Ramin Haerizadeh: The Melancholy of the Everyday
March 15–April 15, 2007
Flooded by tourists keen on cheap beer and curry, London’s traditional garment district, Brick Lane, is often referred to as “Banglatown” these days, though Bangladeshis are only the most recent arrivals among rolling waves of immigrants. (One famous Brick Lane monument started life in the seventeenth century as a church for Protestant Huguenots fleeing France; became a synagogue in the nineteenth century for Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe; and today welcomes the faithful as a mosque, the Jamme Masjid.) This jumbled, somewhat chaotic area was the perfect setting for an exhibition that inverted and warped familiar scenes, deliberately leaving the viewer feeling dizzy.
Despite the pointed title, The Melancholy of the Everyday — a saturated world of distorted objects, mirror games, and vile bodies arranged around the compact walls of Brick Lane’s Studio 1.1 — was hardly melancholy. Within each shiny landscape and portrait, which artist Ramin Haerizadeh flooded with blues and yellows and decorated with theatrical costumes and daisies, lurked “reflected” characters that had been digitally sliced and flipped in on themselves. Morphed torsos, grotesque genitalia, and distended bellies created a carnival not of melancholy but of a macabre, almost gleeful chaos at the heart of otherwise mundane images: a mirrored blob of flesh lounged beside a pool in a bikini; a fruit tree spread cloned evil from the edge of a rapeseed field.
Haerizadeh’s photos screamed — in a few wide-jawed cases, literally — from a brash, dangerous, yet alluringly exotic undercurrent just below the surface. The effect was disorienting, perhaps because the photos were only a few mouse clicks away from the lazy Sundays and coffee-shop corners of what we casually refer to as “everyday life.” Against this backdrop, the artist’s repeated mirror motifs appeared to be searching for a universal truth for us all to hold on to.
The search, for Haerizadeh, goes back to 2004, when he took a road trip around Iran’s central desert and found himself wandering the mud-walled alleyways of the city of Yazd. Rounding a corner, he came across a Zoroastrian fire temple perfectly reflected in a long pool, and as he stood admiring the symmetry, the temple priest came out to join him. After a while, with some intensity, the priest observed that “things find completion through their reflection[s].” The phrase struck a chord and became the inspiration for the experiments with mirrors that run through this exhibition.
The Melancholy of the Everyday drew heavily on the artist’s previous series, Pray and The Wonder of the Creatures. This time around Pray’s textile stick figures put on weight, and cloth ropes gave way to abstract tessellations of Haerizadeh’s generous stomach and thighs. Thrilling with bodily contact, these digitally configured mazes of folded flesh injected some of the original animal passion back into the Islamic geometry favored these days by Iranian graphic designers.
Haerizadeh’s attraction to chaos can mask the care with which he manipulates icons and symbols. While his dressing-up antics in this show took a swipe at official pomp and ceremony, random fruits and vegetables inserted into his compositions seemed to make fun of the symbolic apples and pomegranates that pepper Persian art. Haerizadeh grew up on the dregs of the Islamic revolution, and the vibrant fantasies played out in his work can seem, at first glance, like escapism from a fairly depressing political atmosphere. On closer inspection, however, it’s clear that the artist focuses his energy not on the rapidly changing phases of his country’s politics, but on rattling the enduring Persian culture beneath it.
Despite the precision of his individual compositions, Haerizadeh’s willingness to repeat motifs, concepts, and sometimes entire images from earlier series lent this exhibition a somewhat haphazard air. Some twisted portraits from The Wonder of the Creatures resurfaced, others were rejigged from new angles, while the artist’s elaborate use of costumes returned: mirrored images of men in makeup, army garb, and electric hair reveled in the camp drama of a culture that loves a man in uniform. In a flood of images that ranged from farms in western Iran to road scenes, the uniforms struggled for the limelight.
Years ago, Haerizadeh’s grandfather founded Cinema City, the Cinecittà of Iran, in a huge lot on the outskirts of Tehran; Haerizadeh’s work draws the viewer in with the seductively tricky vanity one would find on a film set or in a theater. But still, despite the meticulous application of grease paint and bright lights to amplify the sinister side of life, the sheer profusion of symbols and recycled themes in The Melancholy of the Everyday ran the risk of leaving some individual photographs hanging about like talented extras in search of a part.