Clicking through Nostalgia
By Roja Najafi, Ph.D. Art Historian and Curator
When People Decide to End Themselves
Multidisciplinary Works by Project 13
December 13, 2020-January 13, 2021
When People Decide to End Themselves is the first virtual exhibition curated by two of Project 13’s member Shaghayegh Cyrous and Baharak Khaleghi, a California based experimental collaborative project initiated by five female Iranian artists, Shaghayegh Cyrous (Lead Curator), Baharak Khaleghi, Behnaz Khaleghi, Mobina Nouri and, Mehregan Pezeshki. The show aims to enlighten international audiences to the abundance and exceptional talent of Iranian artists, (13 to be exact), and to raise awareness and interest and promote cultural tolerance and understanding. The exhibition brings together conceptual, material, and formal perspectives of emerging artists featuring a variety of media including painting, works on paper, video, and sound art to form a compelling and diverse virtual show.
The participating artists Sholeh Asgary, Niyaz Azadikhah, Davood Bayat, Shaghayegh Cyrous, BSisters Khaleghi, Sara Madandar, Zahra Mohammadi, Mobina Nouri, Mehregan Pezeshki, Azin Seraj, Azarakhsh Shafieikadkani, Keyvan Shovir, Parya Vatankhah are a generation of Iranian artists based in the United State, Europe, and Iran who grow up in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian revolution.
When People Decide to End Themselves showcases the individual focuses of artists linked through the strong communal theme of the show: boundaries of “self”. When People Decide to End Themselves invites us to expand our perceptions of self and explores the ambiguous boundaries of self and selfhood, examining the entangled entities of body, nature, memory, identity, and existence. The title of the exhibition can be read as a question as well as a phrase. As we click our way through the galleries we wonder: what might happen when we stop, and when we decide to end ourselves?
The exhibition is organized thematically across four virtual galleries to highlight the broad range of styles. The show is not a comprehensive overview of each artist’s practice, but instead, the works in the exhibition serve as key examples of each artist’s innovative interpretation of the team and their individual processes. I believe effective art exhibitions often offer visual and conceptual surprises and puzzles throughout the exhibition space. When People Decide to End Themselves includes a number of striking, thought-provoking, and complex surprises. As I clicked my way through the exhibition’s virtual galleries I felt the presence of nostalgia and humor.
The intro gallery sets the stage for our explorations of the theme with the Barbecue On The Grass three photographs by BSisters (Baharak and Behnaz Khaleghi). The photographs depict scenes from a surreal BBQ- Bacchanalia; twisted bodies, scattered food, and a naked woman (one of the BSisters) looking directly at us in a backyard with a sense of that brings to my art historian’s mind, Manet’s 1863, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass). Only Barbecue On The Grass is much more daring, much more forward, and much more twenty-first century.
The chaos and disarray juxtaposed with an undisturbed gaze of the naked woman aim to make us uncomfortable. The label includes a descriptive poem: Their pleasure, Pleasure of pain, Pleasure of push, Push push push, Harder and harder, She is in heaven, Land of ice and fire, Where does it end? Repetition […]. I see the push to disturb the daily order of things and I see the humor within this push.
The intro gallery also includes four works from Sara Madandar’s A Land With No Name series, with silhouettes of female bodies layered between laser-cut textile, linen, and stitches. Photographs by Parya Vatankhah (The Body and the Land) are closeups of a body partially buried, commenting on the relationship between our bodies, soil, and death. And a powerful and lonely drawing of a left ear by Mobina Nouri, Guard this Object Carefully, which makes me smile before I click to read the wall text: “‘My life is attacked at the very root, my step also is faltering’ -to Theo from Vincent, 10 July 1890. If his mental health was taken seriously, he could have lived longer.” I uttered to myself “perhaps not!” I don’t want to think of Van Gogh’s anguish, or the ambiguous circumstances of his death, which suits an art history nerd like me. No! I just want to get closer to the ear, to see the marks on the paper. With a click or two, I get closer. A smart work, with a really clever title: Guard this Object Carefully. An instruction for care, which made me wonder: is it for the ear, or for the drawing itself, which like most works on paper is more fragile to conserve. Or perhaps this is a metaphorical instruction to guard our bodies, our senses, and sensibilities; our souls! It is this wonder that makes a work of art intriguing to me.
I am already tense. Bodies, body parts, chaos, layers, burials, clicking to the next gallery, offers a visual relief. A calmer space, where works are more spread apart, with shimmering colors and figures that are abstracted into patterns. My eyes can breathe again. Three artists are included in this gallery: Davood Bayat’s Body Analysis (a series of eight photographs) Mehregan Pezeshki’s Malevolent, and Niyaz Azadikhah’s video art animation, Salasat. I like the rhythm between the first gallery and the second. The intentionality of the curatorial strategy is tangible. Azadikhah’s short animation adds to this rhythm. Salasat is a stop motion animation based on a dream; an eerie moment of self-awareness in a dream is on a loop offering a jolly and humorous experience. Mehregan Pezeshki’s Malevolent is an image within an image. It shows a vertical photograph of a nude female body (artist’s body) hung upside-down in a corner of a blue room (or a gallery) as if the body is doing a handstand. The malevolence of the image is perhaps in the perplexed installation of a picture within a picture cornered in a room. Although figurative, Malevolent comments on the abstract characteristics of art installation processes. Davood Bayat’s Body Analysis uses the mirror effect to create kaleidoscopic images of a body creating a symmetrical pattern through reflection. The repetition of a mirrored figure turns the human body into a seemingly endless motif. Thus, the figure is abstracted into a visual form. This gallery makes me think of the abstract quality of a curator’s job. When we curate an exhibition, we are separating the artworks from their context.
There is something inherently abstract in the act of curating, as if all objects (artworks) whether figurative (representational) or abstract (non-representational) are separated from the reality of their creation process; from the artist’s studio; from their place of birth, from life.
The passage to the next gallery is dedicated to Sholeh Asgary’s sound video performance, 270. The title refers to 270 Anahita, a stony S-type Main belt asteroid. In this work, Asgary, an interdisciplinary sound artist, recorded her recitation of her own poem with her own music in reverse, then flipped the video so that the reversed actions and the soundtrack are both forward. This reversal and flipping fashions unfamiliar sounds and motions as if the performer is in a space foreign to the rules of time and gravity. Asgary’s body immerses in the black background. What remains visible is her face and her hands wearing a pair of pink dishwashing gloves. 270 placed in a niche at the entrance to the next gallery, creates an ambiguous and disorienting pass –a liminal space.
The next gallery, which loops back in the first gallery, is the most colorful gallery in the exhibition showcasing works by the five remaining artists focusing on nature, memory, and body. Here my nostalgia kicks in. The gallery includes a video art by Shaghayegh Cyrous, sculptures by Zahra Mohammadi, two superimposed photographs by Azin Seraj, three photographs by Azarakhsh Shafieikadkani, and a video art by Keyvan Shovir.
Cyrous’s video, The Cycle, dissolves and superimposes shots of a fruit orchard, a highway, and a woman (the artist), first in front of a mirror, running her figure through her hair, then walking backward in the path between the trees, and closeups of her face. The orchard seems familiar. I bring the sound down on my laptop and think of olive orchards in the north of Iran.
Seraj’s photographs Spring’s Aroma and Mother’s Smile from Seraj’s Spring Memorabilia series are superimposed images of the artist’s family over photographs of her hands, and face, which are also familiar to me. Although no one image is dominantly clear, with only hints and glimpses of what an image might have been, the compositions of the two works are subtle and effective.
Shovir’s Etesal (Connection) is an animated Persian miniature, with images of the galaxy above the horizon.
The miniature is a folio from a Haft Awrang (Seven thrones) by Jami (d.1492); verso: The Flight of the Tortoise. The term Haft Awrang itself is a reference to the seven stars that form the Big Dipper. The Flight of the Tortoise is a parable about the tortoise the traveler who asked the ducks to take her to fly. The moral lessons to be learned from the parable depend on the context in which they are told, but it is mainly given the moral that one should be content with one’s lot. People at the bottom of the picture are looking with great interest at the flying tortoise. Shovir has covered the tortoise and the ducks on the upper part of the miniature with animated images of the galaxy. The appropriation works well as the figures in the bottom are now looking at the galaxy instead of a flying tortoise.
The virtual space of the exhibition adds a layer of intimacy to the experience of viewing, offering the viewers a chance to literally “zoom in” on a single piece of art — and perhaps notice new details that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. When People Decide to End Themselves explores the boundaries of personhood, self, memory, body, grief, melancholy, and death. Each work reflects aspects of each artist’s individual processes (in life and art). More than anything, When People Decide to End Themselves explores nostalgia –at least it allows me to explore my own nostalgia in a life of exile and isolation, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Seeing ourselves disconnected, locked down, and in isolation and experiencing the world (and the arts) through a screen is shattering. When People Decide to End Themselves invites us to remember a familial sentiment of care and belonging.
Roja Najafi is a curator and art historian of global modern and contemporary art. She is Art History Residential Faculty at Chandler-Gilbert Community College in Arizona, where she also serves as the Art History Program Lead. Roja holds a Ph.D. in art history from the University of Texas at Austin, an MA in Art History and Criticism from Brooklyn College, CUNY, and a filmmaking degree from the Art University in her hometown, Tehran. Roja’s research focuses on materiality and the questions of abstraction and figuration in the postwar period. She studies the relationship between abstraction, figuration, and materiality and their manifestations in the reception of avant-garde and other counter-cultural aesthetic practices. From 2014–2017 Roja was the Curator of Collections at the Strake Jesuit Art Museum; and prior to that, she was the 2013–2014 Vivian L. Smith Foundation Fellow at the Menil Collection in Houston. Before joining CGCC in Arizona, Roja was a curator at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, where she still serves as the Guest Curator working on a number of curatorial projects. As the curator at the OKCMOA Roja curated special exhibitions from the permanent collection including The New Art: A Milestone Collection Fifty Years Later; Off the Wall: One Hundred Years of Sculpture, and Postwar Abstraction: Variations Highlights from the Permanent Collection. Her current exhibition is titled Moving Vision: Op and Kinetic Art from the Sixties and Seventies.