Ornament and Crime

ORNAMENT AND CRIME: Parastou Forouhar, Joanna Inglot, 2013

Two hundred white and pink floating balloons that open Parastou Forouhar’s exhibition are at once strikingly magical and oddly funny.  They create an atmosphere of playfulness and joy and instantaneously invite to an innocent play. Hovering lightly in space next to a wall covered with swarming rainbow butterflies, they make us feel as if we entered a whimsical fairyland or a children’s playground. Or else, they appear like a postmodern cross between the poetic tales of One Thousand and One Nights and the inflated banalities of Jeff Koons or the “superflat” Popism of Tashaki Murakami. When we get closer, however, these dreamy and light-hearted references quickly disappear and we suddenly wake up to a nightmare as we confront shocking images of torture and violence inscribed on the soft and delicate human flesh.
The deceptive surface of ornament that masks a crime and the tension between the seductive beauty of the surface and the hidden horrors of its content represent central metaphors in the work of this internationally renowned Iranian artist. Born in Teheran in 1962, Parastou Forouhar has been living in Germany since 1991 and became a permanent exile there in 1998, following the political assassination of her parents, Dariush and Paravaneh Forouhar, prominent Iranian dissidents and intellectuals.  This personal trauma ignited her passionate engagement with Iranian politics and human rights’ issues, and instigated bold criticism of religious orthodoxy and gender oppression, themes that have also become the key topics of geopolitics in the last decades.
Red is My Name, Green is My Name is a series of eight digital drawings, illustrating Forouhar’s engagement with the Persian tradition of miniature and ornament. Filled with intricate detail and brilliantly coloured patterns, the drawings look obsessively meticulous in their regularity and multiplication of form. Printed tightly within a grid, the rhythmic designs mingle like a kaleidoscope, captivating with their dazzling design and the implied harmonious order. Yet, the harmless beauty of the ornament is disrupted once we recognize that these patterns are composed of instruments of torture–whips, knives, scissors, pliers, and pistols. Other drawings in the series feature stylized male and female genitals arranged like flowers on Persian carpets or ceramic tiles, evoking sexual abuse and rape as symbols of organized political violence.
The design of these works derives from traditional Iranian fabric patterns used in Shite mourning rituals such as on the Day of Ashurathe annual memorial for the venerated Shia martyr, Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. The marchers who fill the streets on that day carry black, green, and red banners (the colours on the Iranian flag), beating their bodies with bare hands and iron chains in commemoration of their spiritual leader, who was decapitated and mutilated in a war that lead to the slaughter of hundreds of people. Red is My Name, Green is My Name recalls the long history of bloodshed and violence in Iran while the digital manipulation of the prints cunningly links this tradition to the present.
In Thousand-and-one Day III, another series of six digital drawings, Forouhar depicts equally violent scenarios. The arabesque lines of the silhouetted pink bodies that emerge from symmetrical yet irregular black patterns (reminiscent of the Rorschach inkblot psychological tests) are entwined with–but also strangled and chained by–the elegant characters of Persian calligraphy. At the same time, the piles of naked bodies, blindfolds and leashes, recall the disturbing images of torture at the US-run prisons in Abu Gharib, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay that circulated in the media after 9/11. With a click of a mouse the artist can instantaneously switch the roles of victims and perpetrators, back and forth. She employs a similar mechanism in her computer animations and flipbooks where she invites the audience to participate in those digital transformations. Flipping little books filled with drawings of torture and violence, the viewers set in motion these criminal acts with their own hands and turn into perpetrators. The line between the viewer and the participant becomes blurred, implicating all of us in these horrific acts.
While mostly faceless and gender-neutral, many of the digital drawings such as It Hurts Me, It Hurts Me Not focus on the female body and address a wider range of mechanisms of social and political control related to gender and Islamic fundamentalism. In her photographs Friday and Flashing, Parastou Forouhar provocatively challenges the discriminatory nature of Sharia Law that circumscribes women’s social and sexual behavior in a Muslim society. In her monumental Friday, the beautiful spread of floral and silky black fabric of the chador—a symbol of the enforcement of Islamic dress (hijab)–is aggressively broken up by an erotically charged gesture, announcing unashamed female sexuality. In Islam, Friday is a religiously sanctioned day of private and public prayers that corresponds to Sunday in Christian tradition. It is also the last day of a working week–a time of relaxation and fun. Fourahar uses the symbolic meaning of this title to subvert religious orthodoxy by showing multiple contradictions hidden behind the monochromatic façade of the officially sanctioned norms. Moreover, the large-scale screen-like composition of the photograph, which looks like a curtain or a partition used in the Qur’an to divide men and women into separate spheres of ritualized cultural practices, further enhances the meaning of Fourahar’s social and political transgressions. In equally suggestive Flashing, a chador-dressed woman is captured in another liberating gesture–unveiling herself to a handsome male Western fashion model in a modern urban setting— and openly manifesting her rebellion and resistance to oppression.
In his canonical essay, Ornament and Crime (1909-10), the Viennese architect Adolf Loos famously equated ornament with degeneration and a crime, calling it merely decorative and irrelevant to modern artistic expression. Inspired by the postmodern revival of interest in ornament, Parastou Forouhar re-engages with this concept in an entirely new way, using it as a potent signifier of contemporary culture. Employing the aesthetic paradigms of Islamic art–geometry, calligraphy, and miniature–her work undermines the superficial beauty of these forms and reveals in their very structure the existence of deeply embedded social and political mechanisms of violence, abuse, and power.
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