Sahra Motalebi’s “This Phenomenal Overlay”

Rachel Valinsky

February 15, 2022
Brief Histories, New York
January 28–March 12, 2022

“What is semantic security?” asks an acousmatic voice. This is one among many phrases Sahra Motalebi recites in a twenty-minute recorded track that emanates from a speaker concealed in a wall-hung assemblage to the left of the entrance door. Material Conditions for a Stage (Diorama) (2022) teases the premise of its own title with its slapdash construction and unpretentious materials: a linen curtain peeled back over two metal pylons enframes a rectangular, open-faced cardboard container like product packaging, its insides an irregular topography shaped to hold an object during transport. In other words, the kind of thing that is usually thrown away. But for Motalebi, a dispensable object, like a “dead metaphor,” can have alchemical properties. “What can we perceive?” the voice asks. “This Phenomenal Overlay,” the exhibition’s title, suggests one possible way into the question.

Material Conditions is one of two “dioramas” in Motalebi’s exhibition at Brief Histories. As if reprising the question at the core of Plato’s allegory of the cave—whether we acquire knowledge through sensate experience or philosophical reasoning—the diorama enters into dialogue with another voice sculpture, Resonator #1 (404) (2022). The “resonator,” a potential instrument, is made of decommissioned copper tubing from which jut out two metal wires: the thinnest curls into a long line extending lyrically out into space, while from the other, which is coiled on itself, hangs a red satin pouch housing the hidden speaker. The voice sculptures exchange phrases, lists of terms, aphorisms, and questions in a polyvocal script written and performed by the artist. But the artist’s libretto is spatialized into a relay, a call and response in which the sculptural interlocutors speak past, or on top of each other—an overlay. And at the core of their meditations is semiotic uncertainty. How is meaning produced? And what confidence can we ever have in the sign or the source?

Motalebi’s field of inquiry is expansive. And while it sketches out some familiar discursive territory (semiotics’ problematization of reference and signification, indexicality, the archival impulse, etc.) and explores conventional western philosophical binaries (body vs. mind, mind vs. matter, determination vs. intuition, nature vs. culture), the sheer inexhaustibility of the questions that arise, and their entanglements, is captivating. “Questions rather than answers,” Motalebi warns, guarding against hasty conclusions. Instead, in her script, she turns to recurring motifs like motherboards, a subject that has animated the artist’s recent research. This piece of hardware is the central node of the digital circuit to which all other hardware attaches. As centralized nodes of connectivity, motherboards offer Motalebi a vibrant metaphor for relationality, proximity, and intimacy—dynamics which have been wildly reconfigured by our accelerated use of virtual and digital platforms during the time the artist developed this new body of work.

Together, these verbal works produce the sonic landscape permeating the small gallery space, which is punctuated by operatic vocalizations emitted from the tabletop sculpture, Another Diagram for Another Empty Stage (Diorama) (2022). Poised on a white linen-wrapped surface, the wooden maquette recalls fantastic, surrealist stage constructions. And yet here, opera produces asemantic excess, phenomenal disjunction. The exhibition and its scenography shuttle between these approaches: adopting a reflective mode that centers rational hypothesis, Motalebi also tantalizes the senses with theatrical sound and lighting design (for instance, spotlights illuminate each work starkly, dramaturgically).

Motalebi lingers on and with these performative objects, drawing out their latent indeterminacy, unruliness, and narrative nonlinearity. This speculative mode encapsulates a particular anxiety experienced in the course of this prolonged pandemic, during which projects unrealized and plans unfulfilled have been the rule. Dioramas for stages left unbuilt, “speculative instruments” for sounds not yet heard. Three such instruments, including a painted ladder displaying emblems on disk-shaped panels (Mythic Dysfunction, 2021–22), and two Resonators—a black latex sculpture with visceral, intestinal folds, nested in a corner, and a techno-futurist canvas resting on cinderblocks and adorned with a red, parted curtain—are all leaning against the walls of the space. It seems like they’re looking for support, touch, contact. Together, these many prototypes embed the compressed and extended temporality of the past two, isolating years. Relics of this time, they form the archive of a future archaeology as yet unperformed.

Language & Linguistics, Installation
Sound Art

Rachel Valinsky is an editor, independent curator, and writer based in New York.

RSVP for Sahra Motalebi’s “This Phenomenal Overlay”
Brief Histories
February 15, 2022

Thank you for your RSVP.

Brief Histories will be in touch.


e-flux announcements are emailed press releases for art exhibitions from all over the world.

Agenda delivers news from galleries, art spaces, and publications, while Criticism publishes reviews of exhibitions and books.

Architecture announcements cover current architecture and design projects, symposia, exhibitions, and publications from all over the world.

Film announcements are newsletters about screenings, film festivals, and exhibitions of moving image.

Education announces academic employment opportunities, calls for applications, symposia, publications, exhibitions, and educational programs.

Sign up to receive information about events organized by e-flux at e-flux Screening Room, Bar Laika, or elsewhere.

I have read e-flux’s privacy policy and agree that e-flux may send me announcements to the email address entered above and that my data will be processed for this purpose in accordance with e-flux’s privacy policy*

Thank you for your interest in e-flux. Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.