Theodore Soliman is a queer Egyptian artist, based in Toronto. Soliman is an experiential and explorative interdisciplinary artist; a recent graduate from OCAD University with a focus on Sculpture/Installation and Photography. Soliman is interested in studying the evolution and progression of materiality. Soliman's practice is inspired from various contemporary topics intertwined with personal and emotional experiences, including but not limited to; aesthetics, simulacra and simulation, issues of identity, and heritage.
"Aesthetics; polished, clean and pristine are the main descriptive words of my work. I strive to captivate the viewer's thoughts and emotions for a raw experience."
MultiplicityTO: What does it mean to you to be an experiential artist?
Theodore Soliman: I started using that term about 4 years ago in my 2nd year at OCAD. This is when I realized a little bit more about my work, what it is that I wanted to do with my work and what I am trying to achieve with it. When I make my installations, I always think of an experience to transcend or relate to the viewer. I want them to be immersed in that experience— I’m providing all of the physical elements, and some conceptual elements so I can provide the viewer with an experience. I don’t want people to just walk by the work. I want people to actually stop and experience something. Anything! And a lot of the time it doesn’t have to be anything specific, but at least something different than your day to day experiences.
MTO: Your work has been described as “polished, clean, and pristine.” What are your inspirations to create work with this aesthetic and what are your inspirations overall?
TS: It’s really hard to pinpoint what inspires me. In my 3rd year, I did an exchange in Boston. I had a class called Creative Futures and how artists can make a living outside of school, etc. One of our teachers reviewed our work, and from one of his feedbacks on my work he said that I really liked to work with light a lot regardless of it being sculpture, photography, etc. When I started to think about it, I thought more about my work, my thought process and creative process. I realized that light is one of the main elements used in my work. What I mean by polished, clean, and pristine is that I watch a lot of movies. I’m inspired a lot by cinematography. I’m inspired by the cinematography and how dramatic it’s done in terms of lighting or it could be as simple as a scene of someone really well lit from the side with just a little bit of light coming in.
MTO: Angles, things like that.
TS: Yeah. You just see that little shimmer in that scene and that makes everything different. That’s what I kind of mean, this is what I’m inspired by. When I think of my work, I think of how I want to present it or how I want it to look. I want it to look more like that— dramatic. I really control the light as much as I can, depending on the situation to make it look very clean and polished. It’s something that really appeals to me. It’s an aesthetic that I sort of grew up with in my life generally. I like to reflect that on my work as my work is part of me. That’s how I like to think about it.
MTO: Speaking of light, one of your main works, PURE, appears to involve light and the reflection of light. Can you speak more about that piece?
TS: That piece was really really complicated. I started that one in my 4th year at OCAD for a class. Then I just kept expanding and making it bigger and bigger. And I still want to make it bigger but it’s resting now. I don’t know, I was just really inspired by mirrors and how they reflect a lot— You were talking about it in a sense of reflections with lights. It’s something that when you look at it, you really sort of lose yourself in it. Especially because it’s not just one flat surface of a mirror that I present to you— like how I had it in the show where I had it in three different pieces. The center one was going in and out of itself. It was forming a lot of different vortexes. If you look into it, the mirror is reflecting itself then you start to see little bits of pieces of yourself in every piece. That’s what I like about it— it doesn’t give you a full picture, it really disintegrates everything and then it formulates it on its own. It usually has a reference but then it changes that reference into something else that isn’t even related to that reference anymore.
MTO: What is the importance of materiality in your work and is it related to the notion of your identity in regards to Pure and Perversion?
TS: The terms that I use from the titles of the work, these are like— because I’ve been working with a theory for a while, Simulacra and Simulation— these are the different stages from that theory and how Baudrillard envisioned things to happen in terms of imagery and then how it has been sort of implemented in the society. So that’s how I’ve been using these terms, like different stages, not necessarily every piece is specific to a stage, it’s just a reference point that I use.
MTO: Can you speak more about materiality and how that is important to your work? How does that relate to the idea of identity or your perception?
TS: One of the things that I really like about materials or being a sculptor is that I really like to feel the material that I’m working with, I feel like every material has its own characteristics, personality almost, and every material is perceived differently and has its own associations. So that’s what I work with, I choose specific materials like mirror or metal but then I just cut it apart and make it into something else so that it’s not really used in its traditional sense. I want to use it into something completely different. So it's sort of really crossing that border or the limits of how it should be that material. I morph it into something else that I feel like transcends the experience I want to convey.
MTO: Going off of that, what you just said relates to our theme because with our idea of multiplicity, what we’re trying to go beyond is the idea of binaries and absolutes. We want to show that everything consists of multiples and we want to transgress these ideas of disciplines and traditionality. Even with material and with your work, you’re using mirrors but going beyond its traditional associations and transitioning it into something fluid, almost like a fabric. Speaking on that, how do you relate to our concept of multiplicity?
TS: When I see the words binaries and absolute, I think of them more as abstract terms. I don’t find them applying to human beings. I think humans are fluid beings that exist. You’re not one thing or the other, there’s no one end point to things. There are more to things rather than everything being on a straight line so you can pinpoint them. I don’t think that applies to us in our daily lives or the work that we do or try to do, at least.
MTO: So going back to your work, Pure, you used that same work in site specific work where you took self portraits. Can you speak a little bit more to that work specifically?
TS: As soon as I started actually working on that piece in my 4th year, I really photographed it a lot. I took so many pictures with it, just in the studio to begin with, some slow motion videos for me to really try to understand what it was I was actually making. I started making this thing but didn’t really know or didn’t really understand what it was or what it’s about or what to do with it. Even when it kept getting bigger, I started to pick people that I knew to model for these pictures still trying to understand the object. When it came time to do a photo series, first I was trying to get people to model in these but I couldn’t really find anyone and didn’t have enough time. So I decided that I would actually be the best option to be the model because it’s something that I’ve been making and I’ve been trying to understand but I can’t understand it through other people. I have to understand it through myself, being one with the object. When you look at the pictures, in some of them I’m trying to carry it or sometimes I’m hidden underneath. That was really my last thing to do with it, now I’m actually trying to get a sense of what it is that I am doing.
MTO: A lot of your work deals with issues of identity. Was there something that you were trying to say conceptually in relation to identity, especially it being you and you wanting it to be you represented in those photos?
TS: Absolutely. I used the mirrors because when I make that fabric or the cape, when I put it on myself I physically disappear. I just reflect everything that’s around me. I thought by using that space too, it’s really vast because it’s a landscape. It gives you a big picture of reflective things but then they’re all broken apart into little circles. Most times they don’t actually reflect anything eventually because the picture is too big to be reflected.
Literally, I am hiding myself. When I did the videos or the pictures with it, I am literally and metaphorically hiding myself. Using this shiny, glimmering fabric just to reflect everything that’s around me to become the environment that’s around me. I find that our identities usually depend on going from one place to the other, from one environment to the other. We adapt to different places with or without us really knowing about it.
MTO: You’re originally from Egypt, are there stigmas within that culture related to pursuing a career in the arts? What are the general reservations the culture has about the arts, creativity, and things like that?
TS: I don’t find the culture in Egypt is very big on visual arts in general. I don’t know why to be honest, as someone who is pursuing a career in the arts, you’re not getting the badge of honours like going into med school or engineering. I know when I decided to go into arts or different creative things, everyone would ask me, “What are you going to do with it? So what? What’s the end point?” I’m just doing it because I want to do it. There’s no specific stigma to it but it’s not something that is encouraged at all.
MTO: Can you tell us more about the work you made using diamond deck?
TS: My inspiration for this piece is when I was in Boston doing a jewelry project. I was thinking about what I wanted to do and got a mold from a diamond deck piece. I started to cast bronze in it and I would make jewellery with it like bracelets, chokers, and whatnot. I love the pattern, it's so shiny and when you put it in different angles. That’s why I thought I would use it in jewellery and then I wanted to bring it to a bigger scale. It’s my own critique and observation on the gay community. When I keep observing and keep looking at it, I find that there’s a lot of stress on being hypermasculine. Doing everything that you can to emphasize your masculinity and your image of masculinity. It’s something really prevalent in the community. I used material that you usually find in construction sites and associated with trucks. What is more hyper-masculine than a Ford truck and the diamond deck in it? I cut it into small pieces and had it all connected together to make it look pretty and have it almost look fragile. It’s like that second skin that people wear but at some point, sooner or later, it’s going to disintegrate and fall apart. That’s why I worked specifically with that material and I chose to break it down. It relates back to identity and how we adopt many different skins. Just be who you are and represent yourself.
MTO: So what are you up to now? What kind of plans do you have creatively, professionally?
TS: Right now, I’m taking a bit of a break from making art. I’m taking a step back. I feel like after being in school for 5 years, you get really sucked into making academic, institutional art. I’m trying to take a step back, take a breather and really look at the big picture again. When people graduate from school, you end up finding different hoards of people making the same work. For me, I just really want to take a bigger picture and see what is out there, outside of the institution. By working at The Power Plant, I see really different work and artists that are being celebrated at one of the top institutions in Canada. As for professionally, I’m trying to pursue the art market. It’s very interesting and the shift that has been happening in the market over the years. It really makes you think all over again about what is art. I find that the market is very different on a bigger scale, like in another city like New York that’s at a more international scale.I feel like it’s completely different from what was being fostered in school.
MTO: You’re not just making work for the sake of getting graded anymore.
TS: Trying to understand again why I am doing that work and what I want to try and achieve with it. It’s a different phase in my life as well. The art should also progress and change with you. It should never be the same.
MTO: Can you speak more to the program you deferred?
TS: It’s a Masters in Art Business at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in New York. It’s a short program, a year and a half but it really gives you a deep insight into the art market, the laws, the legalities, and how different formats of business functions such as auction houses vs. not-for-profits and museums vs. commercial galleries. Everyone has their own business model and it’s a very interesting world that is complex. It’s really its own entity but still very attached to the artist.