Grotesquely Genius

Leila Hekmat is a language, textile, visual – performance – artist. Her works consider mental illness, family structures, societal rules and the Grotesque. Always touching on the humorous and perverse, and highlightening the esthetic. In the interview, Leila discusses her exhibition at Haus am Waldsee, Berlin, previous works, her iconography, inspiration, and practical aspects of her artistic approach. 

The image shows a digital collage with a human figure in the centre and various heads arranged around it. It is an image from the video 'Triple Curly' by Leila Hekmat.
Leila Hekmat, Triple Curly, Digital collage single channel color video stereo sound, film still, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Isabella Bortolozzi.

Christina-Marie: Many features in your work can be described as or show references to the Grotesque – why do you have such a liking for it?
Leila Hekmat: I like the idea or the thought of something as grotesque rather than grotesque things in an of themselves. Disgust is a funny emotion to me. Disgust/intense dislike. I just find funny what causes this sensation and the behaviour which it provokes. 

Your exhibition at Haus am Waldsee is called Female Remedy. What is being remedied?Nothing. This is a facility for an illness which needs no cure. The purpose of this infirmary is to fortify existing insolence and foster growth through comic relief and buffoonery. A healing ground for the unrepentant woman. 

What was your initial idea for the exhibition’s concept?
I wanted to find a way to use the house and all of the rooms as a connective organism.  To find a way to revive the domestic nature of the house but also to find a setting for a story I could build from. 

The installation recalls a religious sanatory with hospital beds, including an operation room, a chapel and various halls for specific treatment. Do you rather see it a Utopia or Dystopia?
I guess its is leaning towards a utopic vision but not necessarily. There is a lot of underlying sadness and despair.  

The image shows seven people walking through two rows of church benches towards an altar. The people are wearing costumes and are partly naked. It is a scene from the performance 'Il Matrimonio di Immacolata' by Leila Hekmat.
Leila Hekmat, Il Matrimonio di Immacolata, film still, musical performance, Kaiser-Friedrich Gedächtniskirche, Berlin, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin.

Alongside with the exhibition you presented a new performance. Does it refer to or continue your previous performances such as Il Matrimonio di Immacolata (2021) or Crocopazzo! (2020)?
The performance is not connected to the previous ones, but it shares a similar point of view: less narrative but still filled with comedy and confessionals and singing. 

The costumes in Crocopazzo!, to me, seemed a fusion of Elizabethan dressing and Western/Cowboy-style. Where did, or generally where do you take your inspiration from?
I spend a lot of time on the internet, in libraries and book shops collecting images. The inspiration comes from all over the place. The costumes in Crocopazzo! Draw from western costumes, baroque 18th century, Elizabethan, Grand Ole Opry, Nudie suits, Howdy Doody, children tv shows from the 50s, The Draftsman Contract, Priests, Cardinals, Cowboys. 

M.J. Harper, one of the actors in the play, described Crocopazzo! as being “about family structures and the complexity of society [growing up] observing rules done by people we don’t know [and] without us necessarily agreeing.” Which rules do you perceive as particularly intruding or limiting? Do you see any way out of them?
Sure. There is a way out of old and dated conservative structures but new rules and structures will come in their place. The rules are arbitrary. Family is all about codependency. And so there will always be some kind of hierarchy and structure the group must follow to be allowed to continue with the pack. Otherwise you will be left behind. 

The image shows five people sitting next to each other and wearing sophisticated costumes and wigs. It is a scene from the performance 'Crocopazzo' by Leila Hekmat.
Leila Hekmat, Crocopazzo!, film still, performance, Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin.

One quote in Crocopazzo! goes “equilibrium is lunacy and self-betterment is the curse of capitalism”. To me, this sounds rather desperate. Despite their open and radical critique, I don’t see your works as negative or destructive though.  Do you feel rather hopeless or positive about the general current situation? Is your art a way of channeling emotions and ideas?
I don’t feel hopeless. I do often feel a sense of despair though. I just look for the humour in all of it I guess. I try to see everyone as walking around in a clumsy clown suit constantly bumping it to walls and pissing their pants. It’s a mess but it’s funny. 

Continuing in this vein, one could also read the first part of the sentence as “equilibrium lies in lunacy”, as saying that taking a lunatic approach might cause personal balance. What is your interest in and attitude towards so-called madness?
I guess sometimes I question the idea of what or who is crazy. Sometimes I wonder if someone who is diagnosed with some kind of mental illness isn’t mental at all but perhaps we don’t have the tools to understand them or perhaps they actually see and comprehend the world much clearer than we do. 

The image shows three performers dancing on what seems to be a church altar. It is a scene from the performance 'Il Matrimonio di Immacolata' by Leila Hekmat.
Leila Hekmat, Il Matrimonio di Immacolata, film still, musical performance, Kaiser-Friedrich Gedächtniskirche, Berlin, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin.

Il Matrimonio di Immacolata was staged as an opera, “combining arrangements of classics by Mozart with nursery rhymes rewritten as whimsical, absurd and perverse arias.” Was the appropriation happening here a completely creative act, or did you feel that these music need(ed) to be reconsidered?
We, the musical directors Roman Ole and Roman Lemberg, looked at or considered Mozart as a character in this opera. He was very scatological person and had a good sense of humour. Some of the original music was completely unaltered, for example the canon Leck mich im Arsch. But others were playfully reconstructed and made into something entirely new.

Your work exemplifies “drama” in its best sense – singing, acting, overdoing. What is your relation to and history with (classical) drama?
Maybe its because I’m Persian? Persian people are very over the top dramatic. Or because im Jewish? Also very dramatic.

The image shows three performers dancing on what seems to be a church altar. It is a scene from the performance 'Il Matrimonio di Immacolata' by Leila Hekmat.
Leila Hekmat, Il Matrimonio di Immacolata, film still, musical performance, Kaiser-Friedrich Gedächtniskirche, Berlin, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin.

Though not always apparent, your work to me shows a strong reference to “blood”, both literally and metaphorically. What does the use and showing of blood offer to your works?
A sense of despair, loneliness, bewilderment, doom, fear and anxiety. Also just clumsiness. It is generally about being clumsy and falling down. 

Many of your characters show sophisticated hairdressing. What are the meaning and importance of hair(styling) in your work?
I have passion for wigs and wig making as an art form. I worked with a very talented wig maker for the past 6 years, Franziska Presche, who also taught me how to make wigs. I love wig rooms in the back of theatres and all the tools and materials and paraphernalia related to to hair and wigs. It’s all fetish and theatricality, I guess. 

Do you conceive of your pieces as being set in specific historical periods, given their costumes and references, or are they to be interpreted universally?
Not really. I do enjoy using a certain type of language though. A certain type of American English that is sometimes a bit dated, maybe from tv, television shows from the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s.

Leila Hekmat, Triple Curly, Digital collage single channel color video stereo sound, film still, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Isabella Bortolozzi.

Both in Crocopazzo! and Triple Curly, the “mother” plays a crucial role. In both pieces, the mother acts arguably harmfully but is being loved none the less. What is it that interests you in the figure of the mother? And do you feel your characters transmit rather historical mother-figures or can they be transferred to the contemporary?
Up until Female Remedy, there has been a mother figure in some form or another in all my works. I cannot say why or why it didn’t seem necessary in the current exhibition anymore.

The visual impression in Triple Curly alludes to stages of intoxication or hallucination. Did you want to reach at a drug-like effect with the over-layering and collage technique?
The characters in Triple Curly are the the characters from Crocopazzo!. I had Lily perform/interpret each role from the script before the actual piece was finished. I looked at it as an exercise almost workshopping characters and costumes and collages. Playing with mis en scene mis en place. The work was like setting up the ingredients for a larger work. 

The image shows four people dressed in sophisticated costumes in front of what seems to be stage requisites. It is an image of the performance 'The French Mistake' by Leila Hekmat.
Leila Hekmat, The French Mistake, film still, musical performance, Koppe Astner Gallery for Glasgow International/ Schinkel Pavillon Berlin 2016. Courtesy of the artist and Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin.

Your work The French Mistake much reminded me of Molière and the Comédie Française, given its title, costumes and plot. Would you name him as a figure of influence, generally or for this particular work?
Yes. He is an influence in general I guess. 

With regard to the piece’s lyrics: How does Salvador Dalí smell? Is he a particular reference for your work?
I referenced Dali for the character of Mother in Crocopazzo!. Dalí always referred to himself in the third person. I also adapted some dialogue from an interview he did with Mike Wallace. Like mother he’s also a pathological narcissist. As for this song in The French Mistake, the lyrics were taken from a Facebook post of the performer Catalin Jugravu who sings the song and plays Dorothy in the play. The composer  Elisabeth Wood adapted the text and made it into a song. 

Generally, which visual artists, writers, poets, and theorists have and do inform(ed) your work?
There are many. R.D. Laing, Peter Greenaway, Jean Genet, John Waters, Pasolini, Fellini, Artaud, Valerie Solanis, Lucille Ball, Milos Forman, Joan Rivers, Molière, Mallarmè, Mike Kelley, Jack Smith, Dorothy Parker, Ulrike Ottinger, Kenneth Anger, Phyllis Diller, Yvonne Rainer, Michael Clark, Moreover, Satirical magazines like Hara Kiri and Mad Magazine, Harold Pinter, Pierre Molinier play a crucial role.

The image shows the face and upper body of a man wearing a grey wig and suit. It is a film still of The Organ Grinder's Canto by Leila Hekmat.
Leila Hekmat, The Organ Grinder’s Canto, film still, musical performance, Duddells’ Hong Kong, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin.

Given the often daring and absurd plots in your pieces: Where do you find your actors?
I hold auditions, put out casting calls. But often they are people I meet out and around. 

A large part of your works are staged as performances which are then recorded to be received in a gallery environment. How do the video and performance relate to you?
This is still an evolving process. The documentation of a live performance seemed lacking to me and so I am still looking to find the right balance between a film and a document of the event. 

Your Instagram-account regularly features impressively curated and beautiful stories. They feature very diverse visual material, art historical sources such as prints or paintings, historical dressing or images of it, vintage photographs, as well as contemporary photographs related to your working process. They are digital collages and sketch books at the same time. Which role do the digital media possess in your wider practice?   
I don’t know why I share them. My research and my studio are so private so its strange that I have this urge sometimes to share these things. But I do choose them and sequence them with this intention of weaving some story out of it. I don’t know why I share it but I guess I get some gratification knowing there are a few people who take pleasure in the window these sequences offer to my work.

Leila Hekmat’s exhibition Female Remedy is on view at Haus am Waldsee, Berlin, until January 8, 2023.
You can find more information on the Leila’s work via Isabella Bortolozzi and the artist’s website.