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I first encountered Mandy El-Sayegh’s work during an artist-organized Instagram (@Art Relief For Beirut) benefit auction to raise funds for alleviating the devastating consequences of the August 4, 2020 Beirut explosion.¹ El-Sayegh’s work, a limited edition giclee print titled Mutations (Scanner 2blue) (2020), features a cut open torso filled with line after line of handwritten phrases in red and blue. The texts are interplays of the words’ meanings, in phrases such as “two states” and “to state.” A similar strategy is also seen in other works such as Untitled (2018) in which an open torso is filled with the phrase “THIS IS A SIGN,” written in all capital blue letters. Vulnerable and visceral, the body here becomes a metaphor that resonates with ideas of being in-between, intermediary, and in a constant state of becoming. Intrigued by El-Sayegh, I participated in the fundraiser by acquiring one edition of Mutations (Scanner 2blue). This was a serendipitous moment where the seed of our connection was planted.
On the occasion of El-Sayegh’s two-person exhibition with Lee Bul at Lehmann Maupin, I had the opportunity to speak to her. The following conversation took place over a few email exchanges.
Xiaoyu Weng (XW): I was informed that the inception of this two-person exhibition Recombinance began with your inspiration and interest in Lee Bul’s Perdu series (2016-present). The most recent works from her series explore the binary between the artificial and the organic. The term “perdu” translates from French as “lost,” notably used in Marcel Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time) (1913–1927). In the English language “perdu” can mean hidden or obscure, signaling an idea of the clandestine, and is also a military term for soldiers assigned to a highly dangerous mission. Can you elaborate on which aspects from this series interest or inspire you? What do you see as the connections between your practice and hers?
Mandy El-Sayegh (ME): I was intrigued by Lee Bul’s Perdu works in that there’s an oddness to them. They have their own space, and they are forms in a process of finding language. In general, this position of still searching, of being intermediary, is what interests me in many other artists’ work. The place where the body is still being articulated and hasn’t yet been fixed. In the context of my own practice, I’m interested in this idea of lost time and the impossibility of finding a moment of origin. My work builds fragmented histories into absurdist bodies and forms. This is with specific fragments, rather than imagined ones.
The idea of militarisation is also present in both of our practices. In her Perdu series, Lee Bul explores the violence of operations, whereas my Proofs series is quite literal in its use of Israeli military operation names. I’ve collected these names over the years, because I have a fear that they will be wiped out of the digital realm. They are harder and harder to research and the terms (both in Hebrew and English) are quite disturbing, precisely because of their removal of violence. For instance, operation names like Sea Breeze or Susannah have a poetic softness and vagueness. This lends itself to an impossibility of pinning down—a forgetting, a rewriting. The words could mean anything. I like playing around with fonts and contextual forms, to change the meaning of these vague terms. There is also an idea of amnesia. Specific military events are subsumed into a blur of poetics and we must think about the impossibility of pinning down such moments, of questioning whether they even existed at all.
While Lee Bul’s early work explored the body politic and the female form within society, my work looks at biopolitics. In particular, the Proofs series questions what it means to legitimise or record a subject, through acts of surveillance, capture, and containment. In the paintings, the thumbprint or body-print makes a proof that essentially fails to fulfil these aims. This is an act of absurdity—it is so literal that it becomes absurd, just like any form of taxonomy. The classification and categorization of human subjects is simply a continual process to take power and control. These connections relate to our human impulse or desire for completeness. This perpetual state of trying to progress and find wholeness is in fact an impossibility, because we’re always in a state of becoming. What does it mean to be a subject in process, against this backdrop of progress and perfection?
XW: If I understand correctly, the title of this two-person exhibition Recombinance is borrowed from the field of biology, where it refers to genetically modified organisms, such as recombinant organisms or recombinant DNA, genetic material that is altered using genetic engineering techniques. This reference indicates both of your interests and engagement in the field of biology, not only as a discipline of science, but also for its aesthetic and political implications. Your references to biology propose an investigation into the intersection of minds, bodies, the senses, and society. For Lee Bul, the idea of the cyborg is very prominent in her artistic narrative and it connects biology with technological development. Her most renowned sculpture series Cyborg (1997–2011) and the related Anagram series (1999–2006) have inspired the Perdu series. These metamorphosing works recall both earthly and cyborg body parts. The unfinished state of each sculpture suggests a physical and metaphorical yearning for completeness and a perpetual state of transition. These works navigate the boundary between deformity and normality in relation to evolutionary processes. Mandy, I read that you grew up in a medicalized environment, surrounded by anatomy, biology, and psychology publications. Can you elaborate a bit more about what and why you are interested in biology? Is there a first distinctive moment or experience that you found memorable?
ME: My mother was a midwife for most of her life and, for as long as could, remember my dad has had chronic kidney failure. Both parents being bilingual, the common denominator was a language of the body in English—broken English for my father, and better English for my mother, who worked in the national health service. So, what I grew up with, and what my parents shared, even the remnants of what I could grasp of Chinese, were all bodily words. It was not so much an interest but a learnt language, a syntax I inherited in a place. When I arrived in the UK there was a broken syntax, so I would see things through that lens. It gave shape to the anxiety I had as a kid, thinking about the medicalization or pathologizing of mental health issues. To give mental health a concreteness, which, in fact, is an impossible project—to give something invisible a form—became a practice. I began making what my father would call “proofs,” signals he makes as part of his amateur radio practice, which are transmitted to confirm the presence or existence of a user. This would manifest in terms of visual interest through collecting and a fascination with children’s science books and anatomy books. More recently this has evolved into the field of biopolitics and taxonomy, the ideas surrounding a subject constrained, quantified, and regulated. The Proofs painting series attests to these notions of imprinting the body as a record.
Recently, if anything, the diagramming and the imaging of the virus has been an inspiration. The film Contagion (2011) comes to mind—it is the last thing I remember watching before going into the COVID-19 lockdown, and its visuals had an effect on me and sent me off onto a thread. They depicted the virus in 3D at one stage on screen and, in fact, scientists said that film was quite accurate in its depiction of what would happen if an outbreak were hypothetically to transpire.
XW: Speaking of biology, according to controversial futurists such as Ray Kurzweil, nanorobotic technology will be capable of making humans immortal by 2045, by entering the human body and repairing any damage, or even by connecting human brains in “the cloud.” Kurzweil’s absurdly confident assertion represents the quintessential transhumanistic ideology of overcoming death through technological acceleration. Such belief is deeply paradoxical: it longs to save the human while denying humanity. It relies on super artificial or biological intelligence, and in doing so places the “human” in the shadow of the enhanced “superhuman.” In this view, what has been and is currently “human” reveals itself to be incompetent, ceasing to have a reason for continued existence, thus reducing humanity’s future to one possibility and one truth. What are your takes on death, immortality, and their dualistic relationship with life? How do you reconcile scientific truth, artistic truth, and historical truth?
ME: I would say that the disavowal of death—in the modern Western context—is a disavowal of life. You can see it plainly in the evolution of depictions of the human body in medicalized contexts, and in this ever-increasing digital imaging of the body. Its removal of the subject, even of its flesh, the time, the observation, where the gaze is placed—these are all proof of disavowal in our cultural imaginary.
In terms of methodology, science and art aren’t dissimilar. There is experimentation, hypothesis, and a trying out of form. The difference is in the ways in which different types of knowledge are absorbed. There is a forgetting of a radical unknowing in science, which is celebrated in art. If we remember that certain truths, laws, and principles governing reality as we know it scientifically have been overthrown by newer ones throughout history, we would not see too much difference between the two fields.
Additionally, I would describe my art practice as research-based in the sense that it is laboratorial; it creates holding spaces for found matter to ferment and grow. It sets up conditions, rather than drawing on conscious research into themes or narratives. I’m more interested in making the process intuitive and pushing back into the material, into linguistic matter. If anything, I am inspired to read about scientific and biological phenomena to create parallels in how forms can be birthed. This is, however, very different from the process of a scientist or a historian. In this sense it’s multi-disciplinary. History and science are involved, but in a way that is recalibrated. So, these disparate elements coming together are all research-based.
XW: At first glance, Lee Bul’s Perdu series (2016–present) presents itself as two-dimensional. But close observation reveals many layers of materiality on these plane surfaces, including the use of organic and inorganic materials such as mother of pearl, velvet, and acrylic paint. The interplay of layering and the use of organic materials are part of an ancient technique from East Asia, seen particularly in the practice of lacquer art. East Asian lacquer is a resin made from the highly toxic sap of the Rhus verniciflua tree, which is native to the region and a close relative of poison ivy. Raw lacquer is collected annually by extracting the viscous sap through notches cut into the trees. After processing, purified lacquer can be layered to plane surfaces or applied to objects. Lee Bul’s technique also reminds me of the art of inlaying lacquer with mother-of-pearl, which was intensively developed during the Song period in China. It is very process-driven and focuses on materiality, touch, and tactility.
Mandy, you once described how some artists have an idea and then execute it, while for you, you always find the idea after the fact—you set up the framework and then it (the idea) happens. Can you speak a bit about the dynamics between ideas and representations? In this process, how does materiality play a crucial role? And what kinds of materials do you gravitate towards?
ME: While formally studying painting, I quickly understood that I couldn’t produce compositions on a picture plane in a traditional sense, through a figured relation. The process was too heavily conscious, and I was more interested in how biological forms could be birthed without conscious thought. I began to set up parameters that would give life to these morphological forms. I was intrigued by emergence, in the scientific, philosophical, systems theory sense of the term. Emergence occurs when a set of laws that can be quite simple give shape to complex forms that cannot be reducible to the sum of its parts. Human consciousness is said to be described in this way as is the speculating on future AI. I am also interested in morphogenesis, the study of how organisms grow and form.
Most of my work is about setting up simple systems to give me limits, which is why what I produce often surprises me. The limits of a Net-Grid painting are always the same (225 x 235 cm), the action is always same (to approximate a 1 cm square), but variables exist in terms of color and ground. Before, the colors would be only red and white, and the variables would have just been that. But as I better understand and learn form, I add more variables, including time into the compositions, so that they become more metonymic and look at different densities in this figure-ground relation. Through each stage of understanding form, these variables complexify the process and become a way to understand elements in our field of vision. For example, a bruised tone has different layers in the flesh. The blood that’s closest to the surface is more vivid and deep, while further underneath it is darker because of the tissue in between. These forms can reveal themselves through very simple structures.
In terms of aesthetics, I see both my and Lee Bul’s practices as exploring the relationship between abjection, transcendence, and beauty. There is a transcendence of the grotesque that is prevalent in Lee Bul’s work. For me, it’s more about trying to make this abjection dissolve into a gestalt from afar. Upon closer inspection, you realise the works are base matter material. Whether in a vitrine table or a painting, this aesthetic tension is something I’m interested in working with, through a zooming in and out of space. Passing a corpse off as a painting.
XW: What are the relationships between your two-dimensional and three-dimensional works?
ME: In essence, the question becomes: “If I let the action or material run its course, what will be produced?” The same rules apply to a latex mold. The mold size is always the same, roughly the size of a torso, fabricated in 100 x 60 cm metal troughs, with alternating materials. Zinc-plated, copper, and mild steel troughs each have different reactions with the latex. This materiality becomes a variable. I also set certain limits in terms of palette, yet there’s an infinite number of variables that I can’t control that is within the organic material itself. I learn of these after producing this latex skin—or cure—a number of times, filling up a space with this tiled repetition. The same applies for the repetition of a word to the point of absurdity. This is apparent in the mutations body of work, a series of small drawings that uses a systematic repetition of words to reveal the ways in which a signifier can mutate unconsciously within a subject.
For instance, the Net-Grid paintings are like a thick tissue of flesh; that’s how I see them once they are stretched. The embedded debris in the primed surfaces create a disturbance in the ground for the paintings to exist, a series of linear gestures of lines. Within these grounds, there is a plane with object-ness and surface. The “net” being something that is a literal object that catches things, and the notion of a “grid” being a potentially virtual way of ordering space.
XW: You and Lee Bul both take a very critical approach to the problematic aspects of how a woman’s body is appropriated, manipulated, and consumed in the course of history and cultural imagination. Do you consider yourself a feminist? What does feminism mean to you? In particular, how are feminist narratives being constructed in Western culture in comparison to your cultural identities? In what ways do you envision fellow women artists supporting and inspiring each other, especially women artists of color in this difficult political environment of prevailing misogyny?
ME: This is a difficult question to answer in the sense that it’s still being articulated in my work and I’m living cultural tensions and nuances now that previously have not had a language. For example, my immediate family is driven by a strong matriarchal presence. My mother is the breadwinner and has taken this from her culture. Yet, there is also a nuance of a Chinese patriarchal model that is re-translated in our family systems. There are a lot of nuances that I’m figuring out in my interaction with my mother.
My use of the body is more a use of form and thinking, a hook employed to explore what is left when subjectivity isn’t granted or isn’t fully formed, when it is precarious or forcibly removed. It looks at the bare bones of flesh, of connective tissue, and how these forms interact with ideas of nationality, identity, and ideology. For instance, when I presented work recently in France, Arabic script had a different meaning than somewhere like Hong Kong. At the time I exhibited in Hong Kong, the protests had just started, so the body resonated with ideas of two-state solutions, which speak narratively to my own history of being half-Palestinian. When you place the body at a particular moment in time, you will have specific resonances.
Even my understanding of my cultural identity or inheritance is fragmented. I wouldn’t differentiate between Western culture here, it’s just another element, in which case it’s hard to answer the question because there are a lot of layers and contradictions. In a sense, my just being present and visible making the work I do, becomes a part of how the narrative is constructed outside of me. In terms of feminism, we are all intersectional to some degree, we are all a soup of different parts. I don’t believe there should be a hierarchy with the other elements struggling to find a place. I don’t have an overtly socially engaged practice. It deals with themes surrounding feminism and intersectionality, but these are just one of many elements. In terms of how women artists can support and inspire each other, especially women artists of color, the answer is in the question; when one has the space to talk, when one is afforded visibility, they speak within the context of other female artists that they admire. In this way, they structure source material and historical references through associations, instead of using already existing frameworks. I believe that having these conversations, doing these shows, talking about the work in the context of other female artists, is a small way in which I show solidarity with fellow artists that I admire. Slowly this model of different frameworks of reference, history and marginality will bring such minorities to the forefront with time.
XW: I totally agree. I find the inter-generational dialogues between artists are very important. Such dialogues can take the form of self-initiated, informal conversations or in the context of two-person exhibitions. I have also recently curated a two-woman exhibition of artists Miriam Cahn and Claudia Martínez Garay at the Sifang Art Museum in Nanjing. For me, making such curatorial projects is not only a way to think of the (perhaps romanticized) idea of mentorship but also, more importantly, to provide fresh perspectives and contexts to interpret each artist’s work, ones that might not necessarily be evident in an isolated condition. How do you feel about such a format? What were your initial intuitions in thinking of showing alongside Lee?
ME: Rather than thinking in terms of cross-generational mentorship, I think through the re-affirming of connections that exist through time. I’m made aware of these connections through the proposal of a show, for example. I remember reading somewhere that Lee Bul didn’t have any role models at the time she was developing her practice, and, because of this, she had to build her own worlds, her own framework. I relate to this in the sense that I found the frameworks that were available to me insufficient. As a result, in my practice there is similarly a commitment to building a complex lexicon, a language of new forms to create immersive worlds that exist in their own right.
I view working alongside Lee Bul as an experiment in how this exquisite corpse of parts can come together through material and how these connections can manifest in space. Because there are so many crossovers between our practices in terms of plasticity of the body, I had faith that they would speak to one other once placed in dialogue.
¹ The catastrophic explosion was caused by a large amount of ammonium nitrate stored in the port of the city; hundreds died, thousands were injured and the disaster left an estimated 300,000 people homeless.
Above: Portrait of Xiaoyu Weng by Evgeny Litvinov; Portrait of Mandy El-Sayegh by Abtin Eshraghi; Portrait of Lee Bul by Yoon Hyung-moon