This Phenomenal Overlay
Opera emanates from a speaker hidden in a silver-sheathed stool; double helixes climb up laddered railings; and a burst of gray matter, like a leaking brain, blooms from the corner of the gallery. The whole exhibition has a makeshift feeling, like a children’s science fair without the pedagogical wall texts, or the set of some slightly mad magician who has mysteriously flown the coop just before his set. The word “phenomenal” in “This Phenomenal Overlay,” the title of Sahra Motalebi’s exhibition at Brief Histories, is a double entendre: an adjective of quality as well as a descriptor of the experience of the work, which bowls one over with overlaid aural, tactile, and visual stimulus.
A number of the works on view are draped with satin, as if poised for a performer’s dramatic flourish, or as if containing their own internal dramas. Another Diagram for Another Empty Stage (Diorama) (2022) appears to be a model house adrift atop a cloud; inside, a too-large, un-furniture-like gray structure sounds out. Illuminated by an overhead bulb, the tiny room stands out like its own lonely universe. Other works in the exhibition, which are for the most part split into either “Diorama” or “Resonator” works, are illuminated by disorienting, multicolored spotlights.
Resonator #1 (404) (2022), for example, resembles a floorlamp. The sculpture is balanced by a thick, bent copper wire on one side and an oxidized copper coil, like a ribcage or a gnarled vine, on the other. These forms lead up to a red satin flag. The construction is illuminated rather than illuminating: a pair of LED lights set the red fabric and the metal aglow.
The route one chooses through this exhibition, whereby they find each piece of this strange stage in each of its respective cycles, all contribute to the phenomenological experience of this exhibition. I suppose I was lucky. “A stage,” a woman’s voice called softly to me from the lamp as I bent my ear to the red-wrapped bundle. “Whose voice was that?” she added. Unable to gauge the rest of the monologue the low voice had to offer, I moved on. Minutes later, another work—perhaps Resonator #2 (Speculative Instrument) (2017-2022)—called back, as though in answer. “I’ve been asking around,” it said, almost whispering. —Lisa Yin Zhang
Installation View: Sahra Motalebi, “This Phenomenal Overlay” at Brief Histories New York, 2022.