Architecture and Philosophy: Iranian-born American artist Siah Armajani at Rossi & Rossi, Hong Kong

Siah Armajani’s solo exhibition in Hong Kong showcases the artist’s work spanning seven decades of his artistic career.

Inspired by poetry, American vernacular architecture, Western philosophy and his native Persian heritage, Siah Armajani is recognised as a pioneering figure in the conceptualisation of the role of art in the public realm.

Siah Armajani, ‘Street Corner No.2’, 1995, Bronze, 171.5 x 279.4 x 22.9 cm (67 1/2 x 110 x 9 in). Image courtesy the artist and Rossi & Rossi.

Siah Armajani, ‘Street Corner No.2’, 1995, Bronze, 171.5 x 279.4 x 22.9 cm (67 1/2 x 110 x 9 in). Image courtesy the artist and Rossi & Rossi.

An extensive exhibition on the career and work of Iranian-born, American artist Siah Armajani is on view from 18 February to 15 April 2017 at Rossi & Rossi in Hong Kong. A conversation between artist Siah Armajani and Hong Kong-based German-born curator Tobias Berger is set to take place on 20 February 2017 at Comix Homebase in Wan Chai, Hong Kong. The exhibition coincides with mega-fair Art Basel Hong Kong (23-25 March 2017).

Known for his sculptures, drawings and public works which exist between the boundaries of art and architecture, Siah Armajani is a leading figure who has realised nearly one hundred projects internationally since the 1960s. American vernacular architecture is a recurring motif in his practice, and is manifest in his public works, including bridges, gardens and outdoor structures. Informed by democratic and populist ideals, his works in the exhibition include early drawings on paper and fabric, ideational architectural models, large-scale sculptures and recent works on paper.

Siah Armajani, ‘Sunset at Hiawatha Avenue’, 2004, coloured pencil on Mylar, 84.5 x 182.9 cm (33 1/4 x 72 in). Image courtesy the artist and Rossi & Rossi.

Siah Armajani, ‘Sunset at Hiawatha Avenue’, 2004, coloured pencil on Mylar, 84.5 x 182.9 cm (33 1/4 x 72 in). Image courtesy the artist and Rossi & Rossi.

Born in Tehran in 1939, Armajani attended a Presbyterian school for Iranian students, where he developed an early theoretical interest for Western thought and philosophy. Such influence on his art is shown in the objects and architectural spaces he designed. To pay homage to critical theorists and writers, such as Martin Heidegger, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodor Adorno, Ahmad Shamlou and Alfred Whitehead among others, Armajani often incorporates names of literary, philosophical and political figures in the title of his works.

Armajani began his career in 1960 when he moved to the United States from Iran at the age of 21. In America, he studied philosophy at Macalester College in Minnesota. Currently, he lives and works in Minneapolis.

Siah Armajani, ‘Kansas City Bridge No.2’, 2016, balsa wood, bass wood, paint, 55.9 x 157.5 x 11.7 cm (22 x 62 x 4 5/8 in). Image courtesy the artist and Rossi & Rossi.

Siah Armajani, ‘Kansas City Bridge No. 2’, 2016, balsa wood, bass wood, paint, 55.9 x 157.5 x 11.7 cm (22 x 62 x 4 5/8 in). Image courtesy the artist and Rossi & Rossi.

Since 1978, the artist has exhibited widely and internationally in solo and group exhibitions, including at the Parasol unit, London; British Museum, London; Musée d’art moderne et contemporain, Geneva; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid; Kunsthalle Basel; Art Institute of Chicago; Asia Society, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia. His works were also shown at the Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the American Pavilion of the 39th Venice Biennale; and at Documenta 5, 7 and 8, Kassel.

Siah Armajani, ‘Four Bridges with Four Conditions’,1974-75, mixed media, (a) 'House Above the Bridge', 26 x 45.7 x 12.1 cm (10 x 18 x 4 3/4 in); (b) 'House Before the Bridge', 16.5 x 45.7 x 14 cm (6 1/4 x 17 7/8 x 5 3/8 in); (c) 'House After the Bridge', 18.4 x 61 x 13.2 cm (7 1/4 x 23 5/8 x 5 1/2 in); (d) 'House Below the Bridge', 17.1 x 41.3 x 11.7 cm (6 3/4 x 16 1/4 x 4 5/8 in). Image courtesy the artist and Rossi & Rossi.

Siah Armajani, ‘Four Bridges with Four Conditions’,1974-75, mixed media, (a) ‘House Above the Bridge’, 26 x 45.7 x 12.1 cm (10 x 18 x 4 3/4 in); (b) ‘House Before the Bridge’, 16.5 x 45.7 x 14 cm (6 1/4 x 17 7/8 x 5 3/8 in); (c) ‘House After the Bridge’, 18.4 x 61 x 13.2 cm (7 1/4 x 23 5/8 x 5 1/2 in); (d) ‘House Below the Bridge’, 17.1 x 41.3 x 11.7 cm (6 3/4 x 16 1/4 x 4 5/8 in). Image courtesy the artist and Rossi & Rossi.

Architecture and Conceptualism

Four Bridges with Four Conditions (1974-75) is an example of Armajani’s early architectural models, in which he attempts to investigate the notion of space, especially that of the ‘public’. These architectural models delve into the issue of spaces for interaction, gathering, crossing and communication. Taking a conceptualist approach, Armajani aims to emphasis ideas over reality. Illogical conditions and improbable encounters unfold in these sculptural models of bridges. However mundane the action of pedestrian movement is, Armajani expands the concept of ‘public’ as something shared and determined, solitary and occasional.

Siah Armajani, ‘Gazebo for Two Anarchists’, 1991, mixed media, 24 x 30.5 x 314 cm (9 3/8 x 12 x 123 1/2 in). Image courtesy the artist and Rossi & Rossi.

Siah Armajani, ‘Gazebo for Two Anarchists’, 1991, mixed media, 24 x 30.5 x 314 cm (9 3/8 x 12 x 123 1/2 in). Image courtesy the artist and Rossi & Rossi.

Gazebo

The gazebo shown in Gazebo for Two Anarchists (1991) is a pavilion structure in octagonal shape meant to be built in a park, garden or spacious public area. In this work regarding American Anarchism, Emilio Coda and Richard Henry Dana are the protagonists being referenced. Speaking about his architectural works, Armajani notes:

I am interested in the nobility of usefulness. My intention is to build open, available, useful, common, public gathering places – gathering places that are neighbourly.

Siah Armajani, ‘Dictionary of Numbers’, 1957, mixed media on paper, 49 x 30 cm (19 1/4 x 11 3/4 in). Image courtesy the artist and Rossi & Rossi.

Siah Armajani, ‘Dictionary of Numbers’, 1957, mixed media on paper, 49 x 30 cm (19 1/4 x 11 3/4 in). Image courtesy the artist and Rossi & Rossi.

Persian inscriptions in Armajani’s works

Persian literature and miniature art inspire many of Armajani’s early works. To the artist, calligraphy and poetry carry strong connections with history and memory, and are the basis of one’s existence, especially that in an Iranian context. When the artist first arrived in the United States, he found it shocking that nobody remembered anything of the past. In an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Armajani mentions that

Poetry is the fastest and easiest way to know and remember [one’s] past […] memorising poetry was an essential part of one’s education […] calligraphy becomes an investment to one’s memory.

Dictionary of Numbers (1957) is an embodiment of the interplay between image and text. The freely arranged handwriting is characteristic of Armajani’s early works. Calligraphic inscriptions seen in this artwork foreshadow his use of text in his later projects. Such projects include Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge (1988), a pedestrian walkway over a Minneapolis freeway that connects the Walker Art Center and Sculpture Garden with downtown, as well as in sculptures like Murder in Tehran (2009). The artist has always been outspoken about political events and his oeuvre shows no lack of politically charged subject matter.

Siah Armajani, ‘Written Berlin, Tomb for Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Walter Benjamin’, 2014-15, graphite and ink on Mylar, 101.6 x 566.4 cm (40 x 223 in). Image courtesy the artist and Rossi & Rossi.

Siah Armajani, ‘Written Berlin, Tomb for Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Walter Benjamin’, 2014-15, graphite and ink on Mylar, 101.6 x 566.4 cm (40 x 223 in). Image courtesy the artist and Rossi & Rossi.

“Tomb” series (1972 – 2016)

In his “Tomb” series, Armajani highlights the relationship between art and ideology, while paying tribute to critical thinkers and philosophers. Written Berlin, Tomb for Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Walter Benjamin (2014-15) depicts a cityscape of early 20th-century Berlin. Nearly six metres in length, the drawing is Armajani’s calligraphic rendition of Benjamin’s memoir Berlin Childhood around 1900 and Eric Metaxas’s biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy with Farsi embedded within. Both Bonhoeffer and Benjamin perished during the time of the repressive National Socialist Party’s rule of Germany.

Siah Armajani, ‘Tomb for Heidegger’, 2012, mixed media, 175.2 x 142.2 x 254 cm (69 x 56 x 100 in). Image courtesy the artist and Rossi & Rossi.

Siah Armajani, ‘Tomb for Heidegger’, 2012, mixed media, 175.2 x 142.2 x 254 cm (69 x 56 x 100 in). Image courtesy the artist and Rossi & Rossi.

Meanwhile, in Tomb for Heidegger (2012), Armajani builds a large-scale sculptural memorial for 20th century German philosopher Martin Heidegger in the language of vernacular architecture of the American frontier. The work references Heidegger’s 1954 essay “Building, Dwelling, Thinking”, in which Heidegger explains a seminal discourse on architectural phenomenology. The text links dwelling to the “gathering of the fourfold”, or regions of being as entailed by the phenomena of “the saving of earth, the reception of sky (heavens), the initiation of mortals into their death, and the awaiting/remembering of divinities”. Heidegger’s theories continue to inspire Armajani and are manifest in a variety of his works.

Valencia Tong

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Related Topics: Iranian, gallery shows, architecture, sculpture, public artdrawing, Hong Kong

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