BY Frida Sandström in Reviews | 20 MAY 19
Featured in
Issue 204

Performance and Video Artist Roxy Farhat’s Radical Reclaiming of the Camera

An exhibition at Index, Stockholm, fuses activism, queer performance and pop music

BY Frida Sandström in Reviews | 20 MAY 19

Whether in aspirational lifestyle advertisements or pornography, the production of digital imagery is intertwined with the exploitation of the female body. This allegation provides the foundation for the work of Iran-born Swedish performance and video artist Roxy Farhat, who radically updates the legacy of her forerunners in feminist cinema. To counteract the culture of online identity encouraged by social media and digital freelancing platforms, Farhat refrains from empathizing with the individual, instead highlighting the entangled experience of the many. Her works are often produced in collaboration and, as a result, they simultaneously reference multiple social networks and political events, frustrating any attempts to locate a cohesive narrative.

Despite a decade of artistic activity, ‘WUH-PSHHH!’ is Farhat’s first solo show. Presented at Index in Stockholm, the exhibition sees a selection of Farhat’s films, performances and music videos displayed on nine LCD screens. To drift between the works is to feel the influence of activism, queer performance and commercial pop music, but in this uniform exhibition setting they seem disconnected from their original contexts. There is a tangible feeling of disembodiment, as if the collectivist subjects of these works cannot be distilled into a single artistic concept, nor can they be contained by the clean aesthetic of the white cube.

Roxy Farhat, HOUSEKEEPING, 2009, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Index Foundation, Sweden

At Index, this characteristic only manifests once: in the gallery’s restroom, where the sound piece 19/18/2011 (2011) is installed in the drain of a shower. It loops a computer-generated male voice that, with a surprisingly elaborate vocabulary, apologizes to Farhat for an act of ‘non-conscious male domination’. The installation resonates with Minimal Kompetens, a small business that was co-founded by Farhat and artist Johanna Friedman in 2014 (and now includes designer Hanna Stenman), and appears here in the form of a promotional video. Part consulting firm, part performance, Minimal Kompetens is a 12-step programme that enables men to develop a minimal level of social competence.

Outside the restroom is Farhat’s music video for Swedish singer Zhala’s ‘I’m in Love’ (2014), in which the camera pans across a long line of women, non-binary people and children braiding each other’s hair. On occasion, the figures turn and lock eyes with the viewer; turning around in the gallery, I meet Farhat’s own eyes in Housekeeping (2009): a performance for video featuring Farat’s own singing and electronic tunes. In what appears to be a lo-fi music video from the early 2000s, the artist re-enacts the last job she had before she was able to subsist as an artist. As the title suggests, Farhat was a housekeeper at a hotel, adhering to the stereotype of underpaid, immigrant female labour. (During a recent talk, she admitted that she stole the uniform used in the video before quitting.)

Roxy Farhat, Welcome, 2019, installation view at Index Foundation, Stockholm. Courtesy: the artist and Index Foundation, Stockholm

In the experimental documentary Syster I (2011), anonymous voices discuss their first encounters with feminism as the camera sweeps over what seems to be a private apartment. Presented alongside is the music video The Decency Squad (2009), in which humorous lyrics comment on Iranian women’s internalization of patriarchy. For How Was Your Morning (2018), Farhat has exchanged speech and singing for looping stock photos, which depict office chairs and well-dressed white bodies. As floating signifiers, their poses mimic imperatives of success and self-care. Throughout the video, the pixels slowly become distorted, the melting of images and ideals accompanied by an uneasy soundtrack of heavy drones.

In the video Acting Women (2017), Farhat and Zhala take it upon themselves to perform the alienating representation of women as mere images, holding a single pose in a seemingly endless photoshoot. Placed in the position of photographer, I observe as the women attempt to stay still, locked in a silent struggle with the camera, their faces slowly turning paler. As a long strip of saliva slowly leaks through Farhat’s shiny, white teeth, the screen turns black. Photography lost the game.

Roxy Farhat, ‘WUH-PSHHH!’ runs at Index Foundation, Stockholm, until 26 May 2019.

Main image: Roxy Farhat, Make Again Again Again, 2018, installation view at Index Foundation, Stockholm. Courtesy: the artist and Index Foundation, Stockholm

Frida Sandström is a writer and critic based in Copenhagen, Denmark.