Against Order: An Interview with Sitara Abuzar Ghaznawi

Art World
Petri Dish

Textiles in lace or with floral patterns; artificial roses – again and again; PVC foil and also aluminum; blister packs; chains; cigarette butts, and rhinestones: all are carefully and pointedly arranged in installations, collages, assemblages, and sculptures. Sitara Abuzar Ghaznawi skillfully plays with mass-produced everyday objects and effortlessly raises questions about value and class as well as mechanisms of the art industry. Challenging the status quo, the artist born in Afghanistan and living in Switzerland finds alternatives to the existing order in her pieces. Ghaznawi’s works bear unambiguous titles like Vulgar Collage (ongoing), Male Extinction 2 (2021), and simply Bookshelf 1–3 (2020). The latter provides the starting point for the conversation with fellow artist and author Fid. Fischer, originally published in German in the print magazine Das Wetter and now translated into English for V/A in the context of our ongoing focus theme Ruptures

Interview Fid. Fischer

FID. FISCHER Let’s talk about Bookshelf. Could you briefly tell me about this work, how you started it and how it developed?

SITARA ABUZAR GHAZNAWI It began during Corona. Suddenly I had time, and that created all this pressure: okay, get going and educate yourself. The first Bookshelf was created for an exhibition at Kunsthalle Zürich. I had the digital collage with the big floral print done up large enough so I could use it as wallpaper. Then I put in the fragile aluminum bars; they don’t have a load-bearing function. I ended up doing three Bookshelves that were shown in three different locations [Zurich, Fribourg, and Vienna]. In a way that was my year plan. I also don’t know where it all begins, but I usually have something, and then feel like I need to pursue it to a point at which it no longer makes sense at all.

FF That sounds radical, no?

SAG It’s like that fairly often with my material – if I see potential in something. I often can’t explain at all how I approach something. That’s also why I ask my friends to write the texts. They’re in a better position to say something about it than me. 

Sitara Abuzar Ghaznawi, bookshelf 3; school, Vienna, 2020, installation view. Photo: Yasmina Haddad.

FF You’re talking about the texts you commissioned and were now published in the catalogue [Emmy Hennings/Sitara Abuzar Ghaznawi, published on the occasion of the eponymous exhibition at Cabaret Voltaire, Zurich 2020, as well as the Swiss Institute in new York, 2020/21] and are being used as material in the exhibition. You hung them on the wall next to the empty bookshelf. It creates the impression that the texts have left their form, that is, the book has left the shelf. Or perhaps: we don’t really need the bookshelf anymore; we really only need the texts, which stand on their own.

SAG Yes, I think the second. In the end it’s simply a decorative object.

I have the feeling that bookshelves have a lot more potential without books.

FF Would you also do that at home? A bookshelf without books?

SAG Yes. I generally love bookshelves. I could look at bookshelves every day. But the moment they contain books, they become dangerous, almost threatening objects.

FF But without books you find them approachable and aesthetically appealing?

SAG I have the feeling that they have a lot more potential without books.

FF I get that. Now finally, I have one, but then it’s always cluttered with all this rubbish. And most people, I think, really only want to own books and want others to know that they own them. That’s not really about an exchange.

SAG But it’s also supported by the institution, all this stuff. I’m generally interested in furniture that keeps popping up in institutions, in which form and in which terms it’s represented and all that.

FF Which other types of furniture do you like?

SAG All types, really. Platforms and other devices used for representation.

FF You’ve also done display cases, right?

SAG Yes. Switzerland’s an extreme case: every office has USM Haller furniture [a modular furniture system by Ulrich Schärer, which has been on the market since 1969] and the school for design has designer folding chairs. It’s interesting how there is a model that tells you how to represent yourself.

Patterns often have to do with class: what is defined as kitsch, what is upcycled to fashion status.

FF Do you think that such furniture imposes a type of authority or hierarchy?

SAG Definitely, but I wouldn’t want to try to divest them of that; rather, I want to add something playful, to give them a life of their own, which happens independently of the object’s past.

FF You often use sample textiles, which you install behind the furniture. Could say more about that?

SAG The materials I use, for example a floral pattern, are all really found footage, so to say. I found this pattern on PVC material in the Dong Xuan Center in Berlin. The pattern was on a foil, and I just couldn’t make out where it came from or how it had been produced. By now it’s become a recurring motif in the context of my work. It’s like an obsession. Patterns often have to do with class: what is defined as kitsch, what is upcycled to fashion status. Some materials enter this cycle so often that we forget where they actually came from.

Sitara Abuzar Ghaznawi, Male extinction 1; 2021, mixed media and shirt, framed 75×55cm. Photo: Annik Wetter.

FF Things that emerge from the past and resemble each other. At the same time your empty Bookshelf gives me the feeling that there’s a rupture in history. What’s your position on this? New beginnings and continuity?

SAG History and art history don’t appeal to me much because I often have the feeling that there simply are too many bad examples. The constant analyzing also bothers me. That’s why I’m not interested in new beginnings as much as I don’t want to give weight and relevance to what is given. It can continue regardless. I’m not sure if that makes sense. I just don’t want to maintain the order of the bookshelves – because it simplifies too much.

FF Does this also show in some way in your Male Extinction 2 (2021)?

SAG I don’t work with a concrete plan. I work with the materials I have, and the title tells you everything. It’s like a remnant of order, the part that fits nicely into a given frame.

FF Do you have a routine in the studio? Are you a 9 to 5 kind of person?

SAG Not at all. I only work when I have an exhibition. I can’t sit in the studio and occupy myself. I’d rather enjoy my time in a café or a bar. After finishing my studies I had to teach myself to be generous with myself as an artist, to allow myself to enjoy my time – not to always hound myself, stress myself, and work. As an artist I often go beyond my limits, and the others also don’t know where they are.

When studying art, you learn that you should live for art. That’s also a bit bullshit.

FF It’s a tired topic, but what do you think about the art world? How do you move in its institutions?

SAG I believe that I’ve learnt a lot. In the beginning I didn’t know how to behave towards institutions. Back then I simply wanted to affront them.

FF Exactly.

SAG The scene is pretty infuriating, all this brouhaha. These days I know that I can’t grow with these people because they are so homogenous and tiring. I want to create my own conditions that allow me to participate in these old structures. That’s generally what my work is about. When studying art, you learn that you should live for art. That’s also a bit bullshit.

FF What should we live for? Love?

SAG Hm, no. Maybe. I don’t know. I want enjoyment, things we enjoy because they are good for us. You can’t ever have too much of that.

Interview Fid. Fischer
Art World
Petri Dish