I do want to do something.

October 15, 2010, 1:55 pm
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Here is a text I wrote  on the occasion of Setareh Shahbazi’s  show at 98weeks Project Space. To see more images, http://www.98weeks.blogspot.com

The Steps in Between an Image
A series of close considerations on Setareh Shahbazi’s work
By Mirene Arsanios

I am writing this text in the capacity of your friend and neighbor. It’s a role that comes with insights and entry points (aside from the door’s peephole) into your life and practice that replaces the artist/ critic relation with a door-to-door or a through-the-wall one.  I first met you in 2005, when you came to Beirut for a residency at the Arab Image Foundation and produced your book “O. no no The Crystal Series….”.
I came to know you in 2009 when you moved back to the very same neighborhood.

Something was still to be done. To come back is to reverse paved trajectories, implode familiar images and dismantle known processes as well as their inherent logic. Setareh Shahbazi’s work results from a process of condensation, digestion and re-composition, sometimes performed in reverse or out-of-order. Clichés, popular imaginations, cultural stereotypes, iconic gestures – these get processed and returned under new conditions, in estranged and somewhat unfit forms, as if coming back from a shared time or a place we might have visited before. (The historical period of the pyramids is that of a summer vacation).

The window on the left hand side of your Beirut studio looks onto an industrial bus depot and, further into the horizon line, onto the harbor. The objects in the room converge toward a large blue table placed at its center. A bearded man portrayed on a woven rug, stickers with rainbowed political mottos, family albums, vintage notebooks, geology and home care booklets — these are hung on the wall, carefully disposed on a table, piled or politely leaning against each other.

Setareh’s drawings are immediate, unequivocal, appearing all at once and right now. Their gradations are rendered digitally, becoming flat surfaces and plain colors. She illustrates stories that remain abstract. The gestures of a hand can be assigned multiple meanings (the hand in a horror movie, the charitable hand) but is also simply a hand hovering over a plane of signifiers.
Closer to a force field, her drawing’s surfaces are in fact threatened by the resistance or dissonance at play between the singular elements within the image. Conflict, or rather tension, is at work behind consensus. These images question the very meaning of coming together, which paradoxically results from a process of cutting, taking apart or extracting, a figure literally taken from a photograph. It’s destroying a given set of found relations to recreate new ones.

While viewing together the pictures you had brought back from Teheran, you insisted on the house your father had build and on how the children were very often photographed next to bare or blossoming trees. I was aware that these photographs were material for a future work, and for the first time they were being treated as a subject per se, defying the uneasiness that accompanies personal and biographical work by giving these photographs their own autonomy. Your desire was also to move away from a strictly digital production by showing the intervals and the steps in between the creation of an image, uncovering the photograph from its digital layers as if it were a nude. On one of the pictures, you had carved out a shape according to a figure taken from another photograph.

The act of cutting up, peeling out, extracting is bound to an act of re-composition in scale and relations. When translated spatially, as she has done in the present show at 98weeks with her wood-mounted cut out images, one can see both the surface and the object, literally walking through a drawing and acknowledging the devices necessary to uphold a surface. Sometimes leftovers from sawing out her wood cutouts lean against the wall as a reminder of what it takes to make these sculptural images.

“So what I do is that I first print the image in scale so I can do the cut-out according to the figure. I also print the image on a white foil. Then I primer the cut out and cover the surface with the foil. (By the way, the different body parts are already cut out in the foil, I just need to peel them off to paint the different colors). Once the foil is on the wood, I start taking out the parts corresponding to different colors and I paint them… I wait until it’s dry. I the put back the foil and proceed to the next color. The last stage is when I paint everything in black to mark the contours, before peeling off the foil entirely. In between each step, there are spooky moments…!”

The resulting work, with no intended mystification, doesn’t account for the acts that are less tangible and hardly visible in the art object itself. Setareh once said, as did André Breton, that she envisioned her work in dreams. During the day, however, she creates connections – between people, locations and contexts – that generate distinctive atmospheres. It’s a scenography of the everyday that consists in arranging a table, dimming the lights or asking if everything is ok.


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