‘Womanhood’ is a troubled concept in the world of Semiramis. Gathered together for Tai Shani’s first institutional solo exhibition, at The Tetley in Leeds, are the videos, prints and sculptural installations that make up Dark Continent – a project four years in the making, titled after Freud’s description of female sexuality. To wander through the galleries is like diving vagina-first into a cyborgian erotic tunnel, in which strange and magnificent characters tell tales of squirting fluids and menstrual blood. In a room displaying documentation of her performances at Glasgow International in 2018, I put on a pair of headphones. A voice informs me that its ‘cute pussy’ has something to tell me: the characters in this show will not be women any longer, for to be called ‘wo-man’ is to be tied to men through the language of the lack, to the absence of male genitalia.
Semiramis is inspired by The Book of the City of Ladies, an early feminist text by the French Renaissance writer Christine de Pizan, written in 1405. Considered Pizan’s most important work, it was written with the intention of countering the notion that women were of a lesser species. Pizan imagined the book as a symbolic city in which to house the biographies of historically significant women, shielding them from misogynistic attack. The book is an early example of a feminist biographical catalogue, a genre which celebrates the lives of figures from history and myth.
Taking Pizan’s book, and blending it with feminist science fiction, Shani has created her own gothic world of characters. In Vampyre (2017) – one of several large, single screen moving image installations shown in dimly lit rooms – I encounter a head with a halo of blonde locks and fanged teeth. Floating among waves and marine bioluminescence, she is forever trapped in a liminal state between life and death. Other characters include The Neanderthal (2018); The Woman on the Edge of Time (2018), the title of which Shani has borrowed from Marge Piercy’s 1976 classic work of speculative feminist science fiction; and Mnemesoid (2018), the human embodiment of an open source database trying (and failing) to reproduce sensory experience, named after the Greek goddess of memory.
Shani’s characters may reject the etymology of ‘woman’, but they are fiercely proud of their sexual organs. In the audiovisual soliloquy Paradise (2017), the blood-spattered and bare-chested protagonist stares straight through the camera at the viewer while discussing her gushing orgasms. Alongside more conventional media, Shani also uses virtual reality to recount the story of Phantasmagoregasm (2017), an 18th century Gothic writer, and their book, ‘The Old Haunted House of Terrifying Terror’. The work takes the viewer into a fantastical world of dead fathers and masturbation, and contains one of the classic feminist motifs: the death of the patriarchy and an unleashing of female sexuality. Whilst looking at a corpse on the floor, visible only as a blurry shape, the narrator describes in depth how she pleasures herself through the act of vaginal penetration using her own fingers. VR is in danger of becoming the art world’s new gimmick, but Shani’s work identifies and exposes a trait of the medium: bodily disconnect. Phantasmagoregasm’s masturbation is unseen by the viewer, and as my eyes and ears are transported into their world to explore another’s sexuality, my own body is left behind to jarring effect. Semiramis’s tales of having and using a body, and being unashamed of it, transform the Tetley’s galleries into a giant, erogenous labyrinth. Take the plunge, get lost, it’s well worth sliding down the rabbit hole.