The House Is Black presents a digitally hacked photograph of the Shah of Iran Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s lavish bedroom. Various literary and other cultural texts have been directly entered into the photograph’s underlying code in order to produce a second image that replaces all visible traces of the original. Most prominent among these intervening texts is the translated script of Forough Farrokhzad’s 1962 experimental documentary, The House Is Black, an important work in film history that celebrates the residents of the Bababaghi Hospice leper colony in the East Azerbaijan Province of Iran.
Digital print mounted between acrylic glass and aluminum Year: 2017 Size: 17” x 21”
See Lost Gridsfor a description of the larger project which this conceptual print initiated.
Enter the Shah
The Enter the Shah series is based on the artistic conception of a “digital tomb.” Each work presents a visible surface-level image extracted and transformed from a film documenting the debut of the young Mohammed Reza Pahlavi as the new Shah of Iran. Each surface image functions as the visual capstone beneath which a number of image and textual elements remain buried in the digital file used to produce the printed image. Accessible only through the original digital file, these contents of the digital tomb range from excluded frames in the film sequence, textual excerpts from the memoirs of the Shah and ousted prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh, a photograph of the young Khadijeh Mossadegh (the prime minister’s daughter), the pleading words of the Shah at the sight of Mossadegh’s failing health, the image of Mossadegh’s will in which he specifies his wishes for burial, the thumb prints of the artist’s deceased father masquerading as city maps, and other salient materials.
Digital prints mounted between acrylic glass and aluminum Year: 2017 Size: 25” x 15”
Farman ("Royal Decree" in Farsi) presents a modified rendition of the decree transferring power to General Fazlollah Zahedi as new Iranian prime minister after the 1953 U.S.-orchestrated coup d’état. The handwritten proclamation has been digitally expunged, leaving traces of only the royal emblem and a crease in the middle of the sheet.
Digital print Year: 2017 Size: 9.5” x 12”
The End of an Error
The 1954 Army-McCarthy Hearings marked the unmistakable beginning of the end of the “Red Scare” period in the United States. Produced for the sixtieth anniversary of the televised hearings, The End of an Error refashions the archival record to take a side-ways look at this important historical event. By fictionalizing the story as a history lesson narrated from contemporary Iran (voice in Farsi with English subtitles), this three-projection video installation re-positions the expected narrative center and reports the demise of the “communist threat” from the vantage point of what has since emerged in the American imagination as the “terrorist state.” Ultimately, the piece asks: From what position do we remember a triumph in history?
Format: three-channel video installation with sound Language: Farsi with English subtitles Year: 2014 Duration: 10 min
This “subtractive commemoration” of the 1953 U.S.-orchestrated coup d'état in Iran utilizes false testimony as a medium to explore the nature of historical memory. Ousted Premier Mohammed Mossadegh, played by Nasser Rahmaninejad, alternately delivers three inconsistent accounts of the coup drawn directly from the language of the Shah’s memoirs, the CIA planning documents for the coup, and a celebrated leftist’s harangue against U.S. imperialism. Not a single word of Mossadegh’s is deployed. Woven together as a single testimonial given by the wandering protagonist, the texts decisively fail to add up. In light of today’s historical revisionism, the failure begins to reflect on the uses of testimony and documentation to cover over not only the factual record but also, more radically, the inescapably fictive dimension of historical memory.
Format: single-channel video Language: Farsi with English subtitles Year: 2015 Duration: 10 min
A long take of a U.S. flag blowing in the wind is met with the story of a scene unfolding beneath what the image reveals. A narrative voiceover (in Farsi with English subtitles) describes in oblique degrees a picnic, a parade, a riot, a rally, an orgy, an execution (a lynching?), a victory, and remorse. The problematic relationship between image, voice, and subtitle itself poses a metaphor for the question of "translating the other."
Format: single-channel video Language: Farsi with English subtitles Year: 2012 Duration: 10 min
Blankets, umbrellas, and bodies spread across the green lowland. Bread, wine, and brew beneath children’s laughter in a cloudless sky. Wit, rhyme, and review, the readers casually read, while the breeze blew gently through the pages of magazines, newspapers, books.
Beside the picnic, the parade dragged past the scattering throng. Out of the groups gagging, one wag nagging, four hags bragging, two nags tagging, six stags shagging, another sagging, adding four foraging for more, one more but from a flea bag came. From flash to slag, thinking of Betsy, one shagging stag of a man wigwagged long up the nearby crag until his unflabbed flesh snagged on his shagged bag tagged with a filthy dag.
Flat flad, half-mast the ill-clad lad opened his blue peter and torn free ran in a jag the acorus calamus into the soil creep beyond, knowing full well that his gesturing jack could take no flak, but plug and flack, without zig or zag, through bogue with gag, through whim, sham and flimflam, through such dire quagmire.
Holding this sweet spear he stood wet from storm of sweat, steady slightly shaking, then spoke:
Like to a vagabond one upon the stream, This token serveth for a two of truce And death's pale three is not advanced there. Mummers; set up the bloody four against all Of their white fives display'd, they bring us peace, Stand for your own; unwind your bloody six, Who, with their drowsy, slow and seven wings, I must show out an eight and sign of love, A sign of dignity, a garish nine.
Gradually the flock slowed, lagged, and finally stood looking, now neither flogging nor flailing, all done fragging and wailing, but in unison they sang “fa la la la la fa la la la la la fala fal la la la la la” up to the stag beyond the slippery crag, glad from having raised up by twine the neckbound body flagging, but regretting the setting forth of bets and conflagrations, the flaming of infamous persiflage, the spreading of contagious and flagitious, flagrant and fictitious clack of self-flagellation, counting one to nine, two to garner time, three to retreat, four to forage, five to fiddle, six to saddle, seven to meddle, eight and nine to boot.
At once then ten soldiers shouted up: “I ran after a stone.”
-- Text: Peter Freund Farsi translation and recitation: Nasser Rahmaninejad Wall-mounted excerpt in Farsi: Saint Mary's College Museum of Art
Crossing the traditions of collage film and film essay, Camp presents unexpected convergences between the figure of the concentration camp and campy aesthetics. Camp assembles a framework out of documentary material used in the Nuremberg Trials and choice excerpts from Busby Berkeley’s campy masterpiece, The Gang’s All Here, both produced at the same historical moment. Beneath the visual track, two narrators, one in Arabic and the other in Mandarin, reflect on the political and theatrical meanings of “camp” in exploring the role of fantasy in traumatic historical memory and the ethical root of flamboyant enjoyment.
Format: single-channel video Language: Arabic and Mandarin with English subtitles Year: 2011 Duration: 7 min 15 sec
Lacan in Hong Kong
Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, wielding his nonorientable stogie, is accompanied by the recitation of a Louis Aragon's "Contre chant" (Le Fou D'Elsa),split between Mandarin and Cantonese. (Video loop produced for the Trauma Desire Otherness symposium, City University of Hong Kong, 2012. Chinese translations and recitation by Cyril Su.)
Format: single-channel video loop Language: Mandarin and Cantonese Year: 2012 Duration: 1 min 15 sec
Vainement ton image arrive à ma rencontre Et ne m'entre où je suis qui seulement la montre Toi te tournant vers moi tu ne saurais trouver Au mur de mon regard que ton ombre rêvée
Je suis ce malheureux comparable aux miroirs Qui peuvent réfléchir mais ne peuvent pas voir Comme eux mon oeil est vide et comme eux habité De l’absence de toi qui fait sa cécité.
Le Fou D'Elsa – Louis Aragon (1963)
In vain your image comes to meet me And enters me where I am only the one who shows it You, turning towards me, you would like to find On the wall of my gaze, only your dreamt of shadow
I am the miserable one comparable to mirrors That can reflect but cannot see Like them my eye is empty and like them inhabited By your absence which makes it blind
Is Paris Burning?
On a tour of the Tuol Sleng S-21 Genocide Museum and the area known as "the Killing Fields" of Cambodia, visitors may rent guns purportedly used in the genocide under Pol Pot at nearby shooting ranges. “Is Paris Burning?” documents a visitor at such a firing range, near Phnom Penh.
Format: single-channel video Year: 2010 Duration: 2 min 15 sec
Lost Grids will present a new body of artwork comprising fifteen “conceptual prints” accompanied by an extended artist statement. Each print will be created by rigorously carrying out a digital process of “poetic hacking” that forms the conceptual core of the series of fifteen prints, each of which will be mounted between glass and aluminum sheets for final presentation.
The creative process that distinguishes this project begins with appropriating select images and texts from the cultural archive. Each piece is based on a particular visual image – chosen principally for its iconic value – which is then paired with a set of citations from literary, critical, philosophical and other textual sources appropriated for their actual and potential associations with the image. Instead of organizing a visual juxtaposition of these materials, however, the proposed project proceeds by accessing the digital (ASCII) code underlying each primary image and by then entering the correlated texts directly into the image’s code. This procedure produces digital distortions that take the visual form of pixelated glitches, which stripe portions of the base image. These glitches are then collected into the visual palette from which each final image is composited and prepared for printing. All fifteen prints in the Lost Grids series will embody a grid, each distinguished from the others in form by color composition, proportion, and dimension and in content by the specific appropriated materials used for production.
The Lost Grids project intersects with my recent solo exhibition, IRAN|USA, which was presented at the Saint Mary’s College Museum of Art, February 25 – May 28, 2017. Included in this show of video installations, films, and prints was a piece entitled The House Is Black, for which I devised the poetic hacking strategy outlined here. This piecebegan with an iconic photograph of the Shah of Iran Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s lavish, gold-laden bedroom [Figure 1]. The photograph was chosen based on its iconic value, its depiction of the intimate and aesthetic dream-space of a brutal dictator, and the oblique reference it makes to the long-standing policies and geopolitical interests of the United States, whose financial support helped to bankroll the “spendthrift and ceremonial life” of the Shah. Into this photograph’s underlying code I directly entered a set of cultural texts [Figure 2] – including brief passages from press clippings, critical theoretical tracts, memoirs, a will and testament, and literary works – all selected for their literal and metaphorical resonances with the image. Most prominent among these intervening texts was the translated poetic script of Forough Farrokhzad’s 1962 experimental documentary, The House Is Black, an important work in film history that celebrates the residents of the Bababaghi Hospice leper colony in the East Azerbaijan Province of Iran.
All the artwork in the Lost Grids series will engage the same “poetic hacking” that leads to the production of a set of distinct grid images. Among the anticipated fifteen new works, I am planning a print entitled Marx’s Beard. John Mayall’s widely published photographic portrait of Karl Marx will serve as the base image for poetic hacking. (If the public knows anything about Marx beyond the fact that he was one of the authors of The Communist Manifesto it is that the man had a beard. John Heartfield famously appropriated this detail for his 1934 photomontage Mimicry, in which Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels is depicted dressing up Adolf Hitler as a communist by affixing Marx’s beard to the Führer [Figure 4].) Into the original photograph of Marx, I will enter various texts: a salient paragraph from the section of Capital called “The Fetishism of Commodities”; a key paragraph from Guy Debord’s 1967 Situationist tract, Society of the Spectacle; a short typology of beard and grooming styles; sentences extracted from biological, anthropological, and semiotic texts on beards; a few details from the poignant biography of Julia Pastrana (a “bearded lady”); and an excerpt from a medical article on Congenital Hypertrichosis Lanuginosa.
The central maneuver in the Lost Grids project can be put in the context of and distinguished from the dictates of standard page layout generally abided since the Renaissance, wherein picture and word are relegated to separate but equal geometries on the folio grid. By stark contrast, the poetic hacking in my project ultimately produces not a visible, illustrative image that can be formally grasped within the work in relation to the intervening texts. Rather the process produces a veritable wall – albeit aesthetically arranged – behind which there is an irretrievable image, an artistic process, and a provocative invitation for the viewer to enter the conceptual universe of the piece.
The impenetrable aspect of the fifteen Lost Grids images, at least from the standpoint of representation, deliberately invokes Karl Marx’s concept of the commodity fetish. I would argue that Marx’s two-fold insight into the character of the commodity – that its form materially represses the conditions of labor that produced it and that it simultaneously elicits fascination from the consumer – is fundamentally an insight into the aesthetics of the object in capitalism. The unmistakably superficial, decorative, almost bathroom-tile appearance of the Lost Grids is intended precisely to foreground the aesthetic dimension as loss, as a convergence of repression and enjoyment. To the extent that it resists falling into simple decorativism, the Lost Grids project calls for the viewer’s investigation into the specific materials, conception, and process that brought the prints into existence. The details of these occluded elements must be integrated into any exhibition of the work in the form of didactic labels and catalog expositions without simultaneously reducing these elements to mere “explanations” of meaning. In order to underscore the work’s openness to interpretation, the emphasis here should fall not on the meaning but rather on the complex form of the Lost Grids, which incorporates not only the aesthetic result but also the negations at its conceptual core.
Finally, my project will explore the art-historical trajectory of the grid itself. This trajectory spans the two dominant functions of the grid in Western art, ranging from the utility of the Renaissance “perspective machine” – a grid-shaped apparatus utilized to aid with the proper geometrical rendering of three-dimensional objects – to the emergence of the grid as visual subject matter in the flat abstract gridded canvases of modern and contemporary art [Figure 5]. Unlike art theorist Rosalind Krauss, who argues for a contrasting politics between these two uses of the grid, I am interested in the continuity of these two artistic interests. My project attempts here to distinguish a third gesture within the long specular tradition of visual art, where the grid (even the grid that underlies every digital image) suggests not an ideal form but an assemblage made from structural error, programmed chance, interference, and blindness.
 Prior to the Renaissance, the medieval manuscript afforded formal intertwining of word and image, where the latter, for example, could be found unraveling into pictorial ornamentation on the page.
 The Freudian “pleasure principle” is marked by just such a convergence as a libidinal economy that establishes psychological stability.
 Rosalind E. Krauss, “Grids” in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985), 8-22.
The House Is Black (2017)
Figure 1: Shah's Bedroom
Figure 2: Underlying code with dying words of Hossein Fatemi