Suspended state of thingness: Mehran Mohajer’s photographs of nothing

By: Roshanak Keyghobadi | January 31, 2014

Where film lets us believe in more things,
photography lets us believe more in one thing.
Christian Metz

With no doubt Mehran Mohajer is an influential figure in the history of Iranian photography. Mohajer (b.1964, Tehran) is a photographer, lexicographer[i] and a lecturer in photography at Tehran University. He has written and translated articles in a wide range of subjects from photography, linguistics, and poetry to modern hermeneutic and analysis of debate. Mohajer’s photographs have been in several solo and group exhibitions in Iran, France, Germany, Greece, USA, and Australia.

In November of 2012 Mohajer had an exhibition of his photographs at Tarahan Azad Gallery in Tehran, titled “Nothingness/Poverty of.” I would like to focus on one photograph that belongs to this collection and in my view is a suitable point of entry to Mohajer’s complex and fascinating visual language.

This photo (above) does not have a title.  At first glance it appears to be an extreme close up of a printed matter such as a page of newspaper. Lines of bold type —one on top of the composition and the other on the bottom— frame the image and a bright ultramarine blue plastic ribbon in the center not only divides the image to right and left sections but also brings the top and bottom edges of the image together. Parallel to the blue line and on the right, the paper has been worn out and torn. The narrow tear has created a linear gap on the surface. To the left of the blue ribbon two noghteh (dots belonging to letters above and below) also create a visual line. The whole composition is subtly gridded.

The boldness of the type on top and bottom of the composition is in extreme contrast with the middle section of the photo where it seems to be offering the viewers’ eyes and minds an open white space to rest and contemplate. But upon keener observation the viewers soon discover that this white space is not truly quite and void of any marks. Reversed lines of type in shape of letters, words and sentences and another grid system made of rules and line that are printed in the back side of the paper show through the surface very lightly. Another interaction between typographic elements in the photo also happens in relationship to the two bold and macro lines of type and the two micro letters that peak through the torn gap on the surface of the newspaper.

Attention to the relationship between type and image, language and photography has been at play in several of Mohajer’s collections of images. For example in The light is off the room is dark (2003) and Image, text and money (2006) Mohajer uses newspapers as source of written ingredient for his images. In Migrant Packages (2004) handwriting, in Undistributed Packages (2005) misprinted papers, in Expired history (2006) stamped expiration dates, and in Flags (2004) printed type on fabrics make up the typographical components of his photographs.

In 2008[ii] Mohajer explained the connection between typography and photography in his works: After studying photography I have studied linguistics and since then I have got a split mind!…Therefore my interest in typography is not immanent and is not directed to its very nature. I am interested in the interplay of language and photography as two semiotic systems and the results, which can merge from this confrontation. Then typography is one of the possible manifestations of language itself, but having its own cultural significations.

But what is the relationship between this image and “nothingness”? What is the “poverty of” this image? In a brief and poem-like statement for the exhibition Mohajer (2012) stated that: Nothingness like desire, awareness and love is directed towards something. I don’t know what is this thing? Is it my eye or my mind? Or the outside world? These photos are contradictions that exist in my mind, on one hand I am passionate about photography and on the other I am fed up with all the sameness and “post” condition…so I returned to image/word and tried to reside in the materiality of the image/word and feel and sense this material.  And I touched and saw this nothingness.

Later when I asked him about the “Nothingness/Poverty of” photos he (2014) added: The nothingness series is a result of investigation in the mechanism of the camera and the mechanism of seeing and touching. In this collection I have tried to demonstrate the poverty of photography to its end. (based on Christian Metz’s logic in “Photography and Fetish”). The camera is so close to things, that in many instances the lens touches them. This closeness causes the thing to become separated from its surrounding and its status of thingness becomes suspended.  What is in front of the camera is not a thing in the usual sense (glass negative, photos, TV image, words in a book, or letters in a newspaper).  This suspension has happened twice; when the thing was selected and also when confronted by the camera. Although the subject matter of photographs are things in the material sense yet from a cultural perspective they belong to the realm of representation and they mediate between the world and us.  In fact our experiences of them are in the domain of seeing and thinking but the camera tries to touch them. Whether it is and effort in vain or successful, you can be the judge of that. 

Nothingness is commonly defined as “empty space” “utter insignificance” and also “the state of being no longer seen, heard, or felt”. Mohajer’s attempt to feel the materiality of what he calls “nothingness” and using the camera as the extension of his body to get extremely close to “things” transforms their state of utter insignificance and makes them worthy of seeing and touching. In the process of pausing and taking time to register all the details of what may be called “nothing” in Mohajer’s photographs, the viewer is pleasantly rewarded with unexpected surprises and sophisticated visual and linguistic enigmas. It maybe that Mohajer is hinting at the “poverty of” human perception and mind rather than things and opening up a vista to see something in everything even if we regard it as “nothing.”

©Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2014.  This essay cannot be quoted, translated or published in part or as a whole without Roshanak Keyghobadi’s permission.

Image: Mehran Mohajer, Nothingness/Poverty of series, 2012.

Mehran Mohajer: http://www.tavoosonline.com/SelectedArtist/SpecialEn.aspx?src=133&Page=1


[i] Mohajer holds a BA in photography and MA in General Linguistics.

[ii] From Mehran Mohajer’s e-mail correspondence with Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2008.

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Intermediate world of Lailee and Majnoon: The three-dimensional painting of Farshid Mesghali

By: Roshanak Keyghobadi | January 2, 2014

در ره منزل لیلی که خطرهاست درآن
شرط اول قدم ان است که مجنون باشی
حافظ

In the path to reach Lailee there are many dangers
The first step and condition is to be Majnoon
Hafez

Most Iranians know Lailee and Majnoon’s love story through Nezami Ganjavi’s book of poetry titled Khamseh ye Nezami (1192). In this story young Lailee and Qays (Majnoon) get to know each other and fall in love while studying at the same school. Qays asks Lailee to marry him but her father refuses and forces her to marry another man. The grief of separation from Lailee transforms Qays to a mad man (Majnoon) and he wanders in wilderness. Still in love with Qays (Majnoon), Lailee becomes ill and dies of heartbreak. Finally Majnoon finds Lailee’s grave and dies next to her.

In 2006 Farshid Mesghali was commissioned by KIT Museum in Amsterdam to create a sculpture portraying the final scene of Lailee and Majnoon’s story, in which Majnoon visits Lailee’s grave. Mesghali is one of the most eminent artists in Iran with an international reputation and remarkably innovative and influential artworks that remain unmatched specifically in the history of Iranian illustration. Saed Meshki, in an introduction to his interview with Mesghali in 2007[i], recalls his illustrations and states:  “When my generation was spending childhood and adolescent years, Farshid Mesghali imbued the realities of our life with dreams and brought our dreams into reality. The stories of the Little Black Fish, Little Wizard of My Room, Blue Eyed Boy, Arash the Bower, Champion, and Moonlight Secretes were the frontiers of our dreams and realities.”

“Mesghali was born in Isfahan in July 1943. While studying painting at Tehran University, he began his professional career as a graphic designer and illustrator in 1964. After his graduation, he joined The Institute for the Intellectual Development for Children and Young Adults in Tehran, in 1968. During years 1970-1978 he made many of his award winning animated films, posters for films and illustrations for children books for this institute. In 1979 Mesghali moved to Paris and for next four years produced paintings and sculptures, which were presented at Sammy King Gallery in Pairs. In 1986 he moved to Southern California, USA and established his graphic design studio, Desktop Studio in Los Angeles. During 1990-1994 he created a series of digital artworks based on snapshot photos, which were exhibited in a number of galleries and later in L.A. County Museum of Modern Arts. At present time he is creating sculptures and installation projects in his studio in Tehran.[ii]

Mesghali describes a specific series of his sculptures[iii] as “three-dimensional miniatures.” His reference to the traditional Persian miniature painting facilitates multiple ways of understanding his approach and style. To begin with, the term “three-dimensional miniature” is contradictory since Persian miniature is known for its two-dimensionality and the spiritual meaning of its depiction of space. Seyyed Hossein Nasr (1987) in his essay ‘The world of imagination’ and the concept of space in the Persian miniature explains:

“The Persian miniature succeeded in transforming the plane surface of miniature to a canvas depicting grades of reality, and was able to guide man from the horizon of material existence, and also profane and mundane consciousness, to a higher state of being and of consciousness, an intermediate world with its own space, time, movement, colours and forms, where events occur in a real but not necessarily physical manner. This world the Muslim philosophers of Persia have called the “imaginal world’ (mundus imaginalis) or the alam al-khayal [or alam al-mithal][iv]…The space of the Persian miniature is a recapitulation of this space and its forms and colours a replica of this world. The colours, especially the gold and lapis lazuli, are not just subjective whims of the imagination of the artist. Rather, they are the fruit of vision of an ‘objective’ which is that of the imaginal world. The space is depicted in such a way that the eye roves from one plane to another, moving always between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional. But the miniature does not allow the eye to ‘fall’ into the three-dimensional pure and simple.”

Farshid Mesghali’s artwork resides in this visual intermediate world. This is a space that is neither completely two dimensionally painted nor three dimensionally sculpted. It possesses many qualities of a Persian miniature painting with its subject matter, atmosphere, linearity, framing and colors (gold, lapis lazuli, green, and red). On the other hand it is composed of many separate components, forms and solid elements that occupy their own place in the space and also in relationship to one another. This space invites the viewer to experience the artwork from many subjective and objective perspectives and imbues the figures with spirits.

The subtle physicality of figures is similar to forms of the characters in a rudimentary pop-up book which although seem two-dimensional yet they occupy actual space and the eye can roam around them. Mesghali’s Lailee and Majnoon are surrounded by red trees, which create an enclosed and private space for the lovers. Shapes of the trees are similar to drops of tears or blood (matching Majnoon’s feelings). He is standing above Lailee’s lifeless body that is floating slighting above the ground. She is peacefully resting with her hand on her chest with a black face and red headdress.  A bird is perching on the step behind Majnoon, a deer is standing close by and a butterfly is next to Lailee.

Mesghali (2006)[v] explains the process of creating Lailee and Majnoon’s sculpture,  “First I went to my favorite sources, the miniatures. What did they [painters] do with this subject? There aren’t a lot. There are a couple of Majnuns [Majnoons] at the grave of Layla [Lailee] mourning and also Majnun [Majnoon] in the desert sitting with the animals. So I decided to show them together. It is the only time that these two are together. It is the time that Layla [Lailee] is dead and he is at her tomb. The whole time they are separated, the whole story… I didn’t like to do the sad part, but the whole story is sad. Majnun [Majnoon] is suffering the whole time. Still I didn’t make the tomb. I didn’t put Layla [Lailee] in the tomb…She is in the air. I tried to give it a kind of transcendence feeling—she is raised… Just the hands of Majnun [Majnoon] are black and cover his face. He cannot look at the tomb, but he has to be present. It is a difficult situation. I made the steps: green and dark blue and then Layla [Lailee]… It is from life to death. Majnun [Majnoon] is in the middle step, between life and death, the moment and location that they could be together. The bird is a symbol of life and the trees. Later I added the deer, because Majnun [Majnoon] was all the time with the deer or the lions… The butterfly is connected with Layla [Lailee]. It is a kind of homage to Majnun’s [Majnoon’s] life with Layla [Lailee].”

In Mesghali’s sculpture sorrow and peace coexist in this moment and intermediate world, which floats between the physical world (mulk) and the world of imagination (khiyal).

©Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2014.  This essay can not be quoted, translated or published in part or as a whole without Roshanak Keyghobadi’s permission.

Image: Farshid Mesghali, Leili & Majnoon, 2006, Installation at KIT Museum Amsterdam, Height: 200 cm.

Farshid Mesghali: http://www.farshidmesghali.com


[i] Neshan Magazine #13, Spring 2007

[ii] http://www.farshidmesghali.com/bio.htm

[iii] Sculptures such as Farhad, Rostam and Div, River and Horse rider. http://www.farshidmesghali.com

[iv] The multiple states of being can be summarized in five principal states which the Sufis call the five ‘Divine Presences’ (hadarat al-ilahiyat), and which Islamic philosophers from Suhrawardi onward have accepted fully as the ground pattern and ‘plan’ of reality, although they have used other terminology to describe it. These worlds or presences include the physical world (mulk), the intermediate world (malakut), the archangelic world (jabarut), the world of the Devine Names and Qualities (lahut), and the divine Essence or Ipseity itself (dhat), which is sometimes called hahut. The jabrut and the states beyond it are above forms and formal manifestation, whereas the malakut, which corresponds to the world of imagination (alam al-khayal or mithal), possesses form but not matter in ordinary Peripatetic sense. That is why in fact this world is also called the world of ‘hanging forms’ (suwar al-mu’allaqh), … Seyyed Hossein Nasr, ‘The world of imagination’ and the concept of space in the Persian miniature in Islamic Art and Spirituality, 1987, State University of New York Press, Albany.

[v] Farshid Mesghali, Interview 8.5.2006, Tropenmuseum by Sadiah Boonstra & Mohammad Babazadeh
http://collectie.tropenmuseum.nl/othermedia/Document/TXT001667.pdf