4.9 / Review

Resistance

By Jeanne Gerrity February 11, 2013

An undulating curtain of glistening crimson beads hangs in The Luggage Store gallery, beguiling visitors. But the stunning visual effect of this sculpture in Taraneh Hemami’s solo exhibition Resistance belies its historical underpinnings. Like the other pieces in the exhibition, Curtain of Blood (2013) is one commodity in Hemami’s bazaar of aestheticized objects signifying radical acts and their repercussions in Iran. The Luggage Store installation is also one part of a larger project, titled Theory of Survival, in which the artist interprets the archive of the Iranian Students Association of Northern California (ISANC), active from 1960 to 1982.1 Hemami alone created all of the works on view, marking the first iteration of Theory of Survival that is not a communal effort. Forged from industrial and craft materials, the pieces in Resistance function both as beautiful art objects and as reminders of a revolutionary period.

The phrase “theory of survival,” lifted from an ISANC pamphlet, represents a methodology challenged by Iranian activists, who advocated armed resistance over passive existence. However, Hemami has appropriated the phrase to encompass a range of meanings, including the difficulty of cultural preservation for Iranian immigrants. Each work in Resistance reflects this multilayered approach, reaching across boundaries of time and even nationality. A series of flat aluminum works is introduced by the sign “Notes from Evin Prison,” referencing the infamous prison where dissidents await their fate in Tehran. Set several inches off the wall, the coal-black pieces cast ominous shadows. One narrative scene incorporates a red clenched fist, a symbol of solidarity in the color claimed by Communists, with iconography borrowed from Francisco Goya’s iconic painting The Third of May 1808 (1814) that commemorates the Spanish resistance to Napoleon’s occupying forces. This melding of diverse references suggests the universality of the Iranian struggle while also speaking more broadly to tactics used in revolutionary movements across history and geography.

The materials in Resistance are both emblematic of the proletariat and reminiscent of wares sold at Middle Eastern street markets. Aluminum and steel connote factories and
labor while beaded curtains recall traditional Persian handicraft. Repeated symbols of oppression, like prison bars,
Taraneh Hemami. Notes From Evin Prison

Taraneh Hemami. Notes from Evin Prison, 2013; powder coating on aluminum; 47 x 59 inches. Courtesy of The Luggage Store, San Francisco. Photo: Jay Jones.

Taraneh Hemami. Anonymous (Masks)

Taraneh Hemami. Anonymous, 2013; acrylic and powder coating on aluminum ; approx. 8 x 9 inches, each. Courtesy of The Luggage Store, San Francisco. Photo: Jay Jones.

barbed wire, and restrained protesters, appear as patterns on bolts of silk and cotton. Ripe for consumption, these vibrantly colored fabrics hide their jarring imagery in plain sight. Similarly, Hemami repeatedly employs text in her work to several effects: to literally express a message, to obfuscate meaning to viewers who can’t read Farsi, and to simply present an elegant calligraphic form. In a small room off the main gallery, silver fragments of words hang on chains from the ceiling in a formation evocative of a wind chime. Strung together, the Farsi characters read, “We must become one,” another slogan taken from one of the ISANC books. In a conversation at the gallery, Hemami told me that several Iranian visitors remarked that the sharp metal structure reminded them of torture devices. Yet a viewer without firsthand knowledge of Farsi or such devices might see the glimmering metal curves as merely a sumptuous sculpture. The complex piece represents Hemami’s conscious commodification of radical propaganda as a critical response to both the Iranian political situation and the contemporary art market.

Faces—fearless, stern, anonymous—are other recurring motifs in Resistance. A grid of nine rectangular works composed of grits (small pieces of crushed glass) replicate book covers with the likenesses of Iranian martyrs. On the opposite wall, laser-cut metal shapes resembling masks are interspersed with red stars, the familiar symbols of communism. The repeated visages with their political undertones (the likenesses are based on black-and-white photographs of murdered Iranian activists) are reminiscent of Christian Boltanski’s blurred photographs of murdered Jewish teenagers. However, Hemami’s finished work is more abstract and suggestive of a more permanent form of portraiture than Boltanski’s. The fragments resemble ancient coins imprinted with representations of national leaders. Through this connection, the work offers the possibility of both replacing the canonization of government officials with revolutionary figures and expanding on the use of portraiture as a memorial that potentially lives on through the exchange of currency.

Hemami serves as what Okwui Enwezor has called a “historic agent of memory.”2 By compiling the ISANC’s archive and transforming its elements into new work, Hemami does more than merely ensure that the organization’s history will not be forgotten. Resistance manipulates the archive of the ISANC to critically evaluate the recent history of activism in Iran and its significance today while it engages larger issues of belief, devotion, loss, survival, and memory. Hemami challenges the supposed neutrality of an archive and foregrounds the ways in which preserving the history of the ISANC is a process of projection and reconstruction as much as it is an act of preservation. True to the dual meaning of resistance, the exhibition proposes that the Iranian students of the 1960s and 1970s might have something to teach the contemporary activists of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, but it also queries the potential for success of these radical political tactics in a globalized capitalist society.

 

Resistance is on view at The Luggage Store, in San Francisco, through February 23, 2013.


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NOTES:

1. After the U.S.-led coup against Iran’s elected government in 1953, nationalists, Marxist-Leninists, and Muslim traditionalists joined forces against the corrupt shah. Many Iranians fled the country, and an international network—the Iranian Students Association—formed to organize against the oppressive regime. Hemami has collected banned and censored print materials from the ISANC, and over the past several years, she has been working collectively with other artists to interpret this archive, which includes theoretical writing, translations of Marxist texts, and personal narratives of injustice.

2. Okwui Enwezor, Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art (London: Steidl, 2009), 46.

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