In: contemporary

Global/Local 1960–2015: Six Artists from Iran is currently on view at the Grey Art Gallery, New York University’s fine arts museum. As the title suggests, this stunning exhibition brings together six modern and contemporary artists working with their local Persian traditions in Iran as well as internationally, broadening the discourse to current political and social situations. Spanning three generations, the Grey has assembled a critical, thought provoking, and visually breathtaking show that depicts the diverse artistic production stemming from a country whose art is not as accessible to audiences outside of its borders.

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A complex yet culturally rich narrative unfolds as we move through the galleries. The show begins with the pioneering modernists of the 1960s and 1970s, Parviz Tanavoli (b. 1937) and Faramarz Pilaram (1937-1983). It then moves to Chohreh Feyzdjou (1955-1996) working right after the turbulent Iran-Iraq War years (1980-88), and ends with the youngest artists Shiva Ahmadi (b. 1975), Shahpour Pouyan (b.1980), and Barbad Golshiri (b. 1982) working within the 2000s up until today.

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This show is exceptionally rich and compelling as it brings together a broad and genuine portrayal of Iranian culture based in ancient traditions and forms while simultaneously questioning bleaker themes of power, authority, identity, violence, and military aggression that have all been pertinent throughout the country’s history and as well as today. These themes and motifs are handled in such subtle and incredibly clever ways that the resulting affects are illuminating. Through diverse mediums such as painting, ceramics, metalwork, mixed media, photography, assemblage, watercolor, and video these artists manipulate their heritage and history to make intriguing new claims and connections.

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Much of the exhibition is heavy on artistic and curatorial installation that actively engages visitors as they maneuver through the space. The conjoined galleries of Feyzdjou and Golshiri show the dedication and precision in which the exhibit was planned out. Golshiri, who is interested in tombstones and cultures surrounding death, helped arrange the works within his own gallery in order to have it resemble a cemetery plot. Photographs of cemeteries are hung low with a few resting on the floor and leaning against the walls. A stone cenotaph is snuggly fit in a corner while three large rectangular marble slabs are arranged in the middle of the floor. As we walk through these works we arrive at an intimate gallery displaying Feyzdjou’s large-scale installations. 403 scrolls are hung in a grid pattern while rolls, wooden crates, and a large canvas strewn scaffolding resembling an Iranian bazaar display inhabit the rest of the space. These dark, grim objects have been made from reused materials and appropriated works from Feyzdjou’s early art school days. They speak to her quest for identity and represent cycles of destruction and reconstruction.

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My favorite artists within this exhibition are Ahmadi and Pouyan, whose works are ground in fine details and toying with the audience’s initial perceptions. Nothing is quite what it seems with these two. Both employ past traditions through their use of miniatures, most notably from the Shahnama (Book of Kings), an illuminated manuscript detailing various Persian epics. Ahmadi takes these narratives and recasts them into contemporary contexts. Her works are colorful, alluring, playful, and rendered in watercolor, giving them an ethereal softness. Her subject, however, is corruption. Faceless rulers sit upon bleeding thrones while monkeys and other circus animals present candy-shaped offerings, which are in fact bombs and grenades. Pipes, industrial and traditional Iranian architectural forms surround these mythic scenes creating an apocalyptic play land. Ahmadi loves “sugarcoating” images where they appear beautiful from afar but reveal darker narratives when we step closer. These works are as mesmerizing as they are grotesque. Rendered with masterful subtlety yet poignant critique, she is commenting on the military aggression that has been present within Iran since the 1979 revolution as a battle over the country’s natural resources and the civilian traumas faced at the hands of their own governments.

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Pouyan similarly subverts the meaning of the Shahnama epics by taking specific illustrated pages and stripping the scenes of any figurative elements. What we are left with is an eerily empty landscape void of the elite figures that would have been a part of the scene. These small-scale works are fascinating and leave us to ponder on the contexts of power and patronage, and how authority can dictate “what is left unseen” within society.

Another exquisite series from Pouyan is his “Projectiles.” These monumental hanging works invade the gallery space as missile-like structures. Inspired by medieval Persian armor he explores how technology has served power throughout history. These first appear as menacing weapons but upon closer inspection reveal Pouyan’s fine calligraphic ornament. They are sharp and suggest violence but are also aesthetically striking and in fact very beautiful.

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I have come back and seen this show multiple times and with each new visit I have discovered something new. You are set into a sort of trance as you move through the galleries, mesmerized by the ornately fine detailed works and the variety of mediums. The exhibition as a whole is a feast for the eyes as well as a deeply psychological portrayal of Iran’s past. The artists’ consistent referencing to history and Persian heritage allows us to begin to better understand the country’s complex present.

Beautiful and enlightening from all angles, I highly recommend making a visit to NYU’s Grey Art Gallery. Global/Local 1960–2015: Six Artists from Iran is on view until April 2, 2016.

Dear readers,

Once again I took a dive into the internet archives of artwork and photography from Albania, in order to bring you relatively unknown work. For this article, I want to focus on women, because I realized that my last one presented you with mostly male artists. Having said that, the options are fairly limited. It seems difficult to be an English-speaking user of Google searching for Albanian work. I came across a lot of amateur photography, but in terms of more established artists, there was internet silence. Maybe this indicates that there is not much of it, or more likely I am ignorant as to the best way to find it.

What I did come across, however, is endlessly fascinating. So this article will integrate two very different concepts and styles of photography, governed by three broad themes: gender, photography, and Albania. It could also be argued that there is fourth theme creeping in around the edges, which is identity.

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The first incredible project is by a portrait photographer named Jill Peters, whose complex and difficult work explores questions of gender identity and social acceptance. I recommend viewing her project called “third gender”, which documents the Indian hijra.

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Peters herself is American, but she travelled to Albania to photograph a puzzling gender-bending tradition wherein women in the north decide to become sworn virgins, and to take on the social role of a man. This essentially involves a gender transition. The woman dresses like a man, wears her hair short, in some cases even changes her name, and is allowed to partake in the social positions occupied only by men in Albania. As I understand it, this is a dying tradition, so Peters’ work is particularly relevant as an historical document. A short video (must-see!) on the website describes the different reasons why women choose to take on this role. It mostly has to do with the fact that in traditional Albanian society, they are not considered social equals to men, and are basically in the power of their fathers, brothers, and later husbands. The sworn virgins sacrifice their sexuality and gender identity in order to work independently, to provide for their families, or, as the video states, to be free.

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Obviously, this project opens many questions and problems about the nature of this transition, but it does not necessarily seek to answer them. The portraits are straightforward, often posing their subjects with landscapes of Albania in the background. It shows them in their everyday clothing, in the process of doing work, or in their homes. What the project exposes in its best photographs are the subtle non-binary physical attributes that blur the lines of gender and present the viewers with something entirely new. It is a deeply complex situation to choose, or be pressured into, and so the photographs achieve something significant which is to probe and disrupt the visual and intellectual vocabulary of their viewers.

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The second woman I discovered is named Eni Turkeshi, who is a contemporary photographer and artist from Albania’s capital, Tirana. Her work has been featured in many publications and group exhibitions, all of which can be found on her Flickr account. She works in all mediums of photography but specializes in alternative processes; cyanotypes, albumen printing, and other analogue techniques. Because of her interest in these processes, her photographs often take on the blurry, romantic, and layered qualities of darkroom mistakes. But for Turkeshi, this has become an entire aesthetic. In their less developed forms, the photographs appear to be amateur, but at their best, they are intricate portrayals of emotion and self-awareness and display a talent. Part of why I was so excited about her work is because I found her on many different online websites, none of which are particularly edited or curated, so I was able to take part in her process. This is, for the most part, experimental. I could see her attempts, which were more and less successful. She has seemingly endless amounts of projects posted on her Behance account, most of which are titled from songs or poetry. She makes many self-portraits, and photographs other women as well. This combined with the romantic and soft aesthetic led me to understand that her work has a distinctly feminine undercurrent, where she explores her own identity. Find a selection of her photographs below:

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The first part of an ongoing exhibition which will see contributions from artists, philosophers and neuroscientists, is Ann Veronica Janssens’ sublime vapour filled room. The title yellowbluepink describes the spectrum of colours beautifully limiting the perceptions of those entering. At first, this feels slightly unnerving, the colour leaves you blind to the world in front of you and those entering the space can be seen with arms tentatively outstretched, nervously trying to avoid the other bodies that they can hear but not yet see.

Once the initial sensory shock has abated, you are able to travel seamlessly through the hues of the space, and of course the setting is incredible for taking a never ending amount of yellow, pink and blue tinted selfies.

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As well as the colours interrupting and dominating the typical conscious experience, the people sharing the space ebb and flow from each others visibility. It is entirely possible that my experience of the space was directly affected by the fact that I seemed to be the only person in there alone, but the blanket of vapour clouding my vision had a definite feeling of alienation. There was what felt like an obstacle of colour between me and everyone else, realised through my perception of my immediate surroundings. I was aware of not only how this installation was affecting my visible world, but after a while, I began to analyse my entire position within the world at large.

The installation is running until January 3rd and full details of the installation can be found here.

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It is easy to discover some artists and movements that are famous and have had an impact in the field of art with their distinctiveness. Artists like Monet, Turner and Cézanne. People do that all the time. They familiarise themselves with important and acknowledged movements like Romanticism, Realism and Expressionism, but often neglect a momentous sparkle of art behind the great movement of revolutionary art.

By no means am I implying that the known movements have not altered the course of history. Of course they did, but in a different context. Today’s emerging revolutionary art, however, has something else to offer to the international community. Having all these in my subconscious, I accidentally read online about an imperative Syrian artist, Tammam Azzam.

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Few months back, before the outbreak of the media that focused on the immigration issue of many Syrian refugees (which, by the way, has been a pressing issue for many years now), a picture of a war torn building was all over the media. Tammam Azzam declared his own revolution by enlisting one of the most famous mainstream kisses in Western art as an act of protest against the war in Syria. As a matter of fact, it echoes the Berlin Wall graffiti picture of Erich Honecker and Leonid Brezhnev back in 1979, who were practising the fraternal socialist kiss. Azzam has created rebellious and dissenting art by photoshopping Gustav Klimt’s painting The Kiss on a destroyed savaged Syrian building.

The impact? Exceptional! Azzam made art out of his own reflections of contemporary events by exploring the destructions of war by men. The Kiss delivers a romantic, idealistic image of the purity of love. Inspired by Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, that a kiss is made for the whole world, it explicitly states the universality of two people connecting through a kiss and the strong feeling of love in a simple painting.

Such an image on a Syrian bombed wall delivers mixed feelings to the audience. Certainly, there is a consistent element of critique in Azzam’s approach to Klimt’s masterpiece. As I perceive this, I can extract a dichotomy between Western arts against the non-Western conceptualisation. There is that resilient attitude which is open to interpretation. The existing distinction between the western world and “other”- the alien culture- which is non-westernised has always been around. Yet, the main priority of a contemporary artist is that art should connect and not dichotomize. Azzam’s point, therefore, is well established. Apart from that, there is an important subtext in using a Western masterpiece. In a delicate way, Azzam’s main emphasis focuses on Klimt’s theme of universality and successfully illustrates, in his photoshopped work, the idea that we are all citizens of the same world.

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We have seen how empathy restricts its boundaries only to the first world. I cannot help but wonder if the main message of Azzam’s piece is that violence should be dismantled, whoever the perpetrator might be. Some would say that art is there to ease the mind, however revolutionary art seeks something else – to unease the mind in an emblematic way; to make the audience consider who’s in and who’s out.

Recently, visiting the Five Myles gallery located on St Johns Place, just off of Franklin Ave, I witnessed a group of young musicians and visual artists converge on a singular opportunity to occupy a space, inviting the viewer to slip into an immersive audio-visual experience. At Five Myles, the group of artists behind the aptly named, “Ashcan Orchestra,” opened up the show; on the main-stage would be what the composer Jonah Rosenberg labeled as an “electro-acoustic chamber opera,” under the title of “Ode to Jackeen.”

Ode to Jackeen, Opera Singer

Ode to Jackeen, Opera Singer

The chamber opera, consisting of four musicians on various instruments, including percussion, flute, acoustic guitar and violin, combines the Ensemble Sans Maître, with the composer’s vision for a performance based on counter-cultural, beat author Kenneth Patchen’s “The Journal of Albion Moonlight.” But, you may ask, a bit facetiously, where does the opera come in? Well, accompanying this tribe of art school experimentalists is a singular feminine figure, tall, lithe and hauntingly evanescent; from this figure, the operatic tremolo issues, charging the entire piece with a shocking Gothic flare of tradition, in the service of a neo-expressionist cacophony. More on this later, but first to give a little more detail on the opening performance and the inspired Five Myles program that makes events like this possible.

Five Myles gallery, as they express in their mission statement online, works with the local community in midtown Brooklyn where they are situated. Local artists and musicians during the summer season are allowed to invade the gallery space with absolutely no charge, putting on unique, experimental performances, exhibits and concerts for anyone who shows up. This is something that they call the “Space Program,” and it was this program that brought this extraordinary group of young artists together.

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Ashcan orchestra.

Now to go into further detail on the opening performance, the Ashcan Orchestra,” takes this traditional label at its very root, to orchestrate, what they achieve is a simultaneous orchestration of sound, light, rhythm and movement. In this performance one first encounters the totemic like structure that they’ve crafted for the show: a cubic piece, rising to around four feet constructed with wood, lights and wire. Around this structure the artists group themselves with a collection of bells, xylophones, toys and objects, and so the sound begins and the lights fire off on the totem like some monstrous traffic light given consciousness. Producing a panoply of dissonant chords, vibrations and notes they build the sound to moments of discomfort, shocking the listener as if to shatter an innocent moment of childhood nostalgia. The entire performance ripples with dreamlike incongruity and creates strange audio-visual combinations that both stimulate and unnerve the viewer, an experience that I highly recommend.

Following the Ashcan performance, there comes the next re-evaluation and subtle deconstruction of traditional highbrow elitist cultural music formats, this was witnessed in the “Ode to Jackeen.” The performance began and it was immediately clear that this was not going to be a smooth harmonic display, a display of virtuosity by the musicians, yes, but in dissonant chords and jarring climaxes where the instruments seemed to almost shriek and jabber in unison with the persona of Joe Bobo. Images were projected onto a screen doubling as backdrop and stage set, as the ensemble played around the poetry inspired by the composer channeling wild beat lyricism. But aside from this, constant bits of narrative interlude would fall into place between operatic bursts and the convulsive notes of the ensemble.

This is where my interest was piqued, for on the whole there was an abstract and almost universalizing quality to the piece that rendered impressions of inner psychic torment, the surreal torpor of unconscious dreamscapes. However, this use of a narrative overlay pulled the piece together and gave it a substantive ground and context. Then it came to me, before me was a necessary continuance of Dada Theater, the amalgam of Dada’s symbolist poetics and anarchic style, overlaid into the beat generation’s project, driven by a wild denunciation of bourgeois morals and restrictive normative codes. Originally, this anarchic theater that took confusion, irrationality and the de-hierarchizing of fine art, feeding directly into an epistemological crisis over what art could be and who was authorized to produce it, was born of post-war tension and trauma. Here, we see that war has continued by any other means, for now it is the war of the self against the socialized norms encoded within, psychic trauma writ large.

Ultimately, this particular muse from the beat generation emerges from Burroughs’ dark corridors of the movement, that prose which attempted to capture the raw reality of mid-twentieth American subjectivity, a subjectivity constantly put upon by an ever more institutionalized and bureaucratized social-landscape. Joe Bobo our hapless character within the narrative skit is a Kerouacian “dharma bum,” a “desolation angel” simply trying to get a meal, get some kicks and explore the American roadways, but he is beset upon by sinister and sterile medical personnel representing the terror of the juridico-medical discourse that labels and apprehends all those that do not conform to a call for ceaseless productivity and middle-class norms. In this way, the sublime crescendos of the ensemble become Bobo’s psychological discontent, his strange medicated visions, and distorted hysteric hallucinations made manifest. This is an authentic channeling of the beat project and a worthwhile experience, if the ensemble reunites make sure to be in the crowd.