“There is a beautifully inscribed limestone gate in the British Museum, made for the Egyptian tomb of of Ptahshepses in Saqqara in about 2400 BC. It has been an obsession of mine since I first saw it here as a student. I used to visit the British Museum especially to see it and it has lingered in my subconscious ever since. Sometimes it is referred to as a false door, because the opening is sealed, or as a pair of ornate doorjambs framing an impassable passageway. I prefer to think of it as a threshold or as an entrance to the place of transition – in many ways it’s like a window that connects the inside to the outside world, existing on the edge between these two states. It’s also a door to the unconscious, to memory and tothe dreamworld – it touches our imagination. The fact that it is made out of overlapping layers of stone also suggests that it refers to the passing of time.
The narrow proportions are fascinating and remind me of one of Barnett Newman’s abstract ‘zip’ paintings, although both are blocked and can only be viewed from the outside. I wanted to make my own version that you could enter, which became an installation at the Lisson Gallery in 1992, and which was later shown at the Hayward and other venues.
It was essentially a tall, thin black box (about 8m x 3m) squeezed just below the ceiling of the room, with an aperture about 30cm wide through which you could just about gain access to – everything was squeezed. Once you were through the gap, the two corridors were lined in polished, copper sheeting, creating an incredible interior heat and red colouration. You very quickly lost your perspective and balance in this mirrored environment, with seemingly no floor, walls or exterior reference points to anchor you. It wasn’t claustrophobic or tomb-like because you knew where you stood on the outside and there was lots of reflected light on the inside. However, passing through was like a rite of passage or initiation, just as in the Japanese Shinto tradition where, in order to enter a shrine, you first have to pass through the temple gates. These thresholds mould us as human beings and they are a continuing preoccupation of mine in the every day making of my paintings and sculptures.
Just as the Egyptians sealed the eyes, ears and nose of their mummies, they sealed this architectural space in the same way – they were mummifying the tomb. If being alive or conscious involves our knowledge of the world through our senses, then I would think that losing the ability to smell, hear and see is perhaps the ultimate, scary way to die. Of course, the Egyptians were obsessed with death, but we each have to find our own way to make peace with it. That is what this gateway is all about and why I believe it is also an experience meant for the living – it’s a door that everyone has to struggle with and go through at some stage.”
Shirazeh Houshiary, 2015