Mitra Tabrizian in Conversation with Rose Issa

RI: This exhibition at Tate Britain shows a selection of your recent works. They reveal an important shift from your earlier works, which were fictional and staged, using professional models and actors, not unlike film posters. Your recent work is more documentary in style, with real people re-enacting their own stories. Does it reflect the influence of Iranian cinema, which in the late 1980s and early 1990s introduced a genre that I call ‘real fictions’?

MT: The earlier work focuses on corporate culture and is deliberately ‘constructed’, cold and flat, although I didn’t always use professional actors, or produce staged images, so it’s not such a clear-cut shift. Silent Majority (2001), for instance, is in effect a ‘documentary’ piece, except shot on 5 x 4 film – if what we mean by documentary is the use of real locations, real people, undirected and spontaneous. Or in Lost Time, I mixed actors and non-actors, some re-enacting their own stories.

For the recent work on Iran I wanted to deviate from the usual representations: the social documentary or journalistic approach, or the constructed images, often on a ‘big’ subject, or ‘abstract’ photography with a poetic slant, or the tendency to ‘exoticise’ (in photography or video). Rather, the work, as you mentioned, echoes contemporary Iranian cinema, often using non-actors and focusing on an apparently ‘small’ subject, treated allegorically to allude to wider social issues - which incidentally is not a new aesthetic. The Italian neo-realists used this strategy a long time ago.

RI: Let us talk about Tehran 2006 – a key moment of reflection on Iran. Most of your earlier work focused on issues concerning the West, and corporate culture. Despite using ordinary people, Tehran 2006 is still a very highly conceived panorama, staged, structured, despite its ‘documentary look’. Can you speak about the concept behind the work and how you realised the work?

MT: Tehran 2006 looks at the reality of everyday life and the ordinary in extraordinary times.
Tehran is a modern city like any other, overpopulated and heavily congested. But I chose this particular spot, a newly built post-revolution landscape, still in development, which despite the cityscape in the background and new buildings in the foreground, looks as if it’s in the middle of nowhere, with people that have nowhere to go, metaphorically ‘exiled’ in their own country. All the characters ‘play’ themselves. The crowd is a mixture of people who are struggling and have been let down by the promises of revolution: a taxi driver, factory worker, builder, cleaner, dressmaker, servant, caretaker, etc. It will be these people, already living on the edge, who are hit most if the economic sanctions continue, or in the event of military action. At another level, and in the context of the current ‘dispute’ where Iran is seen as a threat or a victim, to focus on ordinary life and everyday reality could suggest both that Iranians are not necessarily a threat (as some international communities certainly fear), and that Iranians cannot easily be intimidated by the external threat (as the Americans in particular, tend to think) and life goes on and people survive. These views are strongly shared by the majority in Iran today. So, conceptually the project is concerned with the notion of ‘survival’.

RI: The Border series, about the East in the West, is of Iranians in exile in the UK, resiliently waiting. What made you want to make this series? Was it a sense of displacement and a certain desire to return?

MT: Border, on Iranians in exile, concentrates on the fantasy of return, no matter how slight, only to demonstrate the underlying reality, as Stuart Hall observes, that ‘migration is a one way trip!’ Having interviewed the volunteers to participate in this project, what emerged, despite their diverse case histories, is that in the realm of fantasy, they all feel as if they have ‘unfinished business’. So in this project what each narrative implies is the notion of ‘waiting’ - used as a metaphor to indicate both the bleakness of the situation i.e. the futility of waiting (things may never change, certainly not in a near future) - and a more complex reading of not having any ‘home’ to return to, even if things will eventually change; i.e the fantasy of ‘home’ is always very different from the reality of what you may encounter when you get there In short, the concept of ‘waiting’ is portrayed more like Beckett’s Waiting for Godot – rather than a realist interpretation. As Salman Rushdie noted, ‘exile is a dream of glorious return that must remain unrealized’.

Shot in London, Border portrays individuals on their own in an unfamiliar environment; there is a sense of displacement, solitude, creating a mise-en-scene which is unsettling. Shot in Tehran, the panoramic image portrays a crowd in a familiar environment, yet the image still connotes a sense of seclusion, stressing the alienation felt by Iranians today.

What links the two projects is hardship and isolation on both sides of the ‘border’, dismantling the fantasy Iranians may have of both the West or the East. Those who live in Iran tend to idealize life in the West and those who live outside long for ‘home’. But what both groups have in common is the will to survive – evident in the stories of the participants in these two projects – and an enormous resilience. To survive is ultimately to have the capacity to negotiate new positions, which means the necessary redefinition of the past and present. To survive is also not to give up, and (in one definition) not to give in to whatever ordeal one is facing; it is, in a less orthodox way, as Homi Bhabha states, to ‘resist’. And thus survival is a strategy of resistance.

RI: I think most Easterners have no other choice than to develop a spirit of resistance, whether living in the East or the West. We are in a way between a rock and a hard place. We have to carve a perilous path to find a way to save our mental space. We have to resist misrepresentation or non-representation of our intellectuals, artists and even ordinary members of the public. We have to fight censorship, lies, false promises, archaic laws that exist not to protect the public but to silence it, in East and in West. We have to find the loopholes – something that Iranian film-makers and artists have mastered. In your Border series I see more resilience than resistance, a sense of unease, the general dissatisfaction of people who are neither happy in the West nor in the East. I think that the future is better perceived by those on ‘the cultural edge of intersecting worlds’, as the philosopher Dariush Shayegan labels the ‘migrants’ that we are, living tirelessly in border zones.

Let us move to the West, and your work since 2000 on corporate culture. Silent Majority has almost an opposite look to Tehran 2006. Is it about altogether another class of people, another setting at the heart of London’s finance centre, Canary Wharf, with colder colours, a crowd rather than individuals, a still that represents a corporate pulse?

MT: I was inspired by the work of French sociologist-philosopher Jean Baudrillard, in particular his analysis of contemporary culture, which is illuminating as it provides an insight into a new condition and social experience that we are all facing, including what we may call ‘social depression’.

At a literal level, the project Silent Majority is concerned with depression, or more accurately the invisibility of it in today’s society of indifference. In a corporate world where one has to compete at any cost, succeed at any cost, depression has become the norm. At a more philosophical level, the work attempts to evoke Baudrillard’s world of simulation, a fractal culture where ‘the people’ are compelled into silence, into an extremity of indifference and conformity.

RI: I am not a philosopher, and yet I can see clearly that modernity is in crisis with its focus on money as the ultimate sign of success and celebrity culture. Which brings us back to your take on corporate culture in Beyond the Limits and Lost Time.

MT: Set in the future, Beyond the Limits constructs fragments of everyday life, each portraying an event in which something has gone ‘wrong’. Again I was interested in Baudrillard’s notion of ‘implosion’, the point where things turn in upon themselves and produce the opposite affects to those intended. I was looking at what is happening now and pushing it one step further. For instance, in the image of the crowd networking, what’s gone ‘wrong’ is the disappearance of art. Or, a man falling. Is it suicide or murder? Within the all- powerful global economy, the distinction between the two has now become blurred. A metaphorical murder then; having to function within the world of uncertainty, where the ‘logic’ is maximising profit at any cost, and concepts such as ‘over-worked’, ‘security’, or ‘future’ have no meaning.

Lost Time continues the critique of corporate culture. It portrays business men and women in their forties and fifties, dressed for work in working hours yet appearing in ‘non-work’ places. Some refuse to leave the house, others are ‘lost’ in the city.

More than ever the young are fetishised and the not so young are unwanted. They are increasingly encouraged to take early retirement. Look at the current ‘restructuring’ plans happening in various institutions. And this project was made in 2002. One of the participants, a BBC producer, was asked to re- apply for his own job on a series he had created himself!

So the work addresses the concept of ageism by portraying the individual’s sense of (premature) inactivity, unwantedness and ultimately failure in a society where work and competition seem to overpower all other values. On another level, the work is an ironic commentary on the ethos of the present time; once we are stripped of our corporate identity, what’s left to hang on to?

RI: This is an important observation. Galleries keep asking me who the young, up-and-coming talents are, without ever knowing anything about the previous generation of talents. I would like them to ask who the most relevant and interesting talents are rather than the newest, or what the best as yet unknown works are. So there is certainly an obsession with youth in the contemporary art world.

What about The Perfect Crime?
MT: The Perfect Crime focuses on violence and people’s indifference. In a society over-saturated with violence, where we’ve become immune to it, the ironic title ‘The Perfect Crime’ refers less to the crime than people’s reaction: crime becomes ‘perfect’ when no one cares. Reminiscent of stills from crime movies, the work brings together an aesthetic device favoured by Henri Cartier-Bresson (the camera focusing on people’s reaction rather than the event itself) with the conceptual approach of Japanese film director Takeshi Kitano, whose movies intentionally accentuate violence to critique its fetishisation in contemporary cinema.
RI: And the Wall House #2 project series?

MT: Wall House #2 was a commissioned project on the work of the American architect John Hejduk, a solitary, enigmatic character, a ‘misfit’ who was known for his lyrical and conceptual projects, and who didn’t particularly care if his designs were realized. As he said in an interview, ‘it is misguided to think your working drawing must always end up as a cut-and-dried building.’

Only two of his projects were ever built. Wall House #2 was initially designed in 1973 as a residential house and was built in Groningen, Holland in 2001, and is now a museum. My focus was on the idea of ‘public versus private’, as for the most part you can see in and through the house, with no doors inside.

Considering that Hejduk was more interested in ideas and concepts rather than the practicality of realizing them, the breakdown of the distinction between the private and the public in the Wall House could be interpreted as a revolutionary architectural design, providing a ‘mutual voyeurism’ –It could also be read as a critical observation and a prediction of contemporary life, where, in the world of surveillance, ‘Big Brother’ and reality TV, the notion of the private is disappearing.

The Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni also preferred intellectual restlessness to a desire for comfort and pragmatism. He was also a visionary, an outsider who deviated from the traditional approach to the notion of storytelling. It was the non-event that interested him, that ‘filled’ his films. Depicting the characters as empty and aimless, his films often focused on alienation in the modern world. As one of his more observant critics accurately notes, ‘...this alienation seems to be an effect of a specific social organization, rather than a general response to the difficulties of modern life ... it is not life in general that is meaningless, but this particular of social life.’
The narratives in this project ‘place’ Antonioni’s characters in Hejduk’s house, constructing two sets of images, shot inside and outside, one looking in to the most private spaces in the house (toilet, bedroom, kitchen), and one looking out to the exterior surrounding the house. The latter is presented in this exhibition. Here the house is used as a symbol of spectacle rather than a space for privacy and comfort.

The project uses a different aesthetic than the previous work: less sharp, less saturated, echoing faded film stills and posters. And following Antonioni’s concept, the narratives attempt to depict ‘interiority’, that is, interior emotional states, in the form of gestures, expressions and interactions between the characters. What brings the two sets of images together is isolation: detachment both from the environment and between the individuals. The characters are either portrayed on their own or, if they appear with others, there seems to be a lack of communication, a disconnection signifying ‘aloneness’, much as with Antonioni’s characters. His films ultimately set out to examine the relationship between the individuals and their environment by examining the individuals themselves, to see, as he asked, ‘what remained inside the individual’ in a post- war state. Similarly, we may speculate, what will remain of individuals today in a life lacking in purpose, in a world with no privacy, no secrecy, no enigma?

RI: Would you say that alienation and a sort of physical and mental no man’s land form the common ground of most of your recent work?

MT: More accurately what we may call the crisis of contemporary culture both in the West and the East seems to be the recurrent theme.

RI: As an Iranian who came to London, do you feel on the periphery or part of the English art scene? And in light of current debates, would you consider yourself as an Iranian artist, or an artist?

MT: I never felt part of the British art scene. My work was mainly shown outside of the UK There seems to be more interest abroad than here.

The question as to whether to position oneself as an ‘Iranian artist’ or an ‘artist’ is a difficult one, as both are open to misinterpretations; the first could be read as reductionist and the second as apolitical. I prefer the term ‘cultural practitioner’ with a special interest in, or concern for, Iran.

February 2008

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