In Sophia Al-Maria's 'ilysm, the artist revisits her consideration of a person's gendered experience of the film industry, a concern that can be traced back to Al-Maria's experience of making, and eventually being forced to abandon, a feature- length genre film about systemic sexual violence. Ironic, given the context of pervasive sexual violence both depicted on screen and experienced off camera, that many corners of the film industry have long been obsessed with movies about women getting revenge. Al-Maria seems interested in revenge too-as is often the case in her work, the femmes strike back.
All four works in "ilysm' feature Bai Ling, a Chinese-American actress who was cut from Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith after her appearance in Playboy magazine. The story of what happened is detailed in White Man's Bible (Revenge Porn), an audio installation that is a mini-memoir from Bai, who, with great charm, recounts her experience of being recruited persistently and eventually agreeing to pose nude in Playboy. Next to the headphones, which make listening to the story of the adult magazine feel similarly conspicuous as someone might feel reading one, the story is accompanied by a stack of 50 or so copies of the magazine, arranged slightly askance as if serving as a makeshift bedside table. The "Western Man's Bible, as Bai refers to it, is emblazoned in all caps on the spine of the magazine as "ENTERTAINMENT FOR MEN. Written in fluorescent yellows, oranges and pinks renders it tantalisingly camp, a subtle trick played on the hyper-masculine aspirants that Playboy courts.
On top of the pile is Bai's issue of the magazine. Slow- floating stars in outer space appear on a smartphone that shines through a hole cut through Bai's abdomen. The actress's tale is as enthralling as it is perplexing. Much of Bai's narration revolves around her ambivalence as to whether or not she would pose for Hugh Hefner's magazine. She finally decided to do it because, she says, "I'm beautiful, and "I want to give this gift to the world. For anyone aware of the theoretical discussion or direct action against the subjugation of gender nonconforming people and women, how Bai discusses the experience of shooting for the magazine is rich fodder for debates about objectification, agency and sex-positivity. Self-described as the first Asian woman to appear on the cover, she seems genuinely unfazed, revealing little trepidation about being fetishised, which to my mind is confusing, Al-Maria, too, seems intrigued because the works in the show are, according to the press release, 'inspired by Bai's apparent indifference to the racism, homophobia of the violent gaze she is subjected to in social and tabloid media' The attraction to Bai's indifference feels akin to 'getting something out of an exploitation film via a psychological cocktail of anger, dissociation and curiosity.
It is apparent that Bai thinks carefully about human relations, for example the sharing of self-affirmations on her Instagram, as compiled in Mirror Cookie, or the many adages on revenge, forgiveness and love that she shares in Not Really in Reality Reality TV. Her words of wisdom range from the mawkish platitudes of "If you have love in your heart, nothing can go wrong, to the patient vindictiveness of 'Nature will revenge in time. But what exactly is Bai's revenge?
Major Motions is a looping ident for a film that does not exist (another recurring device in Al-Maria's work). In it, Bai stands atop a perpetually rising moon, triumphantly-and with love in her heart, it would seem-holding a Hitachi Magic Wand (a vibrating massager, manufactured for relieving tension but commonly used as a sex toy). Perhaps this is the final scene she never got in Star Wars. Hypothetically, it resembles an advert for a TV animation aimed at presenting strong female leads, such as the Sailor Moon anime series that Al-Maria recalled watching obsessively- a fact she revealed in the first public event of her current stint as the Whitechapel Gallery's writer in residence.
While the show comprises less than 30 minutes of Bai Ling revealing various aspects of her life ethos, a debate on her self-actualisation as a sex symbol would take much longer. Bai seems sure that Playboy was a good opportunity: she described the shoot as a well-paid opportunity, a comment that should challenge any dismissal of her position as a sex worker as misguided or ignorant. At the same time, however, Bai does say that she is 'not really in reality. In 'ilysm', Al-Maria does a delicate job of prioritising honest ambivalence over righteous critique.
- Taylor Le Melle