Recovering the Past: “Letters” of Shadi Yousefian

By: Roshanak Keyghobadi | November 22, 2013

We lay aside letters never to read them again, and at last destroy them out of discretion, and so disappears the most beautiful, the most immediate breath of life, irrecoverably for ourselves and for others.”
– Goethe

In her recent exhibition at Shirin Gallery NY[i], Shadi Yousefian has created a visual narrative of recovering her personal letters and restoring what was destined to be lost.

Yousefian moved to the United States in 1995 when she was sixteen and until 1997 kept up a constant correspondence through handwritten letters with her family members and close friends. Ten years later she re-examined thick packages of letters that she had affectionately stored and realized that many of the events and details of the letters were not familiar to her anymore. She recalls: “The content of my correspondence were so deeply layered within hundreds of overlapping pages that their temporality remains an unordered flow- I could not remember what happened when, even as my own sense of identity and belonging has, in part, taken form through in the affective exchange.”

Yousefian’s act of recovery started when she reformatted the contents and form of the letters and gave a new life to them. By redacting, cutting, staining, gluing, nailing, and punching holes, she developed a ritualistic process which assigned a new meaning to her accumulated personal documents. To understand this process one must not only view all works on display in relationship to each other and experience the whole gestalt but also search for connections and meanings of each work within itself.

In her first attempts Yousefian cautiously deconstructed the letters by punching, cutting and nailing photocopies and later with more confidence she used the actual letters, still hesitant to interrupt their content, words and sentences. Gradually she detached herself from the content and concentrated on form.  Long strips of paper glued on top of each other become small squares or circles meticulously nailed and positioned in grids.

Yousefian chose to start working on the letters of family and friends first and later she moved on to her own letters[ii]. She explains the emotional and aesthetic divide between her own letters and the other letters:  “Where my friends’ letters were mostly impassioned and joyful, my own reflected the sadness and strain of my early years in the United States. I manifested this melancholic distance by presenting my own letters bare and unstained, where I animated those from friends by staining their pages with the wine and tea we once shared.

It seems that Yousefian has tried to give the emotional voices of the letters a unified and rational form in order to sort out her own feelings and thoughts about them. For example in Untitled (above images), nails hold down fragments of letters that are cut in shape of small squares.  Each squared specimen reveals a portion of a larger written content. In different handwritings, legible or illegible, rushed or controlled, pieces of various emotions are on display and the viewers can verbally and visually connect them together: “Hello…I am writing…I remember…congratulations…night…kiss…call me…joy…1377…try…I hope…life…photo…I laughed…I am sure…gradually…think…help…talk…”

Within this cohesive composition there is a tension between the materials and content. Colors of the papers, untouched or stained, are in natural tones of green, blue, sienna, ivory and white which are tranquil and quite yet they seem to move on the surface of the piece.  Although the organic handwritten lines of letters are interrupted by cutting and pining and then neatly positioned in a mechanical grid, each square preserves its character and holds one or few words, which transfer a message or trigger a feeling.

Rows and rows of nine hundred nails compose a visual sound. One can imagine the loud and repetitive action which can also be meditative and centering when Yousefian was hammering them down. This rhythm also flows in the colors, shapes and patterns that are reminiscent of traditional Iranian tile and brick works in Shiraz and Isfahan.

In her exhibition Shadi Yousefian shares her thoughts and creative process by walking us through her rituals of realization (finding and re-reading the letters), selection (choosing specific parts of the letters), detachment (cutting the letters), manipulation (making something new with the letters), and reflection (re-examining the letters in a new format). She explains: “… ‘Letters,’ effects an intimate, indexical relation between my past and present; and shapes the intangible mesh of lives entwined across a distance into an architecture of lived experiences.”

©Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2013

Above images. Shadi Yousefian, Untitled, 2011, 48 in x 48 in, Mixed Media. (Full image and detail)

Also see http://www.shadiyousefian.com


[i] Shirin Gallery NY http://www.shiringalleryny.com. Shadi Yousefian’s “Letters” will be on view from October 24 to November 28, 2013.

[ii] Yousefian asked her family and friends to send back her letters.

Advertisements

Ritual of Recollection: Barbad Golshiri and Mim Kaf Mim Aleph

By: Roshanak Keyghobadi | November 2013

از خاک در آمدیم و…
…بر باد شدیم
عمرخیام

…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.

Barbad Golshiri’s The Untitled Tomb can be interpreted based on where it is located/displayed. In the hands of Mim Kaf Mim Aleph’s family it is a private and practical tool for performing their visitation rites. In a gallery space it is a public and aesthetic object standing on its own with no relationship to its original location and context yet with close connection to the other tombstones created by Golshiri in his Curriculum Mortis.
© Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2013.

Image: Barbad Golshiri, The Untitled Tomb, 2012. Iron, soot. 60.5 x 135 x 0.2 cm. Edition of 3 + 1AP.

Also see: http://www.barbadgolshiri.com


[i]Behesht Zahara is the largest cemetery in Iran located in south part of Tehran which was established in 1970. It is around 540 hectares and has close to 1,400,000 graves. http://beheshtezahra.tehran.ir/Default.aspx?tabid=92

[ii] Curriculum Mortis exhibition by Barbad Golshiri was on view at Thomas Erben Gallery in New York from September 7 to October 26, 2013. http://www.thomaserben.com