on surface and underscoring, parastou forouhar @ leighton house review in bidoun

I have a short review of Parastou Forouhar’s recent exhibition at the Leighton House Museum, London in the new issue of Bidoun #23, Squares, whose contents are here. As ever; rush out and do yourself a favour! Or subscribe; you know you want to!

I haven’t seen the issue yet [19.01.11 Have now; looks good!], am curious to see how it’s been illustrated [see exhibition link above] and still finding my way with these short art reviews; the kind of exploration I remember from writing critically about books and with which I felt I made a break through in writing about a John Barth novel with similarly few words in late 1991 [and that evening/night helped a friend complete -well, did- a piece of work that quite quickly became art historical. Busy day! -and a small part of my next big writing project].

There is an art to writing short as well as writing to context that I’ve not mastered with visual art [much happier with essay length!] but I learnt something valuable from this attempt. I believe in doing it, most definitely, and was very gratified to be invited to write on PF or at all. I’ll try to explain myself.

An example; there is the small matter of how to convey in almost no words the exact relationship I feel right now with a place like the Leighton House Museum. The absurd Orientalist confection of it is familiar to me since not long after studying Said under Homi Bhabha at a seminal period, let’s say. I knew it then only in the dark, amid word-of-mouth crowds or anyway partying in the faded dust of the place. I remember when an artist friend used it much later as a backdrop for extremely wide-angled photographs using other friends as ‘props’. It has recently re-opened after a full restoration and this was my first visit. Since last there, many years ago, I’ve also stood, sat and lingered in a large number of the kinds of buildings that inspired Leighton to fabricate this literally peacocked palace of water gardened cliché. Since then, I’ve been regularly woken by real peacocks, dammit! And yet…

This time I asked myself whether I liked the sound and air of running water inside a building with great ceiling height beneath a dome? The kind of light left by intricately carved screens, the kind of  aural environment created by tiled walls and stone floors, the beckoning of gorgeously upholstered cushions, low seats etc. Would it be a good thing if more buildings were dressed in ways of this kind in London? Would it be a happier city if the air that wafted in through the screen was hot/tropical? And then I cut it -even Leighton himself; he of the problematic but to some degree discerning taste- some slack. [CLICK on image for high res one]

I will let that kind of complexity stand for the deeper ones that enfold Parastou Forouhar’s work for me. It would be much easier not to attempt to write about work like this in under a thousand words and in a hurry but I was never one for ease… However, in this piece it left me using capacious terms/words, some of which contain essays, some of which I will have to go on to write.

But I start from the place where I’m ‘for’ Iran, a great civilisation and super-canny people -intimacy with which now only takes the form of nostalgic longing for home-cooking/the cuisine! Being ‘for’ Iran means being an opponent of this regime, although only in a very precise way -given that at least two aberrantly aggressive nuclear powers would love to bomb the hell out of it. This is not merely my/your enemy/friend stuff, but far more complex, as befits a rich culture and extraordinary history like Iran’s.

In summary, PF’s work is intriguing. This show was a clever presentation of it, certainly playing to its strengths, unable to disguise its weaknesses. It’s strengths are its engagement with surface, beyond the superficial one of perspective. You know; oh that looks like a pattern, perhaps somewhat ‘Oriental’ but no! it’s actually knives, cocks, etc. This is why the pieces that also work surface but do so in ways that resemble something else, are better.

Also why the sculptural installation at the centre of this show, Funeral, is her best work. It contains surface, in its use of elaborate screeds of farsi and popular imagery printed on sometimes garish cotton sheets used during annual Moharram or Ashura processions in downtown Tehran [and oh how I detest the way that the English-speaking world blinds itself to Shi’ism! -such that the any mention of this solemn occasion is a knowing nudge]. But its surface also dresses a series of ordinary offices chairs in a way that suggests the human figure, absent sitter or sitters, as well as resembling beautifully carved tombstones that I’ve marvelled at on the Arabian Sea coast at Khambat or further west in Kachchh at Bhadreswar where Iranian traders left their mark centuries ago [in the form of India’s earliest mosques/dargahs].

I say this knowing that this kind of cultural archivism is ridiculous, as if the art has to signify and be narrated by someone like me to valorise it. Conscious of that but also of the same complexity I mention in relation to Edward Leighton’s fantasy architecture. It’s more simple than that too; those tombs carry a big visceral punch for me. I encountered them in rather singular circumstances and they resonated in ways I understand and also don’t fully understand. PF’s work taps that resonance for me, as I presume it might for many of you too…

Anyway, again I don’t like work that you ‘have to’ justify with cultural reference nor do I like art writing that performs that kind of archeological favour/ideological task. However PF’s work straddles a line at the moment, one side of which lacks dimension, depth and the ‘subtlety’ I refer to in the piece, the other resounds with much greater complexity. I’m very curious to see where the work goes next because it has a potency of that kind as visual art.

As an artist she’d do well to forget about ‘communicating’ and assume that there is a space out here amongst us all where the Leighton House Museum is just an attempt to capture and allude to some of the nicest things in the world; no more and no less. A world free of pathetic point scoring but also one liberated from underscoring! An art that does that without being merely global currency or -that now-dead thing- ‘contemporary’.

Parastou Forouhar’s London gallery -Rose Issa Projects- has an artist page here.

Saqi have just issued a well illustrated catalogue of her work, see here. The texts it contains presented some problems for me with occasional denotative assertions about the work’s sources.

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