‘What an artist dies in me’/ Exit the Emperor Nero
2 - 21 June 2013
Rehana Zaman was born in Heckmonwike
She studied at Goldsmiths
Rehana currently lives and works in London
A conversation between Rehana Zaman and Isabel Gylling
Isabel Gylling: The title for your exhibition here at OUTPOST comes from the last words of Emperor Nero, who also plays a part in the work. What made you interested in him?
Rehana Zaman: I had been thinking about the relationship between the body and architecture, specifically the Roman architecture of Baalbek, where some of the footage in ‘What an artist dies in me’/ Exit the Emperor Nero was filmed. Nero was one of the Emperors under whose reign the site was constructed. It was in Richard Sennett’s Flesh and Stone that I came across the specific moment of Nero’s death. In one of the chapters he describes the despotic Emperor’s obsession with acting and his understanding that all power is a matter of performance. Sennett elaborates upon a disparity between the seen and unseen within civic life and how performance might be entangled within that, an idea I found particularly compelling. As a character within the film, Nero felt fluid enough to stand in for a historical, social moment, a trope of masculinity and a notion of performance.
The video also relates to an incident within the novel Three, where a man dressed in robes performs a suicidal mime play. The details of Nero’s death allowed a conflation of the two.
IG: Surrounded by theatre columns the viewer is invited into this stage like space. You have described the installation as a ‘video play’ - what is your relationship to theatre? What intrigues you about this art form?
RZ: My interest in theatre comes from making live works and working with actors, developing scripts and thinking about how performances play out within exhibition spaces. I was working with performance within my practice before I was making videos so it has always felt related. I have found it useful to draw on the research and discipline of dramaturgy as a way of thinking through the relationship between an audience and performer; it’s centuries old whereas discussions around performance are still quite niche.
I wouldn’t say I’m intrigued by all forms of theatre. My interest ranges from Euripides to political playwrights of the 20th century or contemporary theatre groups that engage with experimental forms so it is quite varied. The props are a way of making those references explicit.
I had been thinking of this work as a ‘play for video’, which referred to a longstanding interest in plays produced for TV such as Play for Today or Bennett’s Talking Heads and the aesthetics of those works. Or rather the consequences of watching something that felt theatrical viewed as filmed footage. As a process of engagement it feels significantly different to watching something cinematic.
IG: Two suicides feature in the work, how do you intend these parallel narratives to sit alongside one another?
RZ: There’s also a third suicide that sits behind the work, Ann Quin, the author of Three, drowned herself by swimming out to sea, so there are several deaths taking place within the work, some real, some imagined. Nero was 30 when he died and Quin 37 - perhaps I’m anxious about my age. I think for me that is where the work lies, in the reading of these narratives alongside one another.
IG: Previously we briefly spoke about how you go about writing scripts, editing down until you end up with something that is very specific and sparse. Can you talk a little about your process of making work?
RZ: The origins of the work can be quite broad but generally comes from an experience; an experience of being in a particular place, an experience of a certain conversation or relationship. From that context I eventually locate a narrative that I might compose, a transcript or a quote, sometimes all three. If the work involves actors it tends to shift through the process of meeting people and working with them, although generally the script will remain unchanged. A great deal has to be planned in advance before filming as I generally work with a camera person and sound recordist to film. But I do like to leave some room for improvisation. The edit is really where the work shifts dramatically again. Often a great deal of footage is left out although it feels important that it was performed, as if there is a remainder of it somewhere in the work. In fact the notion of editing runs through the work quite strongly, starting with a mass of material and carefully choosing what will be composed; what will remain visible and what becomes absent.