to this as well. I’m thinking about how you can translate many things into different languages but there are certain things that can't be translated. Your works are presented in both English and French, is this a significant feature of the works or just something you do to reach more people? 

TL: Well I'm French. So obviously French is my first language and I’m comfortable with it. But language is increasingly interesting to me because English is very different. As a foreign language, it helps me be more outside of myself. And weirdly, sometimes I feel much more comfortable in English because English is also much more interesting in terms of hearing and feeling. It is a language that works really well for that. As an example, it is quite normal in, let's say, the American tradition of queer theory to start with your personal life and then out of that come to some universal concepts, come to some idea of the universal. But in the French political tradition, it's forbidden! You really don't do that. You really have to always have a universal point of view. And it is considered taboo to start off by talking about your personal life because it is considered trivial. But I'm like, No! Everything is political and your personal life, your intimate experience can be political. For me, it’s weird to just avoid that, and treat them like two different things. So English is useful for those different kinds of things. 

SMc: It offers a different kind of approach and perspective?

TL: Yeah, it just allowed me to be more free in a way, which is much more complicated with the French tradition, which is so very heavy when you just want to experiment, if that make sense?

SMc: Yes, sure, I understand there must be a lot of pressure having that weighty cannon on your shoulders.

You’ve been described as a queer Arab French artist. We’re living in a time, well at least in Australia, when we seem to be living in a strange cultural moment where in some ways we are very progressive, there is high visibility of gender fluidity and diverse sexualities seem to have become more accepted but at the same time our political landscape appears to be becoming increasingly conservative, with the threat of a backlash against the ground already made. Is there a similar dynamic happening in France? Are these kinds of political dynamics informing your work or the way that you are thinking about your practice?

TL: Yes, France is also a very interesting country right now because of the issue recently with, not the Oscars, but the César Award (the highest film award in France). I’m not sure if you have heard about that, but Roman Polanski received the award for the best director and a few actresses –responded in a very direct way, in a very a radical way.  For example, the actress Adèle Haenel, an openly queer woman in the French cinema industry, left the ceremony when Roman Polanski received the award.

It was huge in France because there was a real backlash as Haenel stepped out and expressed her anger. Also, the master of the ceremony (Florence Foresti) is a big French humourist, and she also didn't come back on stage after that. She was meant to entertain but she didn’t come back on stage, in protest. There was also this black artist, Aissa Maiga, who gave a speech about the lack of diversity in the French cinema, especially towards Blacks and Arabs. So in France right now it's quite interesting because there's a lot more discussion on these issues. So, of course, I'm inspired by that. There is a lot more opportunity for people of colour, for queer people of colour, for women. It's quite new that high-profile people use their voices and visibility to talk about these issues. In France it is quite difficult because it can affect your career. You can also be endangered if you speak too loudly about these issues. So, I feel like it's quite interesting right now what's happening in France and I'm really happy to be there. 

SMc: Right, so it feels like a productive moment.

TL: Yeah, it feels good to also not be on your own. I lived in Canada for a year and when I came back from France five years ago, I was really full of energy and ready for political change, but I felt sometimes out of place because there is not a strong culture of queerness. I mean there are, of course, activists, there are a lot of things happening on that front. But it was very complicated to have a space to speak up. So, I'm happy that now this is happening much more.

SMc: One of the big themes in Out of the Blue is the apocalypse. Right now, it feels, well definitely in Australia, like the end of times. We’ve just had the mass bushfires across the country and now coronavirus has hit and it feels as if there's this looming existential threat. I wonder, do you see this as a moment of potentiality? What role does the apocalypse play in your work? What's your interest in it?

TL: I think we’re fucked! I think we are really fucked, BUT we still have time to do things. Our age is weird because when you think about ecology and environmental issues, we face resistance because we think in terms of the economy, and action requires a clash with capitalism. I feel like it's really hard for countries from the north to actually be actively aware, to be actively conscious about what is happening and how we affect other countries.
So that's why in the movie (Out of the Blue) I'm using the fantasy of the end of civilisation as a way to have another perspective, another point-of-view, other possibilities. Maybe a more optimistic vision of what that could mean. But obviously, this is a fantasy, it’s not real. I feel like the movies are a perfect site for fantasies, especially political fantasies. I've been very influenced by different filmmakers like the Japanese American filmmaker Gregg Araki and the Canadian underground filmmaker Bruce LaBruce, but also, other more political filmmakers. I feel like futurism and queer futurism can help us to speak about what's actually happening now.

SMc: Yes, it gives us an opportunity to reflect on our moment through the fantasy of what could be.

TL: Exactly. And this is why I love futurism and this question of the end of the world was more like a pretext. Because obviously, when it is the end of the world you can step back and be like, "Okay, what can we do?" "Who am I?" You start asking a lot of existential questions.  

Artist and poet Tarek Lakhrissi and ACMI curator Shelley McSpedden

Tarek Lakhrissi and Shelley McSpedden

SMc: You have been very busy doing events for this preview week of the Biennale. Have you had a chance to see some of the other works?

TL: Yesterday, I got a chance to see Mohammed Bourouissa’s installation at Cockatoo Island (Brutal Family Roots [2020]). He has done this beautiful installation based on the language of plants and how plants are actually living creatures that can also produce music. So, there is a live environment where there are a lot of Acacia. The trees and a beautiful yellow carpet, that references the Mimosa flower. So that is also another immersive installation, where you can even just lay on the floor and listen to the music. There is also beautiful spoken word poetry that you can hear in three languages; English, Aboriginal and Arab. It’s a real stand out for me. 

SMc: And what's happening next? What are you doing after the Biennale?

TL: After this I'm going to take a break. After that, I do have a solo show in Italy, which is funny. It’s the perfect moment to have a solo show in Italy! It is with this private foundation called Sandretto in Turin. I also have a performance project with, actually the main character of the movie (Sorour Darabi, who stars in Out of the Blue), who is a dancer. We do have a duo together scheduled for a pretty big festival in Brussels. So those are the two things I have coming up next, of course, I have a lot of different things happening after that. 

SMc: Well we wish you luck with those projects. Thanks for speaking with me today. 

Visit the Museum of Contemporary Art's website to learn more about Out of the Blue.

To see some of Tarek’s work visit his Vimeo page.

About NIRIN

The 22nd Biennale of Sydney, titled NIRIN, opened on 14 March and runs until 8 June 2020. Due to the impact of coronavirus, much of the exhibition has moved online.

Under the artistic direction of acclaimed Indigenous Australian artist Brook Andrew, NIRIN is an artist and First Nations-led endeavour, presenting an expansive exhibition of contemporary art and events that connect local communities and global networks. Meaning edge, NIRIN is a word of Brook’s mother’s Nation, the Wiradjuri people of western New South Wales.