Art Basel Miami Beach hosted the conversation “Translating Images” in conjunction with “Farhad Moshiri: Go West”, curated by José Carlos Diaz for the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh.
Juxtaposing Iranian tradition and the widespread influence of Western culture in his homeland, the artist’s mid-career survey disrupts notions of identity and questions the authenticity of translation across visual languages.
Commonly referred to as the Iranian Andy Warhol, Farhad Moshiri is a multimedia artist currently based in Tehran. His work – a tactile conglomeration of painting, mass produced objects and luxurious materials – comments on cultural appropriation and global commercialisation. After leaving Iran in the 1980s to study art and filmmaking at the Californian Institute of the Arts (CalArts), Moshiri spent over a decade in the United States, focusing on an intensely conceptual agenda. However, despite his academic background doused in concept and theory, the artist was met with a surprisingly profitable enthusiasm in the art market.
While contemporary art from and within the Middle East has, for years, been a popular facet of academic research, artists from the region were not widely collected until the Christie’s Dubai salesrooms opened. Moshiri’s work, though sold and collected widely through the market, is one of its greatest critics, his crystal-covered images and collections of mass-produced kitsch commenting on the highbrow art world and the individuals choosing to and capable of buying it. A work entitled Faghat Eshgh [Only Love] exemplifies this.
The painting, one of Moshiri’s most prolific, exhibits a bright pink jar reminiscent of an ancient Persian urn. Despite the glitter and brilliant, haloed appearance, the jar appears to be in a state of decay, a vestige of a great, but elapsed age – its two-dimensionality highlighting its expired use. Or, perhaps, the vessel has, for the artist, adopted a new function: to carry an idea of tradition into an age of glitz and globalisation as they once carried something physical.
And, strange to tell, among that Earthen Lot
Some could articulate, while others not: And suddenly one more impatient cried –
“Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot?”
Excerpt from Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám: A Critical Edition by Edward FitzGerald
It is ‘strange to tell’ whether Moshiri’s work is emblematic of an upscale Iran or a flashy, sugar-coated America. It is ‘strange to tell’ what is being exhibited in response to a childhood recollection or a critical stance on appropriation. The above poem is referenced frequently alongside Moshiri’s work, most notably in the text of the jar painting entitled Drunken Lover, now in the British Museum‘s permanent collection. Here, the artist questions both his blended identity and his role as a creative. He is the potter, the pray and the pot: the artist, the critic and the one with a self-prescribed responsibility to be an emblem of cross-cultural exchange.
The embedded significance of Moshiri’s work is not lost on José Carlos Diaz, chief curator of the Andy Warhol Museum (AWM) and executor of “Farhad Moshiri: Go West”, and plays a pivotal role in the exhibition’s location and display. Located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the AWM’s guests are, as scholar Dr Shiva Balaghi describes, tourists of the “purple state”, noting the politicised climate of Pennsylvania and the expectant nature of those visiting the museum. It comes as no surprise that visitors of the AWM are eager to see the work of Andy Warhol. This, according to Diaz, was a motivating force in inviting Moshiri for his first solo show in the United States: confronting an assuming American audience with the unfamiliar that is, somehow, strangely familiar. The show opens with Yipeeee, an animated painting of a cowboy driving through the American West, complete with sand dunes and cacti.
In conversation about his curatorial approach, Diaz states, “I wanted people to find themselves in the work,” thus deciding to begin with the familiar motif of the cartoon cowboy. Playing into the title of the exhibition, and consequently the Marx Bros. western film of the same name, the artist portrays both his geographical and mental movement westward. For Moshiri, the West is a “mythological place of unruliness and adventure”, a beacon of his passage to the United States and his western-influenced mentality.
What makes Moshiri’s career peculiar in this sense, according to Dr Balaghi, is that he returned to Iran after his programme at CalArts and the conclusion of the Iran-Iraq war in 1989. She states:
He’s an artist who deliberately decided to go back to Iran […] he was truly inspired by what was happening post-revolutionary Iran, yet decided not to take a [specific] political approach to his work, which is very rare.
However, Moshiri’s work is far from un-political, the luxurious materials and animated characters coming at a crucial moment in Iran’s visual culture. Looking to redefine its language of culture, wealth and luxury after the Iranian Revolution (1979), artists like Moshiri borrow from cartoon imagery and the internationally-familiar language of mass-production in reaction to the political and cultural condition of 1990s Iran. Though his work appears to be playful and decorative, beyond the shimmering surfaces Moshiri casts a more cynical eye, addressing the flaws of his homeland and acknowledging the lure and limitations of the Western world. For him, aristocracy and commercialisation transcend borders and boundaries.
Alongside the comprehensive AWM exhibition, Moshiri’s work was examined in the Art Basel Artworld Talk “Translating Images”, chaired by Dr Balaghi with the museum’s José Carlos Diaz and independent curators Dina Nasser Khadivi and Mitra Abbaspour. Between referencing works from Moshiri’s 20-year-long career, they discussed an increasingly global art world where images and texts are appropriated, re-imagined and translated according to differing circumstances.
Nostalgia, in translation
While undeniably referencing his art historical counterparts, Moshiri’s work plays with elements of humour and surprise, urging the panellists to discuss the role of nostalgia – or, perhaps, a displaced nostalgia – in accordance to the presumed lifestyle of American youth and pop culture by someone raised outside of the United States. This elicits questions of identity and authenticity in translation: how does visual language translate horizontally, or cross-culturally? And how can a ‘translated’ work find a strong root or intimate connection to an entirely different time and place?
“Having an exhibition at The Warhol museum is like being invited to the Warhol family house”, says Moshiri. And that is the thing – while grand in scale and material usage, “Go West” is an exploration of the familiar, of home. Further, the intimacy of being invited to the Warhol house is akin to the warm, fuzzy feeling of those familiar childhood cartoons, or those cowboy emblems – those Western icons that played a role in Moshiri’s artistic upbringing as well as the lives of his American visitors. However, the translation is not an exact one, nor can it be, as the panellists discussed. But it develops through a nuanced approach to visual interpretation, one that spreads across nations and contexts.
For the scholars of “Translating Images”, the major signifier of both Moshiri’s current show and the nature of globalised contemporary art is ‘sampling’, as inspired by the music industry. This sampling is noticed aesthetically, kitsch infused with calligraphic texts, with western saloon-style imagery spattered with Iranian popular culture and with Persian rugs supplemented with keychains, knives or plastic beads. But the artist not only samples things, but values, putting his work into Dr Balaghi’s coined category of “dubbed art”. Mitra Abbaspour suggests:
He is poking and prodding at the very systems and economies and luxury aesthetic that may have a very specific geographic locale […] and political position, but aesthetically transcends all those boundaries for an economy of crystal, of glitter, of luxury, of glitz, of shine.
Through a highly ethnographic and archaeological approach, Moshiri adopts a transparency in his work that allows museum-goers, collectors and academics alike to find refuge in his visual translations, despite the contradictions between his glamourous market success and playful iterations of cultural identity. Whether it is a blank canvas covered in Swarovski crystals or a collection of kitchen knives spelling out “tranquility”, Moshiri’s work goes beyond the conventional clichés of Pop art to preserve the past and translate his globalised future.
“Farhad Moshiri: Go West” is on view from 13 October 2017 to 14 January 2018 at Andy Warhol Museum, 117 Sandusky Street, Pittsburgh.
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