We caught up with Turner Prize-winning artist Tai Shani, ahead of her new exhibition at The Cosmic House, which opened earlier this month in London, and will run through December 2024. Things that came up in conversation: Prometheus; the 1980 Venice Architecture Biennale; celestial mud; and Brian Eno—among many others.
The World to Me Was a Secret: Caesius, Zinnober, Celadon, and Virescent, is a site-specific installation which is in direct conversation with Charles and Maggie Keswick Jencks’ post-modernist former home, as well as other mythic and symbolic houses, like King Ludwig’s Venus Grotto, and Dalí’s Dream of Venus pavilion. Shani’s latest presentation is interested by the collapse of styles in post-modernism and Jenck’s theory of Ad-Hocism—the spontaneous joining of disparate parts and systems in order to make something new.
There are many lines of inquiry threaded through the presentation: our obsession with archetypal creation stories and myths; the inevitability of cultural referencing and palimpsestic creative production; and the exploration of the material and cosmic record of history. Yet perhaps the most pressing theme is the relationship between the house and the body, which emerges from the accompanying text written by Shani herself. The text sets the tone for the exhibition, and is a curious descent into the body of an angel or a monster, drawing parallels between the organs of a body and the rooms of a house.
It’s such a pleasure to be in touch ahead of the opening of your exhibition. Let’s start off with a quick-fire, word association question. What words or images or textures or songs come to your mind when you think about the term—the house?
A living body
The signature detritus and trace of our lives
Privacy and paradise and hell
The small agencies we have on our lives made real
Brian Eno - On Some Faraway Beach 
Since The Cosmic House is both a physical and symbolic space which serves as many things, a lab of post-modern culture, an archive, a museum, as well as Charles and Maggie Keswick Jencks’ former home, we wanted to ask—what is your relationship or dialogue(s) with this space? When did you first visit and what was your initial response?
I was familiar with Jencks’ work before I visited the house I had seen his work in old 1980s architecture magazines that he had edited, as well as being obsessed with the 1980 Venice Architecture Biennale façade collaboration Strada Novissima. There are many things about the sense of an affective collapse of styles in post-modernism that is very compelling to me, I then came across some images of the house online and started referencing some of the Jencksian motifs in my own work. So when I finally visited the house it was incredibly exciting and overwhelming and it was everything I hoped it would be.
How do you approach working on a site-specific project like this in contrast with your broader, episodic projects? Do the initial lines of inquiry emerge very differently when you’re given a specific context?
I work at site specific projects in a similar way to the rest of my work I often look for a conceptual starting point that is either an atmosphere of a narrative or various narratives, a tonal quality that I try to translate into the physical and written work, this installation also emanates from a text I wrote that is a descent into the body of an angel, or a created monster, where their organs become rooms or parts of other mythic houses. I was thinking about Jencks’ notion of Ad-Hocism and how post-modern architecture is sometimes referred to as Frankensteinian, and the sad story of Frankenstein’s loveless creature and how Shelley’s story is also made of various parts of stories and myths about acts of creativity and made humans wanting to be real. The genealogy of this kind of story runs from the most archetypal biblical story of god creating Adam and Eve, into the most science fiction dreams and nightmares of androids and AI.  The story of who made us, and our preoccupation with the hope, fear or question if we are capable of such an act of creativity is the most archetypal story of them all.
There is this wonderful essay by Maggie Nelson where she talks about artists and their references and how taking inspiration in others’ work can sometimes feel fraudulent. Yet, she goes on to argue that there is nothing more generative in art-making than “sort of leaning against” someone else’s thinking, writing and work. Is there a particular book, line, architectural project or idea of his that stayed with you and that you could lean against when generating your own work for the commission?
In a way this question speaks to one of the main thematic concerns of the exhibition which is how culture is never ex nihilo but always a re-writing over other cultural artefacts and legacies. Everything around us be it cultural production or any component of civilisation including material itself is an anagrammatic iteration of what we have around us, of some past version, in the rearranging and re-writing we find new meanings that extend further or in different directions. I think this was one of the ideas being explored in Jencks’ Adhocism. Even in our bodies we carry the material record of the universe, we are stardust.
Semiotics and experiments with language seem very central to your practice as well as Jencks’ own work. Can you tell us some more about the new text that emerged prior to the installation, and the ways you delved into other manifestations of  mythical houses, architectures or artworks like Dalí’s Dream of Venus pavilion for instance? 
I guess Dalí’s Dream of Venus pavilion is a little bit different than the other works that are referenced in the text. This piece was built as an art work, a performance space in the 1939 world fair, it was conceived to be temporary and spectacular for a public audience. Carlo Mollino’s beautiful discreet apartment is totally if the opposite and is a completely private, almost secret space, it is interpreted and subjectively decoded because it has absolutely no public record, a decidedly extravagant secret. Also referenced is King Ludwig’s Venus Grotto which was built on the grounds of Linderhof Palace and was designed by Fidelis Schabet. The Opera [is] a completely theatrical setting to contemplate to immerse oneself in an art work of fake rainbows, electricity and paintings.  These houses have always been generative in terms of thinking of how they function formally and in relation to art making or installation, like building the ideal setting to look at a painting, a symbolic home, or a complete performance space with sound, entering a suspension of reality, an intense artificiality.
I’ve always loved this Gothic convention within which the house mirrors the decay of the protagonists psyche or bodily state the illness is reflected in the dilapidation of the house. The body represented and explored in this text is an extraordinary body, the body of an angel, of a monster so it made sense to me to think of these extraordinary spaces as mimetic, metaphorical twins to the organs of the creature in my text.
What draws you to the myth of Prometheus in particular? Is it ideas around striving and self-knowledge, or is the intrigue more about the biologically monstrous and spontaneous (the iconic liver)?
Prometheus, Golems, Galatea, Frankenstein’s poor loveless thing are retellings of an archetypal story, a story which haunts the psychedelic, synthesised dreams of androids and artificial intelligence. In Spielberg’s AI, sad, little David is so desperate to be real and to know and to give love that he tries to swallow a mouthful of green spinach to show his realness and it destroys him.
In the image of the gods, Prometheus fashions mortals from clay, silica and calcium collected from the already ancient river beds where brontosaurus and pterodactyl once drank, eroded rocks, collected stardust, Orion, Centaurus, Andromeda, event horizon. The material cosmic record of history is in every handful of wet dirt. The Golem are all clay and obedient semi-sentience, but Pandora disobeys: she opens the box and unleashes all the evil of the world. She, too, was made of this celestial mud, like you and me. Pygmalion carved Galatea out of ivory: made of dentine, woman overwritten on a part of elephant corpse, she was formed of tooth and Pygmalion’s horny desire made her soft flesh.
The installation is soundtracked by felicita, an experimental pop composer. How do you create cohesion between the track and the installation when you partake in synesthetic collaborations like this? Are you very involved in the composition or is the soundtrack more of a reaction to the work? There’s a nice echo here with the way Jencks’ sculptural work also inspired ekphrastic compositions by ateliers and composers.
I approached felicita with this project knowing that there would be a Frankensteinian or exquisite corpse vibe to it that the signal I had about the show before I knew what I wanted to make, or what it would include, I knew it was going to have elements that have a kind of fragmentary logic to it. I wanted to work with felicita for a long time and really admired the way that they work with sound and the different, contrasting registers in their music. I don’t really get involved in the composition unless something feels off, there are always conversations that happen that shape the ideas in the compositions and references of course that set the atmospheric register, I also sent them the accompanying text. It was beautiful how felicita came back with an incredible interpretation of the ideas that are in the exhibition and put together for a fragmentary composition that includes four angels and four organs each represented by a sound that are played from four different speakers at different times so these tonal qualities communicate in shifting sequences and spatial directions.
What can we expect from the publication that will accompany the exhibit? We know that it will feature the writings of multidisciplinary artists like Anne Boyer and Bassem Saad, but can you give us some more hints?
We are still working on this, it will bring together more contributors and will also reflect the ideas, themes and logic in the exhibition but in different personal approaches, ranging from complete fiction to more essayistic perspectives. There will also be a simple visual refrain that extends further the idea of two disparate works or artefacts brought together and the third spaces that open up between them.
Are you working on anything new at the moment, or are you still within the world and landscape of this presentation?
I am working on a few projects at the moment, some are still too internal and cryptic to be articulate and eloquent about. I am also working on a large scale public art project that unfortunately I can’t speak about yet but it involves dreaming and spells, and I would really like to make a more conventional feature film and am developing a script now that draws on my childhood in countercultural, psychedelic Goa, mediaeval colonial children, and trans-temporal telepathic messaging.