Shirazeh Houshiary

Shirazeh Houshiary constructs a variety of sculptural forms based on the metaphysical doctrines of Sufism. Since Sufism has no sculptural tradition of its own, she is compelled to appropriate various formal means of late-20th century Western sculpture. The earliest examples of Houshiary’s art are spiritually suggestive environments and striking objects in a biomorphic idiom. Later, she achieved a higher degree of esthetic autonomy and monumentality in her sculptures; they are minimal in form, ascetic, and theatrically installed.

A recent grouping of sculptures questioned the audience’s belief that representations of the “spiritual” ought to be materially ephemeral, utilizing sensuous, dense metals—lead, aluminum, copper, and gold leaf—to incarnate the drama of the struggle between the metaphysical contraries identified in Sufic thought. Isthmus, 1992—the imposing chef d’oeuvre of this group of sculptures—is an aluminum clad, copper-lined box, big enough for a person to walk in. It has been unevenly cleaved, vertically, and its sections have been pulled apart to create a narrow passageway. In spite of its strong proprioceptive connotations, the work does not require physical exploration to register its intent; the initial dramatic act of cleavage says it all.

Initially, the didactic potential of Houshiary’s works seemed incidental; it was sufficient for her to show how one cultural stream might flow silently into another. This changes slowly. Houshiary’s works begin to reveal a polemical intent announcing her determination and resiliency in the face of an enormous cultural challenge. To soften the esotericism of what, for “Western” audiences, amounts to an Islamic religious doctrine, the conceptual basis of the work is interpreted broadly, as if to suggest that one’s experience of the sculptures can function as a modernized means for the attainment of “spiritual wholeness.” This reading of the role of Houshiary’s art in modern life is abstract enough to be compatible with the tenor of the myriad, seemingly perennial complaints about the wasteland of Western spirituality. Aligning the work with the questionable historicism of the “spiritual in art” strengthens its claim as important art. In several public statements Houshiary reaffirms her belief in the search for an unmediated apprehension of the world through art, often referring to an ecological consciousness and Christian iconoclasm during the course of her elaboration of Sufic doctrine, in which a state of unity with the world is characterized by the transcendence of all dualities, a practice the artist claims can never be grasped adequately through the application of Western-style logic. In the Koran—an important source for Houshiary’s esthetic—we read of the spirit of God moving upon the face of the waters “bringing forth the two seas, which meet; between them is a Barzakh which they do not go beyond.” Barzakh is a term in Islamic esotericism which is usually translated as “the medium” or “isthmus.” While many interpretations of this term have been put forward, it is uncontestably thought to signify the site for the reconciliation of contraries: “subject” and “object,” “interior” and “exterior,” “spirit” and “matter,” the “manifested” and the “nonmanifested.” Houshiary insistently draws a connection between art-making—which she defines as an activity located in the intermediary realm between the body and spirit—and the search for the transcendent self. In short, Houshiary favors those interpretations that present her art work as spiritually mediatory and as transcending language. She has, to the best of my knowledge, avoided discussing how the cultural gap between an idealized and unified “West” and an equally exotic and abstract “Islam” is to be crossed. That is because Houshiary implicitly denies the existence of such a gap in the first place: if the quest for spiritual totalization is ultimately culturally transcendent, then these works are universally accessible as objects in aid of that quest.

Michael Corris