[Originally published in Arts and Culture magazine]
One of the mantras of contemporary art is that it’s defined by context. If you hang a glass-encased fire extinguisher in a beautifully lighted white room with glossy floors, people will attribute infinite permutations of meaning to it — especially if it’s in a building punctuated by Helvetica type that indicates a hallowed place of importance — a museum or a gallery. Well, for the moment, you can ditch that theory.
Morehshin Allahyari’s The Romantic Self Exiles would stop you short if you saw it in the waiting room of a Jiffy Lube. It’s so obviously brilliant that you can’t look away. And you also can’t help but immediately recognize it’s the product of outrageous talent. In fact, it’s one of the best shows I’ve seen. Ever. You could lock Ms. Allahyari in an empty room with a pile of bobby pins and she’d manage to make engaging art from it.
Part of her exhibition’s heft is borne of the mash-up of American and Iranian cultures. Her work addresses the proverbial elephant in the room. Americans know they should care about the machinations of the Middle East and, if they’re halfway intelligent, they also know that not much accurate information is conveyed via sound bites and curated information from the media. As has always been the case, art is the ideal venue for funneling incisive narratives to us. It cuts to the chase and delights us with beauty while simultaneously unraveling our psychological safety nets. It jettisons all xenophobic tendencies and suffuses us with the “Other” before we have a chance to cordon it off. The Romantic Self Exiles is an amalgam of anguished reverie, longing and global reflection.
One work is projected footage of Tehran (taken with a cell phone) that is split, refracted and generally made glorious by making it travel through acrylic structures before it hits its final destination on a white wall. The plastic rectangles and cubes the images pass through look like a tiny city, not unlike an architect’s initial foray into city planning. The materials and method are simple but the result is highly complex. The manufactured cityscape becomes blurred and vaguely dreamy. We look for bits of information regarding this exotic place called “Tehran” and we’re left stunned and staring — disarmed little mutes billowing with questions regarding this exotic Middle Eastern place and what it must feel like to be there.
Another video installation, The Recitation of a Soliloquy, utilizes text brilliantly. The screen flickers with gray images of Farsi characters. They’re taken from the actual diary of the artist’s mother musing on bringing a baby into the world while her home, Iran, is under siege. It’s an unsettling juxtaposition — war versus pregnancy and the fragility of a new life. It’s haunting and lovely and the English subtitles underscore what the artist has termed “Wombs under bombs. Broken promises….” The piece also shows overlapping maps of Dallas and Tehran. They merge and meld and we’re left to marvel at how things and events change when given a global context.
Allahyari will be showing work in Germany soon. No doubt we’ll hear plenty more from her and about her. She’s not only addressing big questions. In her own way, she’s answering them. How astonishing is that? The art world has become a place where it’s hip to not commit, to not say anything that’s definite. It’s refreshing to see moving pictures. Literally. They incite us to be better, to think more profoundly, and I, for one, hope that’s where art is headed.
Oliver Francis Gallery also deserves kudos. They’re operating on a string. The building isn’t swanky by a long shot. In fact, the front door looks like it’s straight from the set of Serpico. But the art is so good the outside world drops into oblivion and you’re left with nothing but a gorgeous feeling that good things are coming. This show not only expands upon political issues — it transcends them. It dives deep. I’m grateful for Allahyari and OFG. Momentarily, everything in Dallas seems very, very promising. Stunning even.
More recent work by Ms. Allahyari: In The Realm of Rare and Analogous Accidents