A SPECIFIC IMAGINATION
SHIRIN NESHAT Our House is on Fire
Rauschenberg Foundation Project Space
January 31 – March 5, 2014
“I feel strong in my beliefs … that a one-to-one contact through art contains potent peaceful powers.”
—Robert Rauschenberg, Excerpt from the “Tobago
Statement,” at the United Nations Press Conference,
October 22, 1984
Robert Rauschenberg founded several political organizations throughout his lifetime, including Experiments in Art and Technology, Change, Inc., and Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (R.O.C.I.), all geared towards the use of art for social change. With R.O.C.I. (1984 – 91) Rauschenberg traveled to 11 different countries, meeting and exhibiting artists. This included a show in Berlin only two days after the wall came down, proof of his belief that art could heal the effects of political conflict.
The Rauschenberg Foundation continues in this pursuit with their Project Space in Chelsea. The R.R.F. Project Space houses the One-to-One initiative, presenting artists whose work supports “human rights, cultural understanding, and international peacekeeping.” Most recently, Iranian artist Shirin Neshat was commissioned to create “Our House Is on Fire,” on view until March 1.
The series, installed in two rooms, features 23 photographs of isolated faces, hands, and feet of aged sitters, shown at a large scale and in close up. Faces stare straight back at the viewer as they hover against black backgrounds, and fine lines of Farsi text are drawn or painted over the skin. Feelings of sadness, old age, and loss overwhelm. The subtle manipulation of color, strong emotions, and brushstrokes of the script all reflect the artist’s specific imagination.
Two of the photographs of feet, presumably of the deceased, are portrayed as one would see them in a morgue storage—their soles facing us and a tag fastened to the left big toe. One can observe dirt, lesions, and wrinkles. Large text is painted across the soles.
According to Neshat, the works have two direct inspirations: the recent events in Egypt, where she met her subjects, and the death of Teal Barns, the daughter of Neshat’s close collaborator Larry Barns. Photographs of death (the feet) and sadness (the faces, see “Ahmed” (2013)) hang side by side in both rooms. Since the script is in Farsi, it eludes our understanding. The juxtaposition of script and image asks us to imagine what it might read, further imposing a reality that is at once suggestive and completely imaginary.
The second room features a poem by Iranian poet and activist Mehdi Akhavan Sales, “A Cry.” The poem itself is a series of passionate outcries, each one building upon the last, embodying the rising flames of the “house on fire” in which the speaker is trapped. As they face inevitable death while their neighbors sleep—oblivious to the danger—and their enemies watch, the poem ends: “I shout, scream, cry!”
While “A Cry” unequivocally expresses anxiety, rage, and dissent, the speaker also accepts death: “Who will ever know as my being turns into the non / being by the sunrise.” With this line, the suffering and loss in the faces is underscored with a profound resignation.
Despite the portrayal of such extreme emotion, the works are not in the least literal or heavy-handed. Rather, they seem to have been constructed this way, like much of Neshat’s work, to translate a cultural experience we in the West naturally misunderstand. How else should one correlate an event of social upheaval—such as the Egyptian revolution—to art, but by isolating primal emotions that bring us closer to the event? As the wall text informs us, this show is inspired by real events—it is “dedicated … to all of the people who lost their lives in Egypt,” and yet it is articulated with pathos, and imagination so we may experience it on a non-intellectual level. Still, it asks the question: is our compassion just a palliative for suffering that we may not actually understand or be able to change? Perhaps not: according to Rauschenberg, “[Art] … is the most non-elitist way to share exotic and common information, seducing us into creative mutual understandings for the benefit of all.”
455 W. 19th st., Chelsea.