Iranian artist Nairy Baghramian reflects on the professional implications of being an artist today.
“Déformation Professionnelle” runs at S.M.A.K. until 19 February 2017, and features Baghramian’s new sculptures and installations that draw upon her interests in modernist design, interior decoration and furniture, and institutional critique.
In an interview (PDF download) regarding her 2016 exhibition “Scruff of the Neck” at Marian Goodman Gallery in London, the Berlin-based Iranian artist Nairy Baghramian stated the following regarding historical influence:
Going back and forth in history, and specifically revisiting modernist avant-garde movements, has been a general concern in the art production of the last years. But one of the aspects of this phenomenon that concerned me was what I would describe as a kind of condition of retreat – in the sense of getting too comfortable with the supposedly secure ideological forms of the past.
If Baghramian was recently concerned with resting on conceptions of ideology, her latest exhibition “Déformation Profesionnelle” at S.M.A.K. indicates a self-reflexive interest in her own oeuvre. The exhibition’s title is taken from a French phrase referring to the change in one’s worldview after having become an expert, and it reflects the professional development of Baghramian as an artist. Using her oeuvre of the last sixteen years as a framework, Baghramian presents new sculptures and installations that draw upon her interests in modernist design, interior decoration and furniture, and institutional critique.
Her works transform the spaces they occupy not only in virtue of their massive, striking forms but in the way they call attention to the social relations between visitors and the institution, and the curators who orchestrate the experience. By referencing her own past oeuvre as not only a starting point but also the scaffolding of these new works, Baghramian asserts a new dimension to the debate over artistic intent: how can authority be wrested over the future as well as the past?
Born in Isfahan, Iran in 1971, Nairy Baghramian has exhibited in solo shows including “Hand Me Down” (2015) in Mexico City’s Museo Tamayo, “Off the Rack” (2014) at Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, “Fluffling the Pillows” (2013) at the MIT Visual Arts Center in Cambridge, and “Retainer” (2013) at SculptureCenter, New York. Baghramian has also participated in numerous group shows, including “Fade In” at the Swiss Institute, New York and “Painting 2.0: Expression in the Information Age” at MUMOK Vienna, both in 2016, as well as the 8th Berlin Biennial in 2014 and the 45th Venice Biennale in 2011. Currently living and working in Berlin, Baghramian has emerged as an artist whose explorations of domestic and private space and interior furnishings and decorations inject both deliberate consideration and a light touch to the practice of sculpture.
Support structures formally and thematically recur in the artist’s oeuvre. Flat Spine echoes the fluidity of 2014’s French Curve, both announcing a singular presence within their respective exhibition spaces in their reconfiguration of visitors’ mobility. Constructed from lacquered wood and resin in several fragmented pieces that constitute a linear work, Flat Spine forces visitors to tread specific paths that form an orbit; in doing so, they uphold – much like a vertebrae – the unity of the other works of the room.
Other works similarly underscore the idea of framing devices: Fourth Wall (Proscenium) consists of waxed wood and canvas frames mounted and jointed together by metal hooks, alluding to the theatrics of viewing art and its concerns with distance from its viewers. It references the 2005 metal and bleached fabric sculpture Fourth Wall/Two Female Protagonists, but rather than a freestanding sculpture, the 2016 variation uses the dimensions to define more clearly the perspective between audience and artwork. Scruff of the Neck (Stopgap) modifies the same metal structures in her 2016 exhibition that resemble dental prostheses; at S.M.A.K., they are bereft of the large, plaque-embossed teeth that made them recognisable as references to orthodontics, giving them a more menacing quality as their function is indeterminate.
It is perhaps a testament to Baghramian’s conceptual and technical skill that prior knowledge of her oeuvre do not give the works of “Déformation Professionnelle” an air of being unfinished; rather, her refusal to adhere to the conventions of a typical retrospective bring new verve to her sculptures and installations. For instance, Jupon Suspendu and Jupon Réassemblé modify the 2015 work Jupon de Corps, which consists of intersecting steel skeletons that take their name from the French term for the “petticoat of bodies” that lent rigidity to dresses and skirts. In this new formation, the potential of those steel frames are realised to bear greater weight, suspended from the ceiling to hang wax cast shapes in Jupon Suspendu and weaving through multiple rooms with an epoxy resin and wax skin in Jupon Réassemblé.
Elsewhere, a group of pastel coloured sculptures entitled Stay Downers, formed from polyurethane, metal and silicone, occupy two rooms. With individual names such as Nerd, Grubby Urchin and Truant, they form a motley crew, pointing to their origins as “leftovers” from the 2008 sculpture Class Reunion. Their soft shapes and awkward composition that suggests imbalance are a counter to the prevailing formalism of Baghramian’s other works, but contribute to her continual process of excavating her own practice.
Exhibition curator Martin Germann notes, talking to Art Radar:
This retrospective with only new work could therefore be read as a mirror of ‘her own making’, how she once described it. An elementary aspect in all the presented works is that they re-negotiate or re-evaluate decisions she did in the past. And the fact that an artist’s work is necessarily influenced by others might be no secret, in particular if you remember that her artistic mindset started to take shape during the 1990s in Berlin. The participatory element is therefore deeply rooted in her practice, but without fulfilling or executing any theory.
Situating Baghramian in this participatory setting then logically draws notice to the role of the museum in presenting these new works that are drawn from an existing oeuvre because they call to question how the concepts of “new” and “old” work function. Her gesture towards reappropriating her own work troubles the notion of an archive, or repository of past work, because it signals that professional development need not function in a linear or prescriptive manner. Baghramian describes herself as an artist who is “site responsive” rather than “site specific”. Germann goes on to say that this time
the ‘site’ to which Nairy responded was in fact the site of her own oeuvre, her own archive […] and she merged that thinking with the architectural conditions of SMAK.
Thinking of the archive as a dynamic entity rather than a static source of inspiration offers two unique considerations for Baghramian’s exhibition at S.M.A.K. Firstly, it absolves viewers of the pretense of familiarity with Baghramian’s work because whether or not her references are recognisable is secondary to how they interact in the new display space of S.M.A.K. Secondly, it allows for more careful consideration of Nairy Baghramian’s technical choices, as forms and structures are repeated and reconfigured in ways that suggest that the materials used are always full of further potential, as is the artist herself. “Déformation Professionnelle” therefore is an exercise in artistic freedom by way of restraint, and Baghmanian’s thorough examination of her own work allows her to shed the baggage of the past by reframing it as the future.
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