Tannaz Farsi’s Agents of Dispersal

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Tannaz Farsi’s Agents of Dispersal

By Minh Nguyen January 16, 2018

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.


Inside Linfield Gallery, skyward-jutting tulips in sheer sacks of soil cluster together. Blur one’s eyes and the sight becomes strata of hues: the chocolate brown of mulch, the jewel green of leaves, the flowers’ loud carmine, fire-toned like a polluted sunrise. For the 2017 exhibition The Points of Departure at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon, Tannaz Farsi transplanted one thousand tulips indoors to bloom at the spring equinox, which marks Norouz, Iranian New Year.

Named Units of Moveable Earth (2017), the installation is literally garden variety, and figuratively as well, in the sense that flowers are commonplace. They are presented in flesh and replica, anguish and joy, sickness and health. Flowers are as gorgeous as they are cliché, and the artist is as suspicious of as she is seduced by that which is popular and easy to love. She deals in these ubiquitous, easily-recognized things—a plant, a house rug, a well-worn phrase like “social security"—to excavate their muddy, ambiguous histories. By prodding at the emotional, associative aspects that inform the more objective understanding of words and images, Farsi invokes the words of the English art critic John Berger in Ways of Seeing that “the relations between what we see and what we know is never settled.”

Tannaz Farsi. Units of Movable Earth, 2017; 1,000 species tulips, soil, vinyl sacks. Installation view, Linfield Gallery, McMinnville, Oregon. Photo: Mario Gallucci.

Take the tulip. For Farsi, the Norouz tulips signal her Iranian homeland in ways that are intimately hers and historically beyond her. Tulips, first cultivated in Persia around the 10th century, are derived from the Turkish tulbent and the Persian dolband for their resemblances to turbans. Their crescent petals emblematize political parties such as the Green Movement, and the country itself since the 1979 revolution. The tombs of revolutionary clerics are decorated with stained glass tulips. According to myth, where the blood of a martyr has been spilled, the rubescent flowers flourish. Vessels of sentiment, tulips have always been ladders to higher notions: romantic ideation, national pride, justice. They demonstrate the monumentality of symbols, as tools to shape political consciousness and unify groups through the construction of collective memory.

Another way to look at these tulips is encapsulated in a quote by Italian novelist Umberto Eco, in The Name of the Rose: “Yesterday’s rose endures in its name; we hold empty names.” For Eco, within a name is an infinite sign, an empty space to be filled by the views of the beholder. This verse can be read in harmony with Farsi’s own interrogation of signs and signifiers, and her view that words and images, the more they circulate in public consciousness, can take on conceptual lives of their own. Farsi offers a point of departure that explodes into a profusion of pathways. I am reminded of the popular Mao Zedong misquotation, “Let a thousand flowers bloom”, encouraging the diversity of intellectual and creative thought. Mao’s commandment was disingenuous, but the imagery remains: multifarious meanings as a vast field of tulips erupting open.

Tannaz Farsi. Territory (detail), 2016; 80 x 35 ft; Dirt, rock, native plants (Achillea millefolium, Anaphalis margaritacea, Aquilegia formosa, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, Baccharis pilularis, Erigeron speciosus, Festuca californica, Festuca idahoensis, Fragaria chiloensis, Geum triflorum, Koeleria macrantha, Mahonia repens, Thermopsis montana, Zauschneria californica), naturalized plants (Artemisia frigida, Artemisia stelleriana, Ceanothus gloriosus, Physocarpus opulifolius, Rosmarinus officinalis). Permanent installation, Schneider Museum of Art, Southern Oregon University, Ashland, Oregon. Photo: Gillian Wilson.

Roughly a year before Farsi manipulated her tulips, chilling a thousand bulbs indoors to simulate winter, she embarked on an unusual horticultural project at Schneider Museum of Art in Ashland, Oregon. For Territory (2016), she cultivated a site-specific sculpture arranged from shrubs, grasses, groundcovers, and flowers: each patch forms a letter, which all together are arranged in a collaged, animated manner to spell out “territory.” She selected species that respond to the environmental conditions of the Rogue Valley, with romantic names such as dwarf coyote brush, beach strawberry, yellow false lupine, prairie June grass, creeping mahonia, and pearly everlasting. For birds, bees, and butterflies, this garden is a haven of nutrients, medicine, and pollination. For humans, it’s a sensorial bath: lucent verdant hues, low hums and fizzes of bugs, whiffs of citrus grass and damp bark.

Territory and Units of a Moveable Earth share many traits: the relocation of wildlife into a new place, the tensions of dueling meanings associated with the works’ contents, and how their receptions shift as their running times elapse. At its nascent stage, Territory contained no visible plants, only the contentious word spelled out in dark earth. Farsi chose the word “territory” for its historical associations of colonialism and conquest, and to direct attention to the militarization and authoritative power that permeates national boundaries.

A territory is contrary to a garden landscape, the former eliciting a tense, contained zone that regulates those within and outside, while the latter evokes a welcoming, soothing oasis. As curator Stephanie Snyder writes in her essay Tannaz Farsi: Revolutionary Plant” in the exhibition catalog for The Points of Departure, “the garden is the mythic topos from whence we came to know the existence and consequences of knowledge—the one true utopia localizing our fantasies of innocence and immortality.” While a territory upholds the division and restriction of resources and gathering space, a garden presents tranquility, abundance, and health of self and ecosystem. Snyder deems this contrast “an estranging gap between image and reality.” This play of alterity is the crux of Farsi’s practice.

Tannaz Farsi. Territory, 2016; Permanent installation three months after initial planting, Schneider Museum of Art, Southern Oregon University, Ashland, Oregon. Photo: Gillian Wilson.

Over the course of Units of Moveable Earth, the tulips ripened and wilted, went to seed and hibernated underground. Despite Farsi’s close manipulation by way of temperature and light, the flowers were finicky, unexpectedly blooming prematurely due to the warmth of the gallery. And despite the initial delineation of the borders of Territory, the plants will burgeon over time and spread their tendrils over the contained marks, evoking the condition of migration and shifting borders. They will increasingly render the text illegible, and what once was “territory” will be an uncurbed garden. In Farsi’s botanical approach is both a query and a wish, that the control of seeds will not outmatch its methods for dispersal. 

Tannaz Farsi: The Points of Departure was on view at Linfield Gallery in McMinnville, Oregon, March 22—April 29, 2017.

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