Highlight Gallery is pleased to present ‘Silk’, an exhibition that draws together the work of Etel Adnan, Ramin Haerizadeh, Hayv Kahraman, Timo Nasseri and Hesam Rahmanian. Devised by the British curator, Jane Neal, Silk was born from Neal’s investigations into art and issues of visibility and invisibility. The word ‘silk’ served as a catalyst for the beginnings of exploration. It is a thread, both beautiful and strong, but it is also synonymous with the ancient world and the silk route. This evokes a binding connection to place, and being ‘tied’ but paradoxically it is simultaneously exotic – taking the silk road suggests the beginning of an adventure; a journey through wild and wonderful terrain. In the past the word and the route were bound up also with empire and colonialism, and thus negative associations with the abuse of power, which could also be addressed and paralleled with events of today.
Primarily perhaps, silk evokes the age of the traveller and explorer, trailing through Europe and across Asia. The idea of the silk road is an emotive one for daydreaming as it conjures up many interesting mental as well as physical images for the dreamer. Silk also has currency in our contemporary culture. We live in a time when globalisation has become one of the defining terms of our age and diaspora and displacement from culture and family is commonplace. The exhibition ‘silk’ links together artists who share origins in ancient civilisations along the silk route. It also brings together several artists who for various reasons have ended up living and working far from their original home. ‘Silk’ will explore the work made by these diverse and interesting artists, and consider the dialogues that can take place between works that share this commonality but that differ greatly in terms of personal inspiration and execution.
Etel Adnan (Beirut, 1925, lives in Paris, France and Sausalito, CA) is as known for her writing as she is for her painting. In 2010, Hans Ulrich Obrist described the woman who has long been regarded as one of the most important cultural voices to have emerged from the Middle East as: ‘One of my heroes.’ He went on to say: ‘She is one of the great poets of her time and also a wonderful visual artist…What is so key about Etel is also how many artists of the younger generation she inspires. And that’s how I found her. She is an artists’ artist… in the same tradition as many figures in the past who were painters and poets’. Adnan herself never tires of telling people how much she has been influenced by the different languages and landscapes she has encountered in her journey across the cultures she has inhabited. She is loyal to the locations that have a place in her heart and one of her most passionate and long lived loves is with Mount Tamalpais that graces the skyline of the Bay Area of California. Time and again in her pared down, vivid paintings of various pastel-coloured hue, she returns to depicting the mountain that she looks out on from her home in Sausalito. Her fascination for this mountain is always active, never passive. She comments: ‘Love of nature is not harmless..it can compromise the whole of existence.’ Adnan’s paintings are small but redolent with this persistent passion that has come to define her creativity.
Ramin Haerizadeh (Tehran, 1975, lives and works in Dubai) works across a variety of media that encompasses photography, drawing, painting, film, animation and collage. He often collaborates with his brother, Rokni, but the two artists are highly individual, with Ramin Haerizadeh creating multifaceted and often highly amusing works bastardised from photographic media sources. These he perverts in order to reclaim and transform them into witty, but often disturbing scenes of humanity. A feature of Haerizadeh’s practice is the motif of the fractured self in the form of multiple, cross-gendered self portraits. Often depicted alone, bearded and veiled, he is forever popping up in various entertaining, even shocking guises. Vali Mahlouji has written that in Haerizadeh’s collages: ‘he depicts himself as a simulacrum – a chaos of appearances’. Certainly in his screen shot collages, Haerizadeh exploits the humour inherent to far fetched juxtapositions between the soft and the bestial, the political and the personal. In this way he could be said to be exposing the hypocrisy that threads through our world, and the sometimes grotesque manipulations of societies by those in power.
While Haerizadeh’s work can be read as a form of protest, he is very much grounded in ancient and recent art historical traditions. The spirit of creative play that is manifested in his practice through careful characterisation and attention to detail makes it possible to trace a connection between Haerizadeh’s work and the fields of ancient Persian story telling, epic poetry and the Persian miniature tradition. His use of slogans and an adoption of a snappy, advertisement-like style is reminiscent of theoretical feminist artists’ work, such as Barbara Kruger. Haerizadeh is slippery, and this is the point; to be unpredictable and outrageous is to preserve the integrity of the self from the pressure of confirming to authoritarian expectations.
Hayv Kahraman (Baghdad, 1981, lives and works in Oakland, Ca) works across media, predominantly in painting and installation. The underlying thread that runs throughout Kahraman’s practice is her attempt to decipher notions of space and her ongoing exploration of social spatiality. Kahraman questions and re examines issues of hybridity as a result of diaspora and re negotiates the boundaries of personal and political space. The artist has often used her practice to look at the historical and current implications for female identity in her homeland and positioned the body as object as well as subject. For ‘Silk’, Kahraman was inspired to produce new work for the exhibition in addition to a site specific piece. Her research centred on the legendary round city of Baghdad, built during the Abbasid era of 726AD, known as ‘the City of Peace’. Little is known to archaeologists about the city but literary sources reveal that it consisted of two, large concentric circles with four gates, symmetrically placed and radiating outwards. One of these gates, the ‘Khorasan Gate’, opened to the Silk Road. For the site specific work in ‘Silk’, Kahraman will draw the lines of the gate floor plan onto the floor of the gallery, thus creating a liminal space that permits entrance and exit into two spaces and introduces a past archeological structure in its most basic form into a current western space. Once the exhibition is over, the plans will be erased.
During her research, Kahraman discovered that the use of white earthenware with tin and cobalt oxide glazed pottery was invented in Baghdad in the 9th century; the technique then spread through the silk route. Chinese porcelain had reached the area by this time and in an attempt to imitate the medium, Iraqi ceramicists rediscovered a combination (used earlier by Egyptians) of tin and cobalt oxide glazes that then served as a source of inspiration to ceramicists in the Iranian province of Khorasan. Kahraman has responded to her discovery by making a ceramic that instead of being decorated with calligraphy (which is what would have been painted on with the cobalt), will instead be painted with the floor plan of the Round city itself. The viewer can then walk into the gallery, interacting with the floor plan (the gate) and will then be introduced to the actual city itself through the ceramic object.
Timo Nasseri’s (Berlin, 1972, lives and works in Berlin) practice encompasses photography, drawing, installation and sculpture. He started out as a photographer but gave this up in favour of making sculptures and drawings that were fuelled by what he describes as his interest in: ‘looking for parallels between cultures, combining the heritage of the Islamic and the western world’, and along the way being inspired by: ‘memories, religious references, the universe, infinity, mathematics, space and volume, ornament, language, eclecticism and exoticism, constructivism, universal principles of science, and the inner truth of form and rhythm.’ Born to a German mother and an Iranian father, unlike many artists who feel themselves drawn to Berlin, Nasseri has always lived and worked there. However his artistic journey and interest in learning more about the Iranian side of his heritage has drawn him across the world, including making extensive travels along the Silk Route. It was while he was travelling with his father that he encountered an element in Islamic architecture known as a ‘muqarnas’. Highly decorative, they normally occur in the entrances to mosques, usually beneath an arch or a vault. Nasseri was intrigued to know the system behind it: was it mathematical, did it originate from drawing, where did it come from, and how was it done? He succeeded in discovering that there is in fact a very logical mathematical system behind it, which he describes as: ‘somewhat similar to the way planes work.’
In his exquisite drawings and sculptures, Nasseri explores some of the motifs inherent in Islamic architecture. The way he chooses to carefully examine the interface between shape, form, perception and science, and to stretch the boundaries is becoming increasingly emblematic of his unique style. More recently though, Nasseri has been hugely influenced by the studies of Jacob Steiner (1796 – 1863), a Swiss mathematician known for his contributions to the development of modern synthetic geometry. As a result, Quantum theory and the notion of infinity are the inspiration behind Nasseri’s beautiful, thread-like drawings that evoke the possibility of infinite parallel universes, endlessly expanding across all possibilities.
Hesam Rahmanian (USA, 1980, lives and works in Dubai). Life, death and regeneration are recurring themes in Hesam Rahmanian’s work. Until recently bull fights, animal slaughter and political arenas had dominated his subject matter but this aggressively confrontational imagery has now been replaced by a more circumspect, painterly approach. What has remained consistent is the depth of his involvement in his own private universe; a fantastical place where the carnivalesque exists alongside an ever changing parade of animals, people and inanimate objects in a manner that suggests the influence of both modern day movement such as surrealism and, with their poignant but often whimsical titles, the decorative, narrative traditions of middle eastern art.
Rahmanian has a fondness for impastoed paint, rich colour and the patterns that can be derived from working with buttery, globules of paint. His collages are themselves derived from the excess material that he scrapes from his painting. This self conscious recycling seems to inform the subject matter of Rahmanian’s ‘reincarnated works’ which are often hybrid or fantastical in nature. A strong sense of narrative is twinned with a certain playfulness in Rahmanian’s practice that implicates all involved with the display and digestion of his practice. He challenges us to consider the connections between his images and to alter the narrative according to the placement of his works. Though playful, Rahmanian understands that there is a balance of power that can easily be affected by the repositioning of a particular image in front or behind another and clearly enjoys playing with narrative in this manner, tracing an invisible thread for the viewer and thereby drawing the into his world.