In her current exhibition ‘Tragodía’ at Grazer Kunstverein, Tai Shani, last year’s joint Turner Prize winner, explores the continued relevance of the classical genre of Greek tragedy. The show’s titular work from 2019 – co-produced by Temple Bar Gallery, Dublin, and Jindřich Chalupecký Society, Prague – comprises an installation and a 29-minute virtual-reality play.
In the main gallery, lilac-hued architectural elements – from pyramids and steps to floating columns – create a proscenium stage that hints at the work’s engagement with theatre. Forms made of fibreglass and jesmonite are scattered across this geometrical set while spotlights draw attention to sculptures reminiscent of a burial site: a turquoise and violet-coated skeleton and the decapitated head of an elderly woman with a long mane of wavy, green hair. It’s initially unclear when looking at this ambiguous, if visually intriguing, composition whether these objects are relics or protagonists of Tragodía. Their significance, however, becomes more evident when watching the play – a foray into VR technology for Shani, who usually collaborates with live performers.
‘These are models for a structured, tragic play about my family,’ a cat named Oedipuss explains at the beginning of the video, which centres on three women – Mother, Aunt and Grandmother Eve – and the loss of their young relative, Ghost Child, in a terrible car accident. Donning a VR headset, viewers are transformed into a 3D animated avatar of the dead, floating in a timeless black space, surrounded by the disembodied heads of family members, which frequently change in size. These avatars share similar physical attributes to the sculpture in the installation and it soon becomes apparent that the women are closely interconnected.
During the play, the women mourn Ghost Child and cast various spells in the hope they might somehow resurrect her. ‘What can we say to the departed?’ Mother asks of our inability to communicate with the deceased. Caught in a state of limbo, Ghost Child seemingly converses with her family; however, it is hard to tell if her words reach their ears, or if these are just flashbacks from past conversations. While the relatives mourn such tragic loss, their words remain in fragmented internal dialogues unable to bypass the gulf between the living and the dead. The women’s brittle voices are accompanied by giant crystal tears dropping from Grandmother Eve’s staring eyes, rolling over her cavernous nostrils into the black, starry void that surrounds her – expressing loss not merely through words but through bodily reactions.
Tragodía closes to the plaintive soundtrack of Jane Birkin’s song ‘Jane B.’ (1969), whose dramatic plot mirrors the play’s ending, in which the remaining family members, overcome with grief, commit suicide to reunite with Ghost Child. The song’s French lyrics read like a missing person’s report: ‘Blue eyes, chestnut hair, Jane B. Sex: female. Age: between 20 and 21’. The VR play’s aesthetic austerity contrasts with the manifold references in the physical installation, which allude to the women’s lethal fate. However, the different parts of the exhibition also complement each other and their interplay brilliantly stresses the fundamental desire to overcome the liminal space between life and death in order to re-establish a connection with the deceased – even if it is through one’s own death. ‘Tragodía’ thus speaks not only of our boundless capacity for love and compassion but of how fate can always be challenged.