“You Have to Have Faith in People”
An Interview with the Iranian Artist Parastou Forouhar
The politically motivated murder of her parents left a deep mark on Parastou Forouhar’s art. In her conceptual works, the Iranian artist, whose works are part of the Deutsche Bank Collection, addresses the fraught relationship between a repressive system and the human desire for freedom. Brigitte Werneburg met with Parastou Forouhar in Frankfurt.
||In light of the current political situation in Iran, Parastou Forouhar’s works possess a particular urgency. The motifs on the wallpaper, digital prints, and in the animated works of her series Thousand and One Days (since 2003) recall the patterns of Persian rugs. But then comes the shock: a closer look reveals that the ornaments consist of torture scenes. Human beings are tormented, whipped, and executed in every way imaginable. The artist, born 1962 in Tehran, created these merciless scenes in computer-generated drawings. The strategy of converting deeply emotional content into a cool and impersonal medium is typical for her work. A sober installation addresses the murder of her parents, leading Iranian opposition figures who were brutally stabbed in 1998. Documentation offers exactly what the title promises: letters, newspaper articles, photographs, and correspondence with politicians and officials since 1999 document the artist’s struggle to uncover this crime.
Forouhar also explores these traumatic events in the reduced drawings of her series Shoes Off (2001/02), which is part of the Deutsche Bank Collection. She portrays the harassment at the hands of the Iranian bureaucracy that she was subjected to when she attempted to gain access to the files on her parents’ murder. Cloaked in a black chador, she had to wait in barred offices or submit to body searches.
Parastou Forouhar, who moved from Tehran to Germany after completing her studies in art, took part in the 2nd Berlin Biennial in 2001; in 2007, she participated in the show Global Feminism at the Brooklyn Museum of Modern Art. Her works can currently be seen in Iran Inside Out — a comprehensive exhibition at the New York Chelsea Art Museum that takes stock of contemporary Iranian art. Many of the artists in this exhibition are also currently showing work at Deutsche Bank’s exhibition space in Salzburg, where the Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery introduces 17 for the most part young artists in the exhibition Raad O Bargh (Thunder and Lightning).
Brigitte Werneburg: Ms. Forouhar, have you had any time at all to work artistically since the Iranian presidential elections of June, or are you mainly concerned with the situation in Iran?
Parastou Forouhar: At the moment, I have to say I’m more involved with politics than with art. To make art you need time to reflect, and the events of the moment are so urgent that the main thing for me is to follow them and take them in.
Do the events ferment within you in preparation for converting them into artistic form?
I wouldn’t really say that. But I think I am definitely collecting material in a certain sense.
Your work "Shoes Off" is also based on reality, on your efforts to gain access to the files on your parents’ murder. Deutsche Bank purchased some of these drawings for their collection. But isn’t there also a video that accompanies the drawings?
Yes, I made a video from a sequence of these drawings. I wanted a loop effect, an endless story with all the coming and going and accomplishing nothing. The sentences that go with each drawing are spoken either by a man or woman in an entirely objective, disinterested voice. The sentences are commonplace and very banal. "Take off your shoes. I have to search you." Things like that.
As we say in German, it really "takes off your shoes" to listen to these banal and cruel instances of official harassment. Were you thinking of this saying when you chose the title?
Yes, it’s why I chose this title. I think it’s fantastic when something can be understood not only in one context, but also in a completely different one, where it can even become expanded. As I live and work between cultures, this is very important to me.
To my mind, your wallpaper work involves a similar ambiguity. I always have to think of "Ornament and Crime," the pamphlet by the modern architecture pioneer Adolf Loos.
In the work Thousand and One Days, ornamentation plays a key role as an aesthetic phenomenon that allows for no discontinuity, individuality, or change. Anything that does not subordinate itself to the ornamental order is eradicated. It does not exist, which makes the ornament something totalitarian. Of course, ornamentation cannot be reduced to that, but my own personal approach to the subject explores the totalitarian aspect. This is what I want to show: the system that holds individuality prisoner, that imposes its power everywhere.
But your wallpaper ornaments depict the very concrete crimes of torture.
Exactly. And that is why it is so important that the wallpaper in the much larger body of work Thousand and One Days consists of digital drawings created on the computer, while the series Shoes Off is made up of hand-made drawings. Both approaches have their source in the political situation. One work explores state-run torture, which people are entirely at the mercy of. The other addresses bureaucratic harassment. That is why in Shoes Off the spontaneity of the hand-made drawing is such a crucial element. You can still bring some individual stubbornness to bear in fighting bureaucracy, even if the results are unsuccessful.
The ornament is indeed an excellent allegory for the totalitarian system.
Precisely. And there’s this sensuous, aesthetically gratifying aspect to it as well. It embellishes; it’s beautiful. And so the moment the beauty disintegrates and turns into cruelty, you have to bear with the resulting ambivalence—particularly because the beauty is not lost in the process. In terms of the perception of a work of art, this moment is very important.
The viewer only notices the beauty at first—which makes the shock all the greater when he or she recognizes the scenes depicted. Is this a trick you use consciously?
Very much so. I challenge the viewer to take a second look. At first glance, you see the beautiful pattern and think you’ve understood it. And then you get a little closer and realize, no, it’s completely different, I didn’t understand anything at all. To challenge the viewer to take a second look is exciting to me. The viewer is thrown back on himself and is forced to reevaluate his perception.
In Berlin, you recently challenged viewers to a second and third glance with your sculptural objects. But even a third glance didn’t help people decipher the mysterious, magnificently embroidered writing adorning the shiny silk fabric.
Countdown consists of seating bags that are comfortable and inviting. When you’re sitting in one, it’s very difficult to get up again, because they engulf you. But this is offset by the fabrics with the texts, which I bought in Tehran. They’re religious banners that are traditionally hung up during the Ashura ceremony, which is the mourning ceremony for the third Imam that the whole martyr cult harks back to. The banners look very ornamental, very oriental with their religious verses. It’s an exotic trap that continues to function: it attracts us, but it’s full of aspects we do not clearly perceive. I’ve also upholstered office chairs with this fabric; I translate the writing for viewers to understand the words’ meaning. I’m fascinated by the transformation these fabrics have undergone over the thirty years the Islamic Republic has been in existence. Years ago they were black and white, or perhaps key colors like red or green. And now they are totally colorful, garish even. It’s a mixture of pop culture and religiosity that can also be observed elsewhere. But it’s not quite as volatile when the Pope comes to Germany and people celebrate in a hybrid of church congress and Love Parade.
How does this development come about? Does it need the pop aesthetic to be attractive, or is it just too powerful to be avoided?
I think it’s both. One cannot avoid it, and so it’s tolerated to a certain degree. At some point, for instance, it became popular in the Islamic Republic to paint the portraits of the twelve imams. Over the course of time, they increasingly mutated into Indian actresses. They really looked like Shahrukh Khan and Bollywood, with sensuous, full lips, bedroom eyes, bushy eyebrows, and silky hair. These portraits were sold as paintings, posters, and as buttons, and they became more and more beautiful. At some point the regime noticed that something was going wrong, that it wouldn’t do, and then they banned these images. They issued a prohibition on icons—it’s forbidden to show them even during the mourning ceremonies for the Third Imam. At the same time, the regime also uses this for its own purposes. If you take a look at Ahmadinejad’s election campaign or election campaigns in general, you can see how incredibly colorful they’ve become, with all these little pictures …
Is the Islamic Republic becoming more Catholic?
It’s increasingly taking on pop elements. And the religious chants are also very interesting. They’ve started sounding like rap. They’re full of beats that no longer have anything in common with the traditional chants. They are ecstatic, body-oriented, very worldly.
By Catholic I meant that among the monotheistic religions, Catholicism’s love of drama and imagery was the earliest and strongest. That is why other religions that increasingly emphasize imagery and ritual seem to become more Catholic.
That reminds me of a work I made in Rome. In 2006 I was a fellow at the Villa Massimo and I discovered something there that for me was the pinnacle of absurdity. There is a store there that sells lollipops, including huge lollipops in the shape of Pope John Paul II. and Pope Benedict XVI. This inspired me to make a photograph in which I am standing on a column posing as a Madonna and licking Benedict XVI., although I am wearing a black chador.
Speaking of the chador: recently, I’ve often had to think of your photo piece "Blind Spot," of these bald male heads draped in a chador that otherwise only women wear. Because it seems to me that the opposition going out onto the streets right now is female, while the defenders of the regime and the chador are male. Do you share this view?
An Iranian feminist living in Berlin once said a beautiful thing about this: because the Islamic Republic has a very masculine structure and organization, the opposition automatically takes on feminine features. The younger generation of men in Iranian society is very different from the preceding generation. They no longer insist on the traditional masculine character. They’re fed up with it, actually.
One of your most important works is "Documentation," which provides information on your research into the circumstances of your parents’ murder. This takes on a special urgency in light of current events. As an opponent of the Shah regime, your father was a compatriot of Chomeini for a time. Was he religious, or was religion more of a medium for post-colonial politics?
My father spent 14 years of his life in the Shah’s prisons, as a democrat. He was religious in the sense that a person believes in God, perhaps. But his political ideas were not based on faith. During the revolution, the issues at stake were the country’s independence, personal freedom, and social justice. These were the three goals of the revolution. Then, under Chomeini, my father was minister of employment for six months and then minister of state. Following the first parliamentary elections of the Islamic Republic, my father stepped down from his offices to protest election fraud, already back then.
Today, the day of Rafsanjani’s Friday prayer, must be very strange for you, because there is reason to believe that he was behind the murder of your parents. And now, in July of 2009, he’s…
A figure of salvation? Well, you have to have faith in people. They showed great presence, they positioned themselves wonderfully on a global basis. The whole world watched and saw that this society cannot be reduced to Ahmadinejad and his hate-filled rants. I have faith in this society and in those that support this society; despite any reservations I might have, I’m thankful for the moment. But this does not apply to the person of Rafsandjani. He’s one of those that have always gone with the flow, and sometimes one ascribes much more power to them than they actually have.
You travel to Tehran each year on the anniversary of your parents’ death to hold a memorial ceremony. Will you also travel this November 21 to Tehran? Won’t it be more dangerous for you this time than ever before?
It has been a great risk for several years already. We haven’t had permission to hold the ceremony since five years. It was declared illegal, but we insist on our right and we proclaim it. And then the security forces come early in the morning and barricade the streets. They install cameras and cut off the mobile phone networks in our quarter. We are not allowed to leave the house, and conversely, no one is allowed to visit us. This has been the case for the past five years. It is a sign of resistance that rests on my shoulders.
But there is more protest potential this year in Tehran than in previous years. It’s possible that people will come and no longer let themselves be prevented from taking part in the commemoration ceremony.
That would be nice. That’s been my goal all these years. The people who couldn’t get through knew at least that I was there. It’s about setting this sign. And that’s why I will be there this year too, for sure.