Installation view of the exhibition Shahryar Nashat: Force Life, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 1–March 8, 2020. Digital image © 2020 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Denis Doorly

What Is Authority?

Shahryar Nashat’s unsettling installation asks questions about surveillance and the power of institutions.
Tausif Noor Mar 24, 2020

Dead or alive?

A rhythmic, throbbing sound filled MoMA’s Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Studio: a pulse, indicating that the blood was still flowing in the prone, male figure. He was still alive.

Moments before, the ceiling-mounted speakers had flooded the room with intense, fast-paced thumping, a soundtrack that accompanied a tracking shot of an empty room, saturated in the characteristic green and yellow hues of heat-sensitive surveillance cameras. A female voice announced that we were witnessing the first moments of Force Life (2019), Shahryar Nashat’s three-part, multisensory installation.

“What do you want?,” the voice demanded, “Identity? Sex? Do you want meaning? Violence? Do you want my exile?”

Installation view of the exhibition Shahryar Nashat: Force Life, February 1–March 8, 2020

Installation view of the exhibition Shahryar Nashat: Force Life, February 1–March 8, 2020

When we see the body, approximately four minutes into the video Blood (what is authority), it is out of focus, lying face-up on a stained white carpet. Blood (what is authority) is the video component of Force Life, an installation that explores how art is seen, felt, and perceived, evoking the human central nervous system itself. The video is presented on a sculptural screen connected to the power supply and the Museum architecture by a long, sculptural tube recalling intestines or an umbilical cord. Accompanying it are the polymer and fiberglass horizontal sculpture Barre (are you nervous in this system), across from which two marble sculptures—Brain (do you feel nervous in this system) and Brain (you no longer have to simulate)—stand as sentinels at the Studio’s entrance. A light installation bathes the space in an ethereal glow, fluctuating between cool and warm tones, adapting to both the images in the video and the modulations of natural light entering the Studio, imbuing the space with a sensuous life force.

Force Life alternates with Shelf Life, a performance by the choreographer Adam Linder, with whom Nashat often collaborates. During the transition between the two works, the video wall hosting Blood (what is authority) pivots to reveal a dancers’ barre on the reverse side of the screen. The installation expands on the questions of power, alienation, and difference that have threaded through Shahryar Nashat’s practice over the past decade. Nashat has used digital video as an extension of the human form—a prosthesis for it—separating personhood from the flesh-and-blood limitations of the physical body to accentuate how the effects of technology have altered our understanding of who we are and what the self is. He often splices together images of athletes and pornographic models—figures held up in our media as subjects of desire—to create composite figures, as in the videos Present Sore (2016) and Keep Begging (2019). By cropping, zooming, and scanning individual fragments of the human body and reconfiguring them into new composite figures, the artist considers the ways in which the individual has become fragmented, shattered by technology’s mediations between people, objects, and images.

Shahryar Nashat: Force Life

Shahryar Nashat: Force Life

This fragmentation, the artist suggests, is a consequence of new modes of control that dictate the possibilities of a person’s movement, functioning, and future. In Blood (what is authority), we as viewers take the position of a scanning surveillance camera that continuously adjusts itself, a motion indicated by diegetic clicking noises. Along with the camera, we zoom into ears and eyeballs, limbs and pubic hair, taking stock of the anonymous male body that seems oblivious to our gaze.

The scans of the still figure alternate with CCTV footage of coyotes and monkeys, appropriated YouTube clips reenacting a commercial for AXE Body Spray, a monologue from Anne Carson’s experimental grief-memoir Nox, and a scientific explanation of “exactly what happens when you die.” The combination of these source materials might seem disjointed, but it re-creates the often aberrant, media-saturated experience of the Internet, and its attendant modes of surveillance and control. Even in its earliest iterations—when the promise of global connectivity seemed ripe with limitless possibility—digital media has been shadowed by the authority of corporations, the military, and national governments

Shahryar Nashat: Force Life

Shahryar Nashat: Force Life

But just what is authority? Repeated several times by the disembodied, robotic voices in Nashat’s video, the question is never answered. While authority describes a relationship between individuals and their relative social power, it is these relationships that, in part, regulate institutions. For his 2004 series Staatsgewalt, Nashat examined the institutionalization of violence by the state against its citizens, connecting related histories of Italian resistance to fascism in the 1930s and 1940s with the LAPD’s acts of brutality against Rodney King in 1991. In Force Life, authority assumes many forms: the gaze of the camera that scans and surveils the supine, still body; the speakers that declare the transitions between Nashat’s and Linder’s work; the security officers who observe and regulate visitors’ interactions with the work; the authority wielded by the artist and curators and in the entire enterprise of the Museum itself.

So what is authority? How do we determine where it comes from? When we identify it, what can we do? Shahryar Nashat’s work often generates more questions than it answers, but this is by design: His practice urges us to reconsider what we know, and how we come to know it.