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Don't Call Him the Jeff Koons of the Middle East:

A Q&A With Iranian Art Star Farhad Moshiri

An installation view of Farhad Moshiri at the Farjam Collection, Dubai, Photo by Ben Davis

By Ben Davis

The Iranian painter and mixed-media artist Farhad Moshiri has become one of the brightest lights of contemporary art in the Middle East. Born in Shiraz in 1963, he went on to study both film and fine art at the California Institute of Arts in Pasadena, graduating in 1984. After returning to Iran in 1991, his work became increasingly inventive in carving out his own unique hybrid form of pop art, playing on themes as diverse as Iranian archeology — with a well-known series of images depicting monumental jars — calligraphy, and ancient Arabic codes.

More recently, he has turned to themes from everyday life in contemporary Iran, exploring the country's pop culture and kitsch aesthetics. Moshiri has given a unique texture to paintings by working with a frosting gun, while other works incorporate Swarovski crystals, sequins, gold leaf, and similar flashy materials. Today, his works regularly sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction, with "Eshgh (Love)" drawing headlines in 2008 when it fetched more than $1 million at Bonhams Dubai.

Currently on view at the Farjam Collection in the Dubai International Finance Center is "Love Is Not Everything," a survey of the artist's work drawn from the personal collection of one of his earliest collectors, Farhad Farjam, which provides the most in-depth look yet at the various concerns that have guided his career. It ranges from his urn paintings to deadpan yet strangely surreal glitter-encrusted portraits of kittens to an installation made of a stack of Persian carpets with the outline of a cartoon character punched into it. Concurrent with the opening of the Farjam show, Dubai's pioneering Third Line gallery showed "Shukrun," March 15-April 21, a new work by Moshiri consisting of giant Arabic script spelling out the words "Thank You," formed by a thicket of household knives stabbed directly into the gallery wall.

While in town for the Art Dubai art fair, ARTINFO deputy editor Ben Davis sat down with Moshiri to talk about the themes that animate his celebrated body of work. 

You're probably one of the most well-known contemporary artists from Iran, and even from the Middle East as a whole. Could you start by giving a little background about yourself as an artist and how you came to do what you do? 
 
I went to CalArts in the suburbs of Los Angeles, and then after a couple of years I returned to Iran. I was playing around, trying to be an artist. In truth, it happened very slowly — I'm a late bloomer. I had many shows in Dubai before there was any major attention given to culture and art here, so I suppose I was just in the right place at the right time. There is this question, "Why Iran?", but it just came naturally that I went back to Iran from the U.S. — it's the country of my birth, and my family is there. And when I returned, I think the real catalyst in starting me off was the fact that I found myself in a place with no pressure, no mentality of "you must do something with yourself," no stress. The idea of being a professional artist was no longer on the table. I ended up starting to do stuff without any intention of being an artist — it was very simple, very naive, very free, and a lot of fun. I think that spirit was missing in the States. You know, the pressure of being successful, it can be very corrupting. I think the ease that you feel when you're in a place where there is no competition or stress, it really helped to give me the energy that I needed, and things started to happen when I least expected. The rest is history.

Are there any specific influences or artists that were important for your body of work? 
 
Well, of course we are all connected, in a way — it is very difficult to detach yourself completely from what is happening around you. However, when I was at CalArts I was introduced to the work of John Baldessari, who was my on-and-off mentor. I was sitting in on his art theory classes, and it was his theory that I really absorbed in college. Before I came, the Neo-Geo movement in New York had exploded, and Ashley Bickerton, Peter Halley, Jeff Koons — these people made a colossal impact on my state of mind. I was almost pleasantly devastated to see this incredible body of work that was really breaking through and opening up a whole fresh field of ideas that were quite original. As far as being inspired by artists, I think the Neo-Geo movement was really the most important inspiration for me. However, I've always been fascinated with Dadaism, which seems to have been the basis for a lot of contemporary art. On the other hand, when I went back to Iran a whole new world opened up to me, and the direction that my art took was to look outward at this culture, which had been detached from being exposed to the West. It was a very isolated situation, a lot of cultural contradictions and fascinating things were coming out of people who had picked up bits of culture from here and there, and were integrating them into their own tradition. And the combination of these influences led me to the ideas that have become the basis for a lot of the things that I work with, intellectually and physically, with materials.

The Farjam Collection show is the biggest collection of your works that have come together to date — is that right? 
 
Yes, I believe so.

I was struck by the different modes that you work in: the carpets with the cartoon cutout in it, the portrait profile made from knives stuck in the canvas, the works with Swarovski crystal. Is there a common thread, a theme that you're interested in, or are they all separate ideas? 
 
Of course you don't try to work that out before you create, you're only forced to figure that out when someone asks a question like the one you just did. But I don't like it when there is not some common thread. I tend to think that there should be some narrative and progression in the works. And, in fact, there is one — this sense that, with the culture that I am witnessing, I'm not sure I'm part of it. I feel like I'm just watching. This sense provides me with all sorts of sparks. All the aesthetic manifestations of this culture — new buildings that are being made, new ways of presenting your body, new furniture, ways of designing, ways of behaving, idiosyncrasies that are really not based on any deep cultural formation — these are all connected to very rapid adjustments in the society I live in, and form the inspiration for the ideas in my work. Time is passing by very quickly. These phenomena, these little things that pop out from the general public on an almost unconscious level, they tend to form the line of inquiry that I follow.

Can you talk a little about how the Farjam show came together? What's the story behind the retrospective, if that's what you'd call it. 
 
I personally have called it a "selection of works" — to call it a retrospective would be pretty grand considering the fact that we put the show together really quickly and didn't have time to do things like put out a nice book. But this show, basically, is covering about 10 years of my work, so it's a sampler, really, from this collection. What I finally decided is that the work would be categorized not by material but by color, because there was a tendency for my work to be cut into two very different periods, the first being the jars and bowls and number and letter paintings, which basically represent my fascination with a nostalgic past — but at one point I noticed there was a tendency for the market to become obsessed with a certain form of art that an artist is creating, and at that point I stopped continuing that type of work, because I didn't want to take advantage of the market....

Which type of work is that, specifically? 
 
My destroyed paintings, the cracked paintings, the folded ones, the earthy ones that evoke the texture of unearthed archaeological artifacts. At one time in my career, I focused on that form of art creation. But then I dove more into the contemporary aesthetic, and that brought me to using ornamentation and frosting, all basically inspired by buildings which are highly ornamented — what is called the Roman fa├žade — that look like a wedding cake. I started working on the fake baroque, fake furniture, the obsession with gold, and the bling-bling element in the Third World. Or actually, this is a global phenomenon, since these things were being adopted by many societies, from China to the States. The blending of these two periods of my work was always a problem for me, and the main issue I had with presenting this show was how to mix these two bodies of work, because I actually didn't want to categorize them into two different periods. And I think that categorizing them by color in the Farjam Collection show worked out well.

You also have an instillation at the Third Line gallery, which incorporates a text in Arabic. Can you tell me about that installation? I'm told it is the first time you've done writing in Arabic. Is that correct? 
 
Yes.

Is there a particular meaning to that? 
 
It says "Thank You," a general word that is also in Farsi. As you know, the Arabic alphabet is also used in the Farsi language, so the idea behind that piece was, to begin with, that I did not want to present more of the same type of things that were presented in the Farjam Collection in the gallery as well. That would be too much, kind of repetitive, and really I was intending to present an idea that would compliment the show rather than repeat it. So I decided to do the instillation of knives as a way of completing the whole cycle of the period that led to the retrospective. I felt comfortable with a simple "thank you" — of course with the ironic twist that it is spelled out in knives. But the work is not thanking anyone in particular; it's more of a question of being thankful for everything that has happened.

Dubai has been quite important to your career, hasn't it? You've done many shows here. It's an interesting dynamic, the relationship between what's going on in Iran and here, the long historical connection where Dubai has played the role of place where people could come and show things that they couldn't show in Iran. I'm interested to know the relationship between Dubai and your practice.
 
On a very logical level, Dubai just provided a platform. It was easy to access, it was close, there was an energy that was being really marketed and developed here. Once things got started, the scene snowballed into what it's become today, so for us the idea of showing in Dubai came naturally. First of all, we don't have this kind of space in Iran, the city is not designed to carry this type of dynamic, getting permits for these types of spaces within the city was practically impossible.

Within Tehran? 
 
Within Tehran. One main reason is the lack of space, the lack of marketing, the lack of exposure. There wasn't a lack of ideas, of course — it was anything but boring — but we needed a bigger space and more visibility, and Dubai was just a perfect place to do it.

You've studied in the states and worked in Iran. How do you think about your audience when you make your paintings? Do you think about which audience you're producing for, or is it just a universal audience? 
 
Of course, pretty much every artist would say that they are making art for a universal audience, and I'd probably say the same thing too — but I'll just try to go the other way and say, yes, I target something more specific. I like the challenge, it's fun — I like to make fun of myself. I think it's possible to do that, if you have the capacity to enjoy being humiliated and hated, ignored. If it's bad, if it's a no-no, if it doesn't translate, then to me it sounds interesting — why not give it a shot? But that does have the potential for severe backlash. It's a scary domain to embark on, but it's a hell of a lot of fun. The odds of failing are far greater than the odds of succeeding, but it's fascinating because my work is all about that — it's taken from real people, rather than building on art that I've seen. My work is very "mall-oriented," in the sense that I use materials that are familiar to people, so I'm already at a very familiar starting point because of the materials I use. Paint is a very free material. There is nothing associated with paint, it's a very pure and innocent material, and it will always remain that way, which is why it is the preferred material — there is no attached connotation with paint, except maybe with red, which is always blood. You can do anything with blue and no one will say, "why did he use blue?" But when you embark on using, for example, crystals which are recycled from a chandelier, then you have already started to build in an audience, and then it is recycled as art and presented to the same audience as something else. This whole process of taking and giving back is really an integral part of my work. So I do dive in and I play with specific materials with specific connotations, and I think people are getting to feel comfortable with that. 

Right now with all the unrest in the Middle East, the question everyone is going to want to have asked in the U.S. is how the political situation is affecting the art scene in the region. Do you do have any thoughts about the political unrest? Is that something you're thinking about at all? Does it enter into your practice? You're not really a political artist, I wouldn't say, but does the present situation affect the way you're thinking about what you're doing at all? 
 
Well of course it does, I'd be stupid not to be considering what is happening around me. But there is a huge problem with being a political artist at this time. To be taken seriously is difficult. If you're a political artist, an Iranian political artist living in New York, I've heard many people say, "Yes, it's easy for you, you're chilling in Chelsea." But if you were in Iran then maybe you might be looking for an Iranian exile visa or a new passport, or you might be waiting to get a break in the art world. So it's a really problematic area, even though you might be really pissed off about a particular issue. Aside from getting in trouble for saying something you shouldn't — I mean, the whole thing is just not what I'm interested in. There are so many angles of misinterpretation, so I try to keep away from that territory. And sometimes that works even better. I've been criticized and consequently gotten a lot of exposure for being too lollipop-y when I shouldn't be, so there are advantages as well as disadvantages to not being political at this time.

I always think its funny when I hear people call you the "Jeff Koons of the Middle East." It's something people often say, and I'm sure it annoys you a lot. Do you think there are common misconceptions about what you do? 
 
Well, yes and no. I mean, people do like to simplify things, especially for the media; the media has to have an angle, that's why abstract art is not getting any attention, because how do you talk about art that is not attached to anything? They have to find an angle to tie it down, and "Jeff Koons" was one angle with my work. Somebody just said that, and it was just like, "Oh, that's just horrible." I do tend to wish that it had never been said, but it's out there and it has been helpful, because that familiarity does give you a foothold, and then you can build on that, and before you know it you create your own identity out of that. It's been good, I hated it, but it's been good.

Iranian mixed-media artist Farhad Moshiri, Photo by Ben Davis

Works by Farhad Moshiri at the Farjam Collection, Dubai

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