After being somewhat derailed, the remainder of last week was a struggle to get back on track again while keeping in touch with Rehab and contributing to the support campaign. I looked through my notes, sorted papers and books, and logged in Naghmeh Sohrabi’s Taken for Wonder.
On Friday I attended a presentation by Azar Mahmoudian at University of Toronto’s Iranian Studies Initiative’s Friday lectures. She is here for the exhibition Incident Light at Blackwood Gallery curated by Leila Pourtavaf. Azar is very young and impressively articulate, and self-reflexive, clearly with colouring from Goldsmith schooling. Her presentation focused on a survey exhibit about group exhibitions of Iranian artists held in western countries, mostly with focus on Europe. An extensive and laborious work, obviously. Like many such works that are driven by some form of institutional critique, however, there was a totalizing tone that was not accompanied by a criticality going beyond the surface, so that while the institution is being critiqued, it continues to be the centre and its assumptions are, at best, challenged or replaced by other totalizing assumptions. Why? Well, because the work is being done within the framework of another institution and the critique’s aim is to expand the institution’s range and/or alter its approaches but NOT to replace institutional practices with communal practices. Paris, London, New York, Tehran. These are the four corners of the box. The art system remains the art system. I am, of course, feeling a little sad and a bit disappointed that I and other artists like me who have resisted the totalizing of institutions rather than playing along with them for temporary gains do not appear in the horizons of a young, aspiring, smart art professional whose career is on the rise and who is already defining who’s on the roster of “Iranian artists.” Enough said. The disconnect too is an effect of the journey, not so wondrous.
I spent the weekend at an intense contemplative writing workshop at Toronto’s Shahmbhala Centre. The workshop Sleight of Hand was led by writer and Buddhist teacher Miriam Hall. I learned that my own embodied writing process very closely matches the contemplative process that Miriam teaches. The difference is that in my process the visuality of the writing becomes dominant over, while it stays related to, the meaning of what is written. In a way, there is a dynamic tension in my process which pushes the writing simultaneously in different directions. It was a challenge for me to step back from this process and work only with the content. The calligrapher in me, sees in the language a visual capacity which is not entirely reliant on the meaning, reading and interpretation in order to do its wonder of exploring and healing the mind. It’s a zen practice. Content dependent writing that Miriam works with explores the narrative dimension of writing. Different process. I’m grateful for the workshop as it gave me a different context for my own work and introduced to me some processes, tools, or toys (as Miriam called them) and some approaches to structuring. It also gave me some language for articulating my goal: To diminish the gap between the hand and the mind, to minimize the distance from mind to hand, to bring them in perfect synchronization. I think over the years of practice, I might have gone pretty far in this direction because in practice I find that sometimes my hand leads rather than my mind, and often they are in dialogue.
Miriam also introduced me to Word into Art, an exhibition of word-based work by artists from the Middle East. Looking through the catalog, which one of the other participants happened to have and brought in on the second day, I remembered Azar’s Friday discussion of these sorts of exhibitions. The works are inspiring. The contextualization inevitably fails as it pushes the work’s presence in the world into a very narrow channel. A comment by the woman who brought in the catalog sealed that conclusion. In response to my thanking her, she said she had been so impressed by the exhibition as it expanded her horizons because she had always thought of people from these countries as refugees and here they were producing contemporary art. She’s entitled to her experience, of course, but the fact that she felt she had to share that experience with me showed the ultimate failure of these sorts of presentation frameworks. In keeping to simplistic concepts and categorizations, these frameworks continue to reproduce what they purport to change.
I had an exchange with Dr Nahid Mozaffari who manages the website Qajar Women. I was asking her for any references to traveling to the west written by any Qajar woman. She mentioned Taj al-Saltanah and Mahin Banu. That reinforced my decision to choose Taj al-Saltanah. I’ve ordered and am waiting for the existing English translation titled Crowning Anguish. The Iranian bookstore in Toronto does not have the Farsi book. I have to pick that up when I’m in California along with Banu.