Falling From the Tower: Levani on the Necessity of Endings

Levani, "xvi. the tower" (video still), 2023. Courtesy the artist.

In the fall of 2023, when I came to New York on a research fellowship, I visited Levani’s studio for the second time. Levani, whose given name is Levan Mindiashvili, is a transdisciplinary artist from Tbilisi, Georgia, who moved to New York City in 2012 after completing zir graduate studies in Buenos Aires. We first met just after COVID lockdown, when the art world was obsessively searching for new realities to escape the here and now. Instead of that, we bonded over the idea that art could help produce alternative worlds by embracing lesser-known, more peripheral, and marginal segments of reality. These include the personal experiences from which many of Levani’s immersive installations depart. I also felt connected to zir because, as queers coming from Eastern Europe, in a way we both speak from a less mainstream position.

For some reason, before I left for Levani’s studio, I pulled a tarot card and got the Tower. I felt a little nervous about it, because, next to Death, the Tower is one of the least popular cards, suggesting some kind of unexpected mess. I did not know then, however, that the whole exhibition Levani was working on at the time would be based around this card. During this visit, I learned that the Tower represents a shock in the system that brings an end to something that has lost its validity, to make way for something new.

Levani’s exhibition, a spell, which was on view until December 2023 at Turley Gallery in Hudson, New York, was dedicated to the transgender writer and tarot expert Rachel Pollack who died last spring and whose work was a major inspiration for the artist throughout the creation process. The show invited the audience into the moment of transformation following the inevitable and necessary fall of the heteronormative, patriarchal system and its binary dichotomies. When I entered the room, I found myself among unlikely forms emerging from the violet semi-darkness and slowly got lost in the cacophony of voices coming from a video floating on a latex screen in the middle of the space.

The video xvi. the tower (2023) is composed of sounds, personal recordings, and interviews sourced online. Besides the words of Pollack and many others, the collage includes music by SOPHIE and Arca; hannah baer speaking about one’s agency in defining oneself; P. Staff’s thoughts on contradiction and incoherence; and an excerpt of Sinéad O’Connor’s memorable performance on Saturday Night Live in 1992, during which she protested the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church. As an uninterrupted flow of ideas and stories of personal becomings across different moments in history, the work turns into a spell and invokes an intergenerational collective queer body. This whole process was witnessed by a family of hybrid sculptures by Levani, installed in the gallery and embedded in this moment of change. With their improbable, unfinished bodies, the creatures represent a playful and continuous search for new forms of being, liberated from the confines of declining binary structures. Similar to the video, all of the deities—as Levani calls the sculptures—reference tarot archetypes.

Levani and I had this conversation in November, soon after the opening of a spell. We traversed a range of issues relevant to zir art, from rave culture to revolution, poetry, and neuroscience. xvi. the tower will screen at Culture Week Tbilisi in May 2024, and Levani has also started working on an installation called the speaker. “If the baseline question for a spell was ‘How do you capture the time?’” says Levani, “the question for the speaker is ‘What is your form?’ which also implies the rethinking of all current systems at large.”

Gyula Muskovics: The main premise of a spell is that endings are necessary and that we need to accept them with all the hard work they entail.

Levani: To me, COVID was an important reminder that endings are inevitable. Along with the passing of beloved ones, I mean the ending of eroded social and political systems. But endings are rarely absolute. They usually signify a period of transformation, so they are thresholds into something else. The Western understanding of life is one linear path from birth—the beginning—to death—the end—but I am more inclined to believe that life implies multiple deaths and multiple (re)births. And this is particularly true for queer people and for anyone who finds themselves outside of the dominant systems trying to come to terms with their own lives.

GyM: At the center of the exhibition is a video projected on a translucent latex screen. Its title is xvi. the tower, and it contains different footage from the internet. There is a part in which tarot expert Rachel Pollack says something similar. She speaks about her “miraculous year,” 1971, when she discovered both tarot and that she was a transgender person. She says that, all of a sudden, everything seemed to be a preparation for this revelatory moment.

L: I wasn’t really into tarot until my partner, Lucas de Lima, gave me Rachel Pollack’s deck, the Shining Tribe Tarot in February 2021. Rachel was also a visual artist and drew entirely new decks herself. This deck struck me immediately with its powerful archetypal imagery and philosophical yet free-spirited interpretations. It was a time when I was revisiting my entire practice. I was saying goodbye to many things and was looking for new forms and ways of making. So those images became certain guides for me. When I was preparing for the show and I was a little lost between the ideas, I drew the cards and got the Tower reversed. It was funny, because I once filmed a beautiful sunset reflected on the Empire State Building in the early days of COVID with my phone, and I wanted to do something with the footage. When I got the Tower, I knew that the time had come. This is how much I trusted Rachel. And while editing the video for the show, I came across this walkthrough of tarot [by Pollack] through a transgender perspective. Her readings from this workshop became the guiding voice of the xvi. the tower.

From the new “The Shining Tribe Tarot,” to come out on April 8, 2024, published by Red Wheel/Weiser. Photo by Zoe Matoff.

GyM: And you decided to dedicate the exhibition to her.

L: I knew she lived upstate, where a spell was going to take place, and I was toying with this idea of meeting her and inviting her for the show, but sadly she had passed away earlier that same year. So I decided to dedicate the show to her, as a thank you and acknowledgment of her work. You know, from the early years, I had a deep longing for a guide to the point that I almost became a monk in my late teens. There is this Circassian scholar, Madina Tlostanova, who uses the metaphor of a bird with no feet and a tree without limbs as no place to rest or nest when talking about displacement and the loss of a sense of belonging. She particularly refers to the groups impacted by the violent politics of the Empires, but it is true for any subject under the oppressive systems of heteronormativity. This sense of uprootedness is still following me to this day. But as I worked on a spell, I have come to see and understand my spiritual ancestry with more clarity. One thing I have also learned is that gratitude has the power of giving you ownership over what you are grateful for.

Levani, vii. the chariot, 2023. Courtesy Turley Gallery. Photography by Spencer House Studio.

GyM: At the opening, you said that this show fulfills the visions you had over the past few years. What did you mean by that exactly?

L: I always wanted to create something that is highly spiritual but also political and rooted in the moment we live in. For the first time, I brought together all the voices, forms, and areas that moved me, from video and sound, to rave, revolution, and neuroscience, without worrying about the legibility or the coherence of the outcome. As P. Staff perfectly puts it in the video, accepting the “incoherence” and “contradiction” within oneself and of our times becomes the place of power.

GyM: In the last few years, we have all become more accustomed to incoherence and unpredictability and, in light of what we have gone through globally, it is not a coincidence that everybody speaks about world-building and alternative realities.

L: The growing trend of world-building, especially in the first year following COVID, was mainly associated with an escape fantasy, somewhere out “there” but not “here.” Despite the fact that daydreaming takes up at least a third of my day, I am very much connected to the time and reality I live in, so making up space for historically marginalized and silenced groups, ideas, beliefs, and desires is the only world-building I can imagine and accept now. I think we talked about it in the context of what color is the Black Sea?, which was my first show after COVID [lockdowns] in 2021.

GyM: It was a very personal one.

L: It was an experiment with what would happen if I recreated a childhood trauma as a psychogeography in a loving, nurturing environment. I could never make work about things I have no experience with, yet I am not really interested in making [art] about myself. Personal stories are entry points into collective experiences. That is exactly what my intention was with this video: to create a lineage of queer history not as something dispersed and fragmented but as a continuous becoming. I wanted the whole narrative, made of different voices, to become a spell invoking a collective queer body.

GyM: Speaking of collective bodies, let’s pause for a moment on the dance floor. Queer clubs have been important sites of community and resistance, so I think they are inevitable if we talk about world-making. You have also addressed queer nightlife in some of your earlier works. For example, 127.1 bpm (for my dancing peers) [2021], which was a metal structure in Socrates Park, ornamented with the palm-leaf motif from the doors of Bossa Nova, a club in Bushwick.

Levani, 127.1 bpm (for my dancing peers), 2021. Photo: Scott Lynch. Courtesy of Socrates Sculpture Park.

L: I discovered underground rave culture almost the same time as I came to sense my queerness, and it was an absolute “fuck you” to everything I wanted to say “fuck you” to. To this day, there is no place where I feel as at ease as at a grungy, chaotic party farthest from the center of all sorts. Rave has a huge influence on my generation, and I am very happy to see more thinkers, writers, and makers talking about it, writing about it, and making things about it. I have been making work about raving since 2019, but what interested me the most was how I could bring the principles and strategies of raving—inclusivity, openness, and ways of relating and making connections—into institutionalized art spaces. How can I crack or infect art-making with rave? This project at Socrates Park was particularly interesting and challenging because it brought the “underground” into a public space. I wanted to avoid romanticizing the industry of clubs and centering the project on one venue. That is why I had to clarify in the title that the work is “for my dancing peers.”

GyM: The palm leaves have a personal meaning, too.

L: Since childhood, I have had a particular attraction to palm trees. There were three of them just around the corner of my childhood home in Tbilisi, but as you know they are not as typical there, so they really stand out. In the Middle East and the region I came from, they are considered the symbol of eternal life, and they are actually one of the oldest plants on Earth. In the West, they have been exoticized in many ways, and to me, as a kid, they also represented the tangibility of the faraway. Bossa Nova’s palm trees—these beautiful, stylized cast-iron sculptures—carry a similar meaning. They adorn the gates that separate the bar from the dance floor, marking the entry point into this safe and paradise-like space.

GyM: During the pandemic, I spent a few months in Tbilisi. It was in the summer of 2021, and I arrived one day after extremist gangs had raided the Pride march. This hit the world press because one journalist died and, from the first moment, it was clear to me that the inaccessibility of queer spaces was a huge problem there. The other thing I understood is that dance has a special, counter-cultural function in Georgian culture. I heard about this place called Aura, which was the first unofficial queer club in the mid-1990s, where people organized techno parties, avant-garde fashion performances, and drag shows. It opened right after the civil war when Tbilisi’s streets were still very dangerous. Have you ever been there?

L: I was maybe sixteen when somebody invited me there, and I really wanted to go. But then a close friend of mine freaked out as that place was potentially full of “them” (gays). I was pretty confused, so I missed my chance. Anyways, I started going out maybe a year after and that completely changed my life. I think—in Georgia—historically and to this day, the only outlet to release centuries of political and religious oppressions and the demonization of the body is dance. You can see it on the dance floor and also on the streets during protests. If you check the footage of the first anti-Soviet demonstrations in Tbilisi in April 1989, right before the Russian tanks invaded the city and people were killed, you will see the protesters dancing. And then in 2017, when the government raided the clubs for its “anti-drug” policy, the clubs took the raves to the main avenue and parties continued there.

Levani, Levani’s Room: Ecdysis (detail of installation), 2021. Image: Kyle Petreycik. Courtesy of Socrates Sculpture Park.

GyM: Dance, music, and raving are also important in your new video. But you attribute a major role to technology too. For example, there is a part in which writer hannah baer says that “what technology has enabled trans people to do with their body is pretty destabilizing to the history of patriarchy.”

L: What hannah talks about expansively is the question of choice and one’s agency in defining oneself. She cites the fears publicly expressed by the right-wing conservative politicians that “if people can autonomously self-define, and the systems that we have locked ourselves into are not actually confining us, power will shift.” And this fear of losing the power and domination is what fuels the increasing violence of the ruling system.

GyM: You say that we are in the moment of transformation because binary systems are coming to an end. The whole exhibition is built around this moment. How do you know that we have reached the end?

L: What I mean is that every morning, for the last four months, we wake up to the horror that there is a full-scale genocide taking place publicly and openly, and the major Western powers—the “pillars” of democracy, progress, human rights, better global future, et cetera—on both sides of the Atlantic not only are doing absolutely nothing to stop it but are supporting it with every resource available to them. Because opposing the genocide of the Palestinian people would mean accepting the genocides these Western powers have committed on stolen and colonized lands for centuries. I don’t want to sound naive, and I am not saying that this is happening for the first time. Social media, and the direct access to the sources, makes all of us witnesses. I am embarrassed and find it insensitive to even talk about my show within this context, but what I mean by the ending is the demise of Western imperialist hegemony and the emergence of liberated, revolutionary powers that believe that another world is possible.

GyM: This is all taking place against the backdrop of a beautiful sunset reflected on the Empire State Building. As you said earlier, you filmed this scene with your phone during the lockdown in 2020.

L: You know, among many things, the summer of 2020 was also the summer of the most beautiful and dramatic sunsets.

GyM: We could also call this moment the twilight of Western binary systems.

L: I would call it the collapse of the influence of Western colonial powers.

GyM: If patriarchy and binary systems lose their coercive force, it also means that there is more room for experimentation. I recently saw Paul B. Preciado’s new film, Orlando. It is about the experience of being trans, and in the film, Preciado says that change is only possible through poetry or imagination.

L: I haven’t seen that yet but I also think that the key is imagination and, as I said earlier, it is a question of making a decision. One thing we didn’t talk about is neuroplasticity, which is the capacity of the brain to make new pathways in order to create new knowledges and habits. This is what the final scene in xvi. the tower is about; [it features] microscopic footage of two neurons making connections filmed by Dr. Lila Landowski. It’s scientifically proven that certain exercises can trigger changes in the brain. Witnessing the neurons connecting to each other is not only beautiful but also affirming.

GyM: The video ends with a Georgian lullaby. What is it about?

L: It is one of the most popular lullabies in Georgia; a mother sings to the daughter that the stars and the violets are going to bed with her. The literal translation of lullaby in Georgian is “the song of violets,” and now I immediately associate it with the spring and beginnings—even though as a kid I was always terrified by lullabies, not only because I hated to go to bed, but because they also reminded me of death. I have been wondering what the lullaby for the new human—more kind, empathetic, caring, and just—could be like.

GyM: Lullabies are also about dreaming and imagination.

L: All the while providing necessary sleep for a child’s proper development and growth.

GyM: What comes after the Tower? The next card in the Major Arcana is the Star …

L: The Star is about hope. A serene moment of wisdom and peace after the crush of the Tower. It is like walking home from a rave in the morning under the rising sun after a long and eventful night. There is always a slight melancholy (or poetry) to it, but it is still one of my favorite parts of raving.

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