Dorian Sari: ‘I am an artivist’

In their artistic practice, Dorian Sari paradoxically combines a strong message with the intricate dialectics of showing and hiding. Fluidity and change are central to their decidedly contemporary work. Learn more about Sari’s deeply political understanding of making art.

Dorian Sari Dorian Sari lives and works in Basel and Geneva, Switzerland

The scene is dark and blurry. A figure dressed in blue jeans, a black leather jacket and a red baseball cap emerges from the night. The head tilted sideways, the hands raised – an apparent gesture of defence. Only then do you see the sharp cobblestone glued to the glass covering the photograph. Cracks run through the surface.

No doubt, ‘The *Itch is Back No:3’ by Dorian Sari is quite a violent work. The piece from 2021, which is part of the Julius Baer Art Collection, belongs to an ongoing series with similar motifs. The person pictured is always the artist themself. And the person throwing the stone? Well, the spectator? In other words – you.

‘The idea for this series comes from the so-called Karpman drama triangle,’ reveals Sari. ‘This popular model for social interaction in conflicts identifies three key roles – the victim, the perpetrator, and the rescuer. The problem is that everybody always sees themselves as the victim’, they continue. ‘With this series, though, while taking the victim role myself, I deliberately place the spectator in the perpetrator’s position.’ So, you, the spectator, are to blame. Accept it, deal with it, learn from it. And change something.

Dorian Sari Dorian Sari (b. 1989), ‘The *Itch is Back No:3’, 2021, archival pigment print, glass and stone, 125 x 125 x 8 cm, courtesy the artist and Julius Baer Art Collection

It should be clear by now, but let’s spell it out: Sari’s work is deeply political. Driven by an interest in power relations and an agenda of change, establishing a connection with the viewer and conveying a political message is a central issue for Sari. ‘I am an artivist, I would say’, explains the artist, who won the Swiss Art Awards in 2019 and the prestigious Manor Art Prize Basel in 2021. ‘That means I have an activist side, especially when it comes to questions of gender, ecology, well, humanity basically. But I am also an artist. I do artworks.’

Sari left Turkey, their country of birth, at age 17 to study literature and political sciences at the Sorbonne in Paris. After their degree, they hesitated to venture into the actual business of politics. ‘I quickly understood that politics is above all about one thing: compromises’, Sari says. ‘And I didn’t want to compromise on what is important for me.’ Instead, Sari went to Tel Aviv where they started working in an art gallery before eventually ending up in Switzerland to study art at HEAD Genève and the Institut Kunst Basel. ‘If you are an artist’, Sari explains the advantages of their choice, ‘people tolerate if you say harsh things. Don’t get me wrong, I highly value diplomacy. But within the arts, I can be honest and direct.’

Seen this way, one of art’s most significant disadvantages – its removal from ‘real life’, the fact that it always relies on a dimension of the ‘as if’ – turns out to be one of its most significant advantages. Here, even the most direct can be formulated indirectly – and the most indirect can contain the most direct message. For an artist like Sari, this opens up a room to play with different roles, to test things out and put themself as well as the audience into various positions.

Things here are fluid; roles are changing, and so are positions. ‘Fluidity is generally key for me – personally and in my work. So, things will always change’, Sari says. ‘Because what I do is very much about living in the now. About accepting what is – and be curious about it.’ Art, for Sari, is a means to communicate and get in touch with people. ‘Talking about my work’, they say, ‘often is as much part of it as the actual pieces. I see a lot of frustration in the world – and I try to take a little care of the communication.’

This communicative aspect becomes central in one of Sari’s most recent projects: In Basel, Sari’s current home base, they worked closely with climate activists and brought together politicians and directors of local art institutions for an extended conversation on what they could do to fight climate change. Behind closed doors, the group discussed concrete steps for each institution to improve sustainability and reduce emissions. Currently, Sari is editing the video documentation of the conversation to be shown in various Swiss institutions.

Another large-scale work that is on view in Sari’s most recent solo show at Berlin is also derived from this project. Referring to the famous ‘Silence=Death’ poster issued by AIDS activists in New York in the late 1980s, Sari replaced the logo and parts of the text with lines pointing towards the current situation, thus creating an echo chamber between 80s AIDS activism and today’s climate change activism. ‘The way people in power react to the climate activists, for me, feels essentially the same to the reaction back then,’ Sari says. ‘They consider it just another crisis, but the climate activists see what’s happening as a form of collective suicide.’

‘I see a lot of frustration in the world – and I try to take a little care of the communication.’ – Dorian Sari
With the posters partly hidden behind peeling wallpaper, this work, too, makes clever use of the complicated back and forth between hiding and showing – of a direct message and the intricated way sometimes necessary to bring it across. The same is true for another of Sari’s series called ‘Jardin et Jalousie’, out of which one work is part of the Julius Baer Art Collection. For this series, Sari presents old second-hand jackets on hangers, all complete with dried flowers in the breast pocket – a nod to Oscar Wilde’s time, when such flowers were used to communicate secretly with others in the know. On the inner lining, a photograph or even a painting of the artist’s face is only partly visible, covered to a certain extent by the jacket’s lapel.

Dorian Sari Dorian Sari (b. 1989), ‘garden and jalousie 5’, 2023, jacket, hanger, dried flowers and photograph, 108.3 x 83.3 x 11.6 cm, courtesy the artist and Julius Baer Art Collection

Here they are, the artist, or rather, an image of them, at the same time an agent in their own interest, yet a potential stand-in for everyone. A work deeply woven into the dialectics of power, the modes of seeing and being seen – showing themselves while hiding, retreating, and yet giving something away. ‘But the eyes’, Sari says smilingly, ‘are always looking at you.’

Author: Dominikus Müller