Is the nature of artistic and aesthetic realization and interpretation of art by the artist and the viewer connected to the time of the artwork’s creation? Is the only criterion for art to be contemporary is being produced at the present time or is contemporaneity a more complex aesthetic state?
Art historian, Terry Smith (2006) in his essay “Contemporary Art and Contemporaneity”[i] explains that, “the term contemporary calibrates a number of distinct but related ways of being in or with time, even of being in and out of time at the same time.” The temporal and spatial duality of state and location of contemporaneity testifies to its fluid nature. The common definition of contemporary is, “happening, existing, living, or coming into being during the same period of time and marked by characteristics of the present period.” And contemporaneity is “the quality or state of being contemporaneous or contemporary.”[ii] This definition suggests a lively, dynamic and vibrant state of becoming and happening.
Smith (2006) also adds, “Contemporaneity consists precisely in the constant experience of radical disjunctures of perception, mismatching ways of seeing and valuing the same world, in the actual coincidence of asynchronous temporalities, in the jostling contingency of various cultural and social multiplicities, all thrown together in ways that highlight the fast-growing inequalities within and between them. He explains that the “acts of artists and the organizations that sustain them” produce the answer to what constitutes contemporary art.”
Another definition suggests that “Contemporary art is the art of today, produced by artists who are living in the twenty-first century. Contemporary art provides an opportunity to reflect on contemporary society and the issues relevant to ourselves, and the world around us. Contemporary artists work in a globally influenced, culturally diverse, and technologically advancing world. Their art is a dynamic combination of materials, methods, concepts, and subjects that challenge traditional boundaries and defy easy definition. Diverse and eclectic, contemporary art as a whole is distinguished by the very lack of a uniform, organizing principle, ideology, or ‘ism.’ Contemporary art is part of a cultural dialogue that concerns larger contextual frameworks such as personal and cultural identity, family, community, and nationality.“[iii]
In regard to contemporary Iranian art, art historian Hamid Keshmirshekan (2011) in his essay “Contemporary or Specific: The Dichotomous Desires in the Art of Early Twenty-First Century Iran” explains, “contemporary Iranian art, which on the one hand draws heavily on the Euro- American paradigm and, on the other, has selectively adapted existing art forms, is structurally heterogeneous. In the process of this adaptation, like Iranian culture as a whole, it has incorporated elements of Euro-American contemporary art while seeking to create the phenomenon of a localized contemporaneity. This alternative context of contemporaneity is obviously a response to canonical discourses and ideally, in turn, inscribes new discursive formations in the contemporary era. It was most probably by the 1990s that Iranian art witnessed a gradual change, departing from the frame of the newly emerging, post- revolutionary artistic Modernism, and incorporating new viewpoints of existing actualities. As with contemporaneity, the impetus for this came, in part, from the international arena and also from circumstances within, where the need to register reality in a transitional era in all its shifting forms became compelling.” [iv]
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 KITMuseum 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).
[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
…We were ascended from the soil and blown by the wind… Omar Khayyam
It is estimated that around 146,357 people die each day in the world. Some may be buried individually or in mass graves cremated or not buried. Most burials and mourning rituals bring closure for those who are left behind.
A computerized search on Behesht Zahra’s[i] website provides the exact location of a grave (section, row and number) as well as the information on the tombstone (first name, last name, father’s first name, date of birth and date of death). Family members of the deceased may also add poems and photos (framed or etched) to the tombstones. By marking a location and providing specific information, a tombstone not only becomes a proof for a life once existed on earth and a site for identification but also is a way that family and friends can locate and visit the deceased and become engaged in their ceremonies of respect and remembrance.
Barbad Golshiri’s portable stencil flat iron tombstone masterfully facilitates the ritual of recollection for the family of a man who was denied a tombstone. As it is explained in the catalogue of his recent exhibition at Thomas Erben Gallery[ii],
“The stenciled text narrates the labyrinthine death of a man who for political reasons could never have a tombstone on his grave. His family asked the artist to make a tombstone for him and the artist made an ephemeral tomb for their loved one. Each time the family visits the cemetery they bring along the stenciled tombstone with them, place it on the grave and stealthily pour soot powder on it. The text is thus imprinted and depending on the wind strength vanishes in a few hours or a few days. The act is repeated as a ritual.
The epitaph reads in Persian:
Here Mim Kaf Aleph does not rest. He is dead. Layer beneath layer dead. Depth beyond depth. Each time deeper. Each death deeper. Stone upon stone. Each stone a death. Mim Kaf Mim Aleph has no stone. Has never had. No trace of it [also: so be it]. Never in all deaths. December came and Mim Kaf Mim Aleph was no longer [there]. Is not.”
By denying Mim Kaf Mim Aleph a permanent tombstone in a specific location, his grave (which can now be anywhere, although he is buried in one specific place) becomes an active and mobile site of remembrance and takes on a nomadic life. If the denial of a tombstone was an act of obliteration, the stencil tombstone becomes a tool for visibility, liberation and constant renewal and recall.
The ritual of spreading the soot over the stencil tombstone is reminiscence of the ceremonies of spreading ashes of cremated bodies over land or water, when upon their release ashes disappear in the space and cannot be assembled again. Yet the act of spreading soot on the grave and over the iron stencil gives shape to letters, words and sentences which all describe and point to the fact that this particular site is not an ordinary site and a body is buried underneath. The ritual gives identity to an unidentified grave and the enigmatic narrative transforms the epitaph into a riddle to be solved. Only the family of the man knows the full answer, only they know the details of a life that is no more.
Farah Ossouli is a painter and Hadi Farahani is a caricaturist. Although their style, technique and medium of their choice are different from one another, they are tied together by their use of traditional miniature painting iconography and introduction of the contemporary issues and spaces in their frame of work.
Ossouli studied traditional miniature painting under Mahmoud Farshchian and her knowledge and mastery of traditional miniature painting techniques and color combinations are obvious in her paintings. What makes her work differ from traditional miniature paintings is how she creates and divides the format and visual spaces in a modernist style. Her style of positioning the elements and figures in relationship to created spaces, and the contrast between shapes, colors and textures produces the feeling of simultaneous presence of past and present, old and new in her work. She creates constant interaction between sharp and soft forms, dark and bright colors, textured and flat surfaces, decorative and minimalist compositions in her paintings.
Ossouli selects formats that mostly consist of stripes of rectangular spaces crowded with female or male figures, trees, birds and flowers that are in contrast to stripes or planes of empty spaces next to them. In this style, Ossouli puts congested against void and enclosed against open. She invites you inside and yet shows you the outside. The dark and muddy colors are sitting beside brilliant and radiant colors in her paintings as if she is drawing the attention of the viewer to life’s dual concepts.
Titles such as, Nest and Flight, Meeting Night, Beginning and End, Khosrow and Shirin, Yousef and Zolaykha indicates that Ossouli’s subject matters are mostly poetic or based on famous stories like Shahnameh-ye Ferdowsi, Divan-e Hafiz, and other classic writings . Her compositions and choice of colors create calm and quite. It is as if Ossouli’s miniature beings had accepted their place in this contrasting environment and are in harmony with their painted faith, although their stripes of rectangular lives are getting narrower and tighter and Ossouli is covering their surrounding with more void and dark planes.
Are Ossouli’s miniature people representing the past or the present? Why Ossouli selects this kind of format for her paintings? Are her contrasting spaces squeezing the colorful miniature beings and narrowing their windows of existence or broadening their landscape of vision? Are these people peeking through Ossuli’s windows to see and explore environment of present or are they inviting us into their world of past?
The visual binary codes of representation are working full force in Farahani’s pen and ink caricatures drawings where ornamental miniature men and women are in contrast with their erased traditional ornamental environment, space and existence. Farahani’s characters are not situated in traditional miniature scenes, participating in majestic garden parties or hunting scene or looking from balconies in to their lover’s eyes. The past lovers are involved in present daily chores of the real life and present time.
Outside the story books, the princess/lover/wife is washing her royal wash and hanging it from the cloth line or knitting clothes for her unborn child while the prince/lover/husband figure is enjoying his nap or smoking his water pipe high up in the veranda. Aside from his male and female figures and their humorous relationships to a totally modern life, Farahani depicts his ornamental miniature man in contrast to the visually minimal contemporary man.
Unlike Ossouli’s isolated and contained person, Hadi Farahani’s miniature person is busy and involved in present and is trying to blend in, understand, imitate, fight, liberate, escape, survive or recover from this world and its minimal mostly dominant and cruel people. The title of Farahani’s book of caricatures is Zir-O-Zebar (bottom & top or high & low in Persian) and his caricatures clearly represent the icons of the past or symbols that are associated with traditional Eastern person, which is a delicate miniature drawing, situated lower than the solid and powerful icons and symbols of the modern, contemporary Western beings who are higher up in status and power structure.
Unlike Ossouli’s paintings that encourages calm and quite, Farahani’s dark humor is reflected in his powerful caricatures that are packed with social, political and artistic statements and questions. By creating opposing situations and conditions in his drawings, he asks: how do one deals with technology, colonialization, westernization, contemporary art issues, mental isolation and depression, pollution, poverty, alienation and annihilation? Is Farahani depicting defeat or triumph? How is his miniature person dealing with his/her present situation? Is modern life with its highs and lows offering any hope and encouragement?
Ossouli and Farahani’s works are similar in the way they are responding to the Postmodern era and interpreting the past in relationship to present and how they blend together the elements of old and new in their art. Both artists are facing the present and the contemporary time, and portraying how humankind deals with the Postmodern life, age of anxiety and illusion, fragmentation and alienation. But what makes their artwork different is that Ossouli is making peace with present where Farahani is questioning it.