Artist Sophia Al-Maria and Melissa Blanchflower, Curator of Exhibitions and Public Art, Serpentine in discussion with Nick Hackworth, Director, Modern Forms on the subject of taraxos – Al-Maria’s visionary public art work created for the Serpentine x Modern Forms Sculpture Commission.
NH: Sophia. Can you tell us about the origin of your taraxos project?
SAM: We should begin with the name ‘taraxos.’ It is a re-imagining of the Latin ‘Taraxacum officinale,’ which is the name of the common dandelion. ‘Taraxos,’ when I wrote it out, felt very sci-fi and originally, I thought ‘That’s the name of a ship.’ Then I thought ‘No, it’s some kind of a port, or a portal,’ and this made me think about the way in which a dandelion propagates in the world might be a model for understanding ways of survival and resilience. I was also thinking about the future, especially with the biosphere struggling the way that it is, and the environmental collapse that is occurring around us. It is plants like the dandelion, which are hardy, adaptable and free, that I find exciting as an f emblem of the things that I’m interested in. I’ve always been interested in futures and futurisms. ‘Gulf Futurism’ is what a lot of people know my work for. It is a phrase that I’ve moved away from, but I feel in many ways that this project is a return to some of those ideas that I was playing with at the time, which were a despair at our current circumstances. That’s the beginning… I could talk for ages about taraxos!
NH: Is this almost an antidote to that ‘Gulf Futurism’? If Gulf Futurism was identifying a society becoming increasingly atomised through consumer capitalism, then this project seems to be about the opposite of that, about connection…
SAM: That is exactly it. I like that. The description of it as an ‘antidote’ to Gulf Futurism feels very appropriate and accurate to me, because the sculpture is intended as a meeting point and a pilgrimage spot. t During the first Covid lockdown in London I would feel a desperate need to walk somewhere but I didn’t know where to go,—I didn’t have a destination. If I had had a specific place outdoors that I knew that I could go and visit, then I think it would have been very helpful, during that difficult time. So it is a place to go. You can sit on it, and meditate there. There’s a sonic element [the wind chimes], which is tuned to be very relaxing. It’s also tuned to air, and there is something about breath and blowing and breathwork, which has also been very poignant over the last period, not only because of the pandemic and the way in which it affects our lungs, but also with the social movements and the phrase of not being able to breathe being…. So there are many, many layers, and it’s been really amazing to be able to make something for the public that I hope can be an antidote, which is a really beautiful way to put it.
NH: I’m very interested in how this project sits within the current debates around public sculpture and public space, especially as driven by the BLM movement. The idea of what public sculpture should or should not be is being interrogated far more intensely than at any moment previously in recent history. Melissa as this project’s curator, how have these powerful, current debates shaped and informed your thinking about taraxos?
MB: I think it’s been fascinating to witness, and with this commission we have been really interested in stretching the definition of what public sculpture could be. This was our thinking before the pandemic and these timely debates around monuments have accelerated this idea of rescripting our understanding of public art. . I think public art needs to be for the people who are there to experience it, and so therefore it completely shifts with the times. I’m interested in how, at the moment, people are reclaiming their public spaces in a different way. It’s interesting to think that many of these statues of colonial or industrialist figures have been in our cities across the UK for decades and decades, and people are now finding ways to discuss what this means to them today. Public spaces need to reflect how people feel about the world. We’re on the cusp of a very interesting rethinking what public art can be. Art in the public sphere doesn’t need to be a traditional, solid figurative sculpture of a person on a plinth, that we walk around! It can be a space that people enter, like with taraxos. It can be a space that you feel is also in flux and changes with the environment that it’s in. taraxos is not a static full-stop, which is how I see many monumental sculptures: a full-stop, someone’s decided this sculpture will be here and it’s never moving. Whereas actually thinking about sculpture or public art as a space that’s active that can be agitated and changed and respond and react to the people around it and the environment,—is really exciting, I think.
SAM: Yeah, that’s a really beautiful way of putting it. Also, rather than a full-stop it’s an ellipsis or an asterisk.
MB: [Laughs] Yeah, it always comes back to punctuation!
SAM: It’s true! The writer in me will never come out,—it always comes back to punctuation. I think the other interesting thing about taraxos, in relation to that question, is the fact that it was conceived—again—as like a foil or in opposition to the Speakers’ Corner.
NH: Can you tell us a bit more about how you see the relationship between taraxos and Speakers’ Corner?
SAM: I was thinking about Hyde Park as a place, and as a place that generally marches and rallies gather at. I was thinking at the time also about the ways in which much of our public engagement now,—like on Twitter for example —is like shouting-into-a-void, with everybody shouting and not actually listening, or not grounding themselves before they just say things on the internet. I think a lot about information,—I also come from a journalism background,—I studied journalism in Cairo, and so I’ve felt very disturbed, as someone who thinks about the future a lot, about information and the slipperiness of reality based on information, and especially with a lot of people on soap-boxes. So, as a part of that,—and a part of the sculpture,—one of the things was to have a place that would encourage people to sit down and listen, and also hopefully listen to themselves. That’s one of the reasons also why there’s an accompanying meditation with it, called tarax’sup? which I did in collaboration with Kelsey Lu. That piece is also intended as an accompaniment for people to listen to on the way to the sculpture, or listen to while they are at or in the sculpture. It does describe the genesis of a dandelion,—it goes from seed to blossom and back again,—so it’s meant to be this cycling of energy that grounds the listener, and hopefully allows everybody to be in the world with more courage and grace and be more resilient. So in many ways it’s all part of this larger preoccupation with and concern about the future!
NH: How much of a programmatic idea do you have about how people can use or interact or be in the sculpture?
SAM: It’s a public work and it’s really for the public to use. I think there are so many ways to use it;as a ritual space, as a place to dance, as a place to meet, and I can’t think of a single use that I wouldn’t appreciate. I do suspect that some people will try to pole-dance on it! [Laughs] I think that there already have been! Which I’m very in favour of as long as they’re safe about it. [Laughs] It was a very special experience for me to do something of that scale physically, because, I think that stepping into it and looking up for the first time was really…, I haven’t experienced that with my work at that scale before, and that was a really moving moment It felt like a portal opened for me, actually, and a lot of things came to a conclusion.
NH: If taraxos is a portal or a wish, where does the portal take you, or what do you wish for?
SAM: There’s a line in the text,—’A Wish Is A Form Of Travel,’—and at the very centre of the sculpture there’s a little piece of titanium which is from an aeroplane. A part of my wish is for everyone who isn’t home—whatever that means,—to be able to feel at home wherever they are. That’s the other thing that I love about dandelions,—is that they make their home wherever they land. So that is my wish,—home for myself, and for everyone.
MB: My sister and I always played a game with dandelions when we were young. We’d blow on the dandelion,—and because the seeds can travel great distances,—we would send them to say hello to friends and family who lived far away, on different continents. So it was like sending secret messages! There’s something about the way that dandelion seeds travel and float that’s mysterious. I’m hoping that taraxos resonates with people, whether they come to visit it or get blown along there on their walk, wandering through the park. I hope they find a sculpture and a site that sparks their curiosity.
SAM: I’m surprised that it took so long for that story to come out! That’s amazing,—that has to go in the book!