PRINT Summer 1988


WE'RE GLIDING, AIRBORNE, OVER a nomadic encampment in the desert: now the tents are royal, now barbaric, now small and elegant, now vast and multipartite. Or are we above a valley of temples dedicated to alien divinities? Or are we gazing down at the flowering of plants on the mirroring surface of a still pool? Or maybe some subterranean fire has provoked eruptions through the earth, thrusting matter upward into chance formations, now cooled by the air into marvelous crystals. Or are these objects strange machines of war left scattered behind by a mysterious army marching toward another victory, or another defeat?

In a show organized by the Centre d’Art Contemporain at the Musée Rath in Geneva this spring, Shirazeh Houshiary exhibited a group of her copper, zinc, and brass sculptures, dating mainly from 1986 and 1987. Though some of the pieces in the show rose high above the floor, the overall impression was one of hugging the ground. Just as painting assumes the wall for a support, Houshiary’s work assumes the floor, so that one moves around each object, seeing it against its horizontal ground. For Houshiary, the floor becomes a kind of tablet to write on. On this tablet, this field, the artist inscribes ornaments that bespeak an investigation of signifying unities: an investigation that embraces nuclei of energy, nodes and interweavings; that bears the marks of the apparent and the hidden; and that reveals the invisible forces that determine the substantiality of matter, the fluxes of energy. Houshiary’s sculptures are, ultimately, the signs of limit. Their seemingly mutable surfaces, spilling into space, lead us back into the stability of their material forms. These works both outline the borders between solid bodies and evoke the internal spaces they engulf or penetrate.

The floor as a tablet of inscription is simultaneously an index of adhesion to the earth. These sculptures never have the peremptory phallic uprightness of traditional Western sculpture from the Greeks on. There is urgency here, and sharpness, but it is the sharpness of the cutting edge of a wave. This powerful liquidity has no softness to it, none of water’s pregnability, for Houshiary’s waves are embodied in armatures, like the shells that protect vulnerable, sensitive creatures. When these forms emerge with threatening points and edges, the associations of penetration and impingement are checked by her generous definition of form, and by a style that offers the symbol as both signifier and signified. And it is in terms of this style that Houshiary, an Iranian now living in London, reveals her true alien nature: two separate cultures are superimposed in her work, have exchanged clothing and body, creating a subtle mutation, a hybrid conjunction between what are for us the transparent codes of the empirical West and the profound, opaque, efflorescent, sparkling spirit of the East. Sometimes her forms are vegetal, sometimes mineral, sometimes both together, combining the distinct purities of the flower and of the diamond.

These two essences were present in Houshiary’s work by the late ’70s, both in the form of installation—which seems the Western-elaborated form most adaptable to non-Western sensibilities—and in the form of mixed-media works on paper in which she uses Arabic script as an undivided matrix of sign and image. If we look, for example, at the six archaic clay-and-straw “settlements” of her 1982 Listen to the tale of the reed through Western eyes alone, we’d have to use the word “primary” in order to avoid dragging in that other term, “minimalist.” The minimalism passage may be an obligatory one, however, a basis for comparison that cannot, it would seem, be avoided with impunity, for even artists quite far from minimalist poetics, such as Ettore Spalletti, Jan Vercruysse, and even at times Reinhard Mucha, nonetheless appear marked by minimalism, at least as a precedent. Yet of these clay and straw forms, Houshiary said, “Made out of earth [they seem as if] they had been there forever,” and thus abolished herself as the artist/maker. The earth was a basic reference, not only as source of materials, but as the material of source, for it was as if Houshiary was seeking the lost model of origin, of even her own origins as artist. In positing that universal model, Houshiary was recuperating her own culture; a culture that otherwise would be cut off from the mainstream of the Western.

Then, at the very moment that Houshiary decisively comes to terms with metal, that most honored material in the tradition of Western sculpture (Exegi monumentum aere perennius, “I have built a monument more lasting than bronze,” Horace), a conflict is unleashed within the form itself. And how, in all honesty, could it be otherwise? This is when those keen profiles appear, those stabs into space and back toward the forms, as in Ki, 1984, in order to reunite between and within themselves two traditions, two symbolic families, with meanings and resonances that are far apart. And so it is too with her vigorous Blowing Together, 1985. Even in this decidedly “classic” Houshiary, in which the zinc practically flaunts its own nakedness, the form seems to be brimming over with unresolved contradictions and desires, while at the same time its contrasts between styles and symbols vanish. Later, if you want, you can do your precious analyses, but much later—only after you have gone “behind the object” and have returned from your journey. In 1987, when the artist once again used earth materials—straw and clay—the couplings with a culture as lost as it is loved became even more poignant. In Münster, she built her Temple of Dawn, a towerlike, curving wall that divides “here” and “there,” and punctured that wall with strange holes like tiny windows. Houshiary’s Temple is a monument to absence and loss, as well as to presence and desire.

Sometimes Houshiary’s works seem vulval traps, beckoning us into erotic struggles. Only by being tempted to enter slowly—even at times regretfully—beyond the “screens” of line and form do we reach that first hidden instant from which these wonders seem to spring. Often, this secret core is empty—for in the same moment it takes to realize we have found it, we have passed it by. Recently, the artist has begun staining her works with acid; hues of green, yellow, and turquoise, for example, articulate different sections within a single work. The effect is a modulation of the aggressiveness of Houshiary’s sculpture, a tempering of her violent alien patois, though not a diminishment of it. For whether we are dealing with a transient encampment in the desert or with the most evanescent bloom, luxuriant but strict, it is foreseeable that the warriors might once again draw their arms, that the flowers might once again bear fruit, and that the song of the abandoned land will be sung once more.

Pier Luigi Tazzi writes regularly for Artforum.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.