The rug is a sort of garden that can move across space.
While the invention of the garden was a product of the Orient, its form is now widely replicated, adapted, and distributed across cultures. The forms it takes can be beautiful, or benign—from Japanese karesansui and perfectly manicured English courts to sterile pre-fabricated suburban lots, with conventional evergreens growing against cement paths.
The first carpet was invented in an attempt to recreate the garden. In its earliest iterations, the rug transposed the idea of outdoor perfection into a domestic and utilitarian object—the traditional Persian design capitalized on its representation of sacred elements, with fountains and flora depicted in harmonious and symmetrical flourishes. The carpet was a visual essay containing the perfection of the world within a rectangle.
The aspirations of the carpet were not far off from the goals of modernist painting. The difference lies in the motivations between symbolism and optics, respectively; where the Oriental rug represented icons through illustration, the modernists relied on the responsive eye. For Foucault, this may have been seen as a similar practice to achieving “other spaces”—heterotopias each defined by their own set of expectations, reflecting the world back to the viewer in parallel ways.
The work of Tina Tahir falls somewhere in between these two processes, picturing the slippage of representation through gorgeous and ornate stencil installations made out of precarious materials. Often installed directly onto the floor, Tahir’s tapestry-like drawings trace patterns out of spices, glitter, gold dust, and powdered toxic leaves. In an exhibition context, the fragility of the drawings is evident in the slight imperfections of the tracings that collect over time, the smudges and flaws acting as minor invasions on the otherwise perfectly outlined surface of the work.
In many ways, the precariousness of the final pattern—a formal design as stable as a wisp of smoke—secularizes the origins of the Oriental rug, foregrounding a very material awareness to an otherwise symbolic object. Yet, there is something magical that remains of the experience of Tahir’s installations. Though architectural, their placement directly on the ground never quite feels part of the architecture, but instead hovers in space. Is this the residual image of the magic carpet promoted by exoticism? Or, perhaps, is the suspension of the image achieved through its all-over treatment, more of a modernist trick of optics? Tahir’s practice straddles these boundaries, between Romantic and Modern theologies, never quite taking sides. While the pieces can be seen as coming from decorative origins, this association becomes thinner the more one attempts to equate pattern with mere ornamental dealings. The means may belong to a decorative sensibility, yet the inherent misuse of form in Tahir’s work—which favors an insecure installation over permanence—promotes a sort of anxiety, which seeps into what could be perceived as an otherwise certain narrative—that of representation.
If the woven representation of the garden and the painting on a woven rectangle had the same ambition—to contain a spiritual experience within clearly defined borders—what then exists within Tahir’s rectangles? The success of Tahir’s project lies in this unanswered question, which does not disavow either the transcendent or physical potentials of visual pattern, but instead support the concept that—like a garden—the work can possess both a secretive and public quality, all at once.
This essay was first published in the ArtSlant Prize 2015 Catalogue, on the occasion of the ArtSlant Prize Shortlist exhibition at Aqua Art Miami, from December 2–6, 2015. Tina Tahir is the ArtSlant Prize 2015 Second Prize winner.
(All images: Courtesy of the artist and ArtSlant)