Shotgun Review

FREE 2011

By Shotgun Reviews December 6, 2011

Given how routinely the word freedom becomes a political refrain that obscures blatant abuses of the very existential state it names, it is easy to feel cynical when seeing or hearing it used in the public realm. But FREE 2011, a new conceptual work by Taraneh Hemami now adorning the glass facade of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, offers a nuanced commentary on some of the ways this term circulates in contemporary social discourses.  

Hemami overlaid two patterns drawn from Islamic ornamental traditions across the full height of the window facing Yerba Buena Gardens. Against them, she hung a steel structure that supports concentric circles made of neon lighting, each reiterating the word free in English and Arabic scripts. The English words are programmed to light up slowly, one after the other, until the entire circle is illuminated, at which point they all turn off and the sequence begins again. These forms create a web of associations that temper exhilaration with sobriety and visual allure with grounded watchfulness. The loveliness of glass, color, and light celebrates the aspirations and courage that gave rise to the protests of the Arab Spring, while the workaday materials of vinyl tape, neon, and steel evoke the process of social repair impelled by the ordinary people sustaining the ongoing revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa. The erosive properties of Hemami’s materials, as well as the experience of time built into the lit scripts, communicate that revolutions are fragile and their progress is not linear—bringing about social change involves work and dogged perseverance.


FREE 2011 (2011); neon and vinyl on glass; 27 x 54 feet. Courtesy of the Artist and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Hemami’s decision to use the adjective free instead of the noun freedom also conveys some welcome irony. Although free is more flexible semantically and carries less explicit ideological freight, it easily slides into other rhetorical registers, such as commerce, where the seduction of getting free wares usually obscures the price that someone, somewhere, has paid for our good deal.

By mixing references to disparate realms—aesthetic, symbolic, temporal, and geographic—Hemami’s installation suggests affinities among them. The forms and languages Hemami brings together in a public location invite viewers to consider that social visions might be represented and shared across cultural differences and tired national divides and that dramatic struggles occurring in distant places resonate within the American context. Recent events in cities throughout this country should spur us to accept the invitation. 


FREE 2011 is on view at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, in San Francisco, through Spring 2012.


Noga Wizansky is an artist and independent scholar based in Oakland. She holds an MA in Design and an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in History of the Visual Arts, both from UC Berkeley.

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