Prem Sahib, detail from “Looking for One” (2015), wood, ceramic tiles, grout, jesmonite, paint, polished steel, resin, multisurface cleaner, and ashtray, 120 by 405 by 195 cm (photo by Mark Blower, courtesy of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London; all works courtesy the artist and Southard Reid London, unless otherwise noted)

LONDON — In 2013, Prem Sahib transformed Southard Reid gallery into a club. He replaced the office’s table with a bar, painted some walls black, and lit the space with theatrical lights. As the neon sign at the entrance announced, the one-night club was called BUMPSeveral DJs — including the legendary Jeffrey Hinton — played music until Westminster Council turned up at 3:30am to shut the party down, unwittingly giving its seal of approval to the event.

Sahib is well into the club scene. He runs the occasional gay night, Anal House Meltdown, with friends and fellow artists George Henry Longly and Eddie Peake. The trio also recently released the electro single “Death Drive.” The success of their party series is derived from the combination of good music, the right people, and collaborations with artists, so it’s only logical that Sahib celebrated the opening of his show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts with a party and DJ sets.

Side On, Sahib’s first solo exhibition in a museum, features a selection of recent and new works. With Peake, Longly, and Celia Hempton, he is part of a group of young artists that is rapidly rising in London’s art scene. They are friends, they frequently collaborate on each others’ projects, and they all share an interest in exploring desire and sexuality. To convey these themes, Sahib has chosen a very personal formal approach: his work stands in between readymade objects and a reinterpretation of minimalist strategies. The reference to the latter is particularly noticeable in a series of pillar-like sculptures from 2012 and 2013.


Prem Sahib, ‘Side On,’ installation view (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Minimalism has become an identifying mark and, quite often, a too easy tag for Sahib’s work. Many articles abruptly present his work as minimalist, drawing on the broad meaning of the category, without investigating the context. Side On seems the right occasion to dig deeper into the artist’s formal poetics.

On the ground floor of the ICA, the two-part sculpture “Called Out” (2015) is a variation on the artist’s pillars, and would resemble Robert Morris’s “L-Beams” (1965) if it wasn’t for its dimensions — Sahib’s works are less imposing than Morris’s — and surfaces. In fact, the quality of the surface is a key element in Sahib’s works. If the reference to the hypermasculine aesthetics of Minimalism — with its phallic shapes and clean lines — is undeniable, Sahib’s installations represent a significant shift within that paradigm. The pillar sculptures are covered in generic tiles that draw all the attention to their shining surfaces and playful reflections.

Considering the restricted range of possibilities offered by the material, Sahib’s mastery of the tiles’ mirror effects triggers unexpected outcomes. “Outer Wear” (2015) is a good example: on its surface the artist has combined two type of tiles — one reflective, the other matted — so that the work responds in dramatically different ways depending on the point of view. The attractive contrast between the glistening and opaque tiles activates the sculpture. Associations are set free. Taking up the suggestion made in its title, the black matte of “Outer Wear” resembles the seductive surface of a pair of leather trousers.


Prem Sahib, “Outer Wear” (2015), wood, ceramic tiles, grout, 225 by 240 by 30 cm (photo by Mark Blower, courtesy of Institute of Contemporary Arts, London)

Because of the tiles’ domestic associations, these sculptures connect the viewer with common experiences, arousing personal phantasies and shared recollections. They evoke gendered spaces where the body is often exposed: changing rooms in a gym, showers in a swimming pool, public toilets, saunas. Beyond their sanitary purposes, the tiles become a strong metaphor for semi-private spaces where bodies are disclosed, looked at, compared, desired.

“Your Disco Needs You V” (2013), a digital print of a landscape on a tile, is part of a series that sprang from the material’s many associations. The faint picture on the work’s surface comes from the artist’s memory: he remembered standing once in front of a urinal looking at a tiled white wall, seeing a reflection of the park behind him, which was a cruising area. “Your Disco Needs You V” brings into play a reflection on the ambivalence of the gaze, which is often traceable in Sahib’s art. The act of looking at his work blurs into memories of looking at something else or somebody, lending a narrative element to the pieces: the sudden shimmer of the tile has the same intensity of the eye contact that precedes a casual encounter.


Prem Sahib, “Your Disco Needs You V” (2013), digital print on ceramic tile, 17 by 20 cm, Private Collection, London (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

If Sahib employs minimalist forms, he does so in an idiosyncratic way, to dissimulate his constant focus on the relationship between body, intimacy, and desire. The strict formal language that informs his installations allows the artist to work with such themes while keeping them at a safe distance, favoring metaphor over more literal solutions.

The body itself is always suggested, but never represented. Signs of it appear in the aluminium panels covered with beads of resin, made to resemble mirrors covered in condensation or the effect of wiped-off sweat — “Beyond I,” “II,” and “III” (all 2015), and “Facing Michael & Christopher” (2015). Metaphors for the body are at work in the series of installations employing metallic-hued puffer jackets — “Taken by Your Equivocal Stance I,” “II,” and “III,” (all 2015). Compressed between two glass plates and organized in different combinations, the jackets evoke past encounters and body contacts.


Prem Sahib, “Taken by Your Equivocal Stance I,” “Taken by Your Equivocal Stance II,” and “Taken by Your Equivocal Stance III” (all 2015), puffer jackets, hoodies, glass, steel, jesmonite, and paint, 185 by 88.5 by 69.5 cm (courtesy the artist and Galleria Lorcan O’Neill, Rome; photo by Mark Blower, courtesy of Institute of Contemporary Arts, London)

Sahib’s sculptures keep a distance from the self-referential logic of Minimalism. If it is true that he formally embraces minimalist strategies, he does so only to imbue his works with hints of narratives and splinters of memory, elements that are totally foreign to the intentions of Minimalism. Just as tiles serve a hygienic purpose, protecting the floors and walls underneath, so does Sahib’s stern formal language, calling attention to the richness of life that lies beneath his works’ surface.

Prem Sahib: Side On continues at ICA (The Mall, London, UK) through November 15. Prem Sahib: End Up continues at Southard Reid (7 Royalty Mews, London, UK) through November 14.

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Francesco Dama

Francesco Dama is a freelance art writer based in Rome, Italy. He regularly writes for several print and online publications, and wastes most of his time on Instagram.