On ViewTramps Gallery
September 22, 2019 – November 17, 2019
In Blind Rat (2019), one of 15 large photographs featured in Hadi Fallahpisheh’s exhibition at Tramps, a rat wears tiny, ’90s Matrix-style glasses and spreads its legs suggestively, its crotch replaced by a mouse hole. A nonchalant hand placed on the bars of its cage and a wry smile belie the nature of its enclosure—is it the one behind bars or are we? Is it inviting us in or asking us to let it out?
Fallahpisheh is a photographer who makes pictures without a camera, using a special darkroom process to expose objects to photosensitive paper. For the pictures in Almost Alone, he rigged an electrical circuit to the surface of the paper and then threw balls (volleyballs, basketballs, baseballs) at the paper from across the dark room. The balls would trigger the enlarger on contact, and objects placed in front of it (in this case, bits of fences and barriers) were exposed instantaneously, leaving ghostly silhouettes on the surface. To draw the beguiling character in Blind Rat, he took a flashlight and held it very close to the paper, leaving what look like burned marks on the surface through over exposure. Much of this process is illegible on sight, but for Fallahpisheh, his performance in the darkroom—throwing balls and burning paper as a “photographer”—is an absurdity akin to the machinations he’s asked to enact as an Iranian migrant to the US, the performance of an “immigrant.” The ways these two performances converge form the crux of his work. Considered within the context of Tramps Gallery, which found its presence within a Chinatown mall questioned last year with a Kai Althoff show, Fallahpisheh’s exhibition seeks to destabilize the assumptions behind both terms—immigrant, artist—and is made acutely trenchant through its darkly humorous take on the conditions of displacement behind both.
Blind Rat is installed in a purple room that looks like an afterhours Chuck E. Cheese’s. Next to it is the largest sculpture in the show, Blind Man (2019), which features a stuffed rat peering into the backside of a large ceramic urn filled with rice and dirt. With powder blue legs and arms, the urn mimics the shape of a person crouched over, and the rat seems to be staring right into its asshole. Similar to most of the other pictures in the show, which depict cats, rats, and other denizens of sewage in various states of enclosure, Blind Man is funny and a little nihilistic, sort of cute, and also gross. In All Bald Men Must Die (2009), for example, a blindfolded man straddles the opening of a doghouse with arms up, holding either guns or wine bottles, while inside the house, a mouse rides a cat. Organisms and their excretions, holes both biological and architectural, blend into one another. In Little Child Praying in the Cage (2019), a figure cowers inside of what looks like a caged solarium addition to a mouse-house, while the mouse sits outside. A macabre hilarity pervades the homes/jails of all of these characters. These images might suggest the metaphor of immigrant-as-vermin, but the vermin in Fallahpisheh’s images actually seem to be doing fine, sometimes even partying, like the rat in Persian Room (2019). There’s a parallel to be drawn between misbehaved vermin and ungrateful, unassimilable social refuse—“bad” immigrants.
Scattered around the installation are Fallahpisheh’s Persian Cat ceramics, sculptures that resemble upturned toilet bowls. Persian cats, known for their flat faces and small jaws that make them docile, stand for an ethnic denomination—Persian—that some Iranians choose to call themselves in order to render their identity more palatable to western audiences, Fallahpisheh recounts. In his sculptures, the cat’s faces are so flat that they become concave, and their bodies are hollowed out so that they become nothing more than houses for mice. The cats find their homes in precarious lean-to’s made of throw pillows stolen from Airbnbs and stuffed with dirt and rice. These are hunters made into homes for their prey, docility exacerbated beyond its limits.
In the last year, Fallahpisheh has had three international shows in Milan, Beirut, and Tehran, but couldn’t attend any because the risk of not being able to re-enter the United States was too high. This show doesn’t lament that condition so much as point to its absurdity, the arbitrary but deeply material denominations between in and out in the construction of the state. His practice inverts the discursive conditions placed on him as an artist of color, systems that might be quick to categorize his work as too political and only “about displacement” or too esoteric and only “about photography.” Fallahpisheh’s politics are locked away in the formal processes of photography and might be difficult to access as a casual viewer. But perhaps this imbrication of his politics within the formal innovation of his work is a response to the interpretive apparatuses mentioned above that might pigeonhole his critique as one or the other; it’s a tactic that melds them inextricably.
To return to his practice as a photographer, we might consider that these images have some relation to the real, perhaps even to the indexical or the documentary. On one end, they’re solipsistic, referring to the moment of their making, of Fallahpisheh throwing balls in the darkroom. But intersected with the material facts of his existence, we might think of them as an index of a person at once enclosed, trapped, and at home within America, a portrait of a “bad” immigrant making funny pictures, dancing in the dark.
In January 2019, Tramps Gallery found its presence within an East Broadway Chinatown mall a point of contention after mounting a show by German painter Kai Althoff. The exhibition, which featured 36 new paintings and drawings in an immersive installation, drew heavily from South and East Asian painting styles and nestled them into a cloth installation that emphasized the forlorn, at times derelict state of the multiple showrooms that Tramps rents from the mall. In a fierce critique from writers Leah Pires and Jamie Chan, the show was charged with glamorizing the gentrification of the East Broadway mall into an “urban safari for art world voyeurs” that rendered the complex lives around it into a backdrop for Orientalist play. Drawing on the fact that Althoff is German, they connected the artist’s gestures to a long history of European modernism, considering how his appropriation of the images “[effaced] entire cultural histories by aestheticizing them away from themselves,” and thus “reopened the wound of colonial erasure.” The gallery’s response, penned by its director Parinaz Mogadassi, refutes the claims of Orientalism and cultural appropriation in favor of a cosmopolitan-style defraying of the constructs of both ownership and nationality, citing cultural philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah (“The rhetoric of ownership is alluring and potent, but when we’re describing the quicksilver complexities of culture, it just isn’t appropriate”). Directly preceding this passage, Fallahpisheh himself is actually quoted, in the service of further derailing the constructions of cultural identity and ownership:
“This installation made me think of one Rumi’s poems that also is a point of view about life;
that our life is going up and down always like a boat without a sail or an anchor
I looked up the Farsi to reread the original and found, surprised, that in the same poem a few lines below Rumi writes:
you ask me where I am from? All I can say is ‘Dear, I am half from East of here and half from West of here’”
Fallahpisheh’s quote crystallizes Mogadassi’s argument against cultural essentialism, namely that it’s hard to say where things come from and even harder to say where we come from. Mogadassi invokes her own identity as an Iranian immigrant to draw credibility and goes on to emphasize the economic angle, asserting that the shops the gallery occupies were not regularly being rented in the past and might not be otherwise.
The difficulty of this exchange, beyond the narrow scope of its transmission, is that both sides are kind of right. It is undeniable that galleries like Tramps, or Reena Spaulings, or James Cohan, or any number of downtown art spaces bring a particular type of cultural capital that will attract developers that will displace existing residents. This will happen. It is also true that many galleries in LES, (and for that matter, luxury fashion shops like Eckhaus Latta, which is situated just around the corner) draw part of their cultural cache from exactly that “authenticity” of the working-class immigrant ecosystem that surrounds them. Many artists certainly draw uncomfortable or undue inspiration from the surrounding communities that uncouthly highlights the conditions of this uneven exchange. And while claims to curtail artistic expression tend not to sit well with the cultural elite and it is perhaps counterproductive to graft the language of property on to cultural heritage and national identity, it is undeniable that images and practices carry specific cultural histories that hold track records of theft, and operate on an uneven playing field which affords some players greater mobility and choice, often at the expense of others. But it is also true that those shops might have otherwise gone unrented, causing economic distress to its ostensibly “local” owner. And the hard material facts of economics is a cost that might have more immediate urgency to the landowners than the more abstract damages associated with cultural appropriation—as important as they are to articulate. These forces are at play at the same time and with varying degrees of severity and circumstance that make it difficult to be certain of the right positionality.
It would be naïve to suggest that Fallahpisheh is unaware of the conditions with which this show is being presented, or that his installation is immune to the moral thorniness of the greater economic structure to which it is beholden. It would also be unfair to claim that it is wholly complicit. Perhaps one of the real contributions of this exhibition, and Fallahpisheh’s practice in this space, is not to simplify these debates, but to reflect them as they are. His practice, which flits inextricably between formal and political questions, effectively complicates the conditions of power between terms like immigrant and artist.
This power differential was evident in an omission on both sides of the Althoff conversation, and which Fallahpisheh’s show addressed to some extent: the position of the “locals” themselves. Both Pires/Chan and Mogadassi are not “locals” in the same way as the shop owners in East Broadway Mall are, but in their responses, this “local” position is spoken for—as the “exploited” in the former and as the “beneficiary” in the latter. It is an omission that re-inscribes a dynamic of “critic” speaking and translating the pain and the desires of the indigenous “local.” But who’s to say what they want or what they’re offended by? How might we incorporate more inclusive, heterolingual conversations? Fallahpisheh’s show doesn’t address the Chinatown constituency directly either, but it does contribute to the discourse by deconstructing the assumptions that undergird the relations between “immigrant” and “artist.” The implicit hierarchy of power, with “artist” above and “immigrant” below, or “white” gentrifier above and “Asian” local below, breaks down when we consider the fact that many developers in Chinatown are actually wealthy Chinese international developers, or, as Parinaz invoked, many immigrants are also artists, and vice versa. Of course, there is no equivalency between an artist with cultural capital and a working-class immigrant; it is undeniable that some people have it worse. But we can consider holding space for more coordinates of privilege and oppression, particularly for those who might be navigating one or more of those life experiences. In our search for pathways forward, it seems vital that the contours of these positions continue to be articulated in all of their complexity, so that we can move towards a less defensive and proprietary and more inclusive and collaborative discourse.