I almost missed Nairy Baghramian’s contribution to the 5th Berlin Biennial, and I couldn’t have been the only one. According to the official map, Baghramian’s work was to be found in the Neue Nationalgalerie, between a work by Thea Djordjadze and another by Susanne Kriemann. There was no “x” to mark the spot: the map showed two identical black squares, one inside and one outside the glass wall of the gallery designed by Mies van der Rohe.
But when I stood on the spot, I saw nothing but a large dirty windowpane. Was that Baghramian’s work? Beyond the blurry glass, outside the museum, another spectator suddenly appeared, looking just as lost. Perhaps we were the installation: living versions of the map’s two black squares, which recalled another modernist hero, Kasimir Malevich.
After consulting a living guide, I finally found Baghramian’s contribution, La Colonne Cassée (1871) (The Broken Column (1871)). A guide showed me where it was, located just a few glass panes away from where I had been standing (the dirty ones belonged to Djordjadze’s installation). Instead of one broken column — or two black squares—there was a pair of towering metal rectangles, one inside and one outside the gallery, both bent into an L-shape to stand on their own and painted black. At first I mistook them for twins, since each bore several holes, as if someone had been using them for target practice (or someone else had used them to take cover). Somehow Mies’s glass wall, sandwiched in-between, had survived intact.
But these were no identical twins. The holes formed two different patterns, which suggested that two different battles had taken place. While the work’s title alluded to the barricades of the Paris Commune of 1871, the work’s date — 2008 — paid tribute to the barricades erected forty years ago in the same city during the general strike of May 1968. Artists played a role in each popular uprising by intervening in public space. In 1871, the painter Gustave Courbet — then known as “Citizen Courbet” — successfully argued that the Vendome column should be broken and removed, as it glorified Napoleon’s imperialist conquest at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805. When the Communards were quashed, Corbet was ordered to pay the hefty bill for the column’s resurrection; instead he exiled himself to Switzerland, where he died shortly thereafter. By 1968, the Situationist International had prepared the ground for the student insurrection and the general strike by provoking citizens with everything from graffiti to pamphlets to posters. Baghramian’s work — bound to both historical uprisings — recalled the changing fate of art in public space: from monuments to honor the past to revolutions to change the future. Indeed, barricades are another form of public sculpture. In light of their temporary nature, it seems only fitting that Baghramian’s columns would end up wandering away from their designated location on the map.
The experience of searching for artworks — instead of having them presented in a traditional manner (on a pedestal, inside a frame, or at least with a visible label) — was at the heart of the 5th Berlin Biennial. Consider the Skulpturenpark, where a hole in the ground could have been just a hole or a work of land art. That type of oscillation, between absence and presence, is central to Baghramian’s oeuvre. In her work, the artist mixes minimalist sculptural elements (metal sheets, black frames, glass panes) along with color photography (usually of women). The mixture, however recognizable, is presented in a way that often leaves viewers wondering where an artwork begins and ends — if they have any luck finding the piece. When we’re forced to search for art, whatever its nomenclature and final appearance, we suddenly become open to the full potential, of every object and ourselves as spectators, to have other meanings. When the once-passive viewer feels herself actively making this discovery, even the readymade starts to look like a limiting proposition.
My search for Baghramian’s La Colonne Cassée (1871) in the Neue Nationalgalerie and my hunt for art in the Skulpturenpark were both uncannily reminiscent of the time I spent last summer wandering through Münster trying to locate Entr’acte (Intermission, 2007), Baghramian’s contribution to Skulptur Projekte Münster. In terms of visibility, Intermission seemed to exist indefinitely, without a main performance to decide the beginning and end of the break. I arrived at the spot designated on the map — a pedestrian island in a sea of passing cars — only to find a banal block of concrete that seemed to be part of the surrounding construction site. A cellphone call confirmed later that I had indeed been standing right in front of Baghramian’s work, including the white tarpaulin flying wildly over the concrete (the graffiti turned out to be a later addition from an anonymous collaborator).
Early on, Baghramian treated her exhibitions as expeditions. At her debut show at Cologne’s Galerie Nagel in 2005, the towering sculpture Teestube (Tearoom, 2005) was sealed off behind a wall and could be viewed only at an angle through a mirror. In Baghramian’s treasure hunts, it’s unclear what the treasure is: the artwork, the spectator, the site, or the very conflation at the moment of viewing that occurs between all of these elements.
Baghramian herself is far more conspicuous than her work. Okay, she’s petite, but her laughter is resounding and infectious. When we have met at exhibition openings in Berlin in the past, we’ve often ended up at bar 3, an artist haunt where Baghramian installed works from her recent solo show at the Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, including Grosse Klappe 1, 2, 3 (2008), a freestanding folding metal panel that is nevertheless meant to stand closely against an existing threshold. (The translation of this title would be Big Flap 1, 2, 3 or Big Mouth 1, 2, 3, depending upon your familiarity with German slang.) Photographing Grosse Klappe 1, 2, 3 for the exhibition catalogue as it was arranged at the bar was likely a way to prove that this sculpture was not entirely site-specific, even if the flap-mouth appeared to be custom-made for the entrance door it guarded inside the Kunsthalle.
Perfectly fitting into two sites without belonging to either one — that might be said of Baghramian, too. To my mind, she’s a Berliner, albeit with a more subtle sense of humor. It never dawned on me that she might come from another country, let alone from Iran, since I have heard only perfect German coming out of her mouth. Of course, as a Canadian, I am deaf not only to most foreign accents in German but also to the exotic trajectories that Germans often hear in foreign names; as the offspring of a refugee, I know not to ask more than I am told about anyone’s past.
Baghramian told me that she was born in Isfahan, Iran, in 1971, came to Germany when she was fourteen, and has lived in Berlin ever since. At some point, there must have been another trip back to Iran, at least if one judges from Es ist ausser Haus (Empfangszimmer), or It is out-of-house (Reception room), 2006. Baghramian secretly took a snapshot during a tour inside a museum that was once the palatial residence of the last shah. The slightly blurry color photograph shows what appears to be a luxurious living room with a sofa and a few family photographs displayed on a table. But when scrutinized, the “family” turns out to be a series of dictators, including Mao and Hitler; the museum, curated by the new regime, has chosen to display the most contentious portraits from the dynasty’s collection of diplomatic and state gifts. While the public is allowed to see the photographs, it is forbidden to take pictures of them.
Baghramian’s photograph of the photographs is protected behind glass and partially encased in a slab of cement; the “frame” appears almost as a thin, vertical house. There’s a strange oscillation between private and public in this construction. Initially diplomatic gifts, the public portraits of state leaders were then displayed in the shah’s private residence; the artist repeated the museum’s gesture of making a private photograph public, since her photograph was taken illicitly and now hangs in art galleries. How she managed to take the picture is as mysterious as how the heavy work manages to hang on a wall; its historical origin is as improbable as its material existence.
THE IRON TABLE
In light of such shifting interventions, it should come as no surprise that Baghramian has no interest in representing Iran: as revolutionary, refugee, emigrant, citizen, woman, or artist. Apart from Es ist ausser Haus (Empfangszimmer), the most overt reference to her native country is Waves (am kaspischen Meer), or Waves (on the Caspian Sea), 2000. The two color photographs — taken a frame apart and thus almost like two film stills — show the artist in front of the oil-rich sea that is a geopolitical interval bordering Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and the Russian Federation. It’s hard to recognize her, since she’s wearing a black ski cap that effectively covers her hair, her neck, and most of her face. Beyond the incongruity of someone wearing a ski cap instead of a swimming cap on the beach — or of wearing a ski cap instead of a headscarf in Iran — there seems to be a shift in gender from the first frame to the second frame. What initially appears to be a dark winter scarf flung around the artist’s neck turns out to be a man’s blue tie, which is blown into full visibility by the wind. These duplicitous self-portraits — skiing or swimming, ski cap or headscarf, woman or man, sea blue or tie blue — appear once again in another work as two framed prints, except one hangs on the wall and the other juts out at ninety degrees. But New Waves (2001) erases the reference to the location of the turbulent sea foaming behind the artist. Like Grosse Klappe 1, 2, 3, the pictures of the waves become site-specific to (at least) two places: the Caspian Sea and any old sea. In the movement from Waves (am kaspischen Meer) to the more generic New Waves, the frame creates its own sense of space as a portable corner, which juts out from the wall instead of simply hanging. Although working with photographs, Baghramian evokes the indifference to location that was responsible for the spread of international architectural modernism around the world. Yet another version of the same two photographs reveals the tie-maker and, with him, yet another form of internationalism in fashion, equally indifferent to location: Yves Saint Laurent (am kaspischen Meer), 2008.
Baghramian’s most open confrontation with Orientalism and its discontents lies in The Iron Table (2002), an installation named after an incomplete short story by Jane Bowles. In the story, which is just two and a half pages long, Bowles describes a married couple arguing about going to the desert in order to escape the West’s contamination of Muslim culture. While the husband insists that the desert is the only place where culture has remained “untouched,” his wife doesn’t believe that there’s any way to escape Westernization (as Westerners themselves, they would only bring impurities to the desert). Only Jane Bowles could fit such a debate into such a short story, along with a clash of husband and wife. For her part, Baghramian created a sculpture around a sailing mast, which nevertheless seems better suited to the desert than the sea. Despite its clean and sharp edges, its sleek industrial design values, the work looks like a sailboat that was created by a pure land- dweller, someone who’s tried to recreate the experience of sailing based on secondhand information from sailors. Looking at the wooden waves around the mast, one can imagine an experienced informant explaining the wind’s chopping impact on water. Instead of a sail, the mast carries a string of triangular spike flags, which are used for racing signals, not for catching a breeze. Like the wife in Bowles’s story, Baghramian suggests there are no “pure” cultures because none exist in isolation; encounters produce the strange hybrids of desert-bound ships. Instead of Bowles’s “West” and “Muslim culture,” tradition and modernity clash. Traveling with the wind at sea — a traditional form of transportation and the main tool of colonialism and the slave trade — becomes modernized as a sleek designer object. Like most utopias, the finished work of Baghramian’s ship looks good but would immediately sink. This means of escape gives only the impression of movement. Perhaps a bit like modernism itself.
My favorite Baghramian work is Half Way House (1999), which, like Entr’acte, suggests yet another interval, and, like Laverrière’s mirrors, deserves far more attention. The work has two origins. The first is Agnès Varda’s black and white film Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7, 1961), which records an early evening in the life of a young woman who learns that she has breast cancer. The second is a telephone booth, which Baghramian built in a former aristocratic mansion that has been transformed into a halfway house for battered women in Berlin. Varda’s film — hovering, through illness, between private and public life — allowed Baghramian to see the Berlin women’s shelter as an extension of the film set, albeit inhabited by women whose stories could never be made into movies. Her telephone booth sits at the bottom of a grand staircase, whose spiral only serves to amplify every conversation. Outside the shelter, Half Way House exists only as a series of photographs: three black and white photographs (a still of Cléo walking through her apartment along with two images of women lingering in the halfway house and looking like actresses from other scenes in Varda’s film) and two color prints (one of the booth in the stairwell and another of the halfway house dining room).
Not exactly public, nor entirely private, the halfway house bears the traces of its former grandeur, now caught between the needs of a public clinic and the necessity to create a private refuge for each resident. The photographs cannot be easily inhabited by our eyes; it’s hard not to be struck by the clashing signs of domesticity, from the long-gone aristocratic family to the contemporary abused women. A Greek mythological painting in a wood panel sits uneasily with an overflowing bulletin board, while the dining table is covered with a welcoming cloth but devoid of chairs. Like WG Sebald, Baghramian situates her work between documentation and fiction. Her suspension of reality is directly linked to the women’s suspension of their regular domestic routines, once they become residents inside the clinic. The halfway house is a stop on a journey, with a starting point that has been left behind and a destination that still requires directions. Indeed, the “whole-way” house lies at the end of a fictional route that each woman must create — and then live — for herself.
THE POLITICS OF THE WALKER AND THE WALKED
‘The Walker’s Day Off’ that ran recently at the Kunsthalle Baden-Baden involved the usual treasure hunt in the intervals between presence and absence. In the title that welcomed visitors, it was clear that the walker was missing from the exhibition, although he might have been the handsome blond in eyeglasses on the poster (who looked something like a model for YSL). Perhaps each visitor, wandering through the show, was mimicking his movements, if not replacing him for the day. Whoever the walker was, it was unclear also what was being taken for a stroll. In addition to Grosse Klappe 1, 2, 3 guarding a threshold inside the Kunsthalle, there were Spanner I & II (Turnbuckle or Peeping Tom or Loiterer, 2008). From afar, each one appeared like an empty clothesline, stretched to hang perfectly taut across an otherwise empty exhibition room (in fact, the suspended lines were made of chromed brass pipe, rubber wire rope, painted metal rings, and, to fit the room perfectly, adjustable turnbuckles). Another threshold was guarded by the Türsteher (Doorman or Bouncer, 2008), a partially polished aluminum number, which didn’t block our passage but rather arched elegantly from one side of the doorway up and across the top of the frame. Like Grosse Klappe 1, 2, 3, Spanner I & II and Türsteher could be understood, and translated, in several ways while belonging to both art and architecture. Also like Grosse Klappe, these works were photographed at specific sites in Berlin for the Baden-Baden catalogue — Spanner I & II at the alternative bookstore bbooks and _Türsteher in the Scharoun Bar inside Galerie Bremer. Each work fit at least two meanings, two media, and two places.
This not-quite-site-specific quality could be understood as a metaphor for the displacements, forced or chosen, that link a person’s life to two or more countries, histories, languages. The installation of works in between—rooms, walls, countries—suggested that there are no clean breaks with the past, no neat arrivals in the present. Even the passages were blocked. That may be a pat explanation, but art doesn’t carry a passport. For me the political dimension wasn’t metaphorical but emerged through my experience of absence as a visitor. The main room in the Kunsthalle hosted Klassentreffen) (School Reunion, 2008), from a series of seventeen sculptures originally titled Gehhilfen I–XVII (Walking Aids I–XVII, 2008). They possessed the lightness of Vassilakis Takis’s Signals (1955–), the organic aerodynamics of Brancusi’s Bird in Space (1932–40), and the haptic quality of Franz West’s Paßstücke (Fitting Pieces, 1976–), which viewers were once encouraged to carry around.
Far from dog walkers, Baghramian’s sculptures looked more like walking aids for giants with various disabilities, although each aid came with its own diminutive built-in support — a base, a pedestal, an extra leg — which helped the work to stand on its own. Baghramian created an image of a collective body based on its absence and infirmity. These prostheses suggested not so much particular bodies with peculiar handicaps but rather the state of having a body as both a condition for belonging and a sign of incommensurability. The community assumed to be created by aesthetic pleasure isn’t complete or universal; visitors to a show can’t be interchanged with each other, although an exhibition is designed for an ideal spectator: you, me, anyone. For Baghramian, neither the viewer, nor the exhibition is ever a given; they have to be negotiated with each step. That’s the most overtly political — and the most inconspicuous — part of her work.