Invitation to Listen: Sophia Al-Maria and Melissa Blanchflower with Nick Hackworth
“There are so many ways to use taraxos; as a ritual space, as a place to dance, as a place to meet, and I can’t think of a single use that I wouldn’t appreciate.” — Sophia Al-Maria
Currently installed outside Serpentine South in Kensington Gardens, writer and artist Sophia Al-Maria’s sculpture taraxos is a constellation of copper and steel structures inspired by the dandelion’s geometry and life cycle. Created in 2021 for the Serpentine x Modern Forms Sculpture Commission, this public work is accessible to all and makes musical tones when played by the wind or human visitors. As part of Sophia Al-Maria’s ongoing project with Serpentine, centred around the dandelion, taraxos draws on this commonplace plant’s form, how it lives in close entanglement with air and the wind, and the political resonances of its resilient nature.
Since it opened on the summer solstice of 2021, taraxos has offered a gathering place and an open-air sanctuary against the backdrop of the ongoing pandemic. In a time of enclosure, restriction, and fear around health and breathing, the sculpture is an invitation to listen to the air that connects us and to imagine new modes of freedom and survival.
taraxos is Sophia Al-Maria’s first public artwork. Here, Al-Maria and Melissa Blanchflower, Serpentine Curator of Exhibitions and Public Art, discuss the commission with Nick Hackworth, Director of Modern Forms. Having first appeared online with Modern Forms in July 2021, this conversation is republished to celebrate the coming of spring, and the recent announcement that Sophia Al-Maria will participate in the 2022 Venice Biennale. taraxos can be experienced in Serpentine’s grounds until 22 April 2022.
Nick Hackworth: Sophia, could you tell us about the origin of your taraxos project?
Sophia Al-Maria: Let’s begin with the name, taraxos. It’s a re-imagining of the Latin ‘Taraxacum officinale,’ which is the name of the common dandelion. taraxos, when I wrote it out, felt very sci-fi. Originally, I thought: that’s the name of a ship. Then I thought, no, it’s some kind of port, or a portal, and this made me think that the way in which a dandelion propagates itself in the world might be a model for understanding ways of survival and resilience.
I was thinking about the future in the context of how our biosphere is struggling, and how environmental collapse is occurring all around us. It is the plants that are hardy, adaptable and free – such as the dandelion – that I find exciting as emblems of my interests. I’ve always been interested in futures and futurisms. A lot of people know my work for the concept of Gulf Futurism (1), which is a phrase that I’ve moved away from – but in many ways this project is a return to some of those ideas, which come from a despair at our current circumstances.
Nick Hackworth: Is taraxos almost an antidote to Gulf Futurism? If Gulf Futurism identified a society becoming increasingly atomised through consumer capitalism, this project seems to be about the opposite of that – it’s about connection.
Sophia Al-Maria: That is exactly it – I like that. Your description of taraxos as an ‘antidote’ to Gulf Futurism feels very appropriate and accurate to me because the sculpture is intended as a meeting point and a pilgrimage spot. During the first Covid lockdown in London I would feel a desperate need to walk somewhere, but I didn’t know where to go—I didn’t have a destination. If I had had a specific place outdoors where I knew I could go and visit, then I think it would have been very helpful, during that difficult time. So, taraxos is a place to go. You can sit on it and meditate there. There’s a sonic element [the wind chimes], which are tuned to be very relaxing and to respond to the air. There is something about breath and blowing and breathwork which has also felt very poignant recently, not only because of the pandemic and the way in which it affects our lungs, but also with social movements and the idea of not being able to breathe being at the fore. There are many, many layers to it. It’s been really amazing to be able to make something for the public that I hope can be an antidote, which is a really beautiful way to put it.
Nick Hackworth: I’m very interested in how this project sits within the current debates around public sculpture and public space, especially as driven by social justice movements. The idea of what public sculpture should or should not be is being interrogated far more intensely now than at any other moment in recent history. Melissa – as this project’s curator – can you tell us how these powerful, current debates have shaped and informed your thinking about taraxos?
Melissa Blanchflower: I think this has been fascinating to witness, and with this commission we were interested in stretching the definition of what public sculpture could be. This was our thinking before the pandemic and these timely debates around monuments have accelerated this idea of re-scripting our understanding of public art. I think public art needs to be for the people who are there to experience it, and so it completely shifts with the times. I’m interested in how, at the moment, people are reclaiming their public spaces in a different way. Many of these statues of colonial or industrialist figures have been in our cities across the UK for decades, and people are now finding ways to discuss what this means to them today.
Public spaces need to reflect how people feel about the world. We’re on the cusp of a very interesting rethinking of what public art can be. Art in the public sphere doesn’t need to be a traditional, solid, figurative sculpture of a person on a plinth for us to walk around! It can be a space that people enter, like taraxos. It can be a space that you feel is also in flux and changes with the environment that it’s in. taraxos is not a static full stop, which is how I see many monumental sculptures. A full stop: someone’s decided this sculpture will be here and it’s never moving. Whereas actually thinking about sculpture or public art as a space that’s active – something that can be agitated and changed, that can respond and react to the people and environment around it – is really exciting.
Sophia Al-Maria: That’s a really beautiful way of putting it. Also, rather than a full stop it’s an ellipsis or an asterisk.
Melissa Blanchflower: [Laughs] Yeah, it always comes back to punctuation!
Sophia Al-Maria: It’s true! The writer in me will never leave me – it always comes back to punctuation. (2) I think the other interesting thing about taraxos, in relation to that question, is the fact that it was conceived—again—as like a foil or in opposition to the Speakers’ Corner.
Nick Hackworth: Can you tell us a bit more about how you see the relationship between taraxos and Speakers’ Corner?
Sophia Al-Maria: I was thinking about Hyde Park as a place, and as a place where generally people gather for marches and rallies. I was thinking at the time also about the ways in which much of our public engagement now – like on Twitter, for example – is like shouting into a void, with nobody actually listening, or how people are at not grounding themselves before they just say things on the internet. I think a lot about information – I also come from a journalism background, I studied it in Cairo. I’ve felt very disturbed, as someone who thinks about the future a lot, about the slipperiness of reality based on information, especially with a lot of people on their soapboxes.
So, with the sculpture, an important thing for me was to have a place that would encourage people to sit down and listen, and hopefully listen to themselves. That’s one of the reasons why there’s an accompanying meditation with it, called tarax’sup? which I did in collaboration with Kelsey Lu. That piece is also intended as an accompaniment for people to listen to on their way to the sculpture, or while they are at or inside the sculpture. It describes the genesis of a dandelion—it goes from seed to blossom and back again—so it’s meant to be a cycling of energy that grounds the listener, and hopefully allows everybody to be in the world with more courage and grace and resilience. In many ways, it’s all part of my larger preoccupation with and concern about the future!
Nick Hackworth: How much of a programmatic idea do you have about how people will use or interact or be in the sculpture?
Sophia Al-Maria: It’s a public work and it’s really for the public to use. I think there are so many ways to use it; as a ritual space, as a place to dance, as a place to meet, and I can’t think of a single use that I wouldn’t appreciate. I do suspect that some people will try to pole-dance on it! [Laughs] I think that there already have been some! Which I’m very much in favour of, so long as they’re safe about it. [Laughs] It was a very special experience for me to do something on the physical scale of taraxos, because I think that stepping into it and looking up for the first time was a really moving moment. I haven’t experienced that with my work at that scale before. It felt like a portal opened for me, actually, and a lot of things came to a conclusion.
Nick Hackworth: If taraxos is a portal or a wish, where does the portal take you, or what do you wish for?
Sophia Al-Maria: There’s the title of my text with Leila Dear, which is ‘A Wish is a Form of Travel’ and at the very centre of the sculpture there’s a little piece of titanium which is from an aeroplane. A part of my wish is for everyone who isn’t home – whatever that means – to be able to feel at home wherever they are. That’s the other thing that I love about dandelions: they make their home wherever they land. So, that is my wish – home for myself, and for everyone.
Melissa Blanchflower: My sister and I always played a game with dandelions when we were young. We’d blow on the dandelion, and because the seeds can travel great distances, we would send them to say hello to friends and family who lived far away, on different continents. So, it was like sending secret messages! There’s something about the way that dandelion seeds travel and float that’s mysterious. I’m hoping that taraxos resonates with people, whether they come to visit it or just get blown along to it on their walk, wandering through the park. I hope they find a sculpture and a site that sparks their curiosity.
Sophia Al-Maria: I’m surprised that it took so long for that story to come out! That’s amazing – that has to go in the book!
(1) In 2012, Sophia Al-Maria and her collaborator Fatima Al Qadiri identified a particular avant-garde that had emerged over the previous 50 years in the Arab Gulf states. They articulated this ‘Gulf Futurism’ as ‘marked by a deranged optimism about the sustainability of both oil reserves and late capitalism’ and made evident by ‘a dominant class concerned with master-planning and world-building, while the youth culture [is] preoccupied with fast cars, fast tech and viddying a bit of ultra-violence.’
(2) The asterisk as punctuation is key to Al-Maria’s conception of the dandelion and taraxos. In her description of the piece, Al-Maria writes: ‘*Every asterisk a star. Every star a clock. Every clock a chime. Every chime a warning. Waking a cell, then a seed, then the germ of a weed getting ready to flower.’