March 14, 2015 Anahita Razmi – “Sharghzadegi”
16th of March — 18th of May 2015
Carbon 12 is delighted to announce Sharghzadegi, Anahita Razmi’s second solo exhibition with the gallery.
In an act of geopolitical observation as well as personal introspection, Anahita Razmi’s works for the exhibition confront the term Gharbzadegi, meaning “Weststruckness” with the fictional term Sharghzadegi, “Eaststruckness”.
Gharbzadegi (Persian: غربزدگی) is a pejorative Persian term variously translated as “Westoxification”, “West-struckness”, “Westitis”, “Euromania” and “Occidentosis”. During the reign of Shah Reza Pahlavi Iranian intellectuals began to use the term Gharbzadegi to describe the ill-fated relationship between the West and Iran. In 1962 Jalal Al-e-Ahmad wrote “Occidentosis: A Plague from the West” in an attempt to conceptualize the loss of Iranian cultural identity through the adoption and imitation of Western models in politics, education, arts and culture.
Departing from the original use, Razmi’s proposition for a counterpart concept deploys shifting historical and contemporary connotations in a variety of ways, questioning definitions of East, Middle and West.
As an inversion, it is the beginning of an investigation into the linguistics of desire, power and empowerment: Equipped with a built-to-resist “Middle-East Pak”, Razmi travels along the Silk Road to find Chinese brand pirates ripping apart the rhetorics of T-shirt slogans and luxury fashion, deconstructing Western languages for Iranian markets, then wraps up the famous “East Coast – West Coast” conversation between Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson, positioning it somewhere between Christo and Jean-Claude meets religious watchdog and broadcasts advertisements for her own persona. In doing so, Razmi allows for a distanced look at Orientalism today, which she finds in diverse places such as Los Angeles, Tehran and Guangzhou, leaving the viewer to decide which East he or she is confronted with. East of where? East of what? Globalized trade meets globalized art world, where stereotypes are persistent in very much different ways, but persistent nonetheless.
Anahita Razmi (b. 1981, Hamburg) is a contemporary multi-disciplinary artist, living and working in Berlin. Her body of work focuses on issues of identity and gender while appropriating national, cultural and artistic references.
Anahita Razmi studied at Bauhaus-University Weimar, Pratt Institute New York and Academy of Fine Arts Stuttgart prior to her institution-laden exhibition history of her video and performance works, including the 55th Venice Biennale, Kunstverein Hannover, Kunstmuseum Stuttgart among numerous others. In 2014 she was awarded the Goethe-Institut Villa Kamogawa Residency, Kyoto, other residencies and awards include the MAK-Schindler Artists and Architects-in-Residence Program, Los Angeles (2013) and the The Emdash Award, Frieze Foundation (2011). Her work is in the permanent collection of Kunstmuseum Stuttgart, among others.
On the occasion of this exhibition, Carbon 12 will publish a catalogue.
Interview: Anahita Razmi in conversation with Daniel Herleth
Daniel Herleth: You choose Sharghzadegi as the title for your exhibition. Meaning Eaststruckness, it is modelled after Gharbzadegi (Weststruckness), a term used in Iranian political discourse. Dubai, the place where your exhibition takes place, also seems to be in the middle of Sharghzadegi and Gharbzadegi. Why did you choose this title?
Anahita Razmi: The term Sharghzadegi is not really used, while Gharbzadegi is a common term in political discussion at least since the Iranian Revolution. But of course it necessarily exists as the logical counterpart – when there is Weststruckness there needs to be Eaststruckness as well. Jalal Al-e Ahmad had written the book Gharbzadegi: A Plague from the West in 1962. The term became more important over the years leading up to the revolution, and it helped to formulate what was wrong with the regime of the Shah. So for me it was important to ask what this term could mean in a contemporary sense, and what a possibly contradicting counterpart could mean. As the term is much more flexible than the ideologically charged term Gharbzadegi, one can be more playful and experimental, even light-hearted and humorous.
When you think about the West as a concept, then you can observe a quest for alternatives at all times and especially again today, and there is no defined alternative. For a long time the common denominator of the alternatives was socialism, but that is no longer the case. Post-capitalism is more a concept for a search than a real concept. So Sharghzadegi is a way to bring this all in and at the same time a way to not be stuck to an exclusively political notion. In a way I am using the term as a way of branding the works while at the same time questioning what any kind of branding or labeling does.
DH: One could call the way in which you took up the term Sharghzadegi appropriation, as you picked something pre-existing and modified it. You frequently deploy methods of appropriation in your work… what is it, that makes appropriation so interesting to you?
AR: When using existing images, concepts, objects etc., the potential for recognizability comes in. Things have preconceived notions and associations, which one can then use, misuse, question or confirm. I ́d like to see my work method as experiments or tests, where different chosen ingredients are put together and something different, maybe even contradictory, comes out. I also find it interesting to look at things again and maybe again from another angle. Within art history, for example, there are certain works that are widely known and part of a certain canon, but I find it interesting to leave that canon and use them again, maybe in a different context, maybe alter them and by that way describe their non-rigidity. To actually talk about them.
DH: For this show, you are working a lot with different notions of Easterness. As you mentioned, this concept is generally a slippery terrain, and for you this experience is also personal, I guess?
AR: Yes, I work a lot with these notions of Easterness especially in relation to a contemporary Iranian context, but I am not Iranian. My father is Iranian, but I grew up in Germany. This is nothing special, it is a very common thing today – being somewhere in- between two or more cultures. In an art context, I am often referred to as an Iranian artist and the difference is lost. And its understandable, as my name is Iranian and I work with themes related to it. But I am more interested in the vagueness of these concepts rather than their definition. With Sharghzadegi, the notion even changes based on whether you use it in Farsi or in English – what East are we actually talking about, what is considered East here, and what is considered East in Iran. Or in art history: You have the Western version, and you have the opposite, but these opposites don ́t necessarily exist in opposition. Personally, I would possibly consider myself Sharghzadegi, as I am very much interested in the concept of East and what it means or has meant – in relation to the West… and how these terms are constantly redefined.
DH: To me it seems that this is what you are dealing a lot with: that oppositions hardly exist and that it is much more interesting to see what happens if one simply shifts things a little bit. Or perspectives, for that matter. Meaning not necessarily reversed, but altered.
AR: If you look at the New Silk Road Patterns, for example, then you see that there is an East of Iran, a different East, China and Japan, etc. The project is referring to the Silk Road, which has linked the Far East with the Middle East and West since this West was the Roman Empire. But what it is today? Is it still linking anything? Is there an exchange – on a cultural level versus a production level? And how does this exchange look like? Does it work on an eye-level? I decided to use the word “pattern” for the work, as it refers to the actual fabric pattern while pointing to the indefinite exchange clusters, that manifest themselves in these low-grade consumer market shirts.
There is the production level of the shirts, which links China to a western-sanction-stricken Iran, but when you read the printed statements, very different levels come in. In some deconstructed brand slogans one can read the desire for Western brands in a place where they are non-available, but there are also more surprising statements that refer to the places the shirts are manufactured or sold. It is interesting to imagine how certain statements had found their way on these shirts, for example It is best a shirt in all of the world best shirt prod-uct in termeh (ed: termeh = traditional persian type of precious hand-woven cloth) of the best for this resen beucuse. Or a simple, So sick of this town, putting me down but with wrong spelling. Or Brigitte Bardot. Serendipity. You are popular very much and I become sometimes lonely. Heart-wrenching statements like this. Deconstructions of western symbols, icons, brands, letters, quality and luxury signs, personal statements – re-assembled somewhere in the East and sold to another East.
DH: Here you are working with products that have been produced for a very specific market with a lot of restrictions on different levels.
AR: Yes, it’s a form of sampling that happens in everyday consumer culture – products as artifacts of other products or symbols of a certain lifestyle. And then it is me, who is furthermore sampling: I appropriated these products and tried to find out what happens if you use them for making art and having them in an artistic context – “low culture” within “high art”. Even the form in which the work is presented – framed in high- quality box frames – is part of this concept, referencing the way high-art would be presented, but in this case these arrangements just seem random and awkward.
I tried to embrace this specific copy-culture that exists in Iran, because suddenly the practices and objects seemed much more authentic to me in their state as copy. These copies come out of a real need or desire and are actually charged with various social, economic and political dimensions in a country where the western “originals” are hardly available.
DH: In your work MiddleEastPak you combined different approaches, you took an existing product, but you also altered it an interesting way, creating a linguistic slip yourself.
AR: I altered the logo of a very known backpack brand to make a new edition with it. What is a MiddleEastPak? What does one expect it to contain? Suddenly the backpack itself seems to be politically charged, and if one develops this thought further, also the advertising slogans of the reference brand will suddenly change their connotations. “Built to Resist” and “Made in USA” now seem to point to the current situation in many different ways. Even the brands iconic advertisement image of a skeleton still wearing a pristine-looking backpack would be looked at differently.
DH: Why did you redo the Chris Burden video advertisement piece Chris Burden Promo for this exhibition?
AR: I loved the piece that was made by Chris Burden in 1976, which listed a selection of famous artist names written in bold graphics in the advertisement segments of US-American TV-channels: “Leonardo, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Picasso… ” – and then “Burden”. It had its own political dimension, the politics of the artist and the art world, a young artist and his relation to art history, the need to do a sort of Self-PR, and maybe the politics of TV and American consumer-culture.
With Anahita Razmi Promo I made an “Iranian version” of the work and contacted Iranian satellite TV channels for broadcasting the ads. But broadcasting your own name in a succession of “Iranian” artists on Iranian channels that are located in Los Angeles or Dubai and are banned in Iran does change the work significantly, even if the formal elements are exactly the same. It becomes an infiltration in a double sense: I am sneaking in through non-official channels – guerrilla channels in a sense. And I am sneaking into Iranian art history, promoting my hardly existent “Iranianness” on one side and questioning the complications of putting together such a list on the other. There is no universally valid canon for Iranian art, the list includes names celebrated within the country as well as names banned in Iran and only celebrated abroad.
DH: So none of the TV stations you worked with are based in Iran?
AR: No, these stations are all based abroad, for example in Dubai, in Los Angeles or London. They somehow link Iran and the country’s diaspora and form alternatives to Iran’s state controlled media. Satellite dishes are regularly torn down by police in Iran, but still figures show that around 40% of Iranians watch satellite TV. Today we usually see TV as a dying medium, but within the Iranian context TV is a very important medium for public discourse, highly influential, much more than Internet actually. Not even so much because of censorship, but simply because Internet broadband is so slow you can hardly use it. But satellite TV, even if it is officially banned, is everywhere. And also the non- elite has access to it.
DH: You also made a version of the Nancy Holt – Robert Smithson conversation from 1969 in which they take on stereotypical roles expected from an artist from the West Coast or the East Coast respectively. In your video we see two people wearing chadors and we hear the original sound of the Holt/Smithson work with the exact locations being bleeped out. We are used to expect women to be wearing a chador, but here one of them is obviously a man, turning it into a grotesque and eerie scene. Why are they wearing these veils?
AR: Its interesting that you are saying there are two people wearing chadors… they are actually only wearing black cloths. Which makes them visually identical, you cannot separate them anymore from their looks or judge them from it. Still, of course the black cloth brings another probable preconception, even if locations are all bleeped out in the conversation, you most likely associate the talking persona with an Islamic context. And one might ask which part of the conversation actually does fit into this new context and which person fits the chador. I ask myself: Are there stereotypes in relation to Islam or in relation to the Middle East comparable to the ones discussed in the conversation between Smithson and Holt? Or different ones? If I see one example within art from the region, then it is the so-called genre of “chador art” which could be described as one of those stereotypes. And Middle East Coast West Coast is making a chador art version of the original, but with tongue-in-cheek.
The exhibition is supported by Goethe-Institut Gulf Region in Abu Dhabi.