Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Creative Translation

Whenever I’m in Iran, people ask me:
What do you think of Iran?

The work featured on this blog, here and in the next four posts, (scrolling down), explores the answers to that question. They are the foreigner’s story. The focus is on intimate domestic narrative and detail because these are the substance of my connection with Iran and they acquire enormous importance when I’m there. These posts show the collection of work for the exhibition I was invited to do in Iran, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Esfahan. At the last minute, the Foreign Ministry got cold feet and refused to provide an entry visa either to me or to the exhibition. I hope to show it somewhere in the UK but, until then, you can see pictures of it here.

Here's what I wrote for the catalogue about the plate above:

Creative Translation

This is what we all do when we’re not quite sure. Bluffing. We just fill in the gaps. It makes for some very fine misunderstandings. Some are not so accidental though. I suspect some are sibling mischief. Many young men ask me about migration. I tell them it’s not a soft option. You have to be very sure. It’s not easy being ‘the foreigner’ in England.
I also spend a lot of time explaining the situation regarding heating in England. The gas and electricity are too expensive to use, so you get used to being cold and wearing vests instead. When I come to Iran, I have to open the windows, even in winter. My friends shiver and put on extra clothes.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

The Look Of The Eyes

The camera is the dominant motif of this work and the look its guiding concern. In the plate above, two enormous eyes stare out of an oval plate, just big enough to accommodate them and their carefully sculpted eyebrows. The face may be framed by a chador, by a loosely worn scarf, or only by hair, we don’t know because the rim does the framing and my point is that it’s of no consequence in this image because, although the law in Iran currently insists on women being ‘modestly’ dressed in public, covered and not ‘made up,’ the other kind of law, the law of social mores, insists, with equal force, that Iranian Women Are Glamorous And Are The Most Beautiful In The World… and woe betide anyone who doesn’t believe it. In other words, social mores insist upon a woman being, by English standards at least, very dressed up indeed.
I don’t know any Iranian woman who would willingly step foot outside the house without wearing full ‘party’ make-up, even when she’s just popping out to buy bread.

The social glamour laws do not, on the face of it, require enforcement by a special police force, which the modesty laws enshrined in statute certainly do. However, if the statute were removed, and women were allowed to dress as they pleased, it would be interesting to witness the result over the long term. Three years ago, I would have said that glamour as a social norm would not change. It seemed fixed forever. Now I do detect, among my own friends at least, a certain ambivalence, a questioning even of the social laws. Some have told me, in a quiet moment, that they do find the necessity to ‘dress up’ (as I see it) as a bit time consuming and oppressive. It’s a complicated process, though, to navigate this kind of social pressure, when set alongside the laws of government, which are vastly more oppressive: young women in particular are often rounded up by the religious police and taken to the police station and sometimes beaten. This plate is my response to the necessity of resisting oppressive legal demands, which dictate what women can and cant wear, while also observing and feeling the gendered social oppression inherent in the form that the resistance takes.

Here's what I wrote in the catalogue -


Why don’t you ‘do’ your eyebrows? Most women demanded to know this within five minutes of meeting me. I didn’t think about eyebrows normally. They were just there. Apparently I was wrong. Eyebrows were there to be sculpted, along with the rest of my face, which could be entirely rearranged if necessary. I began to develop a much closer relationship with mirrors.


I had worried intensely about wearing the right things outside, in the street. This is where I would be seen. But as soon as I arrived in Iran, I was being invited to peoples’ houses. I carefully said no twice but didn’t want them to withdraw the invitation, so hastily changed no to yes, in case they changed their minds. This is when I realised that I needed clothes to wear in people’s houses. My English clothes were not good enough. Iranians are ‘posh’. English people are not. I had to bring make up learn how to use it. I needed a hair dryer. I was creating a new version of myself but it meant that my suitcase was getting heavier.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Forming The Perfect 1

From the eyes looking and the look of the eyes, we move on to the presence, the omni presence, of the camera. There are certain images which recur throughout this body of work. As well as the camera, recurring images include the lens, frame, photograph, mirror, us, (me and my friends), pomegranate, knife, and snow.

Forming The Perfect, whose title is taken from a chapter heading one of my Farsi grammar books, is applied to the construction of wedding pictures. These celebrate and freeze frame a moment, the perfect moment when life, briefly, becomes a fairy tale. Forming the perfect uses the oval shape as an elliptical lens, mirror frame and picture frame and hints at the eye shape in the first plate. I, the photographer, observer, guest, temporary family member, and artist am perched inside and outside the lens. I am both part of the proceedings and the observer of them. Wedding pictures are photo-shopped into a world or their own. Stage makeup is worn for the wedding ceremony and the entire wedding is performed to camera. There is no pretence at creating some kind of parallel norm, no attempt by the women concerned to delude themselves, or each other or me or any other viewer in believing this is the everyday. It most emphatically is not. The pictures are superimposed on to fairytale backgrounds as if to emphasise the point. I added a bit of my own emphasis: a white horse. I felt it was missing from Haddis’s photos. You can see it in the next post down, Forming The Perfect 2.

As a British artist, product of modernism and post modernism in equal measure, I feel some weight of expectation that this work must be in some way satirical. I must satirise the wedding pictures, make knowing jokes of some sort. There are some jokes, but they are unlikely to be discernible to anyone outside the families concerned. I have tried to tell the story of the pictures and show what they mean to me. There is no satire. It is simply a part of my answer to ‘what do you think of Iran?’

Friday, 22 May 2009

Forming The Perfect 2

This is what I wrote in the catalogue about this pot:

I have been learning about wedding pictures: the construction of the perfect moment freeze framed as the perfect image. If it is only once in a lifetime, then they become quite forlorn, lonely images, but if you drift into the fairy tale, the snowy woodland, the star spangled night in a Bollywood movie, the rich, dark interiors of a distant, northern castle, you can create more and more scenes, your own secret garden with which to adorn the ordinariness of your life. Ordinariness, after all, is what most of us hope for at a time of economic crisis, global warming and bombs.

If you look in the right hand column, you can see the photos I took of the wedding photos.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

How to Eat a Pomegranate

This post shows five views of the same pot. It's about 90 cms high. It depicts, in flat-on-the-surface, frieze-like, decorative form, the ritual of pomegranate eating. This what I wrote for the catalogue - which assumes an Iranian audience by the way. If you click on the pictures they should enlarge.

How to Eat a Pomegranate

I think it was on my second visit to Iran that I learnt how to eat a pomegranate. The first visit was spent learning how to cross roads. On the second visit I stayed most of my time in Yazd, and young woman taught me ‘ab lambu.’ English people have no idea what to do with a pomegranate. Some people eat them one seed at a time, using a pin, but most people just don’t bother. I made a film of my Iranian friends eating pomegranates so that my English friends could learn how to do it.

This is how I explain ‘aab lambu’ to my English friends:

You hold the pomegranate in both hands and slowly, but firmly, begin to squeeze it. Gradually it softens as the fruit inside is crushed by the pressure of your fingers and the juice released. The skin, however, must remain unharmed. When it is completely soft and squashy you take a sharp fruit-knife and pierce the skin, carefully. A large drop of red juice will appear on the surface. Put this ‘bleeding’ part to your mouth and squeeze, drinking the juice until the fruit is spent and only the crushed pith is left inside. The pomegranate now resembles a deflated rubber ball – which is what ‘lambu’ refers to.

Catalogue text ends here. This is one of the most in-yer-face decorative pieces I've made in a long time. I didn't really intend to use decoration as rhetoric, although it does have a slightly rhetorical feel to it, nor is any irony or parody intended and I dont think any suggests itself. It is related to the film I made, of the same name, which is about the vexed question of virginity. This peice is an 'iran proof' version of that and should, ideally, be shown with a large group of pomegranate bowls, see above, a sort of homage to Hannah Wilke's ‘159 One-Fold Gestural Sculptures,’ a collection of virginal foldings in painted, fired clay.


I started working on the very big one in January 2009. I had orignally intended that it should go to Esfahan with 'How To Eat A Pomegranate,' (see next few posts above and the pot in the foreground immediately above this text), but when it became clear that there would be visa problems, I decided to put it aside and continue work on it next year. Like the pots in Shattered, this one is now broken into many small pieces. It will be put back together as a fragile, skeletal memory of its former self. I'm expecting it to be a good deal more frail than the pots in Shattered.

Welcome to the Open Studio

Welcome to the Lab. This is the cyber studio, shed, top of the bus or sunny corner, where new ideas ferment and become pots, drawings, blogs, short films or long stories. The C Word, my other blog, is the ideas lab and this one is more like the studio or shed. Here you can see work in progress, as it is being made and before it goes on show. I expect more pictures than words on this blog but we'll see how it goes.