Farhad Moshiri has quipped that “serious” does not get you anywhere. Therefore, in his current show at Perrotin New York, Moshiri continues to exploit an extreme and often absurd relationship that can be constructed between messages and their means of delivery. He has been interested in what happens, for example, when a means of expression is quite elegant, laden with tradition and powerful, but it conveys schlock while, conversely, a message is powerful and deeply meaningful, but it is conveyed through kitsch. Imagine the Chicago Symphony Orchestra doing Barry Manilow, or Justin Bieber doing MacBeth.
A lack of adequate meaning for a powerful means of expression and a lack of gravitas for a serious message used to be two hallmarks of bad art, but with Moshiri they have become ‘found flaws’ comprising deliberate choices in his work, to add extra layers to his visual art vocabulary. Indeed, the retrospective of Moshiri’s work running concurrently at The Andy Warhol Museum, in his “Go West” show, is, in large part, a celebration of how pop art has relished and exploited the extra layers of meaning that a flawed relationship between means and message can confer.
For “Snow Forest”, Moshiri discovered that, in Iran, hand embroidered pictures to be hung on living-room walls, using cheap, plastic beads, has become all the rage among urban housewives. Of course, this is a medium that would be severely frowned upon by most folks predisposed to go to art galleries. Folks who embroider using such cheap beads are not going to speak about whether what they do is more gestural or figurative. They tend to make decorations for their living rooms – these are folks with little or no formal artistic training who are complete outsiders to the “serious” art world but who take pride in being able to engage in a time-consuming, labor-intensive process that yields images they can be proud of having made.
This type of cheap bead became the material Moshiri chose to use to convey his snow forest images, which he took as photos in Iran many years ago. The challenge for Moshiri was to take this type of bead as something that has negative artistic value, and to make it something folks on the Lower East Side would take seriously. Moshiri used what he calls ‘found persons’ (housewives) to do this embroidery for him to aid in giving extra meaning to these beads. So Moshiri appropriates, frankly, what might be perceived by his peers as ‘bad taste’ as an element in his art and as long as everybody can agree that the beads are deliberately chosen for their negative value, this ‘counter-value’ presents a type of contrapposto providing an extra layering of meaning absent when one does not move beyond traditional limits in regard to the relationship between meaning and expression.
Moshiri uses photographic images of trees after a snowstorm which he took and stashed away with other images from which he periodically draws from. He seems to have chosen the trees because he was looking for something that would be opposite of the idiom of plastic, something that plastic would not readily point to as a working element in the piece. In his 2009 “Life is beautiful!” or “Comfort” pieces, in which these words were spelled out in giant cursive writing using lots of knives stuck in the wall, the knives militated against the message and created a type of symbolic Stroop Effect of conflict and irony. Thus, like the knives, the cheap plastic and the trees initially militate against each other. You do not tend to think of anything beautiful or serene when you reference the knife as an element of interpretation in a piece and this dissonance also applies to the relationship of plastic to snow and trees.
Through knives spelling out “Life is beautiful!” or “Comfort” one is forced to try to intuit a relationship between elements of expression and content that immediately clash. After some reflection, one can conclude that perhaps such a paradox does exist and the discord perfectly conveys something worth recognizing – there is a type of serenity that can be effected through force, violence or the threat of violence which can make life serene and beautiful. Military spending in the USA accounts for 54% of federal discretionary spending. The American lifestyle of self-absorption and ease, which is spreading throughout the developing world, comes at this heavy price. Indeed, there might even be an analog for our inner reality as much allegorical literature points to various dilemmas to humane development which are resolved through a type of struggle, conflict or violent purging of something evil. So this confrontation between material and message represents something; it becomes the perfect mixture of elements to convey the paradox represented.
The contrast between the beads and snow-covered branches requires a similar process of interpretation. Upon entering the gallery, the black trunks and branches stand out more starkly against their white background due to the shiny beads. Ironically, these cheap beads become an excellent means to capture the contrast of white and black inherent in silhouettes of the branching process. An attempt to capture the essence of the photos of the forest through the embroidered beads thus also points conspicuously to the hubris of imitation which reveals itself more clearly the more accurate imitation becomes. As imitation of the trees, snow and sky reveals itself to be a fraud, so a genuine desire for the lost experience of the woods on a snowy afternoon comes to the fore.
Yet, again on the serious side, Moshiri has also spoken of searching for possible statements that do not get confused when transported from one culture to another. The beads also create a two-dimensional flatness that encourages the viewer to look at the trees and branching as a type of ‘found calligraphy’. In 1999, when Moshiri was first starting out, he became famous for presenting common and trite Farsi phrases (tantamount to “Have a nice day!”) in lavish and splendid traditional calligraphy on images of ancient pottery. This means of communication possessed the clout ready to deliver a momentous observation potentially concerning the loss of Persian values or identity, but instead it transported the hackneyed: thus more powerfully conveying the loss in cultural authenticity represented by the partially damaged pottery.
Here, I would argue, the beads and their lack of cultural clout become imbued with humility and humanity, through the realization that married women, potentially restricted in their lives through the severe religious culture of Iran, perhaps at home much of the time in a traditional family, spend hours of their lives to create this work. The judgment of bad taste is, therefore, revealed to be an aspect of cultural elitism and the beads impart an immense amount of empathy and fellow feeling to this found calligraphy. The lives of the women subsume the cheapness or tackiness of the beads and insinuate a part of their very lives to the work. The found calligraphy of the trees and branches becomes a type of especially humane calligraphy which can be transported among cultures, because it is a calligraphy, perhaps, of our inner reality and shared humanity as well as the shared humane values that have pervaded the best of all cultures and peoples throughout history.
Language applied to our inner reality is often clumsy and metaphorical in nature, using objects and relationships between objects from the outer world to approximate experience. This written script is therefore layered through the embroidered beads with dignity and respect. It is calligraphy comprised of the basics involved in the process of introspection and the process of burgeoning self-awareness that leads to more compassionate behavior. This is a universal calligraphy which attempts to retain traces of appearing, disappearing and changing experience one feels to be of consequence and inherent to reflecting on the human situation. It is experience and inner change revealed through movement, space and density. It is mark-making meant to collaborate with memory as a way to commemorate but also to push one forward. It is a cross-cultural calligraphy to, if nothing else, keep hope alive that life might be beautiful, and that there is a deep comfort to be born out of non-violent and nurturing action among our fellows.