Dark Ornament

Dark Ornament, Media Farzin, ArtAnd, Autumn 2014

Parastou Forouhar’s most recent work, Kiss Me, is a black cloth banner with the title’s words enshrined in its center.  The phrase is in Farsi, as is the frenzied neon patterning that surrounds it.  To unfamiliar viewers, the work is a vivid if somewhat garish patchwork of vaguely Islamic designs.  But to many Iranians it is immediately legible as a highly cheeky appropriation.  Kiss Me is a collage of the banners that typically decorate the walls of Iranian cities during the mourning ceremonies of Ashura, a day that commemorates the death of Hossein ibn Ali, a medieval Muslim martyr and grandson of the prophet Mohammad.  Hossein, the story goes, was betrayed by the ruler of the time and murdered with most of his family.  Ashura processions memorialize the day with elaborate props, religious chanting, and mock (or real) self-flagellation—rituals of Shiite identification with the perpetual battle against tyranny.  For the Islamic Republic, Ashura has long served as historic legitimation of its theocratic rule and a very public enactment of its principles.  

But Iranian mourning, like every other social ritual, likes to keep up with the Joneses.  In recent years banner designers have turned to ever-wilder color schemes, supplementing traditional designs with photo-collages of mosques and roses in bloom.  The kitsch profusion might be an improbable contrast to the muted sentiment of the banners’ phrases (a typical one might read “Oh Martyred Hossein”), but few see it as a contradiction.  For as the props have evolved, so has the post-revolutionary community of believers: in many urban centers, Ashura processions offer prime cruising ground for teenagers looking to mingle and flirt with the members of the opposite sex.

Forouhar’s Kiss Me puts flirtation front and center, rearranging the sacred iconography according to her playful sense of the decorative.  The work touches on many aspects of the Frankfurt-based artist’s two decades of artistic production: the appropriation of Islamic ornament, the subversion of Iranian calligraphy, and a longstanding involvement with the language of death, especially within the public rhetoric of the Islamic Republic of Iran.  The murder of innocents, of course, is a whole other story.

There are always two entry points to Forouhar’s body of work.  There is the formal approach that might recognize her as an interdisciplinary artist working with socio-political themes, and there is the biographical reading that presents her as an activist for whom art is the weapon of choice.  The reviews and profiles that have followed her many exhibitions of the past decade have tended to privilege the latter.  What is often ignored is the contemporaneity of her formal means: Forouhar was trained at the University of Design in Offenbach as a fine artist, but the design elements of her education have clearly shaped her visual sensibility.  She turns everyday objects into metaphoric statements, anticipating and emphasizing the viewer’s interaction and thought process—an attitude very much in keeping with a generation of European artists that emerged in the 1990s, for whom the question of medium was both secondary and a broad field of possibility.  

Forouhar has made drawings and animations, wallpaper and flipbooks, billboards and public signs, and gloves and handbags.  She opens the private onto the public and the tips the domestic into the collective.  Her work shows a rigorous apprenticeship the logic of Islamic ornament, but is equally connected to the German Pop tradition, from the repetitions of Thomas Bayrle’s screen prints to the political pathos of Gerhard Richter’s later paintings.  Her understanding of ornament as a social metaphor speaks directly to the writings of Weimar-era critic Siegfried Kracauer, for whom “mass ornament” was an apt description of the shallow yet tightly woven social order of capitalism.  For Forouhar, the language of pop and the metaphor of ornament are the perfect tools for rehearsing the terrors of totalitarian authority.

“The Thousand and One Days,” a project begun in 2003, demonstrates the heterogeneity of her approach.  It has been realized as wallpaper, animations, drawings, balloons, and flipbooks.  All of them show faceless figures enacting minute scenes of torture: flesh-colored bodies strung up by bound hands, beaten by elegantly calligraphic whips, beheaded, and pulled at the rack.  They are coolly meticulous and excruciatingly clear representations of bodies in pain.  The wallpaper version, first exhibited in 2003 at Berlin’s Hamburger Banhof, looked disarming charming from afar—pink figures on white ground, like something you’d choose for a nursery or playroom.  The balloon version is even more contradictory: balloons fill the gallery space like a party waiting to happen, until you actually pull one down and see the tortured figures.  The shock is most acute in the flipbooks, where the violence comes alive in the viewer’s own hands.  The title of “The Thousand and One Days” is a reference to the classic story of “A Thousand and One Nights”; Forouhar draws us in with the promise of nighttime stories, then turns the cold light of day onto the violence embedded in structures of power.  

Forouhar was trained as an artist at Tehran University, leaving for Germany in the early 1990s to continue her studies.  In November 1998, her parents were stabbed to death in their home in Tehran.  The murders were brutal and obviously politically motivated.  Her parents had been prominent political dissidents: before the revolution, her father had been an opposition activist who spent many years in the Shah’s prisons. He had briefly served as Minister of Labor under the new Islamic Republic, but soon found himself marginalized once again under the new regime.  Nationalist intellectuals were a liability for the theocratic state, especially those whose claims were founded, like Forouhar’s, on the separation of religion and state.
The Forouhars’ murder was never resolved.  “Rogue” government operatives were blamed (one committed suicide in prison under dubious circumstances), but wider government complicity in the crime was never acknowledged.  Forouhar returns every year to Tehran on the anniversary of the event to hold a commemoration ceremony in their home (and after several packed public vigils, has been consistently refused permission).  She continues to pursue the case, writing open letters, giving interviews, and most recently publishing a biography of her parents’ life and work.  In the years since the tragedy, her artwork has become inextricably woven into her activism.
Soon after her parents’ death, she began preparing for an exhibition at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt.  The 2000 installation Documentation is a roomful of documents relating to the murders of her parents and other Iranian dissidents.  Letters, newspaper clippings, transcripts, translations, press releases, and photographs are pinned to the walls and stacked in boxes; there is also a photocopier for viewers to take any of the material with them.  Forouhar’s gesture of institutional critique translates a very personal grievance into a public demand for retribution and a collective document of resistance.  While her subsequent projects would never be quite as information-heavy, Documentation is typical of Forouhar’s preference for persuasive evidence over emotional entreaty.

Take Off Your Shoes (2000), a series of drawings that form the basis of an animated video, was begun around the same time.  The black and white sketches document the Kafkaesque tedium of Iran’s labyrinthine justice system, which Forouhar experienced firsthand pursuing her parents’ case.  Blank-faced and black-veiled women wait in line to be frisked, shepherded through various rooms, and talked down to from equally blank-faced, bearded clerics.  The schematic, elongated figures of Take Off Your Shoes provided the prototype for the pink bodies of “The Thousand and One Days,” as well as more recent series such as “The Color of My Name” (begun 2008) and “He Kills Me, He Kills Me Not” (begun 2010).  

Nearly all of Forouhar’s work is produced on a computer.  The freeform bodies of her drawings are worked into the tight geometrical symmetries of medieval Islamic ornament, the scenes of aggression and cruelty organized into delicate patterns and expressive Rorschach blobs.  Digital design allows her to infiltrate the space of miniature painting, replacing its spiritual order with her own critique of traditional systems.  Black Is My Name, White Is My Name: Eyes (2010)—whose title is a reference to My Name Is Red, Orhan Pamuk’s tale of murder and intrigue among Ottoman miniature painters—has the dizzying texture of a Victor Vasarely or MC Escher print.  On closer view, blindfolded faces emerge from a sea of unblinking eyes.  The image has all the flatness of traditional Persian painting, the same lack of shadows and perspectival depth, but turns ornament against itself to speak of violence, loss and disorder. 

With all this pained critique, it’s easy to forget the bold sense of humor that defines works like Kiss Me.  Forouhar has used mourning banners before: her 2008 Countdown was a group of beanbags made from the banners that resembled ornately veiled ladies gathered for afternoon tea.  The beanbags were offered as actual seating for gallery visitors, which left them slouching and tottering in ,different angles.  While perhaps a dark evocation of women as furniture, their strong visual appeal came from the undeniable humor of their lopsided, highly anthropomorphic postures.  Her most lively work to date may be Persian for Beginners, redesigned in 2012 for the Queensland Art Gallery as Persian for Kids, an online children’s game that invites the player to build animals using the principles of zoomorphic Iranian calligraphy.  Forouhar, herself the mother of two sons, brings a childlike glee to the letters, using animation to bring the ancient tradition into the present.

“My work is a critique of a familiar culture of ornament, which leaves so little room for individualism.” Forouhar says.  “In ornamental design, an overall principle is forced on the components; what doesn’t conform must be rejected and removed.  I equate this with a totalitarian system, which also removes what damages the overall order.”  Forouhar’s work makes it impossible to separate the formal from the conceptual or the biographical from the artistic.  Its skill lies in the way the personal, with its deeply felt commitments, is presented to the viewer as a collective project.  Her work draws us into the circle of violence, invites us to think with her, to be outraged with her, and to persist as she has persisted.  Humor helps, as does unswerving commitment.  Ultimately, Forouhar’s work is a document of faith, not in any transcendental or divine system, but in the persuasive power of evidence—whether visual, textual or emotional—to transform the social order.
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