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Taraneh Hemami: Most Wanted
Open for Interpretation
by Nirmala Nataraj on May 17, 2007
Walking up the stairs to the Intersection for the Arts gallery, potential spectators might be somewhat bewildered at the sight that greets them; coating the steps is a sheet of white felt, covered with ostensibly Persian names, in dispassionate block letters. Among the more obscure appellations, one can pick out “Saddam” and “Osama” almost instantly, as the eye’s natural tendency is to wander to what’s recognizable and fill it out with familiar meaning. In some ways, you can say that’s the very crux of Taraneh Hemami’s collection of installation work, "Most Wanted".
It’s safe to note that rarely is contemporary Persian American art, so steeped in the contradictions inherent in our current epoch, fueled by meandering rages or creative chaos. Amid the hybrid realities of war and peace, insider and outsider, presence and anonymity, artists like Hemami slither gracefully across landscapes and concepts bruised by violence and nearly unnavigable cultural rifts. All the same, rarely is Hemami’s work exhortative or unduly preachy. She works in a framework as detailed as Persian miniatures, but spectators can sense a deadly calm settling over even the most hairsplitting commentary.
Hemami’s work emerged from a poster she found on an official U.S. government website shortly after 9/11: a low-resolution image of the most wanted international terrorists. Strangely, no names were associated with the blurry faces, which gets to the very absurdity of the poster’s encouragement of fear-laden vigilantism on the part of “unmarked” Americans. While individual characteristics are impossible to discern in each of the faces, the collective shared features -- dark skin, facial hair, head scarves (over a third of the people presented are females) -- manifest in an unspoken incrimination of ANY of the individuals who could possibly fit the picture. This sort of lazy, distorted representation of Arabs and Persians -- sanctioned with a prima facie credibility -- is an apt pictorial trope for what has gradually become the very fabrication of what Hemami considers America’s “new enemy.”
But spectators would be doing the art a grave injustice if they were to view it as a simple indictment of racial profiling, as Hemami intentionally confounds context and perception with the other elements of the show. For instance, the same names on the steps leading up to the gallery are scrawled in dirt across several gallery walls in Arabic script, which can be read from right to left in alphabetical order. As obviously foreign signifiers, they can be seen as pretty, exotic, and abstruse, decorative rather than intrinsically meaningful. Those who read Arabic might understand the names as elements of a quasi-memorial; artists and cultural critics might understand the graffiti’d screeds as a symbolic act of resistance, an act that is both anonymous and that names.
Or, if you’re a staunch adherent of homeland security, the writing could very well be a terrorist manifesto. The point is that all of these options are viable, depending on who’s looking at them. The names and the Arabic script are simultaneously recognizable and unrecognizable, known and unknowable, and persistently shrouded in the veil of perception, which pays no heed to simple facts.
Other examples of Hemami’s keen eye to perception include a hand-beaded curtain, which features expanded, heavily pixilated versions of the faces in the most wanted poster. The curtain itself is a schlocky curio -- the kind of harmless commodity one might find at a flea market. It’s an excellent example of how digitized packets of information are imbued with permeable meaning. It’s also, in a much larger way, suggestive of the indeterminacy of information available over the Internet, a nebulous realm in which data is constantly mutating, depending on what it’s fed into, and in which even our most passionately held beliefs fail the test of ultimate scrutiny.
Hemami’s large-scale replicas of Iranian soldiers’ tombs accordingly frame her characters in opposing contexts. On the outside face of each structure (all of which are organized into a crescent-shaped assortment) is a luminous, fuzzy image of a face from the most wanted poster -- a Rorschach blot of amorphous light and color that is scarcely identifiable. But when you walk across, to the inside of the semi-circle, the digitized faces are covered in ornate Persian flower motifs. While the outside seems to denote imprisonment and exile, the inside is permeated with a hushed reverence, as if it stands as a testament to enshrined saints.
The possibility of spiritual salvation flings open another trapdoor, leading to several interpretations. In the midst of anonymity and indictment, there is the possibility of exaltation and liberation—but this is undermined by the conflicting meta-narrative of relentless jihadists and Islam’s catastrophic potential, which even the most informed and progressive spectator can’t help but think of.
The great thing about "Most Wanted" is that it needn’t strive to be educative. In fact, the power of the exhibition lies in the very lack of placards and art criticism, which would otherwise define the presented work and pinion it into some overarching, acutely stated context. But since the purpose of the exhibition is to make the spectator recognize, question, and challenge her own perceptions, there are no high-falutin’ instructions on HOW to look at the work. The gallery space, accordingly, is suffused with an impalpable sparseness, an almost antiseptic quality suggestive of the absence of meaning or value judgments. Such neutrality can be contrasted with the soiled, besmirched stairway of Persian names, an overtly sardonic signifier of the symbolic desecration of an entire group of people.
Like life, there are no signposts leading spectators around the gallery or explaining to them what everything means. Hemami seems to be saying that any meaning we imbue the work with will understandably stem from the stereotypes and misrepresentations that are so deeply entrenched in our society. Hemami is no apathetic chronicler, but she is certainly aware that every interpretation we apply to her images will be somehow biased or distorted, and some of the fictions we will create around the images will have more sinister ramifications than others.
After all, in an era in which an image is tantamount to an actual person, and a person is representative of an entire nation or abstract ideal, the notion of viewing politicized images neutrally is obsolete. But this is not an exhibition that is so clinical that it reduces the medley of names and blurry faces to nobodies. Rather, Hemami’s work is beautifully elegiac; if we remember history’s lessons, we can also begin to see that the “most wanted” encompass both the vilified and the innocent, the seen and unseen, those who are marginalized and at the same time made painfully aware of their otherness. They’re all of us.
"Most Wanted" runs through June 30.
by Nirmala Nataraj on May 17, 2007
image courtesy of Intersection for the Arts