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Languages as Bridge in the Work of Siah Armajani

Languages as Bridge in the Work of Siah Armajani
Installation view of Siah Armajani: Follow This Line at The Met Breuer, 2019 (image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

For six-decades, Siah Armajani has contributed an extensive approach on public art, assisted leader the combination of brand-new technologies into the arts, and mined boundaries in between art and architecture. The composed word, whether apparent, is important in Armajani’s artworks, dating as far back as his earliest pieces made in Iran in the 1950 s. The ideas of Persian poets, of Martin Heidegger and Walter Benjamin, of Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson undergird his expression.

Armajani was born and raised in Tehran. His father, Agha Khan Armajani, a successful merchant who imported European textiles, offered the household a comfortable, book-filled house. In the nights, he would read Persian poetry to his children. At the prestigious Alborz School, Armajani supplemented his study of Persian literature with western approach. And throughout his youth, his world of poetry and concepts entered into contact with the vibrant politics of Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh and his celebration, the National Front.

” As a young teen,” Armajani describes, “I was working for the National Front. In addition to a few pals, we would be ‘runners,’ providing ‘night letters’ to the constituents. Throughout all of my teenager years, our world was taken in by a belief in Mossadegh. The subject of oil was main to everything. We knew how Mossadegh had actually contributed … in establishing democratic worths.”

Mossadegh had actually been engaged in Iranian politics considering that the Constitutional Revolution of1906 He articulated a vision for Iran focused on 2 concepts: supporting constitutional democracy and keeping self-reliance from foreign domination. Throughout the 19 th century, Qajar kings had played colonial powers against one another by granting similar concessions to each; Mossadegh wished to maintain independence by no longer providing foreign concessions at all. This political course, or “the method” as his followers called it, was carefully connected to oil rights, considering that the Anglo-Iranian Oil Business maintained virtual control over the Iranian economy. As Prime Minister, Mossadegh passed an expense to nationalize Iranian oil in 1951.

This relocation would put Iran at the center of post-war worldwide politics. The British government was a significant shareholder of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. Certainly, Winston Churchill had assisted protect those oil rights for the federal government. As First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911, Churchill wrote of the D’Arcy concession, which assisted establish the Anglo-Persian Oil Business: “Fortune brought us a reward from fairyland beyond our wildest dreams.” As the Iranian “oil crisis” deepened, Churchill played a critical role in persuading President Eisenhower to undertake a concealed operation to overthrow the federal government of Mossadegh. The 1953 Coup, crafted by the CIA and MI-5, would be the last program modification performed by the British and the first by the Americans. For the British government, the main goal of the coup was the conservation of control over Iranian oil resources. For the United States federal government, it was an attempt to avert Soviet expansionism and to gather American companies a share of Iranian oil reserves. These goals melded together as the dusk of British colonialism gave way to a new period of American imperialism during the Cold War.

Siah Armajani, “Post Workplace” (1957), pencil, ink, and wax seal on paper (courtesy of the artist)

While working as “a gopher” for the National Front, he would take long walks through South Tehran, the location of town where the working classes left by the Shah’s nascent modernization schemas lived. Armajani would typically stop to observe the scene at Tehran’s main Post Workplace building. Armajani’s recollections are in a handout from 2011 released for the program, “Siah Armajani, 1957-1964,” at Meulensteen Gallery in NY:

South Tehran was a universe all unto itself. The language of Iran is ‘Farsi’ which is closed, unclear, ingrained with allegory and metaphor and blended with political, spiritual, and social tips. The language of South Tehran is hasty and hurried often leaving the syntax behind. Thousands of dispossessed, down-trodden and oppressed were strangers in their own city, as they had actually been made to feel decreased and insignificant. They were judged and condemned by others for the method they dressed, talked, walked and believed. On the way to South Tehran you passed by the main post workplace. Two or three ‘scribers’ would be seen sitting on the actions where individuals could employ them to compose a personal letter to family, break a spell or write an unique prayer for curing illness.

Following the 1953 coup and the topple of the Mossadegh federal government, Armajani keeps in mind a pall fell over the country. “Hope left and fear settled over Tehran … Tehran ended up being dark. Pitch black. There was silence. No talks of any repercussion. Dead hush-quiet.”

Siah Armajani, “The Way,” (1957), ink, coloured pencil, graphite, string, wax seal, cloth on paper, 18 x 11 1/2 in (photo by Larry Marcus, courtesy Siah Armajani and Rossi & Rossi)

It was in the middle of this silent darkness that Armajani created “The Method” and “Tunes # 1 and # 2.” Officially, the works echo the structure of the pages of medieval Islamic manuscripts– with their upper and lower signs up, borders demarcating columns of text, and accompanying pictorial images. But in Armajani’s works the order of the page is overturned, the composite parts placed spontaneously, the script rendered in a hurried khatt-e shekaste used for regular affairs rather than the stylish nastaliq utilized for essential documents. Seal wax is leaked in gestural manner across the page, with overlapping imprints from a signature stamp. Armajani typically uses the signature stamp of his household in his art work. The texts indicate a heady political minute in Iranian history however also reference the disenfranchised and the down-trodden whose way of living, custom-mades, and beliefs were marginalized by cultural elites.

Siah Armajani, “Father Has an Apple,” (1958), water color and ink on cloth, 28.3 x 7 1/2 in. (courtesy Siah Armajani and Rossi & Rossi)
Siah Armajani, “Dad Has a Pear,” (1958), water color and ink on fabric, 22 1/2 x 7 1/2 in. (courtesy Siah Armajani and Rossi & Rossi)

Armajani responded to his education through art. In school, he would find out how to read and write by duplicating variations on these two sentences: “ Maman nan daddy. Baba ab father/ Mom provided bread. Daddy gave water.” Armajani remembers that, “we had to write words, once again and again, one below the other.” In his early work he shows on this, referencing that type of rote knowing, prevalent in Iranian schools. The paintings above also have a deeply individual significance. Armajani shared this story throughout our visit at his Minneapolis studio in the summertime of2014 As a young boy, Armajani took private art lessons. Every week, he ‘d go to the instructor’s home and together with a little group of fellow students, find out how to draw and paint. The classes bored, with copying stressed over imagination, realism over expressionism. One day, the teacher informed the students to paint an apple. The young Armajani took a notepad, eliminated the shape of an apple, and glued it onto a canvas. As Armajani showed his art work to the class, his teacher grew furious. When Armajani’s dad came to pick him up after class, the teacher grumbled bitterly that this young kid had no talent whatsoever and was a major disturbance for the other trainees. “Art is not for him,” the upset instructor told Armajani’s daddy, who quietly nodded and concurred that he ‘d never bring his kid back for lessons. As they headed back house, his daddy bent down to tell his child, that he was certainly an artist, one with a true present. Not long after this occurrence, which Armajani states with great love a lot of years later on, he started searching through piles of fabrics in their house. The old curtains that had as soon as hung in the kitchen became the canvases for “Father Has an Apple” and “Dad Has a Pear.”

The significance of these early operate in relation to Armajani’s subsequent artistic profession can not be overemphasized. They represent a seriously important minute in Iranian art history. These wonderfully evocative art work mark a formative time in Armajani’s life, showing his struggles to fix up the demise of the Mossadegh movement and the social, financial, and political repercussions for Iran. He is also setting onto paper an effective articulation of the role of the artist in society, one that he continues to establish gradually. These are fundamental works, signaling the genesis of his continuous fixation with poetry, with philosophy, with public art, and critical democratic suitables. These are shown in Armajani’s most prominent artworks from his boardwalk at Battery City Park with a railing etched with Frank O’Hara and Walt Whitman’s poetry that frames a view of Ellis Island, to his sculptural bridge inscribed with a John Ashbery poem that links the Walker Art Center to Loring Park in Minneapolis, from his “Gazebo for 2 Anarchists at Storm King Art Center to the boiler and bridge he developed for the 1996 Olympics.

In 1960, as the political environment in Iran grew increasingly suppressing, the choice was required to send Armajani to study in the United States. His uncle, Yahya Armajani, was a history professor and a soccer coach at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. His uncle had helped introduce the field of Middle Eastern History to the American academy, and he was a highly regarded scholar of Persian etymology. He counted Walter Mondale and Kofi Annan amongst his students. Registering at Macalester, Armajani studied mathematics and philosophy. The democratic suitables he ‘d held close in Iran gradually became inflected with a Minnesotan populism. As a trainee, he established a modest studio where he ‘d paint, draw, and shape. Text continued to be a popular component in Armajani’s art, though with time, he gravitated from Persian to English. He took a course in computer science at Control Data, a mainframe and supercomputer firm in Minneapolis. Armajani ended up being amongst the very first American artists to try out computer-based art, utilizing digital technology to create new art kinds and incorporating code yet another textual kind in his art.

Siah Armajani, “Print Apple 2” (1967), electronic print, (image courtesy Grey Art Gallery, New York University Art Collection and the artist)

In 1967, working in the computer labs of the University of Minnesota, Armajani created “Print Apple 2 from computerized print. This work– in the irreversible collection of the Grey Art Gallery, New York University– recommendations his earlier “Dad Has an Apple while using computer data to push both language and art to new measurements. Computers enabled Armajani to extend his long-lasting interest in mathematics. In 1970, his art was included in the first ever Conceptual Art exhibition installed at New York’s Museum of Modern Art– an influential show titled Info, curated by Kyanaston McShine. On July 30, 1970, MoMA released a press release entitled “Computer Print-Out Makes Nine Foot Column in Museum Show.” Describing Armajani’s innovative art work, the museums kept in mind: “A computer system print-out of all the digits in between absolutely no and one, stacked in a column more than nine feet high and weighing 500 pounds, is on view at the Museum of Modern Art … The work of Siah Armajani, a Persian born artist now residing in Minneapolis, ‘Number In between 0 and 1’ is accompanied by three documentary photos. The column includes 25,974 pages, presenting 28,571 hours of print time.”

Siah Armajani, “A Number Between Absolutely No and One,” (1969), steel, dot-matrix print on paper, 104 x 15 x 11 in. (image by Larry Marcus, collection of M , Hong Kong, courtesy Siah Armajani and Rossi & Rossi)

Recognizing the connections between these conceptual artworks from the 1970 s and Armajani’s earlier Persian paintings, managers from M , a museum set to open in Hong Kong in 2020, have obtained “Number Between Absolutely No and One(1970) and “Dictionary for Numbers(1957) for that museum’s long-term collection. Indeed, Armajani’s lifelong experimentation with the limits between language and art dates to those early explorations from his youth in Iran. Throughout a lecture at Cooper Union in 1983, Armajani mentioned text in his art: “That is the outright influence of Persian, there is no concern about it.” For Armajani, language more broadly and Persian poetry in specific points to a type of fact, a basic method of being in this world. “Language,” he informs Hyperallergic, “is a room, a totally free space in which Persian culture can exist. And the necessary language of being is poetry.”

This concept that “language is a space” is a critical connection between two stress in Armajani’s art that are sometimes dealt with as unique bodies of work– his drawings and paintings, on the one hand, and his architectural sculptures and public art installations, on the other. Considering That 1968, Armajani has actually developed and built reading rooms, poetry gardens, newsstands, a lecture hall, a health center waiting space, a bandstand, sidewalks, and bridges. He has actually developed dozens of considerable public art setups across the United States and Europe, typically integrating text. “I use poetry because this is the only opportunity that I need to welcome individuals to stick with my work,” he explained in an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist in 2012.” And I matured memorizing poetry all my life in Iran. So I have an unique love and love for poetry.”

This sense that language produces room for elongating a viewer’s time with his work handled added measurement in 1968 when he ended up being immersed in the work of American poet and thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson. “My impacts came directly from Emerson’s works on art and culture. Emerson underlined the enjoyment, the unpredictable madness of America in terms of everyday life.” He shares that this is: “Unpredictable since the past is forgotten intentionally.” Around the same time, searching for “a new type for material,” Armajani turned to architecture because of its social function and egalitarian possibility.

There was a creative stress between the democratic ideals of 1950 s Iran and those of Emersonian America, between a place soaked in the past and one that intentionally forgets, in between language and art, in between sculpture and architecture. Armajani developed a Manifesto on Public Art He informs Hyperallergic that its last point is the most important: “Leave philosophy for poetry.” Discussing this point, Armajani says: “Poetry rejects all reason. That is the nature of Persian poetry. The language public art need to utilize is the poetic language.” Concurrent to establishing these ideas, Armajani started to engage architecture, reorganizing its aspects into a brand-new vernacular visual language.

Siah Armajani, “4 Bridges with Four Conditions,” (1974–75), wood, paint, (a) Home above the Bridge, 10 x 18 x 4 3/4 in, (b) Home before the Bridge, 6 1/4 x 17 7/8 x 5 3/8 in, (c) Home after the Bridge, 7 1/4 x 23 5/8 x 5 1/2 in., (d) Home listed below the Bridge, 6 3/4 x 16 1/4 x 4 5/8 in. (courtesy Siah Armajani and Rossi & Rossi)

The bridge is perhaps the most main component in Armajani’s architectural sculptures and public art. He has actually made lots of bridges in the U.S. and another six across Europe. Speaking To Hans Ulrich Obrist at the Serpentine Gallery in 2013, Armajani discusses the significance of bridges in his art. “Heidegger states anything that is before a bridge, anything that seeks a bridge, anything that is above a bridge, anything that is a below a bridge, it brings them all into one place.” Armajani’s sculpture, “4 Homes for 4 Conditions(1974-75) is an effective expression of this notion. This work was wonderfully provided in a major exhibit dedicated to bridges as concept in Armajani’s art at the Kemper Museum in 2016 and 2017.

” The bridge,” composed famed critic Calvin Tomkins in the New Yorker, “is a great sign of what [Armajani] wishes to accomplish as an artist and as a citizen. It links two different points in area, but is a sort of neighborhood, too– a region with a particular character and environment. As a masterpiece, furthermore, a bridge welcomes the active involvement of the onlooker; it is, in truth, incomplete up until the observer ends up being a participant.”

Siah Armajani, “Bridge Over Tree,” (1970/2019), wood, steel, and evergreen tree (picture by Timothy Schenck, courtesy Public Art Fund, NY)

On February 20, 2019, Armajani’s seminal work, “Bridge Over Tree,” was unveiled at the Brooklyn Bridge Park. “Today, it is hard to grasp how radical this work by Siah Armajani … was when very first developed almost 50 years back,” mentions the general public Art Fund.

In the summertime of 2014, I made my very first check out to Armajani’s studio in Minneapolis. In the middle of his studio was a big preparing table. Armajani stood on a footstool as he carefully dealt with a massive eighteen-foot illustration he called, ” Written Minneapolis (The Last Tomb).” Having just invested the day exploring Minneapolis with he and his other half, Barbara, I recognized the buildings in the drawing– landmarks from the city that had actually been his home for over 5 years. With a great felt idea, Armajani was filling the whole white space of the drawing with Persian poetry. Flowing up and down, sideways, and upside down, language poured onto the page.

Written Minneapolis (The Last Tomb) is a jagged memory of my childhood and teenage years in Tehran, and later after I pertained to Minneapolis. Empty areas were filled with poetry that I had to memorize as a student …

My brain is filled with a great deal of poetry, force-fed. That is how we communicated. In some cases walking in the streets of Tehran we heard poetry being recited on the other side of the wall. In reality, poetry was the glue of all in our lives. Out in the city, poetry was arguments, political discourse, love and death, happiness, laughter, quiet weeping, misery, suffering, friction, bad-mouthing, praising and admiring. That was the entire life in the city.

I wrote them all down. I covered the whole 18 feet.

As he reveals me operate in his studio, I ask, “Is this the very first time Persian poetry is returning to your art since those early works from the 1950 s and ’60 s?” He quietly nods.

Armajani has gone on to make two other illustrations in his written cities series– “Written Iran(2015-16) and “Composed Berlin: Burial Place for Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Walter Benjamin(2014-15). “Composed Minneapolis (The Last Tomb) is assured to the Menil Collection; “Composed Iran was gotten by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. These breathtakingly beautiful drawings, which took hundreds of hours of in-depth work to finish, are in a sense a conclusion– of Armajani’s interest in poetry, in approach, in architecture. They have to do with a local color, produced by language and cities.

Siah Armajani, “Composed Berlin: Tomb for Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Walter Benjamin,” (2014–2015), graphite and ink on mylar, 40 x 223 in. (picture by Larry Marcus, courtesy Siah Armajani and Rossi & Rossi)

In “Written Berlin,” Armajani recreates an early 20 th century cityscape of Berlin. The 19- foot drawing is covered in Persian text, this time the artist’s own translation of the thinker Walter Benjamin’s memoirs and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s bio. Benjamin and Bonhoeffer both perished during the Nazi reign in Germany; Armajani re-imagines their burial places, setting them within the Brandenburg Gate.

In an essay, Armajani composes on Bonhoeffer and his death:

He was apprehended on April 19, 1943, and carried out on April 9, 1945, alone in silence up until Might 30, 1945, when the world learned of his death. Bonhoeffer, the Existential Christian theologian, rose to kill evil itself. He joined any plot to rid German of evil He visited clergy and revealed his fears in lectures and sermons. He consulted with travel companions in the clergy and among parishioners. He had a hard time day and night out to fire up the leading existential theologians Karl Barth and Paul Tillich to stand up for a clear declaration.

They did not.

And the Clergy of the Church did not.

They all capitulated with ashes in their mouths.

After seeing the work on exhibition in New York in 2016, art critic Jonathan Goodman composed in The Brooklyn Rail, “It is significantly tough not to see Armajani amongst a few of the strongest American political artists of our time.”

Armajani completed his series of massive drawings with “100 and One Dead Poets(2016). In an accompanying gallery essay from Alexander Gray Associates, he remembers Walt Whitman’s assertion, “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” If Armajani’s head had been filled with Persian poetry in his youth, he came to see his adopted country of America through a poetic lens. Lines of poetry cover the illustration, in undulating waves flowing in various directions, up and down across the page. In this regard, Armajani recommendations a series of calligraphic paintings he produced in the early 1960 s, during his very first years as an immigrant in the United States. The paintings bring to mind Michel Foucault’s concept of the calligram, a text-image that reconstitutes the partnership in between the written and the visual. However in the more current artwork, the subversion of language into something to be seen as type instead of merely checked out becomes even more emphatic. The text seems to vary in language– sometimes in Persian, in some cases English, often French. No matter, because it has all been rendered illegible. Armajani has drawn the line with correction fluid across each word, creating a veneer that obscures script. To this point, the artist remembers a line W. H. Auden composed in memory of W. B. Yeats: “The death of the poet was avoided his poems.” And as the eye passes over the illustration, it pauses at a little pictorial interlude– a drawing of a pear amidst all the writing. We are advised, dad has a pear

Siah Armajani: Follow This Line is on view at the Met Breuer (945 Madison Opportunity, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through June 2. The exhibit is curated by Clare Davis with Victoria Sung.

Siah Armajani: Bridge Over Tree is on view at Brooklyn Bridge Park (Empire Fulton Ferryboat Line) through September29 The exhibition is organized by Public Art Fund and curated Nicholas Baume, Public Art Fund’s Director and Chief Manager.

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