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Working in the digital age, Swiss artist Shahryar Nashat updates the vision of ultimate, eternal romantic union that John Berger conjured back in analog times: “One of your ribs leans against my skull. A metacarpal of my left hand lies inside your pelvis […] a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough.”1 In Happier Than Ever, which opened on September 17 at David Kordansky Gallery, Nashat substitutes real bones, blood, and flesh with increasingly abstract representations of them. A video installation and series of hanging, standing, and wall-based sculptures are all named a numbered version of Lover.JPEG—apt titles at a time in which, for many, much of love’s work happens virtually. Though Nashat incorporates similar anatomical images, his lovers and beloveds never achieve the full physical integration (into each other, or into themselves) suggested by Berger’s words. Instead, the exhibition focuses on encounters of estranged intimacy in works so weighed down by the qualities of each medium that love and desire become formal modes, drained of personality.
Framed, iterative inkjet prints of the same well-lit ribcage interior repeat across the gallery walls. Without a thorough knowledge of anatomy, it is difficult to identify each part of the composition, or even whether the body belongs to a human or an animal. A goopy film of acrylic gel, recalling any number of bodily secretions, coats the surface of each print, creating texture on an otherwise smoothly printed image. Here, Nashat draws attention to the materiality of the medium while gesturing to the material substratum of human bodies. While the thoracic cavity’s recurrence feels durational, like love’s obsessive refrain, the serial technique also produces an uncanny effect, furthering us from the original, organic flesh and bones with each subsequent replication.
A viewing room at the back of the gallery space features Lover_19.JPEG, a rough-cut marble sculpture resembling a phallus draped in fabric, tinted orange like a sullied mattress. The sculpture stands before Lover_00.JPEG, a floor-to-ceiling, vertically oriented video featuring clips of a colonoscopy, OnlyFans footage, and water pouring out from a wall outlet. But the video is so cropped, slowed, or otherwise degraded that the digital materiality of the image sometimes becomes more visually compelling than the representation of figures and objects on screen. During the colonoscopy section, for instance, a panoply of pixelated rainbows, the kind that appear when a camera lens captures light at an odd angle, flourish across the screen. Here, the sexual encounter is staged in the exhibition space, as the phallic, marble sculpture is positioned directly in front of the colonoscopy video so that, when viewed from the right angle, its tip coincides with the entrance to the rectum on-screen. But, of course, such an installation can never move beyond insinuation. In the absence of the actual, corporeal lover, Nashat offers the physicality of artistic and digital media.
Nashat’s floor-based sculptures entirely forgo references to bodily interiority. Two leek-green synthetic polymer and fiberglass works rest on the floor, each composed of curvilinear forms that, from certain angles, nuzzle together in delicate balance. While these geometric sculptures lack any surface texture or figural content, their constituent, meeting parts nevertheless evoke an intimate encounter. Yet their intimacy feels disembodied, absent of an individual’s desire or sentiment.
The exhibition shares a title with Billie Eilish’s 2021 power ballad “Happier Than Ever,” in which Eilish sings, “when I’m away from you / I’m happier than ever.” Both Eilish and Nashat drop that first phrase from their titles, even though the “away from” line is integral to both. The lover, after all, is omnipresent in Nashat’s work—but only ever as a specter, suggested in the structures and arrangements of images and objects. Through his experiments in staging increasingly abstract engagements with the lover’s body, Nashat invites us to rethink the aesthetics of love.